SEASON PREVIEW: Keeping The Bar High

Travis Abele has the ability to play multiple positions for the Royals. (photo by Scott Eyre)
Travis Abele has the ability to play multiple positions for the Royals. (photo by Scott Eyre)

Coming off two of the best seasons in program history, there are a handful of unknowns for the EMU men's volleyball team.

In 2017, the Royals tied the program record for wins in a 22-11 campaign, followed up by a 21-13 effort last year. The only other times an Eastern Mennonite team earned more than 16 wins was in 2006 and 2007, with records of 19-8 and 22-11, respectively.

But with the graduation of five of the seven starters, including the libero, setter and top three attackers, second-year coach Danielle Lickey is looking to put her stamp on the program, aimed at even higher success. Lickey built a highly competitive schedule, which includes nearly half of last year's national tourney field, and adds a new rival in Randolph-Macon, a competitor with EMU's other sports in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference.

Record in 2017-18: 21-13 (8-5 CVC)
Coach: Danielle Lickey (21-13 overall, 8-5 CVC in 1 season)

Season opener in 2018-19:
- hosting exhibition quad-match featuring No. 13 Southern Virginia, a Richmond club team, and the EMU Alumni. The official season opener is Saturday, Jan. 19, when EMU hosts No. 15 Elms and Messiah in a tri-match.
Other season highlights:
- host 13 of the 23 scheduled matches, including three tri-matches
- play seven teams ranked in the 2019 AVCA Preseason Poll
- play five of the 12 teams in the 2018 NCAA National Tournament
- host new CVC team and local rival Randolph-Macon in a Rowdy Royals Game on Wednesday, March 20
- top 6 of the 12 CVC teams make the conference tournament, which is April 9-13
- celebrate Senior Recognition in their home finale against Rutgers-Newark on Saturday, March 30

Stats to watch this season:
- middle hitter R.J. Ocampo is No. 6 in EMU history with 245 career blocks. Ocampo needs 12 blocks to pass Kyle Storc (256) for No. 5, and 74 blocks to pass Matt Musselman for No. 4 (318)
- outside hitter Travis Abele needs 146 kills to enter the EMU Top 15 list for Career Kills (Mike Osinski has 640), needs 57 blocks to enter the EMU Top 15 list for Career Blocks (Allan Reesor-McDowell and Zac Stark have 179), and needs 37 digs to enter the EMU Top 15 list for Career Digs (John Barry has 456)

Interview

SID: How would you recap the 2018 season in a couple of sentences, and how does that play into your team for this year?

DL: I started my time with EMU last year when I came into a program with a large class of talented seniors.  We were competitive and had a strong team who fared well in a very competitive conference.  Though it would be nice to grow on that success, we graduated five out of seven of our starters.  This is a both an advantage and a disadvantage, as we have been given the opportunity to start fresh with a new culture, philosophy, and ultimate end; however, we are doing so from a place of youth in experience.

SID: You lost a strong senior class.  How will you replace them, both in play and leadership?

DL: I am very thankful to those seniors for raising the level of play at EMU to be a recognized competitor in the conference. They were able to build a platform from which my current players can work to continue their legacy of growth and competitiveness. As far as leadership, I was blessed with an excellent junior class last year. These players, R.J. Ocampo, Travis Abele, and Austin Tomlin, have been named the Senior Leadership team this season and have been working together to provide the team with support and leadership to lend further to the development of a winning culture. Their individual strengths have collaborated well to a complete leadership team and I am excited to continue to watch them help in the development of the program.

SID: With an appearance in the 2017 CVC Championship match and upsetting Juniata on the road in the 2018 playoffs, what have the last two years meant for the EMU Men's Volleyball program?

DL: It should be the goal of any program to appear annually in the conference tournament, if not to win it. The fact that EMU has started that trend of performance continues to solidify EMU as a conference challenger.  It earns respect for our program and our players.  We will continue to strive for the excellence that will put us into the top of the conference every season.

SID: R.J. Ocampo and Travis Abele are your only two returning regulars. What expanded roles to do envision for them in their final season?

DL: Both of these guys have grasped their leadership role firmly going into their senior season. It has been great watching both of them take more responsibility.  They have the ability and also the selflessness to understand that their senior season is focused on the development of the future and they are happy to support and push the growth of the program for the future, not just for their own glory as seniors.  Regardless of their performance on the court as seniors (which I am sure will be excellent), their role as a model of integrity and sacrifice for the sake of team is more than I can ever ask for from a player.

SID: Who are your other key returners and what roles do you expect them to play this year?

DL: Junior Sean Wright and sophomore Wyatt Bollinger are two returners who I expect to see a lot more court time this year.  Both of these players have been working very hard to continue to improve their game in all facets.  Senior Austin Tomlin has been working hard and will be named one of the liberos for the season. Lastly, we are really excited to have Hunter Taylor back after an injury to complete his senior year.  His experience on the court will be a huge advantage.

SID: Tell me a bit about your incoming recruiting class.  First an over-arching comment on the group as a whole, and then mention a few individuals and what roles they might play in their first year?

DL: I worked hard to pull in a recruiting class that I felt would be able to grow over time with the program. Guys with high ceilings of potential. Angelo Olayvar will make a difference this year with his defensive excellence. There are two newer players, Jacob Durren and Josh White, who are definitely ones to watch out for as the season goes on. Lastly, Drew Bennett is an experienced player who is already contributing through his volleyball IQ and well-rounded skills.

SID: You have another tough schedule full of highly competitive teams.  What does that mean the Royals this year?

DL: I believe that to be the best you need to continue to see the best.  I am excited for my team to be continuously challenged throughout the season. Year after year you should see growth in the success we have against these high level teams.

SID: What will the strengths of your team be this season?

DL: Time will tell.  We are working on the strengths living in our defense and blocking at the moment, but it's a bit too early to determine our strengths against outside competitors.

SID: Overall general feeling of what 2019 will be for your team?

DL: The overall feeling is very much one of hard work and focus.  We will continue to work towards our goals and stay focused on the mission. Process over Product, Team over Individual.