North Central Men’s Volleyball makes history

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North Central Men’s Volleyball make a historic run to the national championship match

It was a historic season for North Central Men’s Volleyball. They finished as Division III national runners up, their best ever finish, as they qualified for nationals for the first time and swept number-one ranked Vassar College in the semifinals before falling in four sets to Stevens Institute of Technology in the national title match. While the weekend was bittersweet, there is no blemish on the pride the team feels for what they accomplished

“We had this banquet for the Final Four and all the teams showed up in, like full suits,” recalled senior outside hitter Jared Moser. “And we showed up in collared shirts, some of us wore polos and we’re just getting so rowdy when we were giving out the awards and people were accepting them and everyone was just looking at us like, ‘these kids are absolutely nuts.’ Going to the first game, it was just knowing that we kind of had that chip on your shoulder still looked at as the underdogs, having literally nothing to lose was so much fun.”

“Yes, it was a heartbreaker of a loss losing in four in the national championship match, but them realizing the bonds that they have with each other and knowing that we just competed for a national championship for the first time in program history and within eight years of the inception of the program, that in itself was special,” said head coach Kyle Exline.

“I don’t think there’s the right words to accurately describe how it felt,” said junior setter Tyler Donovan. “It’s kind of just one of those things that is a dream come true. Like as cliché as that sounds like we had only dreamt of getting to that point, right? And then we actually got there and it literally was a dream come true.”

“We knew going into the season, you know, we had really great team just all around, like super great depth,” said senior middle Jeremy Cardenas. “No, like no weak spot at all on the team. So we knew we knew we could reach that level as well. It was all about like making sure that we came in every day and worked like we were supposed to work and perform how we were supposed to perform, that sort of thing. So it was really awesome just to get there, keep breaking school records as a team, just keep doing that. So, I mean, yeah, we did come one game short, but it was just an awesome season and I’m happy with my last one.”

CCIW Men’s Volleyball dominance

The Cardinals were a dominant force in the regular season, going 10-0 in CCIW play including two three-set sweeps over two-time defending national champions Carthage. In the CCIW Tournament, they dispatched North Park in the semifinals before a third meeting with the Carthage Firebirds, beating them yet again to claim the Cardinals’ first tournament championship.

“We knew that we were going to get everybody’s best match and having the opportunity to host the semifinal matchup versus North Park, which we played them the Saturday before and then hosting Carthage, we knew that it was going to be tough to beat a team three times,” Exline said of the two conference tournament matches.

“Coming from nothing to lose to okay we’re 2-0 against them, we haven’t dropped a set to them all year and this is really the only time that it matters,” said Moser. “And that kind of thing starts creeping in where it’s like, ‘Oh, what? Like what if they just win when it matters?’ You know what I mean? We have still proved nothing yet, but kind of pushing that, you know, like suppressing that deep and just going into it thinking like, you know, we’re the team that can do this.”

“I think we all kind of bought into the idea that this was the year to go far,” said Donovan. “Not going to say we were on cloud nine, but it felt good like knowing that we can beat the defending national champions three times. I’d say that was probably the flip of the switch right there.”

A first taste of postseason success

For their conference dominance, North Central was selected as a regional host for the NCAA Division III Men’s Volleyball Championships. In the first round, they faced near neighbors Benedictine and eventually triumphed in a five-set battle. Then, as fate would have it, it was again Carthage on the opposite side of the net with a trip to the final four on the line. For the fourth time this season, the Cardinals emerged victorious against their biggest rival and captured their first regional crown.

“We knew that we were going to get Benedictine’s best game,” said Exline of the postseason rivalry match. “And they had a huge crowd here. And luckily and so blessed that our fans came out to support us on that Friday night. So we were down 8 to 5 in the fifth set and Ben Pluskota came back and went on a really gnarly serving run and a lot of good blocked touches. And then we extended rallies to go win that fifth set.”

“To have an even bigger, more electric crowd for the regional championships against [Carthage] again was so fun to watch regardless of the outcome, what happened, I mean that game was absolutely electric,” said Moser. “The atmosphere was amazing. And I think what was the cool thing that Exline said that day was after we lost the second game, going into the third one, he literally just brought us in the huddle and he said, ‘Show these people what they came to see.’”

“Playing a team four times, especially of their caliber is very tough and almost irritating,” Cardenas said. “But I mean, yeah, we just came in and were able to have fun and it was, it was a great atmosphere. Yeah, Easily the most fun I’ve ever had playing volleyball.”

“This was like the most packed I had ever seen Gregory Arena in my three years,” Donovan said. “And to be on the court and not be the person in the stands rooting for our school’s team, I mean, it was crazy. It was like you try to tune the crowd out when you’re in there, you know, focus on the game. But at some point you just got to enjoy it.”

All-American individuals

The team’s remarkable year was in no small part thanks to tremendous individual performers, foremost among them senior outside hitter Jared Moser. Moser became the first Cardinals men’s volleyball player to be named First Team All CCIW for a fourth time, was once again an All Region selection, and for a second time was named as a First Team All American. He leaves North Central as the program’s all time leader in both kills and service aces.

“I don’t think it really has anything to do with any number or a stat on a piece of paper or a record or hardware or anything,” said Moser of his impact on the program in his career. “My goal and my hope is that, well, I think I can carry on in the program after I’m leaving is just the pure grit and mentality of being a national caliber team and what it takes.”

“Jared is an individual that I’ve never coached before,” Exline said. “His dedication to his craft, to the physical development of his body, and then his IQ of the game. I had to reach out to other coaches to figure out how I continue to coach him. All the goals that we’ve set together, he’s met them pretty quickly and he is a major leader for this program. If we can get at least half of our roster with the mindset of a Jared Moser, we’re going to be in a really good spot for multiple years to come.”

Senior middle Jeremy Cardenas was named as an All American for the second consecutive season, completing his fourth year as a central force for the Cardinals on both offense and defense, illustrated with his program records in career blocks and attacking percentage.

“His IQ of the game is exceptional,” Exline said of Cardenas. “When he would come off the court for his three rotations, he would ask coaches questions, he would talk to the other middles, he would talk to the other positional players on the bench and he really let his his physical play and then his mind and the way he communicates to the guys, that’s what really set Jeremy apart was he was such a keen student of the game.”

“It was really nice to see as my time here went, just the continuation of recognition on a national level,” Cardenas said of the team’s growth to which he contributed. “But at the same time, just that’s standard being grown year after year of what to expect and what to achieve.”

The most unlikely of North Central’s All Americans was junior setter Tyler Donovan, who was named to the First Team after spending the two previous seasons as an understudy to Matt Nealon. He never looked inexperienced, as he led the nation in both total assists and assists per set, while contributing kills and blocks as well.

“It starts with the first two years of being on the bench, right?,” Donovan said of his path to this point. “Learning from Matt Nealon. You know, you have a guy like that who is not only a great player and a great setter to learn from, but just an awesome person. Not only are the guys around me excellent volleyball players, that makes it really easy, but they’re also like the best people and the most supportive and energetic. Like any positive word you want to use to describe them, you know that that makes it really easy to come in not as a new face, but still as a new setter. The setter’s, usually the quarterback. So, you know, it’s a big change. But having the guys, those specific guys around me made it really easy.”

“Tyler did a phenomenal job of making sure that he was adapting to each of his hitters,” Exline said. “He was listening to the attackers and he wanted to get better every single day. Seeing his work ethic and meshing and jelling with the other setters and the other attackers has has really been at the forefront of why Tyler was the setter that he was this year for us.” 

The impact of seniors and a future without them

Seven seniors, who have all been pivotal to the growth and rise of the program, won’t return next year: Moser and Cardenas, along with Gabriel Aguado, Jake Miller, Parker NelsonBen Pluskota and Ben Williams. But they leave with no regrets, lots of happy memories, and a tremendous legacy. Meanwhile, Donovan and his fellow younger teammates are grateful for what the seniors have taught them and ready to continue the work of becoming a nationally established program.

“I’m just extremely thankful for the leadership that our senior class has had throughout their four year career and all the turmoil that they’ve been through,” said Exline. “And yeah, we wanted to win that match. But that class helped put North Central College men’s volleyball in that position. But they set a new standard for our juniors through freshman, so we’re super excited to see where the new era of North Central College men’s volleyball goes.” 

“We were all brothers, you know, we came in every day, just hung out as friends, as brothers, you know?,” said Cardenas. “So that’s easily what I’m gonna miss the most. I guess it would be nice. It would be nice to be able to play organized volleyball again. You know, I love the sport, but at the end of the day, it was really just the team that meant the most to me. And I think that’s a lot of the reason why with the success that we did.”

“It’s just the mentality and the just pure grit and getting after it that I hope I can carry on,” Moser said. “You know, getting extra reps, not a single day off, recovering your body, doing everything right down to the rep and just hoping for the best and just basically just playing as hard as you can every single point like it’s your last.”

“I’m excited,” said Donovan, one of the few returning starters. “I think we have a really good core of guys returning. I know most of the seniors or all of the seniors are gone. Most of them were playing, right? So I’m aware of that. But I’m also aware of how much talent we still have and how much talent we’re bringing in. And that in itself makes me have like a very high outlook for the season.”

“We do need to be proud of what we accomplished for this year,” said Exline. “We went 10-0 in conference. We won the conference tournament, we won our first ever NCAA regional match, and then we end up making an awesome run and throughout the entire tournament, especially the Final Four, we really wanted the guys to be loose but focused and relaxed and they were. It was a very fun run because the guys were enjoying every single moment of it.”