Who Says You Can't Go Home?
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Who Says You Can't Go Home?

Saturday marks the opening of the 2011 Patriot Invitational, and there will be a number of new faces along the Mason sideline. And with three young teams coming to Fairfax in Navy, High Point and UNC Greensboro, it'd be expected that fans will be frequently checking their rosters.  On the bench for the latter two teams though will be two familiar faces to longtime followers of Mason volleyball.

Both the Panthers and Spartans feature George Mason alumni as head coaches, and Jason Oliver ('98) and Patrick Nicholas ('86) are excited for the opportunity to come home again. Even if it means wearing colors different than the Green and Gold.

For Nicholas, the trip is far from a first-time return to campus, but it will be his first time leading a team into the new and improved Recreation & Athletic Complex. After playing at home during his collegiate career at the old P.E. Building and even taking a coaching class from former Mason athletic director John Linn, Nicholas is astounded by the changes on campus.

"It's awesome what they did in building that arena, because it certainly wasn't like that when I was there," Nicholas said.

The same goes for Oliver, who not only has never been to the new RAC but will be coaching against his alma mater for the first time.

"It's cool to be walking around campus, seeing the old Linn Gym and being able to point out things to my team and tell them about my time here," he said.

Both have been back for alumni weekends on campus, and cherish their time as a part of the Mason family, not just in Fairfax but all over. Mason head coach Pat Kendrick, who remembers both as student-athletes at Mason, planned the tournament field last year to include former Mason players as coaches. Among them was former Navy head coach Mike Schwob, a 1988 Mason graduate who stepped down following the 2010 season.

"It's exciting to have the guys return," Kendrick said. "Both Pat and Jason were important parts of the program, and while they've had the opportunity to return to Mason as alums, this is a great treat for us to have them return as coaches."

"When I played here, we didn't lose very much and there were a lot of good friendships that were made," said Nicholas, who played one season with the Patriots and was a part of Mason's back-to-back Final Four men's volleyball teams in 1984 and 1985 as a student assistant coach. "Now that I'm old enough and I look back, I really appreciate my time there and the relationships I formed."

As High Point coach, Oliver's connection to Mason extends deeply into his professional career, often dealing with fellow alumni in the coaching ranks.

"If one of the Mason alums contacts you, needing something for tape exchange or video, you do it, because you know they're part of the family," he explained. "I value my time at Mason like you wouldn't believe, and many of the things I learned at Mason as a student-athlete are hopefully translating to producing a great program at High Point."

All across the country, both coaches have run into moments where their Mason roots have been a huge part of day-to-day life. For Nicholas, it was in 2006 while coaching at the Northwest Regionals of club volleyball. In between matches, he overheard that the Patriots men's basketball team had knocked off top-seed UConn and were headed to the Final Four. Later that night, he saw a rundown of top memories in Mason's athletics history and there he was at the top - as part of Mason men's volleyball's own Final Four run in 1984.

Sometimes, the grind of recruiting makes it impossible for the coaches to make it back to Fairfax for the men's team alumni weekend. In one instance, Oliver was out recruiting on the same weekend as Mason welcomed back its men's volleyball alumni, and amidst a group of six or seven former Patriots now coaching Division I volleyball, they formed their own alumni reunion.

Now in his third year at HPU, the memories and legacy of being a part of Mason volleyball go far beyond the court for Oliver, including coming together as a group to deal with the loss of teammate and coach Uvaldo Acosta in 1998 following a tragic swimming accident.

"The bonding that went on with the group after Uvaldo passed and the moments that we shared together, that's more important than anything that happened on the floor," Oliver said. "I am so grateful to Uvaldo and the generosity of the program for giving me a shot as a student-athlete."

Nicholas knew immediately that when Kendrick invited his team to participate in this year's tournament, he was in.

"I replied right away and was pretty excited - it was a neat idea to bring us all back," he said. "I've told my team to compete hard and play well. This is an extra special tournament to me, because I'm going home."

All throughout the weekend, even if this year's Mason squad isn't on the court, there will always be a Patriot there.

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