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