This weekend will mark a new season for the College of Staten Island’s newest program, as men’s volleyball will be hitting the road for action to introduce the new campaign. Launched as a new varsity program for the first time last year, the squad made a spirited opening season run, and with a foundation in place and experience level raised, the team is hoping for added improvement this season under second-year Head Coach Juan Lopez.
“It was definitely exciting being out there for the first time last year as a program and it was fun seeing what our College had to offer and to have the sport and the players on campus pushing themselves to get better,” said Lopez, who also guides the women’s unit at CSI. “It also helped us see the high caliber of volleyball that is played within the conference and to recognize where we need to be in the future.”
While the introduction to the varsity court made for an enjoyable campaign last year, one that finalized at 6-23 and 5-11 within the CUNYAC, Lopez know the key will be on improvement in 2016. CSI was predicted to finish fourth in the CUNYAC Preseason Coaches Poll, and while Lopez certainly welcomes the challenge, he knows that plenty of hard work lies ahead. While the Dolphins do return talent, they are a relatively thin team, focusing more on quality over quantity.
“The majority of our roster is returning but it is still a continuation of the work we did last year. Even for our most experienced players, it is relatively new and we have a long way to go,” Lopez noted. “The goal is to continue to build the team and add more recruitment to the mix.”
The lineup does see its share of familiar faces, eight in total, and for Lopez the nucleus is important because his most experienced players are also the same players with plenty of untapped potential. He expects the improvement rate to come quicker and for the action to get better. Led by front-of-the-net leaders like Justin Edwardsen. Danil Kukovitskiy and Kiril Antonov, along with setter Brandon Lei and back-court mates Song Shin Low and Ronald Tisbe.
“Justin and Danil are our captains and I am expecting them to lead the charge offensively and provide the outstanding leadership they have shown thus far,” Lopez said. “I think all of our returning players had good first seasons and naturally they are capable of a lot more development. I am most excited by the leadership they have all shown. They’ve accepted the responsibility that comes with being varsity athletes and it is exciting to see that focus lead to bigger and better things.”
Alongside the hungry, returning unit, comes the addition of freshmen Steven Caruso and Adil El Haddad, who doubles on the men’s swimming and diving team. Together with second-year players Zain Ali and Brandon Ng, who expect to blossom into bigger roles, Lopez is excited on what his newer faces can offer, and much like last season, he expects the team to get better and better with each passing game.
“Both of our new faces have given great effort and are working really hard and they all know they will be valuable to the team because we do have a small roster,” Lopez commented. “I think that they will all strengthen our roster but it begins with hard work and they have shown that.”
While Lopez hopes the team can make some noise, he understands that the building blocks will still be moving into place and the team will likely continue to redefine itself with each game, making adjustments with each point. No matter what the outcome, Lopez wants his team to focus on playing its form of volleyball, no matter who the competition.
“What is most important for us is to play our style, which is one-hundred percent effort and communication,” the coach said. “We want to focus on our side of the court. If we can be mentally tough and never give up physically then we will become a stronger and stronger team. It’s all about what we can control out there, and if we do our best and work towards that goal, everything else will take care of itself.”
While Lopez is lean on forecasts and prefers to see things one game at a time, he would like to see his team improve this season and make some waves come playoff time. Last year’s unit was able to capture a quarterfinal playoff berth, bowing out to Hunter. Lopez would love to see his team build on that success.
“Honestly, we’re just looking to push ourselves farther and farther,” he said. “Last year taught us that we can compete and hold our own out there, so while we are still new, we definitely want to be in the middle of things and seeing how far we can go.”
The Dolphins will begin their season on Saturday as part of a CUNYAC multimatch at Baruch College. CSI will face off against CCNY at 12 Noon and host Baruch at 2pm. On Sunday they will get right back to work, participating in a non-conference tri-match at Stevens Institute, where they will play Hunter College at 1pm followed by the hosts at 3pm. CSI’s home opener will be on Wednesday, February 10, when they host CUNYAC-rivals Lehman College at 7pm. All told, CSI will embark on a 27-game schedule culminating in the CUNYAC Postseason Tournament in early April.