When the men’s volleyball team begins its 2013 season on Tuesday, Princeton will have an unfamiliar asset on its side: experience. After three seasons with at least three freshmen in the starting lineup, this year’s Tigers will rely on several upperclassmen, along with Cody Kessel ’15 and Tony Ensbury ’15 — two star sophomores who earned valuable playing time with national teams this summer.
Ensbury started at libero for Princeton as a rookie and leveraged that experience into a spot on the U.S. Junior National Team in August, beating out candidates from more prominent West Coast schools during a month-long training camp. With Ensbury digging up attacks, the U.S. team won the North and Central American junior tournament, its second title in eight biannual competitions dating back to 1998.
“It was a lot different than college … it’s high-level and intense, because you’re representing the U.S.,” Ensbury said. “You’re facing people from other countries, rather than friends who played at different schools.”
Kessel also got his first taste of international competition this offseason in the Asian Pacific Cup in Japan. The sophomore got to play alongside some professionals on the second-place U.S. team, which included Princeton coach Sam Shweisky as an assistant. “It was good to learn from their experience, the way they approached the game differently than a lot of college players and the tone they bring to the practices,” Kessel said.
A high-flyer with volleyball bloodlines, Kessel was named the EIVA Newcomer of the Year in 2012, leading the league with 4.0 kills per set en route to first-team all-conference honors. This year, he’ll be flanked by outside hitter Pat Schwagler ’14, the EIVA’s top rookie in 2010, who returns from a year off to bolster what could be one of the league’s strongest offensive attacks.
Princeton’s one area of inexperience is at setter, where the graduation of Scott Liljestrom ’12 leaves a hole in the starting lineup. Davis Waddell ’14, who backed up Liljestrom last year while also playing outside, is expected to take his place; Jeff Stapleton ’14 will also get chances. Both setters will have plenty of targets in Kessel, Stapleton, and middle blocker Michael Dye ’13, the league’s hitting-percentage leader last year.
Due to their exam schedule, the Tigers are the last NCAA team to start play; the long wait finally ends on Tuesday, when they face No. 10 UC Santa Barbara before playing No. 12 UC San Diego. (Their California trip is already off to an interesting start, as Kessel tweeted yesterday: “Just ran into Adam Sandler before our alumni game. He asked us what we were doing. We said volleyball. He said right on.”)
Those ranked foes will be a nice measuring stick for Princeton, but the real test will be the brunt of the EIVA schedule, which begins with a trip to George Mason on Feb. 8. The Tigers proved they could play with some of the nation’s best teams last season, winning at UCSD and coming within one point of ending Penn State’s 44-match conference win streak, but they also lost some matches they shouldn’t have and needed two late victories to sneak into the playoffs.
The No. 6 Nittany Lions, winners of 14 straight EIVA titles, could be vulnerable this season — George Mason and Princeton each received a first-place vote in the league’s preseason poll, and Harvard pushed Penn State to five sets recently — but any potential challenger will need to take care of business against everyone else in a competitive league. For the Tigers, the key may lie in their newfound experience. “I remember last year, going into these bigger matches was just nerve-racking, because we’d never really played at that high a level against that good a team,” Ensbury said. “Now, hopefully it’ll be more like second nature.”
MEN’S BASKETBALL routed The College of New Jersey in a tune-up game on Sunday afternoon; from here on out, it’ll be a six-week, 13-game sprint through the rest of the Ivy League season, starting with home games against Cornell and Columbia this weekend. The Tigers nearly caught a break when Dartmouth took a 10-point lead at Harvard with 94 seconds left on Saturday — but the Crimson came back to tie the game and win in overtime. (How shocking would a Dartmouth victory have been? The Big Green hasn’t won a road game in Ivy play since 2008-09.)
MEN’S HOCKEY beat Sacred Heart 5-2 on Sunday; the Tigers will return to ECAC competition at Yale and Brown this weekend. With two weeks for opponents around the league to catch up in games played, Princeton fell from second to fifth in the ECAC points standings, but it still has a shot at a top-four seed and a first-round bye in the conference tournament — and a good showing against the second-place Bulldogs would help.
WOMEN’S SOCCER star Jen Hoy ’13, the 2012 Ivy League Player of the Year, was selected by the Chicago Red Stars in the fourth round of the new National Women’s Soccer League’s first-ever college draft Jan. 18. Four days later, MEN’S SOCCER defender Mark Linnville ’13, a four-time first-team All-Ivy selection, was picked in the MLS Supplemental Draft by the Philadelphia Union, where he will be reunited with Antoine Hoppenot ’12.
FOOTBALL defensive end Mike Catapano ’13 played in the East-West Shrine Game Jan. 19, and while he didn’t particularly stand out during the game — knocking down one pass without a tackle — what he did in the preceding week may have been much more important. In front of dozens of pro scouts, Catapano reportedly exceled in drills and competitions; some said he could be a potential “third-round pick” in April’s NFL Draft. That seems very optimistic, but the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year has a real shot to become the first Tiger drafted since center Dennis Norman ’01 (seventh round, Seattle).
Kevin Whitaker ’13 is an economics major and Daily Princetonian sports editor.