Major Breakthrough: How the Navy Volleyball Team Ended Their Patriot League Championship Drought

Major Breakthrough: How the Navy Volleyball Team Ended Their Patriot League Championship Drought

In 1977, the Navy Volleyball team took to the court for the first time. They went 25-9 that year. And from 1977 – 1990, they compiled an impressive 377-201 record at the Division II level.

So it was just a matter of time before the team made the leap to Division I. That happened in 1991 when they joined the Patriot League.

For the next 27 seasons, the program did see some success, which included an occasional appearance in the league tournament. But the team hadn’t yet reached the level of other Navy Women’s sports like soccer, swimming, lacrosse and rowing. That Patriot League title they sought always managed to stay just out of reach.

That all changed in 2018. It didn’t happen overnight, though. And to understand the whole story, we need to back up about 7 years.

Bock Builds the Foundation

As you might guess, getting the Navy Volleyball program back on a positive trajectory started with a coaching change. Mike Schwob stepped down after 15 years at the end of the 2010 season. And when Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk announced that he was beginning a national search, few people doubted that he’d find the coach he wanted, given his track record.

Larry Bock (Navy Volleyball Coach from 2011-2017)
Larry Bock coached Navy Volleyball from ’11-’17 (Photo Courtesy of NAAA)

That guy happened to be Larry Bock. He coached at Juniata College in Huntingdon, PA located two and a half hours east of Pittsburgh. It was a perennial Division III powerhouse. During his time there, Bock led the team to two national championships (’04 & ’06) while putting together a mind-bending 1,252-192 record.

Now, some people might say, “Yeah, but that’s only Division III.” Go ahead and think that if you like. But I’m here to tell you that if the implication is that his success may not translate to Division I, you’d be wrong.

Among those 1,252 wins were 67 versus Division I opponents against only 23 losses. Coach Bocks conference record was a sterling 348-14 (which included a 17 year unbeaten streak and 30 conference titles). All those things went a long way towards convincing Gladchuk that Bock was the coach to get Navy Volleyball out of the rut it was stuck in at the end of the 2010 season.

The Priorities

Coach Bock faced two big challenges. Obviously, the first was beating Army on a more consistent basis. In my last blog post, I reviewed the history of the Army-Navy Sports Series. And among the statistics included in the story was that the Mids led the head to head competition in 20 of the 24 sports.

Volleyball wasn’t one of them. In fact, it was only one where Army held a decided advantage. From 1996 – 2010, the Mids record against the Black Knights was 8-21. What was even more discouraging was that Navy didn’t win a single set in 13 of those losses.

Going back to the start of the series in 1981, Army had won 38 of the 48 matches by the time Bock arrived in Annapolis. So clearly, that had to change.

Two things were pretty obvious. Army had a decent program, and the Mids were really in the hurt locker when it came to competing in the Patriot League. So unless they could win more consistently across the whole league, their results against Army weren’t likely to be any different.

I can’t help but wonder what was going through Coach Bock’s mind as he began putting his plan together. In his previous 34 years of coaching at Juniata, he hadn’t tasted defeat in his conference in over 17 years. And he was taking over a program that had a combined 4-24 record in league play the previous two seasons.

The turnaround wasn’t immediate. Navy did take its lumps in Coach Bock’s first season going 1-13 in league play. But in his second year, they got to 7-7 and then followed that up with a 9-7 campaign in 2013. The next season, the Mids really began to show signs of climbing out of that rut.

The Plan Comes Together

In 2014, Navy posted its first winning season in 6 years while going 11-5 in the Patriot League. At the time, those 11 wins were a school record. But an even better indicator that things were beginning to turn around was they beat Army twice that year.

The Mids won the Star match 3-0, but each game was hotly contested. In the end, they came out on top 27-25, 27-25, and 28-26. They followed that up by beating the Black Knights on the road about five weeks later. That one went four sets, but the team won the three they needed by comfortable margins.

Though the Mids had a bit of a hiccup the next season (7-9 in league play), they came back strong in 2016 and made it clear that it was a new day where Navy Volleyball was concerned.

They finished 20-9 overall and 10-6 in the Patriot League, and they beat Army in the Star match for the second time in three years. In 2017, they took another step forward, going 23-8 (12-4 in the PL). They split the regular season series against Army, but beat them a second time in the Patriot League tournament, making it to the final before coming up short against American University.

That was when Coach Bock decided to retire from coaching. He had done wonders for the program. First, he succeeded in making Navy Volleyball competitive in the Patriot League (57-51 overall and 22-10 in his final two seasons). And in the all important head to head competition against Army, he was 5-4 over his last four years (including three Star wins).

So, having held up his end of the bargain, Coach Bock retired with the most number of career wins in NCAA Women’s Volleyball at the time. In most cases, it can make fans a little nervous when a coach leaves just as the program has seemingly turned the corner. But once again, Chet Gladchuk delivered.

Coach Labrador Takes Charge

Paco Labrador came to Annapolis from Wittenberg University in Springfield, OH. The Tigers were another Division III Volleyball powerhouse, having won the national championship in 2011. They were also runner’s up in 2015 & 2017.

Pacao Labrador (Navy Volleyball Coach)
Paco Labrador took over the Navy Volleyball program in 2018. (Photo Courtesy of NAAA)

Just like Coach Bock at Juniata, Coach Labrador’s teams were the class of their conference. In his 15 year’s at the helm, Wittenberg compiled a162-2 record against their North Coast Athletic Conference opponents. And in the process, they racked up an incredible 14 conference titles.

When he got to Annapolis in the summer of 2018, Coach Labrador was taking over a program that was in pretty good shape thanks to Coach Bock’s efforts. Making it to the Patriot League Tournament final was proof enough of that.

The Mids were knocking on the door. And the next step was to break it down. That was the mission for the 2018 season. And here are some of the players who were hell bent on making it happen.

The Cast

Before I get started, I want to say that every member of this team had a role in this mission. Whether they were on the court for less than 10 sets or more than 100 during the year, they played a part in making everyone else better. Time doesn’t permit me to mention everybody, but you can read more about the 2018 Navy Volleyball team by clicking on the link.

Darby Minton (Sr)

Navy Volleyball Captain Darby Minton (Photo Courtesy of NAAA)

Minton was a defensive specialist and the Mids’ team captain. She ranked 2nd on the team in service aces (40) and 4th in digs (201). I watched some video from the 2018 season and saw a sign in the stands referring to her as “Mighty Minton”. I’ll go along with that. Her efficiency both getting points on serve and keeping the ball in play on defense made Minton extremely reliable, especially when the team needed her most.

Maddi Sgattoni (So)

Navy Outside Hitter Maddi Sgattoni (Photo Courtesy of NAAA)

The Pittsburgh, PA native and outside hitter led the team in both aces (41) and kills (393). In fact, during the season, Sgattoni recorded 20 or more kills in four different matches. She also had a string of 18 consecutive matches where she reached double figures.

Sgattoni was a fixture in the Mids’ line up. She started every match and played in every single one of Navy’s 118 sets during the year. That’s about as durable as it gets.

Patricia Mattingly (Sr)

Navy Setter Patricia Mattingly (Photo Courtesy of NAAA)

Mattingly was Navy’s setter, and she had an absolutely phenomenal season. Between her assists (1,039 / 9.03 per set) and kills (82 / .71 per set), she had a hand in nearly 40% of the Mids’ points in each frame. That’s some terrific production. Mattingly was no slouch on defense either. She had a total of 306 digs in 2018, which ranked 2nd on the team.

Sidney Shearn (Sr)

Navy Defensive Specialist Sidney Shearn (Photo Courtesy of NAAA)

Anyone who is a defensive specialist has the ability to turn a potential kill into an offensive opportunity by keeping the ball in play. Sidney Shearn was particularly good at this. The 5’6″ senior from Louisville, KY piled up 521 digs on the year (4.41 per set) to lead the team. Opponents looking to attack Navy’s defense might have been better off trying to hit the ball where she wasn’t.

Sareena Seelbach (Sr)

Navy Middle Hitter Sarena Seelbach (Photo Courtesy of NAAA)

Seelbach was a skilled middle hitter from Chapel Hill, NC. She was one of five players on the team to register over 200 kills (211). And she was just as effective turning opposing hitters away. Her 106 blocks were good for second on the team.

Katie Patrick (Sr)

Navy Middle Blocker Katie Patrick (Photo Courtesy of NAAA)

At 6’2″, Patrick was one of the Mids’ taller players. The middle blocker from Aurora, CO lived up to her job title by leading the team in blocks with 124 for the year. Not only was Patrick an excellent net protector, but she also contributed on the offensive side by way of her 232 kills.

Kelsey Kingsland (Sr)

Navy Outside Hitter Kelsey Kingsland in action against Alabama (Photo Courtesy of NAAA)

Kingsland was another one of Navy’s excellent outside hitters. She missed the entire 2017 season due to injury. But in 2018, she was on the court for all but two of the Mids’ 118 sets played. Kingsland made her presence felt by chalking up 271 kills for the year.

So now that you know some of the characters, it’s time to get into a few of the key moments in what turned out to be a record setting year for the Navy Volleyball program. Here we go . . .

Building Callouses

One of the best ways for a team to prepare for their conference schedule is to go up against tough competition by playing in a series of invitationals. That’s exactly what the Mids did over the first month of the season.

They travelled to State College for the Penn St. Invitational. After beating the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and Eastern Kentucky, they squared off against the #6 ranked Nittany Lions.

Navy lost in straight sets, but they battled hard the entire match. One of the more impressive performances came from Katie Patrick. She converted on half of her kill opportunities (8 for 16). To do that against a team the caliber of Penn State is no joke.

The Mids played in three more invitationals over the next two weeks before their showdown with Air Force in Colorado Springs. The Falcons owned a 12-2 advantage in the head to head competition. And it looked like it wouldn’t take them long to push their record to 13-2.

Middle Hitter Sarena Seelbach picks up another kill ( Photo Courtesy of NAAA)

Navy dropped the first two sets. But the team fought back to win the next two, sending the match to a decisive fifth set. That was when the outside hitters took over and sealed the comeback win.

Katie Patrick, Sarena Seelbach and Kelsey Kingsland came through with two kills apiece. The Mids had 10 in the set to help put away the match. That pushed the team’s record to 8-5 on the season, and they entered Patriot League play riding a wave of momentum.

Another Record Falls

In 2005, the Navy reached double digit wins in the Patriot League for the first time. The 10 wins they posted that year stood as the school record for nine years until the team put up 11 in 2014. Three years after that, they established a new mark with 12 W’s. Now the question was how long would it be until that number was in their rear view mirror.

Led by the usual suspects, the Mids came out of the gate strong. They won their first three matches (two of them on the road), before dropping a hard fought contest against American University.

The Eagles were without question the strongest team in the league, having won 15 titles in the previous 17 years. They were the ones who ended Navy’s championship hopes a year earlier by sweeping them in the tournament final.

Ramping Things Up

From there, the Mids went on a six match winning streak. But that wasn’t the half of it. During that time, they didn’t drop a single frame.

Among those six straight sweeps was the Star match against Army. Patricia Mattingly led the way with a well-rounded performance. She contributed 3 kills, 12 digs, 4 blocks, 34 assists and oh yeah . . . 1 service ace for good measure.

That series of wins moved the Mids to 9-1 in league play as they prepared for another confrontation with American University. This time, they would be playing at home.

But once again, the Eagles were ready. In a match that was closer than the 3-0 score indicated, American ended Navy’s winning streak at six. That put them squarely in the driver’s seat to be the number one seed in the Patriot League tournament as the season drew to a close.

Finishing Strong

The Mids went on to win four of their remaining five matches. So that record number of 12 league wins lasted exactly one year. The team finished 13-3 and closed out the regular season by beating Holy Cross.

Navy used their defense to control the game. They wound up with 10 blocks, several of which came at key points during the match. Sarena Seelbach led the way with 6 blocks while Patricia Mattingly turned away 4 potential kill chances.

Offensively, Maddi Sgattoni was just a wrecking machine. She rung up 13 kills and 4 aces to spearhead the Mids’ attack. Seelbach and Kelsey Kingsland each contributed 8 kills to help put the Crusaders away.

So it was record-setting regular season. Now there was just the small matter of the Patriot League tournament. Each team member knew that the road to a championship would have to pass through American University. And having lost three straight to the Eagles going back to the 2017 final match, the Mids knew it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park.

Breaking Down the Door

The most important thing was for the team not to get ahead of themselves. First, they had to take care of Loyola. But the Greyhounds had no intention of giving Navy a pass. They came out aggressively and got the Mids’ on their heels early. Before you knew it, Loyola took the first set 25-18. This was going to be a battle.

The Mids Answer the Bell

One of the issues in the first set was a lack of consistent serving. The Mids only had 5 points on serve the entire frame. Darby Minton fixed that right away when she served to open the second set. Behind the senior captain’s strong serving, the Navy raced out to a 5-0 lead. It later grew to 9-1.

The Greyhounds cut into the lead a little bit, but eventually fell short by the same 25-18 score. The Mids followed that up by taking the third set 25-17. Now Loyola need to bounce back to stay in the match.

Each team made several runs in the fourth set. Navy struck first. Two runs of 3-0 and 5-1 put them ahead 10-8. The Greyhounds strung together 5 consecutive points to go up 16-12. The Mids fought back to get to even at 16 and then again at 18 all.

Navy Volleyball Opposite Hitter Avery Stowell
Navy Opposite Hitter Avery Stowell (Photo Courtesy of NAAA)

From there, it was just back and forth. Then with the score tied at 23, Katie Patrick delivered on her12th and final kill to get the Mids to match point. And when Loyola sent the ball long on the next point, Navy was through to the final for the second consecutive year.

Waiting for them on the other side was American University, who had beaten Colgate to advance to the championship. The Eagles wanted a repeat of the 2017 final, while the Mids were going to do everything in their power to make sure that didn’t happen.

Slaying the Dragon

It was an epic match by anyone’s estimation. American was playing on its home court and had taken home the hardware more times (15) than any other team in the league. This was Navy’s fourth trip to the final, and their trophy case was still empty.

A Strong Start . . .

They got off to a good start though. The Mids jumped out to a 6-1 lead before American eventually tied it at 13 all. Navy pulled ahead 20-16, and the Eagles fought back to get within 2 points at 23-21. The two teams exchanged points on consecutive kills. Then Maddi Sgattoni delivered the kill that gave the Mids the first set.

The second set was pretty close for a while. At one point, Navy cut the lead to 21-19, but they dropped the final 4 points, allowing American to square the match at one frame apiece.

Back and Forth . . .

Now it was best two out of three. And the third set was tight all the way. With the score tied at 21-21, Kingsland came through with a kill to put the Mids up by one. An Eagles error increased the advantage to 2 points.

From there, the Sgattoni served up an ace to get to set point. On the next point, Mattingly and Seelbach combined on a block to close things out. The Mids now led 2-1. But American wasn’t done yet.

The fourth set was unbelievable. The score was tied 20 times and there were 9 lead changes. At one point, Navy was up 24-21 with three chances to win put away the championship.

Each time, they were turned away. American fought back to tie the score and eventually took the set 27-25. The match was back to even with the winner take all fifth set remaining.

Navy Volleyball Outiside Hitter Olivia Rozmus
Navy Outside Hitter Olivia Rozmus ( Photo Courtesy of NAAA)

History is Made . . .

After being right on the doorstep, you would think losing that fourth set would have been so deflating that the Mids would not recover. Nothing was further from the truth.

Navy was 4-1 on the year in five set matches. And in this one, they responded in a big way. They raced out to a 6-1 lead and never gave it up. The Eagles tried to come back, but they simply had no answer for Maddi Sgattoni, who had 24 kills up to that point.

With the Mids leading 14-9, Sidney Shearn received the serve and made text book pass to Mattingly who then set the ball to Sgattoni on the left wing. The sophomore delivered, as she hammered the ball off the blocker. And when it found the floor a split second later, Navy secured the 15-9 win and made history.

I can’t think of many moments more gratifying than the one each member of the Navy Volleyball team must have felt on the afternoon of November 18th, 2018. They had a reason to be proud. The entire team fought hard all season long, and in the end, they came through when it mattered most.

Maddi Sgattoni had a jaw-dropping 25 kills and earned MVP honors for the tournament. Kelsey Kingsland and Sarena Seelbach had 13 and 8 kills respectively.

Patricia Mattingly distributed the ball masterfully to her teammates the entire match on her way to posting 49 assists, while Darby Minton chipped in with two aces to go along with her strong all around play.

Defensive specialist Sidney Shearn led the team with 30 digs. And finally, Katie Patrick led the Mids with 5 blocks. Overall, it was a terrific performance by the entire team.

Final Thoughts

So I think it’s fair to say that the Navy Volleyball program has established itself as contenders for any future league titles. Despite losing all of his senior stars in 2019, Coach Labrador still managed to go 11-5 in the Patriot League while splitting the regular season series with Army.

In 2020 -21, the teams competed in the spring to work around the pandemic. The Mids were sitting on a 4-1 record before Covid-19 derailed their season. Every team in the league was affected, but the Mids were on lockdown for a month. As a result, some key games were canceled. And then through the use of some crazy formula the league used to figure out which teams would be in the tournament, Navy wound up on the outside looking in.

No doubt that was disappointing, but we all know this isn’t the end of the story. That’s because the winning culture established under Coach Bock continues to strengthen with Coach Labrador.

It took Navy Volleyball 27 years to get that first Patriot League championship. And based on what I’ve seen over the past three seasons, I’m pretty sure it’s not going to take them anywhere near that long to win the next one.

Until next time . . .

**The sources for the statistics cited in this feature are the Navy Sports website and the 2018 Navy Volleyball Media Guide.

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