By Peggy Hogan-Rao, Managing Editor
Starting in January 2018, St. John Fisher College will have a men’s volleyball team. The two coaches, Steve England and Kelly Greapentrog, are already well into the process of preparing for the upcoming season.
Good things are predicted to come for both men’s volleyball and women’s volleyball in the upcoming seasons, as the coaches and the players both agree that adding a men’s team will only help the women.
“I think if you look at women’s (volleyball) programs that have men’s volleyball programs, just around the country, those women’s programs are better,” said Greapentrog, the head coach.
The women are looking forward to playing with the guys.
“Well, it won’t hurt it. It will help it,” said junior Madison Karwas of the women’s team. Karwas is confident that this new team will help to make the women’s team a lot better. Greapentrog sees this as an opportunity for a more competitive environment for the women.
“I think that just having the guys that are on campus be around the women’s team a little bit has created a competitive environment that I haven’t seen before with the women’s program,” she insisted. “I think it’s been terrific for them.”
One of the reasons playing with the guys is a challenge for the women is because the men’s team plays on a higher net.
“You are playing on a different height of a net,” Karwas added. “You are playing on stronger players and with different players, and you’re used to your own team.”
Playing with men in open gym pick-up is a very different experience than just playing with women. Greapentrog notices the differences quite clearly in how the men play compared to the women: “The women’s game is more passing. Men’s is serving and blocking. Obviously the guys are my physical than the women so they can just do different things that make you think about the game differently when you’re playing against men.”
Karwas has also noticed differences in how the guys play during her open gyms.
“They are more of an offensive team, where women’s is more of a defensive team,” she pointed out.
Although by NCAA rules Greapentrog has not seen them play, the guys practice with the women. During off season, the Fisher women’s team had more open gyms than ever before.
In past years, Greapentrog has seen the women play once every few weeks during off season, but now it’s more like “one to three times a week.”
Greapentrog is very thankful that she does not have to be in two places at once when she is coaching two teams, as when a conflict arises, England will be with the men’s team and Greapentrog will be with the women’s team.
“The men have their season from January until April, and then the women’s non-traditional doesn’t start until spring break in March so the overlap is minimal,” she said.
It is also important to note that the Fisher tennis program has a similar situation that has worked successfully with Linda Gohagan as the head coach for both the men’s and women’s teams.
Nazareth College’s head men’s volleyball coach, Cal Wickens, was very happy when he heard the news that Fisher is adding a men’s volleyball team. “I have an invested interest in volleyball in this town, and I’m excited that Fisher is getting volleyball.”
Greapentrog has been planning this addition of a men’s volleyball team for a few years now, working with the administration to get the paperwork done. With her experience from coaching the women’s team, she thought it would be good to take on the role of head coach of the men’s team.
Some guys at Fisher may be very shocked to hear that a woman is coaching a men’s team, but that won’t change how Greapentrog looks at her athletes.
“I don’t treat my women’s team like they’re women; I treat them like they’re athletes,”Greapentrog said. I’ll treat the men’s volleyball players like they’re athletes.”
She knew that she couldn’t add a new team while also being the head coach of the women’s team, which is why England was added to the Fisher volleyball staff as an associate head coach.
Before coming to Fisher, England played and coached volleyball at Nazareth College while also coaching men’s volleyball at Elmira College. Greapentrog even explains how he brought Elmira College from its “infancy to a national ranking.”
After working with England for eight years, Wickens said “Steve is good, really good.”
Greapentrog sees his experience, and she knows that he will benefit both the men’s and women’s teams in his coaching.
“When we are in a match, Steve is at his best when he is making tactical and strategic decisions that can change the course of the match,” she said.
New conference and new players
Another very surprising fact about this new team is what conference the men’s volleyball team will be playing in. Instead of playing in the Empire 8 as the women do, the men will be participating in the United Volleyball Conference, as announced last semester.
England understands that this is different than the other teams at Fisher, but explains that it is because of the lack of men’s volleyball programs in the Empire 8.
“So we have to add teams like Vassar, MIT, Bard and NYU who are not affiliated with the Empire 8,” he said.
The men who are currently students at Fisher were recruited through an informational meeting at the beginning of the fall semester. From that informational meeting, Greapentrog was able to recruit five or six guys who all had “good high school experience.”
Tristan Rapp, a junior who will be on the men’s team, is excited to get some practice time in before he officially joins the new men’s volleyball team.
“The coaches talked to us about open gyms and playing some on our free time, so we decided to do that.”
Joe Kenney, one of the future men’s volleyball players at Fisher, is an experienced volleyball player. He has been playing intramurals during his time at Fisher, and he said he has played “since the ninth grade in high school so six or seven years.”
Junior Garrett Steiger is a future men’s volleyball player, and he has been to all the open gyms to get some practice time. He is looking forward to joining the new team.
“It is kind of neat and cool that we got to try out for a team like this,” he said.
With only six guys currently recruited for the team, England and Greapentrog are still in the process of creating their team for the 2018 season. England feels hopeful regarding the recruitment process. With one committed player from Penfield, the Cardinals are looking to extract players from all over and not just entirely from upstate.
“It’s really looking good so far,” he stated.
Expanding the outreach
England is excited about how this will broaden the geographic diversity of St. John Fisher. He explains how men’s volleyball can be seen as a new way for potential Fisher students to learn about the college.
“We have two recruits coming that are from Arizona and California so that we can broaden our outreach through men’s volleyball.”
Currently, there are two students on the Fisher Women’s Volleyball team who are from out of state – one is from San Francisco, California area and the other is from near Chicago, Illinois area.
Although England is focusing on recruiting from out-of-state, there is plenty of interest in men’s volleyball in the Rochester area. Nazareth College’s Wickens explains that “Fisher is on the hot spot of volleyball.”
There is not a large interest in men’s volleyball in the United States.
“There’s only eight states in the country that has high school boy’s volleyball, and New York State is one of them,” England explained.
Nazareth College, Keuka College, and now St. John Fisher may be the only regional colleges that have a men’s team for volleyball, but there is talent in the local Rochester area. Wickens goes on to say, “there’s a bunch of kids in the pipeline for nationals.”
Along with a low number of states with high school boy’s volleyball, there is a low number of men’s volleyball in the NCAA.
“There’s roughly 125 men’s volleyball programs in NCAA in all divisions. I think by next year there should be around 84 or 86 in D3,” England said.
With England and Greapentrog making progress in the recruitment stages, Greapentrog is excited to have an even bigger roster. She sees the growing number as a good thing.
“Fisher’s all about Family, and the girls on the team are their own little family. Now that’s going to double.”
Karwas and the other girls on the women’s team have already started to welcome the men into their family.
“We have more players that we get to have a little family with,” Karwas said.
Greapentrog has noticed that the women have a certain camaraderie with the men’s team, and she loves it. It makes her happy to see how the women are playing more.
“I think that the more you play, the more you get touches, the better you will become,” she continued.
Karwas explained how playing with the men is a challenge, but in a good way. “You are playing on stronger players and with different players, and you’re used to your own team.”
Greapentrog doesn’t know what to expect for the upcoming men’s volleyball season, as she has never created a team from its inception before. She doesn’t want to have too high of expectations.
“You’re always a little cautiously optimistic because you’re still a long ways away from the first serve, and you don’t know what it’s going to look like.”