With Trio of Senior Stalwarts Leading the Way PU Men’s Volleyball Gets 1st NCAA Tourney Win
SENIOR MOMENT: Princeton University men’s volleyball senior players, from left, Kendall Ratter, Curry Short, and Billy Andrew enjoy the moment as the program held its Senior Day celebration before topping Penn State 3-0 on April 13. Last Thursday, the trio helped Princeton make history as it topped Barton 3-1 in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, earning the program’s first-ever win in the national tourney. The No. 13 Tigers, now 18-12 overall, were slated to play at No. 3 Pepperdine (22-6) in a quarterfinal contest slated for April 30 in Long Beach, Calif. (Photo provided Princeton’s Office of Athletic Communications)
By Justin Feil
Billy Andrew, Kendall Ratter, and Corry Short were barely out of diapers the last time the Princeton University men’s volleyball team won the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (EIVA) championship.
Now the trio are seniors for a Tigers team that claimed not only its first EIVA title since 1998 with a 3-2 win over Penn State at Dillon Gym on April 20, but one week later picked up the first NCAA tournament win in program history, 3-1 over Barton last Thursday.
“It’s been incredible,” said Short, a 6’4 native of Lighthouse Point, Fla., who shared team-high honors with Joe Kelly, getting six digs against Barton as the Tigers prevailed 25-23, 25-21, 18-25, 25-20 and improved to 18-12 overall.
“What a way to end our Princeton volleyball careers. Even taking it further, before the playoffs even started, solidifying our hosting of the EIVA tournament was something really special in and of itself. No other Princeton team has done that. As we moved forward into the playoffs, playing in Dillon Gym was really special. I think it meant a lot to all us seniors, but it also meant a lot to the whole team. It’s an incredible journey from that point to playing Barton and beating them and having the opportunity to go play in Long Beach this week.”
Princeton, now ranked 13th in the latest AVCA Coaches’ Poll, was scheduled to meet No. 3 Pepperdine (22-6) on April 30 in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals. The Tigers lost to Pepperdine, 3-1, in their season opener on December 30 but earned a second chance at the West Coast power – the same team that the 1998 Princeton team lost to in the NCAA tournament 21 years ago.
“We’ve matured as a team tremendously, mentally and physically,” said the 6’4 Ratter, who hails from Encinitas, Calif. “We’re a completely different beast. We had a lot of freshmen playing in that first game too and we still took a set off them. Not that the freshmen aren’t solid players, but having more experienced leadership on the court definitely makes a difference.”
The trio of seniors has helped to lead a Princeton team that also boasts a highly acclaimed junior class that features EIVA Player of the Year George Huhmann and Parker Dixon. The senior class is a mix of talents and backgrounds. Ratter and Andrew took last year off from school before returning to the team this year and joining the Class of 2019 that had whittled down to Short after starting with four players as freshmen.
“When we were going through it, at least for me, it was a really hard time,” said Andrew, a 6’6 native of Phoenix, Ariz. “Having to take some time off from all my friends and teammates and to just not basically play for nine months, was tough. It’s one of those things that you can’t help but think things happen for a reason. If that hadn’t happened, then we wouldn’t have been a part of this incredible run. As hard as it was at the time, it made it so much sweeter right now.”
The seniors have been a part of a turnaround in the program as Princeton has rebuilt itself after graduation losses followed a strong 2015 season. It’s been a slow build-up and this year the Tigers have broken through in a big way.
“My freshman year, we had lost a pretty core group of seniors that had graduated — Cody Kessel, Will Siroky, Tony Ensbury — that kind of drove the team to take it to another level during their time here,” said Short.
“When they left, they left a vacuum that gave other guys an opportunity to step up and take the program into their hands. Guys like Junior Oboh and Mike Fuerst were some of the guys, and this program really mattered to them. They kind of drove the bus along with the help of me and Kendall Ratter and Billy Andrews and some of those guys.”
Princeton showed promise last year as it went 12-16 overall and 7-7 EIVA, but the results didn’t happen. This year they have come. The Tigers went 13-1 in EIVA regular season play and avenged their only loss in a 3-0 win over St. Francis in the EIVA tournament semifinals.
“In the beginning of the year, we got together as a team and felt we had some good pieces and we put together a huge list of goals and things we wanted to accomplish,” said Ratter. “Throughout the year we’ve been knocking them off one by one. We had all these things we wanted to do and we knew what we wanted to achieve and we’ve been working all year to get them.”
With each win and each growing accomplishment, they have heard from more and more past Princeton players as they’ve put together one of the best seasons in program history. They are a source of pride within the program.
“We always talk about the ’98 team like they were some kind of myth or legend, and nobody had come close to them since,” said Andrew. “Now we’re right there with them.”
The Tigers middle blocker remembers believing in the team more after a narrow 3-2 loss to Cal State-Northridge back on February 1. CSN was ranked No. 12 at the time yet they needed a two-point win in the fifth set to hold off Princeton.
“I just remember even though we lost that game, that was kind of a turning point for me in how I viewed our team,” Andrew said.
“We are kind of legit. We have a lot of good pieces and this is a year we really can do something incredibly special. While the ’98 team has always been a huge motivating factor for us, this group of guys that we have this year is by far the best team that I’ve been a part of here. I think for me that was the biggest motivating factor – being able to do something with this group of guys that hadn’t been done before.”
The Tigers have used contributions up and down a diverse lineup. Players have accepted lesser roles for the greater good. Andrew is a player who has been in and out of the starting lineup throughout his career. “I’m always trying to find any way to add value,” said Andrew.
“I’ve always taken a lot of pride in our bench cheers, our bench energy. I think a lot of teams have noticed that this year, which is pretty cool. I think it’s more than an individual effort. In the last couple years, the entire team has really bought in to everything that we’re doing. It’s not about one person getting individual accolades. It’s about the team winning and going forward.”
The versatility of Princeton has made it especially hard to prepare for. The Tigers have shifted almost their entire lineup set to set at times this season.
“I can’t even count how many starting lineups we’ve had this year,” Andrew said. “It’s like every time somebody goes out, no one misses a beat. I think it puts a lot of pressure on the other team across the net not really knowing what’s coming at them. It’s worked out really well so far.”
Princeton has used constant pressure on teams with an attacking style that starts with the serve. Princeton has an ability to score with a lot of different players. Against Barton, Huhmann led the way with 19 kills, but Ratter had 11 kills, Greg Luck had 10 kills and Dixon had eight kills for the balanced attack.
“Our team has a lot of pieces,” said Ratter. “In the EIVA, any single player can go off on a given night and carry the team. I’ve had some of those nights. Parker, George, Greg, have had those games. We look and see who’s going off, who has the hot hand and we don’t really care who gets it as long as we get the win and we’re playing as a team. I’ve been doing my part. I’ve had games where I’ve played well, I’ve had games where I didn’t play as well and other guys have stepped up. That’s just the ebb and flow of volleyball.”
The Tiger defense has continued to develop through the year to also become a strength.
“Defense is more of a mentality shift,” said Short. “You have to want the ball more than the other team. There are some technical details and things you can refine. It’s something we’ve been refining all year. There were some plays and incidents where we had some great digs to transition kills that sparked the momentum shift in the game and were crucial to us winning.”
Put it all together, and it’s become a formula for one of the greatest seasons in Princeton history. The Tigers see it as a starting point rather than an aberration for the program.
“The dream is this is a shift in the program and we become a top tier team, which I think is entirely possible with all the younger guys watching and playing with us every day in practice and getting just as good,” said Ratter.
“I think we can start a dynasty, start a legacy. Maybe we’re not that special, maybe that’s how the program changes in the future. That would be my dream.”
The seniors have helped to shape the turnaround and enjoyed being a part of a team that has rewritten the record books with every match over an action-packed final two weeks.
“Coming into this week, guys were excited,” said Andrew. “We’ve done something that no team has done in 21 years, and we were trying to do something that no team has done in win our first NCAA game. It’s been a crazy week. It’s been hectic. I don’t think anybody would have had it any other way.”
The Princeton men’s volleyball team is sending its seniors out on top with their ride of their lives.
“Winning the EIVA championship hasn’t honestly hit us yet because we’re in the thick of our season, but once the season is over we’ll look back on it a little more and reflect back on how incredible of a season this was,” said Short.
“I couldn’t have imagined it going any better than it did. It’s been one of the highlights of my Princeton career and volleyball career. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”