(Nashua, N.H.) After three years of abdication, the original men's volleyball kings of the Great Northeast Athletic Conference reclaimed their throne on Saturday night.
Backed by a 39-assist, four-block performance from tournament MVP Garrett Bucklin (Jamestown, R.I.) and a 15-kill performance from all-tournament selection Grant Andler (Chicago, Ill.), host and tournament top seed Rivier toppled two-time defending champion Wentworth in straight sets, 25-20, 25-23, and 27-25 before an electrified and standing room only Muldoon Gymnasium crowd.
The title is the eighth overall for the Raiders since the GNAC began sponsoring the trophy in 2008 and their first since 2014. The championship also ushers them back to a familiar place – the NCAA Division III national championship tournament, whose field will be announced Monday morning.
Rivier (26-6), receiving votes in the most recent AVCA Division III national poll and ranked sixth in the most recent regional rankings, completed an unblemished overall record against GNAC competition, going a perfect 16-0 including 14-0 during the regular season. The 26 victories stands tied for ninth highest in program history for single-season wins.
"It's always a great feeling," said a beaming Head Coach Craig Kolek, who returns to the winners circle in this, his 22nd season. "They [Wentworth] are two-time defending champions for a reason so to be able to get past them was a real accomplishment for us."
Kolek was quick to point out that the championship came as a bit of a surprise to both he and his coaching staff, but it's a pleasant one all the same. "I told [our team] in the locker room afterwards that this was one of the most fulfilling titles I've been privileged to be a part of. Coming into the season, we thought we might still be a year away. After all, we started 1-3. It was a tough start. We could have rolled over but we didn't. I look back on that now as something \we needed to go through. We have a senior group who have shown great leadership, and a couple of sophomores who have made a great difference. It was a year in which we had just the right people in place and it came together the right way."
Rivier was balanced throughout the night, hitting .274 against .246 for the Leopards. Along with Bucklin and Andler, David Smith (Clinton, Ohio) knocked down nine kills with two service aces, DaShaun Graham (Highland Falls, N.Y.) added eight kills against one error, hit .350 and racked up a match-best five total blocks, Khaynen Yocca (Pittsburg, Penn.) hit .353 with seven kills against one error, and all-tourney honoree Cam Roth (Coventry, R.I.) chipped in with five kills.
Wentworth (22-11), was led by a terrific performance from all-tourney honoree Ollie Oshman (Pennington, N.J.) who hit an unconscious .652 with 16 kills against one error in just 23 attempts and added a pair of blocks. Fellow all-tourney selection Collin Ritter (Feeding Hills, Mass.) filled the stat sheet with eight kills, 23 assists, 10 digs and an ace, and Ryan Engel (Floral Park, N.Y.) added nine kills with two aces. Ryan Love (Gaithersburg, Md.) chipped in with six kills.
Remarkably, WIT earned the edge in most team totals including kills (45-44), aces (5-4) and digs (46-45), but a difference-maker was blocking. Rivier nearly doubled up the Leopards on the net (14-8).
The hosts came out swinging in the opener, hitting .270 to Wentworth's .147 with Graham knocking down five kills and Andler connecting for four. Engel would counter with five for the visitors. The set saw 10 ties and five lead changes including as late as 20-all before the hosts closed on a 5-0 run keyed by kills from Andler and Roth and, in what would prove to backup that key team stat, a set-clinching block from Graham and Bucklin.
Rivier cooled in set two hitting only .211 while Wentworth managed just .214 but the hosts kept the pressure on at the net, combining for 3.5 blocks with Smith racking up five kills and Andler adding four. That offense helped offset Oshman who went 5-0-8 on the attack, while Engel would knock down four. The second frame only saw six ties and three lead changes and Rivier never trailed after pulling out of a 6-5 deficit.
After an Engle kill closed a late Rivier lead to 23-21, the teams traded unforced errors to make it 24-22 but Smith would close it out with his final kill of the stanza.
The third saw both squads open up and swing for the fences, much to the delight of the packed house. WIT sizzled, hitting .368 while the Raiders hit .333. The teams combined for 18 ties and just three lead changes with Andler and Oshman putting on a gun slinging clinic. Andler would knock down seven kills (7-1-10) while Oshman bettered him by one (8-1-10). WIT's Ritter, meanwhile was matched by Rivier's Yocca as each knocked down four kills.
The defending champs successfully stared down three championship points (24-22, 24-23, 25-24) and Oshman's final kill of the night would knot things at 25.
But an unforced service error gave Rivier its fourth championship point and this time they didn't give it back as Bucklin handed off to Yocca after a five sided back-and-forth rally, and Yocca promptly found the left sideline to clinch it setting off a wild celebration near mid-court.
With Rivier now poised to return after a three-year hiatus to its old familiar neighborhood known as the NCAA tournament, Kolek maintained his Raiders' approach won't change. He wants to see his squad continue to simply improve regardless of the venue. A return to the GNAC's winner's circle is part of that process for the program as a whole.
"Whether it's the regular season, the GNAC tournament, or the NCAA's, it's a process," Kolek said. "I look back on the journey our upperclassmen have taken. That first year they were here, we were seven-time defending champions. The expectation [in 2015] was that we would win. And we didn't. Instead we had to start a new journey that took three years. As a program, everyone realized that they had to put in their time to get the program back to a place like this. I think that – the journey to get back here - is the most satisfying aspect of tonight's result.
"Whoever we play in the opening round, we still need to prepare like we always do," Kolek concluded. "It's still practice next week and the [NCAA] tournament is another opportunity to get better, whether we play one match or more. That's what we have built this program upon. And it's what we'll continue to do."
2018 GNAC MEN'S VOLLEYBALL
ALL TOURNAMENT TEAM
Kevin Orsley, Emmanuel
Cameron Ponce, Johnson & Wales
Ollie Oshman, Wentworth
Collin Ritter, Wentworth
Grant Andler, Rivier
Cam Roth, Rivier
Garrett Bucklin (MVP)