By Daniel Fernald
The East region has a brand new look this season. For the first time ever, Penn State is the top dog entering the year. It is surely championship or bust for the NCDA’s preseason #3 ranked team. Right behind them is the usual East region favorite in JMU, and a UMD squad looking to break into the group of title contenders for the first time. UVA rounds out the East working to make a name for themselves in one of the league’s most competitive regions.
Penn State University
Penn State is one of the few top teams from last season that did not lose a large bulk of their production to graduation. Even with a disappointing round-of-16 exit to Ohio University at Nationals, it was truly a breakout year for the program. For a team that is often considered middle of the pack, spending nearly the whole season in the top 10 and getting signature wins over blue bloods like GVSU and JMU as well as an instant classic in their 4-3 comeback win vs. Ohio State put the Nittany Lions on the map and they look to only come back stronger. It feels weird to say championship or bust for a program that has never made a final four, but it looks like those are the expectations at the moment.
Key Contributors and Departures
While they did lose some key contributors in Zack Eck, Noah Grube, and Nick “Shaggy Norman,” the Nittany Lions still return most of their starters. This talented team is led by National Player of the Year contender and 2022 NCDA 2nd team All American Hunter Stewart. Despite all the recognition last season, many of the players in this group are still flying under the radar. Ian Robb and Alfredo Jimenez are both tough competitors who really came into their own in 2022. Evan Hetrick and Jakob Leonard are looking to make a second-season leap following strong rookie campaigns. Captain Cloud Tapia-Manon always speaks on how slept on this group is outside of Hunter. The supporting cast will need to step up into some big roles if PSU will fulfill their ambitions.
“Looking ahead to the upcoming season, I’m excited about what Penn State University has in store. We’ve got a competitive group with several returning players, and we are fortunate to have access to a vast talent pool to build our roster. Our key to success lies in refining our strategy for greater consistency compared to the previous season. I believe Penn State will be a formidable force next year.” – Cloud Tapia-Manon, PSU Captain
James Madison University
The Dukes are a team that rarely finds themselves ranked second on the East Coast. While they may have had a large senior class last season, JMU is far from a pushover and fully expect to take back their top spot from PSU. Coming off two consecutive final-four losses to Michigan State, the expectations are once again title or bust. While this JMU team may take a little longer to round into form than usual given the departures last season, expect the Dukes to play with a bit of a chip on their shoulder as they feel slept on by preseason expectations.
Key Contributors and Departures
JMU may have lost more key contributors than any team in the country. Most notably Evan Eschenburg, who is one of the most decorated players in NCDA history. With the loss of first team All American, James Turner, as well as third team All American and captain, Nick Spear, there are definitely some big shoes to fill. Thankfully for the Dukes, 2nd team All-American Trent Shaffer as well as all rookie team members Noah Conyers and Nick Foss are looking to do just that. Be on the lookout for Joel Froyen and Ryan Pendleton to be huge for them as well. New captain Eli Villarreal will surely have the team ready to maintain their status as an NCDA blue blood coming into their first tournament this weekend at Maryland Madness vs. UMD and UVA.
“JMU hopes to continue our recent history of success going into this year. We have really high hopes for our team and think we have what it takes to win our school’s first title.” – Eli Villarreal, JMU Captain
University of Maryland
The Terps showed a lot of promise at times last year but lacked that signature, program-changing win. Maryland was very often a team of almosts with close losses to top teams such as Penn State, JMU, and Cincinnati. With relatively little exposure to teams outside the East and a disappointing nationals performance, the Terps are looking for a big year with a veteran-heavy group. They only lose 2 of 12 starters from last season and return the top 3-4 players. With Adam Butz looking to build on his sophomore All-American season and senior Zach Demos recovering from his ACL injury at 2023 Nationals, this team looks like a force to be reckoned with come the end of the season as they hope to at least challenge for a final four spot.
Key Contributors and Departures
The biggest loss from last season is left corner, Max Pagella. Being replaced by the strong-armed Adam Rodriguez to complement Adam Butz on the other corner as well as Franklin Zessis and Caleb Dixon out of the middle, there is a ton of returning talent. Connor Engel will be anchoring the team out of the middle until his December graduation with a focus on developing a raw, but talented, rookie class to fill the void he’ll leave for the Spring semester and nationals.
“UMD is entering this season with a vengeance. Captains Butz, Engel, Walls, and Duchak lead a strong rookie class and a stacked veteran roster. Dixon, Zessis, and Rodriguez look to jump into the spotlight as the league learns to fear them. Watch out NCDA, the Dirty Terps aren’t going down without a fight!!” – Connor Engel, UMD Captain
University of Virginia
UVA experienced a program resurgence last season. After playing only one tournament in the 2021/22 season, they attended their first Nationals since 2018. The Cavaliers turned some heads by picking up some key wins on Nationals Saturday after a somewhat rough season facing exclusively East Coast competition. This program could really take the next step and challenge the next tier of NCDA teams. They showed last season that they could beat many of the lower-ranked programs, but struggled to get any wins vs. teams near the top 10. However, a strong recruiting class and better strategy could put them into the top 10 for the first time ever.
Key Contributors and Departures
Despite losing key contributors in captain Cole Faggert as well as pre-Covid veterans Ben Kelly and Nick Wells, there is a lot of potential in this group. New captain Wyndham White IV looks primed to lead this young group after learning a lot in what was effectively his first NCDA season. Second-year players LJ Jones and Arden Levin look to make big jumps and provide this squad with some much-needed star power. Although not much is known about this group, be on the lookout for some big-time progression and recruits to come out swinging.
“We have carried the momentum of a strong performance at nationals into this season, growing the club greatly and fielding the first full 18-man roster for UVA since pre-COVID. After redesigning our playing style in the offseason, we hope to surprise some teams this season and break into the top 10 nationally.” – Wyndham White IV, UVA Captain
Stony Brook is an established club in Long Island, New York. They look to make their first appearance at an NCDA event this year as they transition to pinch dodgeball!
East Region Superlatives
Most underrated player: Ian Robb (PSU)
Ian is a player that has been flying under the radar for a bit now. He plays a somewhat chaotic game (as much of PSU does) and thrives off of it. While not being the most imposing player on the court, he makes highlight plays that often get overshadowed by some of the stars of this group. Look out for him to step more into a leadership role this season and begin to push the pace for the Nittany Lions.
Program on the rise: UMD
The 2023/24 season is one that is two years in the making for the Terps. Coming into the 2021/22 season with only 4 players in the club, this was always the season marked as when all the hard work these players put in would come to fruition. With nearly the whole starting 12 being juniors or seniors, this is the season for UMD to make a run. Led by 2023 All-American, Adam Butz, UMD is hungry to potentially make this program’s first final four, and the whole league fear the turtle.
Biggest Unknown: JMU
It is very rare to see JMU anywhere but the top of the East Coast region, but they come in as a huge question mark. Traditionally, the Dukes just reload on talent. However, they have never experienced quite the graduating class as last year. It will truly take something special from Trent Shaffer and Co. to make a run back to the final four. Until we start seeing some of these rookies and development from supporting players, we cannot really predict at all what this group will be.
Coach of the Year: Daniel Fernald, UMD
While he may be the only established coach in the region, Daniel will look to lead the Terps again this season with help from veterans Zach Fernald and Michael Cho as assistants. He was the captain at the start of the 2021/22 season and recruited many of the players leading this roster right now and surely will do his best to not let his long-term vision from two years ago not come to fruition with this veteran-laden group.
Preseason Power Rankings:
- Penn State
- James Madison
- Stony Brook
- Hunter Stewart (PSU)
- Trent Shaffer (JMU)
- Adam Butz (UMD)
- Noah Conyers (JMU)
- Cloud Tapia-Manon (PSU)
- Wyndham White IV (UVA)