(Posted January 10, 2006)

Huntingdon, PA - A recurring theme for the Juniata College men's volleyball team over the past few years has been the lack of complacency despite overwhelming success. The Eagles have claimed back-to-back Molten Division III National Championships and have reached the EIVA Semifinals each of the past two seasons, both program firsts. And yet each time the players and coaches felt as though they could have achieved more. So it's no surprise that as the Eagles enter the 2006 season they have their sights set on more than just matching the successes of the past seasons. And with a roster burgeoning with talented and experienced players, there is reason to believe that this year Juniata may be capable of reaching its lofty goals.

Juniata brings back 13 players and six starters from the team that went 20-8 last season en route to the Molten Championship and a third-place finish in the ultra-competitive EIVA Tait Division. Among those returning starters are four players that claimed AVCA Division III All-America honors last season, and a pair of members of the EIVA All-East Team which includes players from Divisions I, II and III. With all those elements back in the fold, it's not tough to see why the Eagles and fourth-year Head Coach Ken Shibuya believe this Juniata team can accomplish things no other Division III team has done.

"The guys believe they are capable of winning the EIVA and competing for the NCAA National Championship," Shibuya said. "We realize that these are things no Division III team has ever done, but the players have shown a willingness to work incredibly hard and do everything possible to achieve those goals."

One reason those lofty aspirations don't seem too far out of reach is the experience that the Eagles have on the roster. In each of the previous two seasons Juniata has entered the season needing to replace several members of the starting lineup. This year nearly the entire starting lineup is intact, giving the team a continuity it hasn't enjoyed previously.

Two key starters from that group are middle hitters Cordt Withum (Penn Manor/Holtwood) and Jeremy Barndt (Souderton/Souderton). Both players were All-East and All-Americans last season, and give Juniata as strong a pair of middle hitters as nearly any team in the country. Withum ranked among the most efficient offensive players in the EIVA last season as he posted a remarkable .495 hitting percentage with 231 kills. Barndt led the Eagles in blocks in his first season as a starter and also ranked second on the team in kills and hitting percentage.

"Cordt and Jeremy help make us very dangerous at the middle position," Shibuya said. "Each of them has continued to develop through the fall season and could be even better for us this year. They will need to adjust to a new setter, which could take some time, but they are both extremely talented."

The Eagles will also have a number of options at the outside and right side hitter positions. Senior Nick Bernardo (Christopher Dock/Lansdale) was an All-American two seasons ago at Eastern Mennonite and enjoyed a solid first season with Juniata last year. He and junior Glenn DeHaven (Walt Whitman/South Huntington, N.Y.), who has started since his freshman year, are both capable and steady players at the outside hitter spots who can be productive offensively and defensively. Senior Matt Springer (William Allen/Allentown) could also figure into the mix after showing big improvements as a junior. At right side hitter sophomore Matt Fritz (John Carroll/Churchville, Md.) will likely see a lot of time after getting some experience in his freshman season. He has greatly improved his offensive game and should be a factor this season. Senior Nate Ocasio (Northeastern/Manchester) was an All-American as a junior, but a near-fatal illness during the summer has left his return up in the air. Should he make it back, his explosive offensive game will be a huge benefit to the team. Junior Derek Stanley (Manheim Township/Lancaster) could also figure into the equation on the right side.

"I love the experience and versatility we have with our hitters on the outsides," Shibuya said. "They all do a lot of things well whether it's ball handling, attacking or serving. We should be a pretty tough hitting team with this group and I expect to see an increase in our blocking and offensive efficiency."

While Juniata's offense may continue to rise, the Eagles have a group of defensive specialists that could provide headaches for opposing offenses. Senior libero Tim Cole (Pennsbury/Yardley) led the team in digs last season en route to All-America recognition and has played very well during the preseason. Juniors Steve Yeager (Hempfield/Landisville) and Casey Dale (Cochranton/Cochranton) have both logged considerable playing time over the past two seasons and give the Eagles the benefit of excellent depth at the defensive specialist positions.

"Our defensive guys have been exceptional in the preseason," Shibuya said. "All three of them could start for a lot of programs, so that gives us a great luxury. Tim is just playing at an incredible level right now and that brings so much confidence to our team as a whole. I feel very good about our defense."

With all the pieces that are in place, it would be easy to think there are no question marks for this Eagles team. But there are a few questions that need answering. The team will be looking to find a replacement for starting setter Ricky Ziegler '05 who was picked as the AVCA Division III Player of the Year last season. Sophomore Zach Bock (Northeastern/Manchester) filled in on occasion for Ziegler last season, and brings a steady presence to the floor. Freshman Matt Werle (Meadville/Meadville) is an athletically gifted player who only lacks experience. Both players will likely get chances to direct the Juniata attack during the season.

The Eagles will also once again face the daunting task of taking on the top teams in the East, including many Division I foes. Juniata opens the season at Division I IPFW, which is one of just 17 matches the team will play against Division I or II teams. Juniata will also be tested within the EIVA Tait Division in which five of the seven teams are Division I institutions.

One other concern for this team may be that after all the success of the past few seasons, that perhaps complacency might set in and keep the team from reaching its potential. But Shibuya said any worries about that were put to bed during the team's fall preseason.

"This group is hungrier than any of the previous teams I've coached," he said. "They had a great fall season which was completely a result of their attitude. The guys understand that the things we're trying to accomplish will be incredibly difficult but that hasn't deterred them. They are pushing themselves and have shown they are willing to do whatever it takes to get where we want to go."


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Contact April Feagley at feaglea@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3131 for more information.