by Joel Nelson
The Penn State Altoona men's volleyball team is set to begin its sixth season as an NCAA Division III program. It enters 2018 as the defending North Eastern Athletic Conference champions, coming off of a 26-7 season which included a 15-1 conference record and a trip to the NCAA Division III tournament. The Lions also won the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference, the team's secondary conference, with a perfect 8-0 record.
Sixth-year head coach Phil Peterman is more than ready to repeat as a NEAC champion, but he knows that it won't come easy. The Lions were voted into first place in the 2018 NEAC preseason poll, but their head coach understands that his team needs to put in the effort to live up to expectations.
"It is going to take a lot of hard work and a little luck at the end of the year to defend our title," he said. "The 'luck' part of the equation will have to do with my team remaining healthy. We have a really strong team, but we will have to remain healthy throughout this grueling four month season."
The Lions' roster suffered some keys losses from last season in libero Wally Rivera-Berrios, setter Billy Smith, and outside hitters Jacob Byers and Brad Colditz. But a solid core of players remains from last year's team, and they are poised to again make strong impacts.
The Lions return senior middle hitters Justin Bannister (Willow Hill, PA/Fannett-Metal) and Dan Downs (Reading, PA/Daniel Boone), as well as fellow senior and outside hitter Ryan Dry (Douglassville, PA/Daniel Boone). Bannister, Downs, and Dry "have set a standard around here that hard work does pay off," according to Peterman. Bannister persevered through injury last season to rank first in the NEAC in blocks per set (0.88), third in solo blocks (23), fourth in hitting percentage (.265), and fifth in total blocks (68). Downs was a second team All-Conference selection for both the NEAC and the AMCC, and he finished last season tied for first in the NEAC in solo blocks (26) while ranking third in total blocks (83) and hitting percentage (.349).
"They have a tremendous work ethic and desire to win. They never give up and always battle to the end," Peterman stated. "They want to be challenged and play strong competition. They also bring a passion and desire to win one more championship and return to the NCAA Tournament."
Junior Jonathan Ruhl (Lancaster, PA/Manheim Township) is set to fill big shoes in the starting libero spot, previously held by former Penn State Altoona stars Rivera-Berrios and Brandon Stitt. Fellow junior and outside hitter Brian Sheddy (Shrewsbury, PA/Susquehannock) was one of four team members to play in all 33 matches a season ago.
Penn State Altoona also brings back a strong sophomore group, led by opposite hitter Brandon Arentz (Mount Wolf, PA/Northeaster) and the team's top setter from last season, Tommy Kisick (Latrobe, PA/Greater Latrobe). Arentz was voted first team All-AMCC while taking the league's Newcomer of the Year award, and he was also a second team All-NEAC selection. Arentz had a well-rounded freshman season, tying for first in the NEAC in solo blocks (26) while ranking eighth in total blocks (66) and digs (233), and he averaged 2.01 kills per set and 2.5 points per set. Kisick recorded 5.59 assists per match and 676 total assists on the year, both team-highs. Other returning sophomores are opposite hitter and tri-sport athlete Tanner Yaw (Palmyra, PA/Palmyra), who recorded six kills and six digs last season in 10 matches, and outside hitter Dylan Appleman (Roaring Spring, PA/Central), who had 16 digs, nine kills, and two service aces in 11 matches during 2017.
The Lions welcome five freshmen: outside hitters Brian Downey (Howell, NJ/Howell), Kaleb Gahagan (Williamsburg, PA/Central), Brandon McGowan (Irwin, PA/Penn Trafford), and Ian Rathgeb (Douglassville, PA/Daniel Boone), along with middle blocker Andrew Taylor (Delmar, NY/Bethlehem Central). Peterman could not be more excited about each of his newcomers.
"I look forward to all of my freshmen contributing to the team in one way or another," he said. "I am looking to see them grow throughout the season and be ready to continue in our winning traditions. They will have big shoes to fill when they take over the reins and lead the 2018 recruiting class."
Peterman is also ecstatic to coach his first men's volleyball season in the new Adler Arena.
"We are so excited to play in the new facility. It is great for men's volleyball, with a nice, high ceiling that rarely interferes with the play," he mentioned. "It also has a lot of room to chase down balls throughout the arena to continue the play. We are so excited for the new facility that we have invited two of the top teams in the country [Nazareth College and Mount St. Joseph University] to come play us here at home."
The Lions begin their season on Friday, January 19, and Saturday, January 20 in the Misericordia University Cougar Kickoff Classic, when they take on both the College of Saint Elizabeth and Misericordia on Friday before facing Neumann University and Hiram College on Saturday. Penn State Altoona's first home match is against non-conference Thiel College on Wednesday, January 24 at 7:00 p.m.