Aldis Berzins had just finished his first media interview as Stevenson University's next head volleyball coach in the fall of 2016 when Landon Shorts walked into the gym.
Berzins was inheriting one of the better teams in Division III men's volleyball. The Mustangs were fresh off a 26-8 season and a semifinals appearance in the NCAA Tournament. As a freshman, Shorts was at the center of that by setting a program record in aces and leading the conference with 345 kills while appearing in all 34 games.
It didn't take long for Berzins to get a glimpse of what Shorts brought to the team. Once Shorts got into the gym, he started tossing balls to himself and spiking them inside the 10-foot line.
Berzins knew he had already found his go-to player.
"I was surprised at the level he played at," Berzins said. "He could have played Division I if he chose to."
Shorts leaves behind a legacy of unprecedented success at Stevenson after finishing his senior year this spring by earning National Outside Attacker of the Year honors from Off the Block. In addition to earning seven other awards during his college career and being the NCAA's all-time leader in service aces across all divisions, Shorts helped lead the Mustangs to four straight 20-plus winning seasons, three conference finals appearances and two NCAA Tournament runs from 2016-2019.
"I think that our class put Stevenson on the map," Shorts said. "I just hope this legacy continues and our coach can get a bunch of good recruits in to carry this on in the future. I would love to see Stevenson playing for another chance at a national championship."
Shorts has known success since his days at Central York High School (Pa.). During his final two seasons playing for the Panthers, he earned two All-State and All-District selections. His team won a state championship in 2014 and a district championship in 2015.
That carried over into his first year at Stevenson when the Mustangs advanced to the Final Four in the NCAA Tournament in the spring of 2016. It was a big deal, especially to the upperclassmen because they had never even been to the tournament.
Shorts now knows how impressive that accomplishment was, but at the time, it was just another game to him.
"I didn't know how big it was because I had no other experience," Shorts said. "Looking back at it, [making the Final Four] was very impressive. But at the time when I was a freshman, I was just having fun and improving myself."
Shorts thinks his early success has helped him perform in big moments.
"I think knowing what it takes to be the best and beat the best and having that experience under my belt really helped me out through the pressure situations and the games we had to win to move on," he said. "Having the experience at the Final Four level really guided me the rest of my career."
Stevenson didn't reach the Final Four for a second time in Shorts' career, but they were consistently a top threat in the conference; the Mustangs won the Middle Atlantic Conference championship in 2018. They also advanced to a semifinals appearance in a conference tournament for four straight seasons.
And there wasn't any drop off in Shorts' game', either. He stayed at a consistently high level with at least 300 kills, 150 digs and averaging at a .301 hitting percentage during each season.
"It's huge," Berzins said of Shorts' consistency. "The team's record was kind of affected by Landon's career. We didn't lose many matches ... and every night he was hitting in the .300s."
Shorts is an all-around talented volleyball player, but his serving is what he is known for the most. One of the highlights from his senior year was when he passed UC Santa Barbara's Evan Patak as the all-time leader for service aces across all three divisions. Shorts finished his career with 293 service aces.
Berzins said it's a mix of hard work and genetics; Shorts said it all comes down to repetition.
"I've been practicing my jumps since I was a freshman in high school and getting the consistent toss every game," Shorts said. "Having a consistent toss will make your serve. If you're not consistent with the ball and you have no clue where it is, then you're all over the place and you can't hit the ball as hard as you can."
Berzins said the memory of him breaking the record against Widener in March will always stick with him.
"The whole team was so proud of him," Berzins said. "I remember subbing him out after that ... and he said, 'Why are you taking me out?' I never had to take him out. He was always playing at a level to help us win."
Now that Shorts has graduated, he's going to stay in men's volleyball as a graduate assistant for Misericordia (Pa.) while he pursues his MBA. Berzins and Stevenson are preparing for a season without Shorts leading the team, but the Mustangs' head coach knows Shorts is irreplaceable.
"We're going to have to find different ways to score points without Landon in there," he said. "He will definitely be missed. I think the other coaches are going to be happy that he's gone. It's really hard to defend an unnatural rocket serve like that."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Stevenson Athletics