Best Players Come From Miami, Canada
By Marcus Helton, Daily News-Record
Sophomore middle Frankie Coto had a team leading seven kills along with eight block assists against Sacred Heart in the championship round of the SUNY New Paltz Tournament on Saturday, January 17. (Courtesy Wayne Gehman)
With high school boys’ volleyball programs near his home base non-existent, Eastern Mennonite University men’s coach Steve Benson often has to tap his recruiting connections to find talent.
Benson, who arrived at EMU from Florida in 2005, focuses on attracting players from Virginia, but it isn’t easy. Not only do area schools not offer boys’ basketball, but in places that do field prep volleyball teams – such as the state’s urban crescent – Eastern Mennonite isn’t always on the radar screen.
“Just through recruiting efforts, you realize kids from Richmond where they have [volleyball] and Virginia Beach, didn’t even know about EMU,” Benson said at practice Wednesday. “They knew about [George] Mason, who is a D-I program, but they didn’t know about EMU, and a lot of kids that I saw were slipping through the cracks, in a sense.”
Program has Attractive Pedigree
EMU’s pedigree has made attracting talent from more distant locations easier. The Division III Royals have a long tradition in volleyball: Until 2001, they were in the same conference as Penn State (meaning the Nittany Lions would occasionally find themselves playing matches at a school 30 times smaller than theirs) and Eastern Mennonite finished last season ranked No. 10 in Division III by the American Volleyball Coaches Association.
Benson’s current 16-man roster includes nine Virginians, but his two best players don’t hail from anywhere near the commonwealth: sophomore middle blocker Frankie Coto is a Miami native, and junior middle blocker Justin Reesor is a Canadian.
Coto was almost an accidental recruit. Benson was actually recruiting a friend of Coto’s, and Coto tagged along on his recruiting trip.
“I came and visited and [Benson] was a great coach and I saw the team and I was like, ‘Wow this is very nice,'” Coto said. “The gym’s beautiful, the campus is beautiful, everybody’s friendly here. It’s nice to be able to get away from the city, too, and be in a small town.”
Still, what makes a kid leave the warmth and pleasure of South Beach for the relatively frigid winters of Virginia?
“It’s kind of a hard sell for a kid from Miami,” Benson, who coached community college and high school ball in Florida, said with a laugh. “But, there’s only one varsity program in Florida [NAIA Warner Southern], and there’s some good ball in Orlando and the Miami area, so it’s a chance to get some connections from that area.”
Said Coto: “Yeah, I’ve gotten used to [the weather]. I mean, it is pretty cold sometimes. It was really tough at first.”
Coto ‘Rookie of the Year’
Fortunately for the Royals, the 6-foot-2, 167-pounder stuck it out, earning Rookie of the Year honors in the North East Collegiate Volleyball Association’s Western Division last season. Coto had 122 blocks last year and needs just 30 more to crack EMU’s all-time top-15 list. (Reesor is currently No. 2).
“It was a good stepping-stone,” Coto said of his award.
Reesor, who is from Stouffville, Ontario, arrived at EMU by a more traditional route: He is Mennonite and said family has attended EMU.
“That’s how I knew about the school,” he said, “and I also knew I wanted to play volleyball at college. It just seemed like they had a good team, and it seemed like a good fit for me. I really like the community and the school here.”
Coto and Reesor will be counted on to provide leadership, if only because they make up exactly half of EMU’s group of returning players. The four returnees are joined by 11 freshmen, along with sophomore setter Shane Holderby, who transferred in the fall after starting at Lees-McRae College (N.C.) last winter.
While short on experience, one thing the Royals now have that they lacked a year ago is depth.
Last season, the team had only 10 players, and injuries often left them with scarcely enough bodies to field a complete team.
The difference, Coto said, is already noticeable.
“We were practicing against Coach and our assistant coaches,” he said with a laugh, recalling last season. “Me and [Reesor] didn’t get any rest at all, so practice was like, grueling. It’s nice to just rest for a second.”
Despite their youth, the Royals aren’t looking at this as a rebuilding year. EMU is off to a 2-1 start after opening the season with three matches at the State University of New York-New Paltz Tournament last Friday and Saturday. Their loss came against Division I Sacred Heart, 3-0.
“I think our volleyball IQ is high,” Reesor said. “Even though these guys are freshmen, they know what they’re doing. They’ve played a lot of club, they’ve played high school and been in camps. These guys have played more than I have, even though I’m four years older than some of them. So, I think the expectations are high, and this is going to be a good program here for a long time.”