Midterm Report Card: Grading the East Coast

We have reached a point in the season where we have started to get an idea of where teams stand and what they’re potentially capable of.  Sean Smith, former Towson University dodgeballer, and I have teamed up to give our takes and grades from what we’ve seen so far out of the East Coast.  For some teams, they will love their grades.  For some teams, they will hate them.  But at the end of the day, these are just some not-so-scientifically assigned grade based on early observations this season.  For the overachiever students out there it may be hard to accept the grade you get, but fear not, there will be more chances to bump your grade up later this season.

JMU

Sean Smith Grade: A-
Hunter Ford Grade: A

SS:

Roll Dukes. James Madison has easily been the class of the East Coast at the halfway point in the season. I haven’t even seen these guys play, except for snippets here and there on live streams, but it doesn’t take much to know that. Their only losses have come against Central Michigan and Grand Valley State, which is nothing to sneeze at, regardless of the score in the GVSU game. They even took out Saginaw Valley, which is something that no other East Coast team has on their resume throughout their whole history, let alone this year (someone may have to fact check me on Towson, I don’t recall if they played the Cardinals last year or not). In true JMU fashion, they’ve returned back to their mix of both cocky and confident as they’ve rolled through the EC.

Goal for the next semester: I believe it’s time for the Dukes to take their attention away from their East Coast foes and focus solely on the Michigan region. Even on Twitter.  Please keep in mind this is 100% opinionated, and may or may not align with anything that JMU or the other teams I write about have talked about. That being said, I have no doubt that it’s fun to troll Towson’s team account at every given opportunity, but they haven’t shown that they deserve even an internet rivalry yet. The Dukes played CMU close, and could probably hang with GVSU much better than they showed if the circumstances were different (full lineup, not the last game of the day, etc.). I love messing with the guys from JMU when I’m bored because they always give as good as they get, but if they’re going to win the title this year, their focus should be entirely on Michigan moving forward.

HF:

The Dukes of James Madison have had their way with most teams this season.  At 7-2, and the #3 ranking based on Gonzalez standings, they have proven to be an elite team this season.  This team wins with sheer talent that is arguably better than any other team in the league.  Gunners like Doug Schilling and Evan Eschenburg have provided a strong case for becoming potential East Coast players of the year.  On top of that, they took my challenge of expanding their dodgeball resume and traveling to more schools which will only help them in the long run.

There isn’t much reason to think anyone else will challenge them for the East Coast title at the moment.  Like I said, this team can win on sheer talent against most opponents, but they’ve gotten smarter this season in many ways when it comes to their gameplay.  They could be the first non-Michigan school to win the NCDA National Championship since Ohio State as long as they continue to challenge themselves and fix up any kinks before then.

Towson

SS Grade: D+
HF Grade: B+

SS:

Random fact, Towson gives out D+ as grades. Why? I do not know. You still don’t pass the class, so I guess it’s just a way to add extra salt to the wound. I digress. The Tigers get such a low grade for the semester because, as an old mentor once taught me, you don’t get rewarded for doing the things you’re supposed to do. Towson has beaten every team in it’s path that on the East Coast that they’re supposed to. It’s been established that VCU, UMD and SU are still working their way to the Tigers level, so when they beat them, what’s so great about that? What’s worse is they lost to a team that they should beat in BGSU. Bowling Green has never beaten Towson in any past matchup, and unless their talent level is much better than what I’ve read or seen, Towson should still take that matchup each time. Yes, I know BGSU played CMU very close, but Towson was billed as having the talent to matchup with teams like the Chips this season, so I don’t see any reason why they should have lost to the Falcons. Am I being too harsh? Probably, but I’m sure everyone who wants to hit me in the face right now will take the chance to whenever I can actually stop by a practice next semester.

Goal for next semester: Get a system in place and get over the JMU hurdle. When Towson plays teams of lesser ability I see them overwhelm those teams on sheer talent alone. While that’s nice, it doesn’t win you a championship. Grand Valley has won five straight because they have talent, a system, and a dedication to impose their will on anyone who steps on the court with them. CMU seems to be the same way this season as they’re currently top dogs (top chips?) in the league. Towson needs to take their talent, and come up with a true system to go along with the talent they have if they really want to reach their full potential. The other part to this is, who is the real leader of the team? Michael Hinely is the captain, it seems nobody is questioning that. As much as I love Mike, he can sometimes slip into being just a player, and forget about being the type of leader who also sets the tone for his team vocally. From what I’ve seen, most of the strategy comes from David Guare, who has an excellent view of the court and seems to know where everyone should be located, as well as Colin Sporer. This is not an issue if everyone on the team can create that system that I’m talking about to help boost them to the next level.

Finally, consistently throwing single throws when the team has 7+ balls on their side isn’t going to cut it against the top tier, plain and simple.

HF:

I’m gonna cheat here and give my co-author some counter points.  I agree that people and teams should not receive super special merits for doing the things they’re supposed to do, however that shouldn’t penalize them either.  It’s not their fault (sorta) they’re better than their East Coast counterparts other than JMU.  A mark of a good team is beating who they’re favored to beat, and they have done that without many close games, minus their match against Stevenson at UMD.  Additionally, I think it’s pretty harsh to say losing to the current #4 team in the country in BGSU is bad, especially playing on their home court.  I do agree that this team has some things to work on, but so does every team, and I think matchups matter a lot when considering how games play out.

For my personal grade, I give these guys a B+ for a couple reasons.  As said before, they’ve beaten the teams they’re supposed to beat.  They are 14-3 and currently riding a 7 game win streak.  Additionally, their only loses are to the #3 and #4 teams in the country.  It’s a resume many teams would be envious of.  Additionally, their talent I think is a lot more apparent now than it has been in the past.  Tyler Schmitz has impressed me a lot.  His throwing power and accuracy has gotten vastly better since his freshman year and adds an extra element to the Tigers offense.  Guys like Jonathan Soward and Andrew Kerr also tend to fly under the radar, but they contribute a lot to this team.  I was told to keep this guy a secret for one reason or another but I can’t let it sit anymore.  Jordan Watt is a stud.  The kid might have the strongest arm on this team with both hands, yes you read that right.

I believe if Towson wants to move into the realm of top 5 teams and make it to the Final Four this season, they just need to play with the same confidence against teams like JMU as they do against the Maryland’s and VCU’s.

PSU

SS Grade: B+
HF Grade: B

SS:

I can safely admit I know next to, if not, absolutely nothing about Penn State this season. They got a break from having to travel for tournaments, and a chance to see what things can be like on their own turf. I loved hearing that the Nittany Lions were able to put this together, and can only hope this can continue. I wanted to put their grade at incomplete, since I don’t really know them, but I feel like hosting for the first time ever is worth at least a B+.

Goal for next semester: Get out more. Travelling has been tough for PSU, especially during football season. I understand that the team is good again, and that Penn State loves its football. However, maybe the team can start looking to commit to more tournaments when football has a road game that weekend, or if they’re on a bye week. I’ll make this point again later on, but getting out to more tournaments is a good thing for a team, especially one that only has six matches played so far. If I could get in touch with them, I would beg the team to either find a way to host again, or get out more. I can’t imagine that every trip will end with multiple run-ins with deer…

HF:

I knew the Nittany Lions had good potential considering they only lost two players from last season.  Thus far, they have pretty much done what I’ve expected.  Got wins against some teams they were favored to beat, snagged a comeback OT win against East Coast rivals VCU, but ultimately fell to top caliber teams.  As with Towson, this isn’t detrimental, but I feel like this team has more to offer.

Seniors Jeff Schwartz and Morgan McLean have played well thus far, and Jake Saam once again has made some of the best catches this season.  Jake Nasiadka and Nate Stanton have also picked up their game and have proven they can be important to this squad.  Going forward, as Sean said, it’s just a matter of getting more experience and comfortable playing with each other.

VCU

SS Grade: C+
HF Grade: D

SS:

I gave the Rams more leniency with their grade because they were missing one of, if not, their most important player for the majority of the season. However, despite missing Hunter Ford, what have the Rams done to make progress on the East Coast? They haven’t given the top two teams, JMU and Towson, a real scare once this season. Travelling a lot and playing more teams is great, but they’re in the same boat as Towson is right now. They beat all the teams they’re “supposed” to beat, and they lose to all the teams they’re “supposed” to lose to. At this point, VCU is more like J.A.T, just another team.

Goal for next semester: BEAT SOMEBODY!! I don’t care who it will be, or when, but if VCU wants to keep making the strides it has been, they have to knock somebody off. Kentucky, Towson, Kent, BGSU, or even UWP on the off chance they can ever make the same tournament, are all teams that the Rams should hone in on as their targets. I’m not saying they can beat these teams, because I have no evidence to suggest such. That’s what the goal should be though. Until they can pull that off, Hunter is going to keep owing a lot of people money.

HF:

Fun fact, VCU doesn’t do pluses or minuses for grades.  Second fun fact, this team was 11-7 by this point last season, right now they are 5-6.  One of the things that brought this team into discussion last year was Sean’s point, pulling off the upset wins.  Last year, it seemed like every tournament they made a surprise, whether it was beating teams like Kent State or Kentucky, or even pushing then #3 MSU into OT.  This year they haven’t had any signature wins.  Part of this is still dealing with injuries from last year, but the more important issue has been not getting a full commitment like last season.  Last year, there was only one tournament all year where the Rams were unable to bring a full roster.  This year, they’ve only brought a full roster to one tournament, even with the smaller roster limits.  This was especially harmful for them when they traveled to Akron for the Pink Out tournament and ran out of steam from a long tournament.

There have been some bright spots on this team thus far.  Three freshman, Garrett Couell, Karthik Sathiyaseelar, and Ike Fleckenstein have all seen significant time on the court because of the reason above, and each of their skills have improved immensely because of it.  Assistant Captains Wayne Shortt and Sam Lammie have also proven to be effective during their games.  However, there have been some individual players who have struggled so far this year that were important for the team’s success last season.  Once again, part of that will be getting over injuries, next semester myself and RJ Morgan will be healthy enough to throw again, and Kelvonte Nesmith will be close to fully recovered from his ACL tear.  Once this team is able to click on all cylinders we will see them emerge to be worth the anticipated hype, but until then, they are unworthy for anything worth merit.

UMD

SS Grade: B-
HF Grade: C-

SS:

So here’s what people should know about the Terps so far this season: they actually have talent. No, not over the top crazy good talent, but they’ve got players. I’d actually be willing to say this is the most talent that Maryland has brought to the table as a collective unit than ever before. The problem for Maryland is two-fold. Which talented player(s) is/are the guys who can bring the team up a few notches and start challenging for 4rd or 5th place on the East Coast again? Oh yeah, since Stevenson won the last matchup, I’m moving them up above UMD now until I see otherwise. The second part of the problem is the leadership. Yes they have experience at the top, but I’m not sure the guidance has generated enough progress out of the younger players just yet. I gave the Terps a B- because I think they’re on their way to being a median level team in the NCDA again, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Goal for next semester: More tournaments. What can be considered a knock against VCU (a lot of tournaments, not a lot of overwhelming results), can actually be a great benefit for the Terrapins. They need to get out of College Park more, and play a bigger variety of teams. VCU got to the point they were partially from recruiting, but also from match experience. If Maryland wants to take their place in the East Coast back, they need to start seeing more action, A LOT more. The next step in my opinion is figuring out a good system to maximize their available talent. Again, their talent is overwhelming just yet, but some players may be late bloomers, and the more games they see and the better the system is, the better the chances are of the team improving as a whole. One thing that will help is if they don’t skip out on tournaments if the basketball team has a game that day. Mark Turgeon is not a good coach, the team won’t be worth skipping tournaments over, just saying.

HF:

UMD has had a tough go at things for the most part this semester.  With a 1-8 record thus far it’s hard to build up some momentum.  However, in their last tournament they were able to pick up a win against East Coast rival UVA, it’s a start.  This team seems to be very young with some faces that haven’t been around in year’s past.  The ringleaders for the team from what I’ve seen are Vinnie DeMaio, Carl Boettner, and Blake Bender.  Dylan Solden and Shawn Sullivan have also shown to be competent players, with Sullivan potentially being the most fun player to watch in the entire league.

This team does still have some potential, but it needs to show up more often.  Perhaps a chance to play some non-East Coast teams could do the trick.  A chance to play against some new competition can only help this team, and give them a chance to be exposed to new styles which will help them prepare for Nationals.

UVA

SS Grade: B-
HF Grade: C

SS:

I struggle with the Cavaliers. I’ve watched them play on live streams and got the chance to watch them in person recently. The reason I struggle is because I have yet to figure out what exactly the team is good at. That’s not to say Virginia is bad, I just don’t see one aspect that stands out above the rest. Their talent is decent, court IQ could use some work, playmaking ability is ok. From what I saw, Virginia is at their best when the game gets ugly. By that I mean the pace picks up, systems break down, and guys start making plays that they normally wouldn’t. This states two things to me, the team is excellent at freestyling, but does not know how to coordinate a full game plan yet. Ball control is a real struggle for them, and as one might imagine going along with that, so is communication. I see potential with the Wahoos, but they need to take a look at themselves and see how they can maximize their abilities and learn how to play situational dodgeball.

Goals for next semester: Work on team communication and in-game intelligence. Virginia is an excellent academic institution, but currently their dodgeball team needs to hit the on court books. Marty Knauf and his boys need to be able to see the whole court and know what’s going on at all times. Not only that, but be able to plan and execute how they react to certain scenarios on the court at practice, so they can implement them in the game. Finally, the team needs to take a collective big breath, let it out slow, and relax while playing. Fast paced dodgeball is fun, but they need to balance their pace of play properly so they can start figuring out how to knock off some of the better teams in their region.

HF:

I had some very high expectations for the Cavs this season.  The start of the year certainly made me believe this team was making steps in the right direction.  UVA picked up a big win against UMD to start the year with a 4-1 victory, and then that same day they made a last second victory over Stevenson to win 3-2.  Fast forward 2 months and the 2-1 Cavaliers are now 2-7.  A big part of why I believe this happened was a long hiatus in between games.  After their first tournament, it was almost exactly a whole month before they played in their next tournament.  Additionally, they didn’t benefit from the fact that they were missing two big leaders in Jeremy Shaw and Marty Knauf.  It’s hard for any young team to succeed without proper leadership, and especially for a team like UVA which has only been around for a couple years.

Watching this team play, I genuinely think they’re much better than their ranking and record might indicate.  They just need to find a formula for them to win on a more consistent basis.  At their home event, every time they got ball control they were able to take advantage of it.  When they didn’t everything went sour.  Even without overwhelming talent, this team is fairly solid all around without any weak links.  I still have high expectations for them, but right now, I need to give them the lowest grade any of them have probably received in their lives.

Stevenson

SS Grade: A
HF Grade: B+

SS:

Why is Stevenson getting my highest grade you ask? Ok you probably didn’t ask, but I’ll act as if someone did. The reason is because I don’t think anyone expected much of anything out of the Mustangs this season. From what I had heard there was actually a risk that the team would struggle just to stay together. Playing at Stevenson is tough, some guys are trying to balance playing other sports on a full-time basis along with committing to the club team. For example, at the last tournament Towson hosted, CJ Kilpatrick, once of Stevenson’s most important players, had to leave for part of the tournament for a baseball commitment, then return back to Towson to keep playing. Also, the team is currently forced to use a racquetball court as its practice space due to facility constraints. With all of that working against them, the team made it’s biggest jump forward in program history by picking up its first wins ever! This is a huge accomplishment for most teams in the league, especially when playing against well established programs such as a Towson, JMU, VCU or UMD. I’m hopeful that this trend continues and that the state of Maryland will gain a third contender for top dog in the Old Line State.

Goal for next semester: Gain more production from the bottom of the roster. I believe that reducing roster sizes to 12 starters has truly benefitted this squad. Now, for the first time, I can comfortably say the Mustangs have a roster full of competent players with solid talent. In tournaments past, it seemed like some people were there mostly to help fill roster holes more than anything else. If Stevenson can develop their bottom level talent to a couple levels above where they are now, and possibly find a way to practice on a full-sized court some more, this team could make some real noise in the East. Not to the point where I see them knocking off JMU, because that’s a long way off for everyone on the East right now, but I know that Kris DeJesus and the rest of his guys have their sites set on VCU or maybe even PSU if they’re at the same tournament, and I think it’s plausible to say that Stevenson could give them a run for their money at some point this year. I really hope they do too, because a team that can see how close they are to jumping another tier, the better their chances are at player retention and long-term sustainability in my eyes.

HF:

This team is moving in a direction and pace I was not expecting.  I knew they were returning some good pieces to this team like Kris DeJesus and CJ Kilpatrick, but some other veterans have stepped up in big ways.  Assistant Captain Kyle Rudman has turned into a sneaky southpaw who’s arm strength has developed enough to become a legitimate offensive threat.  Mario Romanelli also might be the most elite catcher on the East Coast and potentially in the entire NCDA.  The Mustangs’ top players are legit.  They could compete in overtime formats with almost any team in the league.  They still have to see some improvement from the lower skilled players on the team, but overall they’re heading the right way.

The only reason I don’t have these guys as an “A” yet is because there are some little things they can work on which potentially cost them three wins this season.  Late game situations seem to still be an issue for these guys.  In their first tournament of the season, they had a legitimate chance to beat both UVA and Towson, but let both games slip away late.  Against VCU last weekend, they were able to come back from being down 3-0 to make it 3-2, but ran out of steam and ultimately fell 4-2.  The “B+” is more of a yes you’ve shown me great things, but I think you still have more in you.  Let’s keep our eyes out for these guys in the Spring semester.

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