While the first official match of the 2007 Princeton men's volleyball season will take place at Cal-Baptist this coming Monday, there has been plenty of competition for the program already. With the graduation of several starters from the 2006 squad, head coach Glenn Nelson has seen his deep and talented roster battle daily for a handful of open positions. Those battles will continue into the season, especially during a four-match California trip next week that Nelson plans on using to test a variety of lineups. He hopes to find one that can break into the EIVA elite this season.
Of course, there are a couple of starting spots that seem secure as Princeton completes its final days of preseason. One outside hitter will be junior Peter Eichler, the 2007 team captain and most experienced outside hitter. Eichler led Princeton last season with 3.85 kills per game and was the top non-libero with 1.61 digs per game. His athleticism has always been a strength, but as a starter since his first match at Princeton, he is now one of the most experienced players in the league. He will need to lead a team full of either younger or less experienced players.
Two sophomores can also be etched in stone into the starting lineup. Brandon Denham took over for Jason Liljestrom at setter and averaged 12.08 assists per game last season, good enough for sixth overall in the league. Denham was a solid defensive presence as well, averaging 1.48 digs and 0.79 blocks per game, but Nelson will depend heavily on him to lead a balanced and aggressive offense this season. Following in a long line of Princeton setters, including Liljestrom and Jason Morrow, Denham has big shoes to fill, but he has the athleticism and drive to get the job done. Junior Aaron Linsky will serve as Denham's primary backup.
Middle blocker Michael Vincent came on strong last season and will be depended on to do even more in 2007. At 6-9 with terrific leaping ability, Vincent is a legitimate weapon at the net on both the offensive and defensive ends. He hit .307 with 2.52 kills per game as a freshman and averaged more than one block per game. Like Denham, with a year of experience under his belt, he is primed for an even better sophomore season.
Another likely starter for the season is a new face to the Princeton program, although not necessarily a new name. Carl Hamming, the younger brother of 2006 graduate and longtime starter Brian Hamming, is in line to start at opposite for the Tigers. A 6-7 graduate of Lake Forest H.S. in Illinois, Hamming was a 2006 all-state selection.
"He's definitely been the most impressive player of the preseason so far," Nelson said. "He does it all. He serves well, he hits, he blocks. He's going to be a good player for us."
The only other freshman on the roster is Jeff McCown, the career blocks leader at Lincoln Way East in Illinois. A 6-5 multi-sport athlete in high school, McCown will compete with Evan Pasion and R.J. Liljestrom for the second middle blocker position. Both Pasion and Liljestrom had strong efforts last season, with Pasion putting forth a tremendous match in a playoff win against NJIT. Pasion killed 15 balls and had zero errors to lead Princeton to the quarterfinals. None of the three are overly experienced, so the strongest in the preseason and during the California trip will gain the inside track when Princeton opens its EIVA season Feb. 9 at Juniata.
The second outside hitter position is also an open competition, with sophomore Philip Rosenberg holding a slight edge as the preseason nears its end. A very strong leaper, Rosenberg averaged 1.44 kills per game in limited action last season. He has the skills to hit in the league, but his defense will need to be strong as well; at 6-1, he can't allow teams to hit over him on a consistent basis. Ka'ohu Berg-Hee, Reid Joseph and Cameron Heggi will also compete for time on the outside. Joseph is a water polo standout who formerly started at opposite before missing last season with injury. He is the most experienced competitor among the group, although not necessarily at this position. Berg-Hee saw more time than Heggi last season and did record 1.77 kills per game, but both have had strong moments in the preseason and are pushing for time.
The libero position has belonged to Mark Stevens for years, but his graduation has opened the door for Richmond native Harsha Dante to potentially start the season. He has worked hard to move into the position, although he will receive competition from Reid Fritz and any of the players who don't win the starting outside position.
Nelson has felt good about the preseason, especially with the competition amongst teammates for starting roles. While that will lead to the best players winning starting jobs, it also promises depth to a team that has struggled with injuries over the last few seasons. The team will likely take its early-season lumps, especially in California, as Nelson plays with a multitude of lineups. If he can settle on a strong rotation by the time Princeton plays its home opener Feb. 13 against N.Y.U., the Tigers will have plenty of time to battle for a top spot and potential home quarterfinal match in the league quarterfinals, which would mean avoiding either of the EIWA's national Top 15 squads, Penn State and George Mason, until the league semifinals.