SHU's Jeff Hardman (left) and John Kahoohanohano (right) throw up a block against Michigan State University in the Jan. 23 home debut for the Saints' men's volleyball team.
As the assistant coach in the women’s volleyball program, Mike Watkins first introduced the idea of a men’s volleyball team at Siena Heights University. When the university approved men’s volleyball as a club sport last year, Watkins now has a chance to see his idea come to fruition as the head coach of the first-year program.
Since no other school in the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference has a men’s team, Siena has filled its schedule with NCAA Division I club teams such as Ohio State, Michigan State and the University of Michigan. The Saints have held their own so far this season, starting off the year with a 3-2 record, including a victory over Michigan State Jan. 23 in their home debut.
Before a curious home crowd in the SHU Fieldhouse, the Saints defeated MSU the first two games 25-20 and 25-11. The Spartans won the third game before Siena came out swinging in the fourth game to seal the match with a 25-20 victory. With performances like that, Watkins believes Siena will serve as an example for other schools in the area.
“I think that some of the colleges in the WHAC are watching to see how this works and are interested in starting programs in the near future,” he said.
Freshman outside hitter Matt Mitterholzer (Berea, Ohio) is excited to show the Siena community, as well as the state of Michigan, what men’s volleyball is all about.
“It’s very different (from women’s),” he said.
Freshman defensive specialist/setter Tim O’Brien (Beavercreek, Ohio) said he thinks this initial season is the most important if they hope to build a successful program. Watkins concurs.
“The goals for this year are simply to improve and build the foundation for the future,” Watkins says. “We (want) to prove that (having a men’s team) can be done.”
O’Brien and Mitterholzer said their goals are even higher – a winning season. Teammate Juan Sierra, however, shakes his head and smiles when asked what his goals are for the team.
“I want to win all games,” he said.
Sierra, the team’s captain and an international recruit from Bogotá, Colombia, said he has another personal goal in mind this year: learning to speak better English. The outside hitter and setter originally came to the United States on what he found out later was a bogus scholarship offer. He had no way to attend college in America until Watkins helped recruit him to Siena Heights.
While the language barrier may at times be a challenge in the classroom and around campus, Sierra said it is not a problem once he steps on the volleyball court.
“I don’t need language to play volleyball,” he said. “Volleyball is my language.”
With only four of his 10 players hailing from Michigan, Watkins has concentrated his recruiting efforts in Ohio, which has a deeper men’s volleyball talent pool. He also attracted a player from Hawaii – 6-foot-1 sophomore John Kahoohanohano – who is from Maui. The Saints have seven freshmen and only one senior on the roster.
Watkins said once his program becomes an intercollegiate sport – hopefully as early as next year – his expectations are ambitious.
“My (goal is) to compete for national championships in the NAIA,” Watkins said.
The Saints compete at the University of Michigan Invitational Jan. 31, and host Eastern Michigan University Feb. 8. The men’s volleyball season continues through late March.
- By Ashley Brainerd
SHU Student Writer