Article Courtesy of George Mason Athletic Communications Assistant Teodor Handarov
FAIRFAX, Va. - Well, it's been a while since the last "In the Huddle" article, to say the least. Nearly nine months, to be precise. On the time frame of George Mason men's volleyball, it feels like a lifetime. Let's see, in that time frame Mason has defeated archrival Penn State for the first time since 2008, won the EIVA Championship for the first time since 1988 and made an appearance National Collegiate Men's Volleyball Championship, where it took the lead against but fell to eventual national champion Ohio State.
Winning is great, there is no question about it. For a program that had waited nearly three decades for a conference title it can an immortalizing effect. Whether the Patriots begin bringing in the trophy year after year or it takes another 28 years until a Patriot holds it in his hands, no one would be able take the accomplishment away from the 2016 George Mason men's volleyball roster. Everyone from head coach Jay Hosack, the 2016 Bob Sweeney EIVA Coach of the Year, to athletic trainer Justin Fegley and everyone in between have left their mark on history. That goes even for members who are no longer on the team such as Dom Edgley (graduated), Paco Velez (graduated), Bryant Ekstein (transferred) and future engineer Ryan Rosenmeier; however often they visit the RAC Gym for a practice or a match, they will certainly look at the "2016" embroidered under "EIVA Champion" on the banner marked "Men's Volleyball" that hangs from the roof and will rightfully feel as part of something special.
"It was just a good feeling to leave knowing that we had accomplished what we had always tried to accomplish in the past," said former middle blocker Dom Edgley, who earned a spot on the 2016 EIVA All-Tournament Team. "It also made it a little bittersweet to see the change in direction the whole program has taken and the bright future that it has while my college career was coming to a close."
Edgley will have to comfort himself with the thought that what he contributed during the memorable 2016 season has brought his former teammates and their new teammates some winner's spoils that will take the program further down "the right direction", a process he will also enjoy, now as a fan.
Some of these spoils include major factors such increased support by administration and the local community and increased caliber of recruits that the program is able to bring in – it "makes us a destination school and not a fall-back school" as Hosack put it – and small perks such as taking the gorgeous Mason-decorated bus on the week-long, season-opening road trip.
"All in all, the scope of the program seems to be taking some leaps and bounds and that is great, but we have to continue that momentum and that will be the real proof in the pudding, so to speak," Hosack said.
The one person on last season's roster who had waited the longest for a championship moment was Joe Norton. After five unsuccessful attempt as a player between 2008 and 2012, Norton, now as Hosack's assistant, finally enjoyed that moment. He, however, did that in much more composed of a manner than the players, who rushed the court to jump on Christian Malias' back after his decisive kill or just fell on their knees triumphantly with clenched fists, because he was not at all surprised.
"In the beginning of March [Mason was 5-9 overall and 0-4 in EIVA play] Jay and I spoke about the schedule we had coming up," he said. "Knowing that we still had a lot of conference matches ahead of us and knowing that we were capable of playing our style of volleyball on a consistent basis, we realized that once we started trusting the system and trusting each other, it was only a matter of getting to the tournament."
With the NCAA tournament now in sight Norton and Hosack did not spend much time indulging in the achievement as BYU, UCLA, Ohio State, Long Beach State and Erskine all had the same goal in sight – capture the national title.
"When we won EIVA, it was a feeling of accomplishment, yes, but it was not a surprise to me, I was thinking more of 'what's next?'" Norton said.
Fast forward to January 10, 2017...
Next for the 2-0 Patriots is an away match against Ohio State, which is the best team in the country, just like in May. The Buckeyes kept most of their key players, including 2016 AVCA Division I-II Men's National Player of the Year Nicolas Szerszen and starting setter Christy Blough, and also got the 2017 season off to a 2-0 start, beating No. 2 UCLA and USC at home in the AVCA Showcase. To further humor the situation, due to last weekend's event, Tuesday's match will be played on the same type of court as the NCAA tournament contest between both teams as opposed to OSU's scarlet-and-grey colored court.
Aside from the perks and spoils, winning comes with expectations. Although realizing that more eyes will be following his eleventh-ranked team on Tuesday than did a year ago, when a straight-set loss to the Buckeyes moved Mason to 0-5 on the season, he would prefer people not look on the contest as a rematch from May or a showdown between the EIVA and MIVA champions because at this point of the season there are more ways to "win".
"I think too many people place too much emphasis on the W and not on the process," he said. "The W's, or the L's, for that matter – the losses – are byproduct of the work that you put in. We could go 0-28 but if we play hard and we do all the right things and we just get beat by better teams, that in my eyes is a form of success."
"I think [tonight], whether we win, lose, or draw, if I and the team feel that we played in a way that is indicative of Mason Volleyball, [that will be considered success]," he said. "The better team will win and if we should happen to be that team, that will be great in itself and great momentum."
Given that it faces a team on a 25-match win streak and to which it has lost the last 14 outings, Mason is certainly not a favorite going into tonight. But wait, does not that sound familiar? Hint: look back nine months.