Down 24-23 on championship point of the NAIA Men’s Volleyball National Invitational in Denver, Colorado, Concordia University-Irvine’s Harrison Carroll ripped a hard jump serve that had to go in. Opponent Park University went to its star outside Daniel Arteaga, a 6'5" freshman from Venezuela, who executed a back-row attack that forced Concordia libero Chris Reames to make a less-than-perfect dig. The ball went sailing toward stands and Carroll made a desperate sprawl to keep it alive, leaving senior opposite Vincent Rodriguez with no choice but to bump the ball back over.
The Park Pirates then did what champions do with free balls. Murilo Pereira slammed a quick set from setter Rob Cordero into the ground, completing a sweep in the final of the season-ending tournament. The Pirates’ ensuing celebration bordered on excess.
Park had lost to Concordia in the 2013 NAIA final only a year before, so such a celebration did not surprise Park’s coach Mike Talamantes.
“Last year, it was our first time playing Concordia – we hadn’t faced them before,” Talamantes said. “There were a lot of things we were unprepared for. We’ve been working to get ready to play them here at nationals. This is a big moment for us.”
The game marked the conclusion of another year of change for this ever-growing division.
This season, three teams joined NAIA men’s volleyball, a continuously expanding field that has added eight teams in the last four years. The league formed four new conferences, the winners of which received automatic bids to the annual national tournament.
By the time the six qualifying teams arrived in Denver for the championship in April, the tournament playing field hardly resembled itself from just four years ago.
Gone are days when California Baptist and Lindenwood dominated the NAIA ranks, since both teams recently moved to NCAA Division II. Other annual pillars—St. Ambrose University, Missouri Baptist, Warner University—missed the 2014 nationals cut. Those five aforementioned programs have received 43 national tournament bids in the 15-year history of the league.
Three of this year’s qualifiers have yet to cycle through a full graduating class. Five of the six head coaches had never been to the tournament, and two teams—Grand View University and Lourdes University—cracked their nationals’ seals this year.
“[In this league] there’s an opportunity for new teams to come in and be competitive within five years,” said NAIA commissioner Bruce Billingsley.
Unlike the more familiar NCAA bracket tournament, the NAIA invitational divides qualifiers into pools. No. 1 seed Concordia faced No. 3 seed Park and No. 6 seed Johnson & Wales (the host-school) in Pool A. No. 2 Grand View, No. 4 Clarke University, and No. 5 Lourdes made up Pool B.
Opinions differed among newcomers on how best to navigate the field, but it was clear to everyone that the competition would be fierce.
“At this point in the year, at this tournament, you know you can’t take plays off,” said Grand View coach Donan Cruz. As his school’s women’s coach, the national stage wasn’t entirely unfamiliar to Cruz, despite the men’s program competing in only its third year. “A lot of success is attributed to your mental preparation. You try to simulate that as much as you can. For us, we tried to focus on not getting too far ahead of ourselves.”
The only coach at the tournament in Denver who had previously conquered nationals led the Park Pirates. The five other schools combined had only 10 tournament bids ever. Park has amassed 14 bids, the most in NAIA history.
The key, said Talamantes, is depth.
“If you’re only coming in with seven players, you’re gassed by the semifinals,” he said. “That’s what’s so unique to the format. You have to be deep enough, and you should be preparing for that all season.”
For Park, part of that depth comes from abroad.
Kansas City, Missouri, may not seem like an international destination, but for years, Park has pulled players from across the globe to its campus. This year, the Pirates’ roster featured just four American-born players who played alongside five Brazilians and four other international players. Park athletes totaled half of the foreign players at nationals.
Billingsley (who helped found the men’s program at St. Ambrose in Davenport, Iowa) said Park’s recruiting success stems from the university’s willingness to pour resources into the program.
Regulation differences in the NAIA allow schools to consider athletes who can’t participate in the NCAA for various reasons, making international students more commonplace on NAIA rosters. The 18 foreigners competing in Denver had only 14 counterparts among the top-10 NCAA rosters.
“The schools put the resources into the programs necessary to be successful at this level,” Billingsley said. “That’s true of most of the programs we have.”
Despite playing mostly NAIA and Division-III foes, Park has tangled with—and even conquered—tournament teams which entered April well-primed with a bevy of Division-I, MPSF, and MIVA opponents on their schedules. The April 12 championship win marked Park’s fourth national title.
Concordia, for its part, entered this year’s championship with plenty of experience playing DI schools, having taken USC to four, Harvard to five, and beating Princeton, UC Santa Cruz (twice), Grand Canyon, and DIII powerhouse Springfield. The defending champions surprised few with their return to the final.
“We’re definitely battle-tested with the type of schedule we play,” Concordia coach Shawn Patchell said. Another first-year coach, his résumé includes stints with NCAA schools Marymount University (in Arlington, Virginia) and BYU as well as the U.S. Men’s National Team. “We’re up against international flair here, which is exciting.”
Recent history, top-level talent, a rejuvenated league – all of this set the stage for Park and Concordia’s five-set thriller during pool play, the second match on the first day of the tournament. The game put other squads on notice.
Clarke coach Dan Mathews is a former All-American at Ohio State University and played professionally overseas until just a year ago.
“My expectations were reinforced,” Mathews said after watching Concordia battle Park in pool play. “The NAIA has certain advantages that make for better programs. Lots of the top teams in the NAIA will match up well with teams in the NCAA. In the NAIA support for these teams is tremendous.”
Park outside Daniel Arteaga stole the show in the epic pool-play match, as he would again two days later in the championship. Down 16-15, the NAIA South Player of the Year single-handedly swung momentum into the fifth set, ripping a back-row attack to tie it up, followed by a ferocious solo block that put the Pirates in the lead for good.
In the other pool, Grand View established itself as the toughest team. After hiccupping and dropping the third set against Lourdes, the Vikings recharged to take the match in four. Hours later they handily dispatched Clarke with a sweep.
After Clarke beat Lourdes in four, the Pirates dominated Johnson & Wales, setting up semifinals between the top four ranked teams, two of which had never advanced this far and two of which had yet to cycle a full class.
In the semis, the Pirates swept Clarke, and the Eagles dropped the Vikings in four to stage a promising final round between the two 2013 finalists.
• • •
“Ea-gles… Ea-gles… Ea-gles… Ea-gles…”
Johnson & Wales’ Wildcat Center rang with this chant on the night of the final. Irvine, California, is twice as far from Denver as Park’s hometown of Kansas City, Missouri. Yet the Eagles’ fan base traveled far to watch the still-young team go for a second title.
The gym was mostly Eagle green, flapping like a bird, celebrating small victories, and groaning for brief defeats. The players were screaming, lingering after thunderous kills and blocks, agonizing over mistakes, and pleading for close calls. Opening point dazzled them all – a rally that crossed the net four, five, six times before ending in Concordia’s favor.
Concordia boasted slim early leads in each set using the high-flying attack that allows the Eagles to hang with DI programs out west. Setter Kevin Fiske fed powerful options like All-Americans Carroll and Parker Del Re. Park answered with a heavy dose of Arteaga, who finished with a match-high 21 kills collected from the outside, right side, and back row.
Many sweeps are viewed as “blowouts.” In this case, neither team ever led by more than three. The match came down to blocking and untimely errors. Park out-blocked the Eagles 10.5 to five, while the teams went stride for stride in kills (45) and digs (30). Concordia committed eight more total errors, a major difference for a match won by seven total points (25-23, 25-22, 25-23).
“We couldn’t slow [Arteaga] down,” Patchell said. “If we could have matched him, we may have prevailed.”
• • •
In the end, Park avenged its 2013 loss, but at a cost. The Pirates’ heightened celebration ended in the ejection of freshman Ramon Cora. He will sit out the beginning of next season with a red card suspension.
Nonetheless, the team was proud of championing a growing, increasingly high-stakes league.
“To be honest, I don’t have words to describe this feeling,” said Arteaga. “It’s incredible.”
A tournament that hardly resembled what it used to be ended the way it should – on a play exhibiting the passion, desperation, triumph, and defeat that carries NAIA men’s volleyball players and coaches from January to April. Billingsley said the level of play, emotion, and commitment will never change in this league.
“It’s just amazing to me how good the top teams are, and how fast some of the teams have gotten to this level.”
Pool A: Park def. Concordia 23-25, 25-23, 18-25, 25-23, 21-19; Concordia def. Johnson & Wales 25-17, 25-18, 25-10; Park def. Johnson & Wales 25-14, 25-9, 25-18
Pool B: Grand View def. Lourdes 25-19, 25-18, 23-25, 25-19; Grand View def. Clarke 25-21, 25-18, 25-20; Clarke def. Lourdes 22-25, 25-18, 25-12, 25-20
Semifinals: Park def. Clarke 25-13, 26-24, 25-18; Concordia def. Grand View 20-25, 25-17, 25-20, 25-21
Final: Park def. Concordia 25-23, 25-22, 25-23
MVP Rob Cordero (Sr., S, Park); Anson Lindsey (So., MB, Clarke); Pedro Cardoso (Fr., OH, Grand View); Caio Souza (Jr., MB, Park); Kevin Fiske (Sr., S, Concordia-Irvine); Parker Del Re (Sr., OH, Concordia-Irvine)
Coach of the Year
Michael Talamantes | Park
Caio Souza | Park | .541
Kills Per Game
Daniel Arteaga | Park | 3.60
Assists Per Game
Rob Cordero | Park | 11.09
Digs Per Game
Kastan Maness | Park | 2.82
Aces Per Game
Kyle Hanagami | Grand View | 0.36
Blocks Per Game
Caio Souza | Park | 2.00
Sportsman of the Year
Kyle Hanagami | Jr. | Grand View
Originally published in July 2014