MEN’S VOLLEYBALL TURNS IT AROUND: Two years ago, the Vassar men’s volleyball team struggled through their season with a win-loss record of 2-17. This year, the Brewers finished 26-7, won their conference championship, and beat volleyball powerhouse UC-Santa Cruz to take second place at the Molten Four, the national volleyball championship. “Somehow we knew this season would be different,” says John Kessenich ’09. “We could tell that everyone was really into it. We were ready. It was a different feeling in practice than we’d ever had before.”
That “different feeling” translated into toughness on the court as they started taking games off of highly ranked teams. Before long, the Brewers were ranked in the top 15, and their momentum continued to build. Mid-season, they defeated Stevens Institute of Technology, a team ranked fifth, that had previously enjoyed a 56-game conference winning streak. Every week, Vassar was either gaining in the ranks or maintaining the school’s current position. They also achieved the streak of 20 consecutive wins, a first in the program’s history. In a game where a good hitting percentage is 250 to 300, the Brewers finished some matches hitting over 400, something almost unheard of.
The Brewers entered the NECVA Tournament ranked number one their first year in the conference. “We knew we’d have to face one of the big powerhouse teams in the tournament,” says Phil Tully ’10. “We all realized that this could be the end if we didn’t get it together.” Vassar went head-to-head with the top four teams, battling it out until they finally won the NECVA title, which earned them a berth to the Molten Final Four, something that had only happened once in school history. “It was incredible,” he says. “We played the best game of our lives.”
In April, the team traveled to Springfield, Massachusetts, to take on the top three schools in the country. “It was so strange to show up and see brand new volleyballs and NCAA banners everywhere,” recalls Kessenich. “There were USA Volleyball officials all around. It was a ridiculous feeling, and we were so ready to play.” What was difficult to prepare for, however, were the masses of Springfield fans who packed the stands, stomping the bleachers and screaming and cheering. “We were playing in front of a crowd at least five times the size we were used to, and we had to scream to talk to each other on the court as people were heckling us,” recalls Kessenich. Despite the overwhelming excitement, the team swept the number one-ranked University of California at Santa Cruz, but fell just short of the title when Springfield dominated the final match.
Over the course of the season, the players picked up a slew of awards. Tully and Kessenich were the first men’s volleyball players in school history to be named First Team All-Americans. Weeks later, Coach Jonathan Penn was selected as the 2008 American Volleyball Coaches Association Division III Men’s National Coach of the Year. “I was very excited,” says Penn. “But all the credit for this year lies with the team. They are simply amazing. They were a unique group that embraced challenges, created an amazing sense of responsibility, and really truly believed in themselves and what we are all about.”
The feeling is clearly mutual. “He made us all realize how good we were and how good we could be,” emphasizes Tully. “He’s like a second father, and I respect him so much.”
“This entire season was like a dream,” adds Kessenich. “I couldn’t have scripted a happier ending or a better finish.”