Men’s college volleyball: A chat with recent Carthage graduate, 4-time All-American Matt Slivinski | College

Carthage has become a household name in the men’s college volleyball world.

In 10 seasons of the NCAA sponsoring a championship for Division III men’s volleyball, Carthage has appeared in three national title matches — including the first one in 2012 — and has won the last two.

The Firebirds completed their quest to win back-to-back championships last month when the school hosted the Final Four at Tarble Arena, with Carthage both reaching and winning the national championship match.

Head coach JW Kieckhefer’s crew is now starting to get into the dynasty conversation in the state of Wisconsin among small colleges, a la UW-Whitewater football.

Perhaps that’s a bit lofty for the time being, but with a host of starters — including four All-Americans — coming back next year and the very real possibility of a three-peat, Carthage is now a name synonymous with men’s volleyball.

A contingent of players from Illinois was vital to helping the Firebirds win a second straight national title last month, and the team also has players on its roster from all the way down in the St. Louis area.

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But just because there’s a ton of St. Louis and Chicago roots, specifically the south side, on the roster doesn’t mean the star players haven’t ingratiated themselves as honorary Kenosha residents and turned into local legends.

Matt Slivinski, the best player in program history, is emblematic of that.

It seemed whenever Slivinski stepped onto the volleyball court during Carthage’s dominant two-year stretch, volleyballs ran, hid, cried and shivered with fear.

A one-man momentum shift, it was Slivinski’s 18 kills in the national championship match last month that ultimately pushed the Firebirds over the edge to capture a 3-1 victory against Springfield (Mass.).

So what do you need to know about Kenosha’s best volleyball player in recent years?

The kid is humble. In postgame interviews, he’s quick to point out his teammates’ accomplishments, and most of the other talk is about “team,” or how the Carthage student body rallied around him the entire weekend of the national championship.

Slivinski knows that hard work pays off, as he spends countless hours before games and in the offseason perfecting his explosive, devastating spike swing.

It’s gotten to a point where very few liberos or defensive specialists can even touch his mightiest hit, let alone pass it to a teammate.

Slivinski spent Mother’s Day earlier this month at home in Willow Springs, Ill., about a 90-minute drive south of Kenosha in the southwestern Chicago suburbs. It was also a chance to finish his accounting thesis.

Then, Slivinski was back to Carthage the following Monday for the team’s awards ceremony.

He graduated from the school this spring after having earned four consecutive first-team All-American honors and back-to-back national championships and putting together an unparalleled resume in men’s college volleyball.

Slivinski now has high hopes of playing professional sand volleyball in Europe, and Kieckhefer is more than a believer.

“Matt is one of the greatest leaders by example,” Kieckhefer said recently. “He is the first one lifting, he is getting extra reps every week, he does video with the coaches once a week, he does his own video at home. He is a very gifted athlete, but the time he spends on his craft is elite. It’s why he’s going to be a great pro.”

Before taking the Carthage head job prior to the 2020 season, Kieckhefer was an assistant coach for the Division I Purdue University-Fort Wayne (Ind.) men’s volleyball team.

Slivinski won’t let Kieckhefer live down the fact he never recruited him out of high school to play Division I volleyball.

“Matt never lets me forget that I passed on him in the fall of his senior year,” Kieckhefer said. “In November, I think he committed to (former Carthage head men’s volleyball coach) LJ (Marx) here at Carthage.

“I remember myself and some other D-I coaches watching Matt own the court in the club tournament that May. He was one of the best players in the gym. I turned to another D-I coach, shocked by how good he was, and didn’t know him. ‘Where is he going?’ We looked up, and LJ said, ‘He’s going to Carthage,’ with a big smile on his face.”

Slivinski wants to win, he outworks people and he puts trust in teammates, but he also doesn’t have to be “the guy.” He’s content with letting others shine.

Kenosha News Correspondent Mike Ramczyk recently caught up with Slivinski to explore life as a two-time national champion and talk about what’s next:

KENOSHA NEWS: Have you come down yet from the high of the championship?

MATT SLIVINSKI: Unfortunately, yes I have. But I still have more work to do as a volleyball player. Championships are won in the offseason. How hard you work in the summer will reflect how you win in your season.

KN: I know you guys took the trophy to the Boat House in Kenosha to celebrate. Where all did you go, how was the night, and what kind of reaction did you guys get from people?

MS: My night was extremely fun. I mostly hung out with my teammates and our close friends that have supported us from the start. Everyone was congratulating us and asking us how it felt to win at home. It is one of my favorite nights at Carthage.

KN: How has life changed around campus and in Kenosha since winning it all?

MS: Life hasn’t changed much around campus, other than the fact that people I’ve never even seen before will congratulate me and tell me that they saw me playing, which of course blows my mind because that’s not something you even think about during the game.

KN: How and when did you get your start in volleyball?

MS: I got my start in volleyball at an extremely young age. My oldest sister Vanessa played club and high school volleyball, so I was brought along to those games. I always wanted to do what my older sisters did, so I started playing volleyball. The first big push in my volleyball career was in high school when it came down to one single decision, did I want to play volleyball or soccer? I’m assuming you know the answer to that question.

KN: Why do you love volleyball?

MS: I love volleyball because it is more of a mental game than a physical one. I like to think that there is always a way to score, no matter the situation. With that, I like to discover new ways to become a better player.

KN: What kind of work must be put in to win a national championship? What specifically do you do off the court to gain the edge?

MS: There is a lot of work that goes into winning a national championship. On the court there are countless hours outside of practice that the team will be working on serving, passing, setting, etc. When we are off the court, it’s important to let volleyball go and not think about and learn how to connect with your teammates outside of the topic of volleyball.

KN: During the Final Four, you were on another level. Describe how you felt while playing. What was your mindset?

MS: Being in the Final Four was an unreal experience and one I will never forget. My mindset is always the same no matter the opponent. I let myself get immersed into the game, so I am thinking less and letting my muscle memory take over. That also makes it easier to tune out the crowd and outside thoughts. For those two hours, I dedicate my thoughts just to volleyball. While that might make me sound like I play with a serious face, it’s actually the opposite. I love joking around on the court with my teammates.

KN: What is your plan now? What’s happening with school?

MS: My goal has always been to keep playing volleyball. And now that I am about to graduate (he graduated this month), that hasn’t changed. I am planning on finding a team overseas to continue my career as a professional.

KN: In terms of going pro, take me through how that happens? Where are you headed? What kind of money are guys making? Would that be your only job?

MS: As of right now, I am unsure where I am headed. The NCAA restricts athletes from making contact with pro teams while playing for the NCAA. The pay range is extremely wide. There are some countries that pay a lot more than others. As for me, being a pro volleyball player would be my only job.

KN: What kind of skill set does it take to spike the ball like you do? How has your jump become so high and your hit so powerful?

MS: It takes thousands of swings to become a high-level athlete on the Carthage men’s volleyball team. The reason why I jump so high and hit so hard is half my genetics and half hard work. I’m blessed to be a natural athlete, but I don’t get to where I am now without putting in extra time on the court and in the weight room.

KN: Where are you from? What was the volleyball culture like? What do you like about being in Kenosha?

MS: I am from Willow Springs Ill., and volleyball culture in and around Chicago is rapidly growing. More and more boys club teams are being created. Some of the reasons why I enjoy being in Kenosha are the lake, there are some really good breweries and how beautiful the Carthage campus is.

KN: If you could give young volleyball lovers any advice, what would it be?

MS: My advice would be to keep working hard, at a young age. You don’t know how your body will develop in the future. I know people who grew a lot in high school and went from a short libero to a tall setter. Also, having great ball control, no matter your position, will always help you in the long run.

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage’s Matt Slivinski challenges Springfield’s Chris Parker at the net during the team’s NCAA Division III national championship game on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha.

Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage College students were in full effect during the team’s NCAA Division III national championship game against Springfield College on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha.

Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage’s Gene McNulty sets the ball during the team’s NCAA Division III national championship game against Springfield College on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha.

Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage’s Zach Bulthuis and Gene McNulty quickly look back to see where the volleyball goes after a block attempt during the team’s NCAA Division III national championship game against Springfield College on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha.

Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage’s Matt Slivinski, who finished with 18 kills, soars above a Springfield block attempt during the team’s NCAA Division III national championship game on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha.

Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Matt Slivinski, a recent Carthage graduate, blasts a spike attempt through traffic during the team’s NCAA Division III men’s volleyball national championship win over Springfield (Mass.) on April 23 at Tarble Arena.

Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage’s Zach Bulthuis hits the ball around a Springfield’s Nate Reynolds during the team’s NCAA Division III national championship game on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha.

Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage players react moments after defeating Springfield College to win the team’s second consecutive NCAA Division III national championship on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha.

Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage’s Zach Bulthuis (left) hugs his teammates after defeating Springfield College to win the team’s second consecutive NCAA Division III national championship on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha.

Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball coach JW Kieckhefer, center, embraces his players after the Firebirds defeated Springfield (Mass.) on Saturday, April 23, at Tarble Arena to win the program’s second consecutive NCAA Division III national championship.

Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Recent Carthage graduate Matt Slivinski smiles to students after the Firebirds defeated Springfield (Mass.) on April 23 at Tarble Arena to win the program’s second consecutive NCAA Division III men’s volleyball national championship.

Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage’s Zach Bulthuis reacts after defeating Springfield College to win the team’s second consecutive NCAA Division III national championship on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha.

Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball players celebrate after the Firebirds defeated Springfield (Mass.) on Saturday, April 23, at Tarble Arena to win the program’s second consecutive NCAA Division III national championship.

Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

The Carthage men’s volleyball team unite in the tradition of cutting the volleyball net after defeating Springfield College to win the team’s second consecutive NCAA Division III national championship on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha.

Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage junior Zach Bulthuis (middle) poses with his family members, who drove up from Tinley Park, Ill. to watch the team’s NCAA Division III national championship game against Springfield College on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha.

Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage’s Matt Slivinski, who led the team with 18 kills on Saturday, holds the NCAA Division III national championship trophy with his family after the team defeated Springfield College on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha.

Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

The Carthage men’s volleyball team celebrate after winning its second consecutive NCAA Division III national title on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha. Carthage defeated Springfield College 3-1.



Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage’s Matt Slivinski challenges Springfield’s Chris Parker at the net during the team’s NCAA Division III national championship game on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha.



Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage College students were in full effect during the team’s NCAA Division III national championship game against Springfield College on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha.



Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage’s Gene McNulty sets the ball during the team’s NCAA Division III national championship game against Springfield College on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha.



Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage’s Zach Bulthuis and Gene McNulty quickly look back to see where the volleyball goes after a block attempt during the team’s NCAA Division III national championship game against Springfield College on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha.



Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage’s Matt Slivinski, who finished with 18 kills, soars above a Springfield block attempt during the team’s NCAA Division III national championship game on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha.



Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Matt Slivinski, a recent Carthage graduate, blasts a spike attempt through traffic during the team’s NCAA Division III men’s volleyball national championship win over Springfield (Mass.) on April 23 at Tarble Arena.



Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage’s Zach Bulthuis hits the ball around a Springfield’s Nate Reynolds during the team’s NCAA Division III national championship game on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha.



Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage players react moments after defeating Springfield College to win the team’s second consecutive NCAA Division III national championship on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha.



Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage’s Zach Bulthuis (left) hugs his teammates after defeating Springfield College to win the team’s second consecutive NCAA Division III national championship on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha.



Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball coach JW Kieckhefer, center, embraces his players after the Firebirds defeated Springfield (Mass.) on Saturday, April 23, at Tarble Arena to win the program’s second consecutive NCAA Division III national championship.



Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Recent Carthage graduate Matt Slivinski smiles to students after the Firebirds defeated Springfield (Mass.) on April 23 at Tarble Arena to win the program’s second consecutive NCAA Division III men’s volleyball national championship.



Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage’s Zach Bulthuis reacts after defeating Springfield College to win the team’s second consecutive NCAA Division III national championship on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha.



Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball players celebrate after the Firebirds defeated Springfield (Mass.) on Saturday, April 23, at Tarble Arena to win the program’s second consecutive NCAA Division III national championship.



Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

The Carthage men’s volleyball team unite in the tradition of cutting the volleyball net after defeating Springfield College to win the team’s second consecutive NCAA Division III national championship on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha.



Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage junior Zach Bulthuis (middle) poses with his family members, who drove up from Tinley Park, Ill. to watch the team’s NCAA Division III national championship game against Springfield College on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha.



Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

Carthage’s Matt Slivinski, who led the team with 18 kills on Saturday, holds the NCAA Division III national championship trophy with his family after the team defeated Springfield College on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha.



Carthage men's volleyball

Carthage men’s volleyball

The Carthage men’s volleyball team celebrate after winning its second consecutive NCAA Division III national title on Saturday at the Tarble Arena in Kenosha. Carthage defeated Springfield College 3-1.

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