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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Rivier men’s volleyball all set with Visentin

NASHUA – For Steve Visentin a few years ago, one sports door closed, and then another one opened.

And that changed his entire life. ...

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NASHUA – For Steve Visentin a few years ago, one sports door closed, and then another one opened.

And that changed his entire life.

Visentin, you see, was a weak-hitting outfielder who eventually got cut as a sophomore from his high school baseball team in Cheshire, Conn.

He was pretty down about it, but the next year his friends convinced the 6-foot, 1-inch, agile athlete that volleyball was the way to go because he could jump high.

Boy, was it ever. Six years later, Visentin has been named the Great Northeast College Player of the Year. He will lead the nationally-ranked (15th) Rivier University men’s volleyball team into its second straight NCAA Division III tournament as the sixth-seeded Raiders (26-11) begin a national title quest on Friday at 8 p.m. against third seed Juniata College of Huntington, Pa. (24-11) at MIT in Cambridge, Mass.

If they survive that quarterfinal game, the semis are Saturday at 6 with the finals set for Sunday.

“It’s a dream come true, really,” Visentin said. “I kind of picked up (volleyball) pretty naturally. Things came really quick to me.”

“It’s pretty impressive, it really is,” Raiders coach Craig Kolek said of how well Visentin has developed his skills. “For him, he worked hard in the off-season, and worked hard at learning a new position. He listened well, he applied well. To listen and apply, it takes a certain kid to do.”

That change of position came during his first year with the Raiders. Visentin, who is the team’s only senior, was a hitter when he first arrived and Kolek decided after his freshman year, after watching him set in a pickup game, to switch him to more of a setting role.

“It was less demanding on his body, his knees would be sore sometimes,” Kolek said. “As a hitter, you jump a lot more. I think the setting made more sense. But he’s really an athletic kid.”

“It’s coaching right there,” Visentin said. “I had been a setter before, for a little bit in high school. I guess I had the technical skills, but the strategy part of it was what I had to pick up the most. I enjoyed learning that.”

Kolek said he recruited Visentin because he liked his blocking ability. And his game smarts.

“When you’re growing up, volleyball – well, it’s a girls game,” Visentin said. “You don’t realize the men’s game is a power game. It’s all about strategy and putting the ball away. I like the strategy part.

“I had to keep a level head. The setter’s the quarterback, so if everyone sees you freaking out, they’re going to freak out, too. So I have to just stay calm.”

He did more than that. The Raiders won their sixth straight GNAC title as he led the conference in assists per set (10.09), with 1,070 assists in 33 matches with 74 kills. He also had 134 digs, 72 total blocks and 19 service aces. For his career, he has more than 3,000 assists, only the third Riv men’s player to reach that mark.

And he’s clearly the team’s MVP.

“We missed a couple of games with him injured,” Kolek said. “Night and day. We
really struggled without him.”

But his time at Rivier has been anything but a struggle for Visentin.

“It was the right choice for me,” Visentin said. “The family atmosphere, the small school, it was what I wanted. What I needed, actually. Structure, and it was close to my family at home, they’re pretty much here at every home game.”

Volleyball will probably be done for Visentin, other than the recreation game. He’s a finance major, is working at an outlet company in Merrimack that is opening an outlet in Connecticut. So he hopes that’s his future.

But it’s been a great past and present. If someone had told him six years ago he was going to be a top Division III men’s college volleyball player, what would he have said?

“I would’ve been like, ‘No’,” he said. “I wouldn’t have believed it.”

But Visentin now has faith, and so do the Raiders. Not bad for a weak-hitting outfielder, huh?

Kolek likes his team’s chances to make some noise in this tourney, in which Springfield (Mass) College is the defending champ and No. 1 seed.

The only problem is that the Raiders have been idle since they beat Emmanuel in the GNAC title game Apr. 13.

“It’s awful,” Kolek said. “We were playing confident and playing well, and you hate to see the momentum broken.”