While there are no certainties in life, it is fair to say that coming off of the season and a half hiatus Towson was still likely to be the top team in the East Coast. After a few tournaments, including this previous weekend’s ‘Maryland Madness’ hosted by UMD, that remains the case. The rest of the East Coast has been anything but predictable, though.
It usually takes two or three tournaments to get an idea on how a season is going to shake out, at least regionally speaking. With three East Coast tournaments in the books (The Virginia Classic, Towson Invitational, Maryland Madness) we can now begin to break down what’s working, what’s not working, and where each East Coast team stands respective of the others.
The Dukes are a bit of an interesting case study at the moment. Historically, JMU has been able to run teams out of the gym thanks in part to being one of, if not, the most athletic teams in the league. While the talent is certainly still strong relative to the rest of the league, other teams have started to catch up which has cut into the Dukes’ dominance. While losses to Towson and Penn State are certainly not indictments of the team, we know JMU has aspirations to win Nationals and the East Coast. They will need to make sure they can put together a sound game plan for all 50 minutes against some of their higher caliber opponents to prove they can win it all.
Without being too critical, here’s the reality. JMU is still a very good team, as evidenced by their current #5 Gonzalez ranking. It is unlikely they will fall below that line based on what we’ve seen from most teams around the country thus far. I think it is extremely possible to see these guys in the title game. I think it is possible for them to hold the trophy up at the end of the year. In fact, their upcoming tournament at Ohio University will be the perfect indicator of how far this team can go. If they’re able to get two or even three wins out of their gauntlet of a schedule which features Ohio State, Grand Valley, and Cincinnati (11th, 2nd, and 4th in Gonzalez, respectively) I will lock them instantly for the Final Four. They have the highest ceiling in the East Coast in my opinion.
I said earlier that most of the East Coast has been unpredictable. Penn State characterizes that unpredictability. Expected to be an afterthought coming into the season, they have been anything but that. They have earned their #3 ranking with wins against all the East Coast foes they’ve played except Towson, of which they’ve lost 3-2 and 4-3 in back to back tournaments which is very respectable.
Where this team has shined thus far is in their ability to work together as one unit and the energy and passion they display on the court. That goes a long way. We’ve seen high enough level play at times to see that this team is really contenders and not pretenders. They should receive a lot of credit for what they’ve done thus far.
Here is where the but comes in. PSU has the athletes and enough dodgeball IQ to go all the way, but one thing that has concerned me thus far is putting themselves into holes in the first half. This past weekend, the Nittany Lions came out extremely strong against Towson for the first point, winning it decisively and relatively quickly. However, after that Towson was able to rattle off three straight to end the first half and take a 3-1 halftime lead. After that, Towson won the opening point of the second half to go up 4-1. Against JMU at the Towson Invitational, there was a similar scenario. They went down 2-0 at the end of the first half, but clawed their way back to a 3-2 victory over the Dukes which they were unable to do against Towson (albeit, bringing it to within one point).
But that right there is the difference. Towson is the best team in the East Coast and are on a different level from JMU. They were not going to let a lead slip to the point of costing them an entire match, it’s what high caliber teams are able to do. What I would like to see from PSU is that ability to both start and end strong throughout the game against teams like Towson and JMU. That’s the only thing that will prevent this team from winning both the East Coast and Nationals.
Towson is still the team to beat in the East. Thus far they have beat every opponent they’ve played against and I think it’s clear that the Final Four is the floor for the Tigers. While not as talented as their 2019 championship team, this team has great awareness and there are no weak links. Brothers Hunter and Jake Friedman have acted as great leaders on the court for Towson both in their play and energy they bring to the team. They know when to get on their teammates while also being able to fire them up when a great play is made, which is something you desire greatly in your more experienced members. Griffin Bass has also come into his own, proving to be a reliable asset at all times.
As I said, this is not the most talented team in Towson’s history. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing though. This team does not seem to have any big egos, which ultimately leads to a more consistent style of play top to bottom. No one is trying to do too much, and everyone understands their roles and what it takes to win. Coach Colin Sporer knows how to get the most out of his players.
The main piece of criticism I have from their tournament at UMD this past weekend is they need to take more advantage of mistakes made by their opponents. In their game against PSU, there were ample opportunities to catch balls that sailed which were either dropped or ignored. These are plays they made when they won the 2019 championship, and being able to replicate that will help them defend that title. Ultimately, this will likely come with time as their newer members hone their skills and gain more experience. Towson is still the top dog.
The Terps are roughly what I expected them to be heading into the year. They were going to be carried by some of their top players, but ultimately they would fall short due to a lack of talent throughout the entirety of the roster. There certainly have been some pleasant surprises. Bryce Bathras showed me she is legitimately in the Women’s MVP conversation, and Connor Engel has improved greatly since pre-covid which has added an extra element to this team. Additionally, Maryland has shown that they have good catchers down the lineup from many of their new players which is a very valuable skills to have and helps keep them in the game late into points.
It is evident though that the firepower isn’t really there for UMD. Outside of three or four players, there’s not many others they can call upon to guarantee a good hit. It will likely come in time as their new players grow, of which they had an abundance. This is a team in rebuild mode and I see some potential down the line, but for now they’re likely going to be stuck in the middle of the pack in the East.
I was told by a former Virginia dodgeball alum that this team is likely their most talented team to date. So far, I think that statement holds merit. Jake Korman looks like he’s in All-American form, and the rest of the team has seem to have caught up to the level some of their top players of the past have shown. Part of this is because they returned 8 players with tournament experience, which is certainly more than the average team in the NCDA. UVA has made less mistakes than previous teams thanks in part to this experience.
The downside for this team is that they’re very top heavy and are relying exclusively on those experienced members. It’s certainly not the worst idea when you have a lot of experienced members, however it puts them in a win at all costs now mentality and can stifle growth in some of the younger members.
This team is on the upswing which has been a welcome surprise for Cavs fans. I don’t think it’s realistic to see this team in the Final Four conversation, but in a season likely to be filled with parity they may be able to sneak in a top eight finish at Nationals if they continue on the path they’re on.
We knew that graduations as a result of the covid gap were going to cause issues for teams. On the East Coast, it seems to have hit VCU the hardest. There is not a lot of depth on this VCU team unfortunately and it becomes very apparent very quickly in games. The main strategy for teams at the Maryland Madness was to take out Ike Fleckenstein as early as possible and then let everything else work itself out. Ultimately, it was an effective strategy which resulted in VCU’s 0-3 weekend.
Matthias Hammond was a big bright spot on the team otherwise, and played some of the best dodgeball of his career this past weekend. Hunter Bishop added some support, but a team needs 12 good players on the court to be competitive and that just isn’t the case for this Rams team.
The good news they had a good number of players present, and if enough players are able to make a Sophomore leap like we typically see in the NCDA they can become more competitive in the future. However, this is likely a two year rebuild in progress for VCU.