Officials for the 2017 National Invitational Volleyball Championship announced 15 schools that have received and accepted automatic berths into the postseason event. The complete 32-team field will be announced on Sunday, Nov. 26 around 10 p.m. ET following NCAA Tournament selections.
“After a nearly 22-year hiatus, we are excited to announce the first 15 schools that have received and accepted an automatic berth into the 2017 event,” said NIVC director Sean Hardy. “We are still waiting on a few other AQ’s from several conferences, but we are excited to see the 32-team field getting closer and closer to reality.”
America East Albany
Big Sky Sacramento State
Colonial College of Charleston
C-USA North Texas
MAC Bowling Green
MEAC Maryland Eastern Shore
Mountain West Wyoming
Ohio Valley SIUE
Southland Stephen F. Austin
Summit Oral Roberts
Sun Belt Texas State
SWAC Alabama A&M
West Coast Pacific
The 2017 tournament will consist of 32 teams with participating schools hosting all matches. A team is offered an automatic berth by the NIVC when it’s the highest-finishing team in its conference regular-season standings, and is not selected for the NCAA Tournament. Should a conference’s automatic qualifier team decline the NIVC invitation, then the conference forfeits its AQ spot and that berth goes into the at-large pool.
Eight participating schools will each host four schools in Rounds 1 and 2 slated for Nov. 28-30. Round 3 will take place Dec. 1-3, Semifinals (Dec. 4-9), and Championship on Dec. 12 at 7 p.m. ET, to be streamed live on ESPN3.
FORT COLLINS, Colo. -- Tournament officials for the 2017 National Invitational Volleyball Championship (NIVC) have announced a format change for the event as Selection Day (Nov. 26) draws closer.
The tournament field will consist of 32 teams, with matches in Rounds 1 and 2 held back-to-back on Nov. 28-Dec. 1 at eight of the participating schools. The event will play through the championship game, hosted at one of the two remaining schools and broadcast on ESPN3.
The NIVC was originally played from 1989-1995. With the support of those founders, the current NIVC will feature automatic qualifiers who are the teams with the best conference finishes that were not selected for the NCAA Tournament. The committee will select the remainder of the field based on court performance throughout this season.
“The NIVC opportunity has been bubbling up in conversation with coaches and administrators for years. We had nearly 60 teams send in contracts for this year, and to provide the best experience in 2017 we’ve decided the 32-team format is preferred,” said NIVC director Sean Hardy. “We will learn a lot running the NIVC this year and are excited to make it part of everyone’s volleyball calendar going forward. Some deserving programs are sent home early after conference tournaments are finished, and the NIVC is a great vehicle to showcase them and grow the rest of the sport.”
Much like the WNIT and NIT events in college basketball, the NIVC taps into the impressive depth of D-I volleyball and is designed to give more high-performing, highly skilled programs a chance to play for a postseason title. Teams with young rosters get to train and compete with an eye to the future; established rosters get one more chance to play together and memorably cap off their student-athlete experience.
Someday, the 2017 Albany volleyball roster will get together again and have a good laugh about the start to their season.
How does 50 years sound?
It might take a generation or three to get the distance needed to reflect back with a smile on the nearly four-week blender through which the program suffered. The 0-12 start in four tournaments saw the Great Danes win just three sets, and it doesn’t take much imagination to say the mood in the locker room at times was a bit bleak.
But Albany and coach MJ Engstrom sifted through the wreckage and built something durable for the second half of the campaign. The team now sits at 10-1 in the America East Conference, clinching the top seed in next week’s tournament that will determine the AE automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament with one regular-season match to go, Friday at Stony Brook.
Engstrom agreed that just about every resource in her coaching capacity was called upon to steer the team –- with seven freshmen and four sophomores -– past the hurt feelings and dark moods of August and September.
“I like to schedule tough in the beginning and challenge our players; obviously I misjudged where we were emotionally, more than anything. That’s what we talked about, coming into practice and not thinking they had failed, in any sense,” said Engstrom, who has been at the helm for 10 years, sent the team to three NCAA tournaments and has been conference coach of the year three times.
“This was a learning experience and everything we did playing against bigger teams, tougher teams, better teams … in the end it would help us.
“I’m not sure exactly they believed us. We did some things and talked about the history of the program, where the alumni had been and why we recruited them … I’ll be honest, there was a week where we didn’t allow them to wear Albany gear. We said, we don’t care about the losses; it’s the fact you aren’t learning from your mistakes. The people who built this program, that’s one thing they did. Until you feel you are worthy of that, you’re not wearing the Albany stuff. After three days, they said, yeah, we think we deserve it, and we haven’t lost since.”
Those four tournaments actually started off fine; losses to national powers Michigan and USC still saw the Great Danes playing with tenacity and responding to the physical challenge with superior desire. But quickly from there, the downward spiral grabbed Albany’s spirits –- the team was still trying to find a leadership core after the graduation of three powerful voices from 2016, and the perfectionist streak that ran deep through the roster became more of a drag as players struggled to understand why they weren’t playing up to their own standards.
Along the way, the skills of the young lineup began to emerge, just as the coaching staff had predicted. The team leader in kills is a redshirt sophomore, Akubata Okenwa, with a freshman and sophomore taking the next two spots on the leader board. Sophomore setter Kelly Cameron leads the way there with 605 assists; freshman middle and New York native Danielle Tedesco has the best hitting percentage and also paces Albany in blocks.
“We’ve still got some setter competition going on, which is fine; our middle (Tedesco) is a freshman who didn’t play high-level club. She’s a three-sport athlete, and we knew she’d eventually be pretty good,” Engstrom said. “We needed to play her. It would have been ideal to redshirt her, but she’s learning on the job. Fortunately, her emotional makeup has allowed her to handle the bumps along the way, and she’s learning a lot faster than a lot of kids in her position would.
“We are teaching them to be resilient and use more positive self-talk. When something bad happens, you have the ability to change your reaction. We work on these things every day.”
There’s a chance some upbeat thinking will come in handy in the AE tournament, should Albany come across New Hampshire along the way. The Wildcats have topped Albany in the past three tourney title games, and in fact handed Albany its only league loss in 2017, a five-setter on the Great Danes’ floor.
On the plus side, Albany swept New Hampshire on the road in early October, and the Wildcats have four league losses, so there’s reason to be confident. Engstrom really doesn’t sweat it, as the competitive challenge of New Hampshire is something she values.
“New Hampshire is extremely well-coached, and the staff is the most stable across the board in conference. Jill (Hirschinger, who has been there 21 years) has an immense knowledge of the game, and if something isn’t working, the next time you play her it will change,” Engstrom said. “We test each other, make each other better; we wouldn’t be as good without playing them and vice versa. We show each other what our weaknesses are. It’s a great rivalry, and it’s always a pretty good match.
“One thing we try to keep student-athletes focused on is being in the moment. It’s not so much who we are playing against, as opposed to what their vulnerabilities are and what we can do to expose that. Whatever color shirt they wear across the net, I want them to remain in the moment.”
Happy ending or not for Albany, the question lingers if Engstrom will again schedule her team to face wicked-tough competition at the start of 2018. Spoiler alert: old habits die hard.
“I do know we’ll go to Michigan State, so we already have a pretty tough tournament there. For me, I’m not into wins and losses; I’m in it to teach our players the game and how to deal with adversity, stretching what they can do and make sure they understand that if they focus, they can attain those goals,” Engstrom added.
“It was the first time in my career I was 0-12, but if we were to go back in time to how we are now, I think it would be a little different. Am I going to schedule a little less tough? I don’t think so.”
Division-I women’s volleyball welcomes back the NIVC in 2017, a 64-team tournament bringing the postseason experience to hundreds of athletes and coaches who aren’t playing in the NCAA championships.
Research and planning is well underway; the NIVC has contacted about 100 teams to gauge interest in the event. The NIVC was held for seven seasons (1989-95) as a 20-team event, but the remodeled format fans will see in 2017 looks much like college basketball’s Postseason WNIT – which makes sense, as both of those championship moments are produced by Triple Crown Sports.
All matches, including the semifinals and championship, are hosted by participating schools. Every round is single elimination. The event offers 32 automatic berths, one to each established conference, and 32 at-large berths. The NIVC field and bracket is announced late on the evening of the NCAA selections. More than 110 teams are on the NIVC’s radar and have been contacted. Two have declined the opportunity. The NIVC is committed to offering deserved opportunities to women’s volleyball programs; the event offers teams an opportunity to get more practices in, to experience playoff-atmosphere games, to play in front of passionate fans and to use their NIVC success and experience as a springboard to the next season.
“Many schools have told us they would be interested in hosting NIVC games; we continue to answer questions about how the NIVC works and urge teams to get their information to us sooner rather than later,” said NIVC director Sean Hardy. “Our history with the WNIT is coming in very handy as we prepare for the revival of this event.”
Selection Day is Nov. 26; Round 1 and 2 will run Nov. 28-30, Round 3 is Dec. 1-3, Round 4 is Dec. 4-6. The semifinals are Dec. 7-9, and the championship match will be held Dec. 12.
With the coast-to-coast excitement brewing about the NIVC, here’s a look at the schools that have been contacted:
Central Florida AAC
Albany America East
New Hampshire America East
Stony Brook America East
UMBC America East
Kennesaw State ASUN
Dayton Atlantic 10
VCU Atlantic 10
Duke Atlantic Coast
Florida State Atlantic Coast
Georgia Tech Atlantic Coast
North Carolina Atlantic Coast
Syracuse Atlantic Coast
Kansas State Big 12
TCU Big 12
Texas Tech Big 12
West Virginia Big 12
Butler Big East
Seton Hall Big East
Villanova Big East
Idaho Big Sky
North Dakota Big Sky
Northern Colorado Big Sky
Portland State Big Sky
Sacramento State Big Sky
High Point Big South
Radford Big South
Iowa Big Ten
Northwestern Big Ten
Hawaii Big West
UC Irvine Big West
Col. of Charleston Colonial
James Madison Colonial
Florida Atlantic Conference USA
North Texas Conference USA
Rice Conference USA
Southern Miss Conference USA
Cleveland State Horizon
Green Bay Horizon
Harvard Ivy League
Princeton Ivy League
Yale Ivy League
Fairfield Metro Atlantic
Ball State Mid-American
Bowling Green Mid-American
Miami (OH) Mid-American
Md. Eastern Shore Mid-Eastern
Drake Missouri Valley
Illinois State Missouri Valley
Missouri State Missouri Valley
Northern Iowa Missouri Valley
Boise State Mountain West
San Diego State Mountain West
San Jose State Mountain West
Wyoming Mountain West
Central Conn. State Northeast
Robert Morris Northeast
Austin Peay Ohio Valley
Belmont Ohio Valley
Eastern Kentucky Ohio Valley
Murray State Ohio Valley
SIUE Ohio Valley
Army West Point Patriot
Ole Miss SEC
Texas A&M SEC
Central Arkansas Southland
Houston Baptist Southland
Stephen F. Austin Southland
Alabama A&M Southwestern
Alabama State Southwestern
Texas Southern Southwestern
Oral Roberts Summit
South Dakota Summit
Arkansas State Sun Belt
Coastal Carolina Sun Belt
Louisiana Sun Belt
South Alabama Sun Belt
Texas State Sun Belt
Gonzaga West Coast
Pacific West Coast
Pepperdine West Coast
Portland West Coast
Santa Clara West Coast
CSU Bakersfield Western Athletic
New Mexico State Western Athletic
Utah Valley Western Athletic
UTRGV Western Athletic
With most teams sitting near the halfway point in their conference schedules, there’s plenty to digest as upstart programs look to continue their successes, while teams up against some win-loss adversity look for that finishing kick to hit the conference tournaments in stride.
There are 32 NCAA Division I conferences and they all get automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament. The other 32 spots are filled with at-large bids. But those left out have a great alternative, the 64-team field National Invitational Volleyball Championship, not unlike the NIT in men’s and women’s basketball.
All games, including the semifinals and championship, are hosted by participating schools. Every round is single elimination. And like the NCAA Tournament, the event offers 32 automatic berths, one to each conference, and 32 at-large bids. Accordingly, we take a look at the field that might include some of the teams discussed here.
In the mid-major space, historical hammers BYU (ranked 8th nationally), Creighton (16th), San Diego (18th), Colorado State (20th) and Cal Poly (23rd) are in full possession of their destiny and have rosters and coaching staffs built to withstand the push to the NCAA Tournament.
Here’s a look at some other programs hoping for the high ground of the postseason, some of whom have appeared in the VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major Poll, presented by the NIVC:
Lipscomb — A three-match winning streak has helped the Bison right the ship, but the preseason choice for the Atlantic Sun championship is 4-3 in the league (11-9 overall), behind three teams at 6-1 (Kennesaw State, Florida Gulf Coast, Jacksonville). Carlyle Nusbaum, last year’s ASUN player of the year, is making another case for the honor in her junior year, with 333 kills (4.90 per set) and a hitting percentage of .243. Junior Lauren Anderson had a career-high 15 kills in the team’s sweep Saturday of USC Upstate; the first in a series of big matches comes Friday, when the Bison host Kennesaw State.
Colonial Athletic Association — James Madison holds the highest RPI in the league at No. 59, but Northeastern is 8-0 in the standings, with Charleston at 7-1. JMU is 5-3, but so are Towson and Hofstra, so the back half of the schedule could lead to some volatile changes. It’s a little rare to see three players with more than 200 kills at this point in the campaign, but Charleston is blessed in that regard with Devon Rachel, Krissy Mummey and Kennedy Madison. Hofstra is being piloted with skill and savvy by setter Luisa Sydlik, a sophomore from Germany who has 955 assists (11.37 per set). Hofstra also has players hailing from Serbia, Italy, Croatia and Puerto Rico.
Wyoming — In the past two weeks, the Cowgirls have broken off five straight victories to move to 6-2 in the Mountain West and position themselves as a difficult assignment in the conference. Boise State (4-4 MWC) is still a threat but might be a bit rattled after losing to Air Force, which sits at No. 196 in the RPI metric. Wyoming hits a respectable .228 and more than gets the job done on defense; this also projects as a team to watch in the future, with just three seniors on the roster and the vast majority of playing time going to younger players.
American Athletic Conference — Wichita State (8-0) is holding serve as predicted, but right behind is a four-team scrum featuring SMU (7-1) and three teams at 6-2, East Carolina, Temple and Cincinnati. SMU has a top-70 RPI and is getting back to its normal look with the return from injury of Katie Hegarity, a unanimous preseason first-teamer in the AAC. Cincinnati has 308 kills off the arm of Carly Nolan, and preseason first-team setter Jade Tingelhoff has 735 assists, which all bodes well for the Bearcats, who were picked to finish second in the preseason poll.
Gonzaga — While a lot of the oxygen in the West Coast Conference is claimed by BYU and San Diego – and the Bulldogs just dropped straight-set road losses to those teams last week – there’s plenty to like about Gonzaga, which started league play with six consecutive wins. The team has a taste for drama, going 6-2 in five-set matches, and with five players registering more than 100 kills, there’s a useful bit of variety in the offense. The Bulldogs were picked to finish ninth out of 10 teams in the preseason poll, but with some continued success can eat into the margin between them and Loyola Marymount in the RPI standings.
Patriot League — One would expect just the conference tourney winner to get an NCAA berth, and it looks like Navy, American and Army are the strongest candidates. Polish junior national team member and 2016 player of the year Aleksandra Kazala paces American with 372 kills (4.77 per set); Carolyn Bockrath leads Army with 238 kills and is hitting a stellar .403, and Navy has benefited enormously with the returns of 2016 setter of the year Patricia Mattingly and libero of the year Sydney Shearn.
The High Point volleyball program may not reside on the Mount Rushmore of NCAA teams in the sport, but that isn’t keeping the Panthers from having a monumental run in 2017.
Sure, it’s no shock to see High Point bashing away in the win-loss column. The Panthers won the Big South tournament last year to reach the NCAA Tournament for the second time since it began Division I play in 1999. And as Big South preseason favorites in 2017, High Point has two all-Big South honorees in senior Haley Barnes and junior Molly Livingston, who are meeting and exceeding expectations.
Two weeks into October, the Panthers are percolating. After Tuesday’s sweep of Liberty, High Point is 7-0 in the Big South (14-6 overall) and winners of 17 straight sets, the longest current streak in the nation. Five of the league wins came on the road, and the team is now receiving votes in the VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major Poll presented by the NIVC.
“We’re excited where we are at. We lost two or three matches in the pre-conference where we’ve felt like we’d love to have back or finish better,” said second-year Panthers coach Tom Mendoza, who was an assistant at Creighton as the Bluejays built their strong mid-major resume. “However, we thought it was possible we’d start 0-10, with no automatic wins on that pre-conference schedule. I give credit to the group … but there’s no concern about getting caught up in the hype because our most important matches are in front of us.
Next up for the Panthers are home matches against UNC Asheville (4-2 Big South, 8-9 overall) on Saturday and Gardner-Webb (1-6, 7-13) next Tuesday.
“We don’t have to convince the team about why we should keep trying to get better,” Mendoza said. “Everyone knows it comes down to a couple weekends in November, and the goal is to keep taking steps in the right direction.”
Mendoza has been determined to not needlessly mess with the chemistry of his inherited roster. High Point finished 21-10 in coach Jason Oliver’s final year — he moved on to become an assistant at Indiana — with Barnes and Livingston anchoring the offense and Katie Tylman also showing her mettle as a sophomore. The primary concern had to do with consistency, as the Panthers would often follow up two straight terrific efforts with a clunker.
“I felt very comfortable starting at High Point, because I saw a lot of similarities with Creighton. That was a strong group, but a team that had never won its conference or been to the NCAA tournament,” Mendoza said. “We learned as a group how to succeed on a national level; that group didn’t have a history of success. At High Point, we were not rebuilding, but again it hadn’t had sustained success relative to our conference, winning championships. You just have to go through it as a group and learn what it takes.
“I tried to emphasize that, rather than change the structure of the defense, or our terminology. We peaked late (in 2016), were somewhat consistent, and were playing our best at the end. I’d say there’s more complexity to defense now, more stability, more consistent play. We won our tournament and after that we believed we should expect it out of ourselves, but still needed to learn how to play that well for every single match.”
Livingston is hitting a stellar .387 and leads the team in kills with 229 and also in blocks with 76, just more than one per set. Barnes gets tasked with the difficult swings when the team is out of system, but she has 226 kills, leads the way in aces (34) and is second in digs. Tylman is hitting .287 and has 175 kills, while the back row is fortified nicely by freshman libero Abby Bottomley. Mendoza also needed some production from a fresh face on the ride side after factoring in graduation, and freshman Katie Doering has been a stabilizing force.
At setter, the Panthers found themselves very naturally evolving into a 6-2 system. Last year, Carly Jimenez began to take on more responsibility there, but wasn’t expected to shoulder the entire task, while Jenna Smith also began to show some ability in that space. In 2017, Jimenez (a senior) and Smith (a sophomore) combine for about 12 assists per set.
“We felt that a 6-2 matched our strengths. Last year, Carly as a junior hadn’t set as much, so she was learning how to step into that starting role,” Mendoza said, “and we had a good young freshman in Jenna Smith, but she was learning what the college game is all about.
“They were both just excited to be on the court. Both are so selfless and want team to be successful, so playing in a 6-2 is not a sacrifice. It’s a little unusual having to take on that role as a leader on the floor half the time, but they have been very good ones.”
When you are trying to carve out fresh territory, it's nice to put tools in multiple hands.
Keith Schunzel came to the head coaching job at Kennesaw State volleyball in 2013, fully aware that the program had yet to find a real identity. The Owls won just seven matches in their first three years of existence (2006-08) and were still looking for the players and persistence required to make a dent in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
Schunzel put all his resources and instinct into his first true recruiting class at Kennesaw State, and time has rewarded the entire process with an exciting and intriguing 2017 season. The Owls sit at 9-3 overall, with a 3-0 mark in league play, victories already in the pocket over the ASUN hammers of Lipscomb and Florida Gulf Coast and have earned themselves a No. 25 ranking in the latest VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major Poll presented by the NIVC -- it's a burst of success and progress that this current group of seniors made happen out of willpower.
"We have seven seniors, six who all came in together. That whole class, it was our first real one from a full cycle, where we got here when they were juniors in high school," said Schunzel, whose team won the regular-season title at 12-2 last year and have appeared in two ASUN tournament championship games. "In so many ways, they are the foundation of what we’ve built this thing on, They bought into a vision we had when there was really nothing on the court to say it would happen.
"They did that on blind faith; every year we’ve gotten better, and they’ve worked their butts off. We got really lucky with that being our first class. There are a couple next-level athletes that you hoped would develop, and there are some foundation kids you hope to get to know and feel that they will come in and do things the right way. We caught lightning in a bottle; everyone panned out to be what we expected, and quite a few have turned out to be way better than what we thought."
There's a balance in that established group coaches usually wouldn't dare to dream for -- at libero, the Owls deploy 2016 ASUN defensive player of the year Katarina Morton, and setter Kristi Piedimonte has run the offense with precision for four years, averaging more that 10 assists per set this year. Anaiah Boyer is the program's only two-time all-conference first teamer and is a strong, reliable threat at outside hitter; Rachel Taylor leads the team in blocks.
With an added touch from junior outside hitter Maddie Jones (a 5-foot-8 springboard who leads the team in kills), the Owls are in that ideal space where their quality of play is consistent, and at times spectacular. There were certainly growing pains, such as the 10-19 finish for the 2014 team, but even that made sense as Schunzel leaned on the potential of his younger players right away.
"It was exactly what we thought it was going to be. The progression has played out so well in many ways; we’ve had some luck, but other things have come into it," Schunzel said. "Our first year (2013) we were handed a roster and did better than they had recently; in 2014, we brought in the six freshmen and five started all year. That was a challenge, being a program with very limited tradition starting five freshmen. People felt we were better (than the record), but we weren’t ready yet.
"Next year, we made the jump, beating Georgia Tech for the first time, and we were the highest RPI team in Georgia. In our third year we reached the conference tourney final ... we kept progressing, and this year is the best team we’ve had. One thing I’ve learned, you can’t go in somewhere, snap your fingers and expect something magical to happen. We've had two excellent recruiting classes and been able to build it organically and watch it grow."
The Owls will get their first taste of ASUN road competition this weekend, taking on Jacksonville (the other 3-0 team in league play right now) and North Florida. They can take inspiration from the defensive rigor they showed against Florida Gulf Coast, holding the Eagles to under .100 hitting, and the fact the team isn't hurting for options offensively.
"For us, the best way is to be as balanced as possible. We have four or five players who can put up 10-15 kills a night, and I feel pretty good about that," Schunzel added.
Coaches always dare to hope –- but hardly expect –- their NCAA women’s college volleyball rosters to assemble in perfect harmony.
However, you probably can’t find a volleyball lineup more in tune than the group at Radford, which has won 12 of its first 13 matches in 2017 and looks to be as skilled and savvy as any in the Big South Conference. The Highlanders are off to a 2-0 start in league play, are steaming toward their fourth 20-win season in five years, and have broken into the VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major Poll presented by the NIVC.
Coach Marci Jenkins has carefully crafted a team that is experienced but not senior-heavy, and ready to win now without leaving the future a complete question mark. The lineup typically includes a mix of juniors and seniors, with a sophomore and freshman starting, and features a classic 6-foot kill-shot machine in the form of senior Maddie Palmer.
Last year’s Big South player of the year is swinging with style again, leading the team in kills and digs, and is comfortably ahead of the pace needed to become the program’s all-time kills leader by the end of 2017.
In 2016, Palmer had 495 kills, 266 more than her closest teammate, and averaged 4.5 kills per set. In her first 13 matches this season, the product of Simpsonville, S.C, Palmer has picked up right where she left off, averaging 4.46 kills. What’s more, she had 18 aces and leads the team with 150 digs, 3.06 per set.
“She’s really good with the younger kids. She does not have the sort of ego you might get at times, and in fact could be a little tougher, to be honest. She wants those younger kids to develop, because she knows she can’t do it by herself,” Jenkins said.
“As a freshman, she came in with team that had won the Big South in 2013, learned from older kids and saw a path in how she would become a leader.”
Radford coach Marci JenkinsJenkins, whose team won 24 matches each in 2014 and 2016 and is hoping to revisit the glory run of 2013, when it won 25 and reached the NCAA Tournament, said Palmer is a hard worker.
“She was always a physical kid. She did a ton of work in weight room after her freshman year. We don’t always get kids who are polished and ready to go, and it might take a couple of years to get their body ready to go,” Jenkins said. “Now, she’s the kid we thought she could be, but she has certainly exceeded it by so much. She’s come a long way as a person and player and student –- she finished with a 4.0 last semester.”
All kinds of talent have taken root in the environment provided by Palmer and Jenkins. Junior setter Haley Kleespies (whose mother and two sisters all played college volleyball) was first-team all-conference in 2016, while junior Valerie Gonzalez has more kills now (119) than she had all last year. Sophomore Stephanie Neast is also fortifying the offense (105 kills), while freshman Maci Keaton is the team leader in blocks.
Jenkins mentioned the program is aware the post-Maddie Palmer Era is something that must be prepared for, but the excitement and potential of the here-and-now has to be enjoyed. Radford posted five-set wins on the road a week apart at Arizona and South Carolina in early September, which certainly pointed to something promising.
“We knew coming in we had a veteran team, and that we might need to rely on some younger players to provide a few pieces as we lost just two seniors from last year. And we scheduled a tough preseason,” Jenkins said. “I wasn’t sure what we were going to get – my first thought was, just have our head above water before conference, and then we’ll be OK.
“Beating Arizona was huge, and the next weekend beating South Carolina was also huge. I (certainly) didn’t sit here in May and say we are going 12-1 and 2-0 in conference to start. For them to produce what they have so far, is a thing of beauty for us to watch. And we haven’t played our best volleyball yet, which is interesting.”
The one recent year where the Highlanders struggled was 2015, when the record deflated to 14-15, but that was the result of freakish injury problems. Palmer missed 10 matches with an ankle injury, no middles were healthy, two setters missed time with concussions and current defensive specialist Kaylor Nash had to run the offense.
Radford is healthy and in sync in 2017, and must now stay sharp for the challenges of the Big South schedule. Next up is a tricky road match Friday at Campbell (an unexpected 0-3 so far in league play) and then a true test of mettle Saturday at High Point. The Panthers (10-6, 3-0) were the preseason favorites for the Big South crown.
“We try to say it every week to the team, we are 0-0, regardless of what happened last week,” Jenkins added. “This conference has teams that do good things in their own systems. There’s not a day you can say, we’ll play one team the same way we just played this other team.
“We’ll have to face High Point at least twice, and maybe more if we take care of business as we go through it, but it’s too early to get too focused on that.”
The non-conference schedule for an NCAA volleyball team can be crafted to resemble a nice, comfortable chair, with extra cushions and an ottoman that pops up in recline mode.
For Erin Appleman and the Yale Bulldogs, the early slate for 2017 felt more like fitting into an elementary school desk, bonking knees and elbows and fighting to get the backrest right.
Discomfort was the goal when Appleman assembled the plan, looking to see if the Bulldogs could respond positively when facing the stellar athletic firepower of teams like USC, Penn State and Arkansas. Yale has emerged wiser for the experience and will take a 6-3 record into the start of Ivy League play this weekend.
Yale opens conference play with five home matches, starting Friday against Brown (5-6). The Bulldogs are then off a full week before playing host to Princeton.
Also in the pre-conference, Yale pulled off a three-set sweep of Wake Forest, which is packed with strong hitters topping well over 6 feet, and the Bulldogs also swept UC Santa Barbara and Ohio.
“Everyone was giving me a hard time a month ago when I said we might start out 1-8. Our schedule was pretty tough. It was really good to play against bigger, stronger athletes, and there were teams we had success against that had that,” said Appleman, who has guided Yale to seven Ivy League championships in her 14 years at the school in New Haven, Connecticut.
“That helped our team develop, and in facing some of those teams, our athletes did a nice job of just going for it. They got the confidence that will help us through the conference.”
The Bulldogs are coming off a 19-5 season in 2016 and certainly boast a roster that can threaten defending league-champion Princeton and others in the next several weeks. Appleman has combed through the rosters of top club teams in California (Sunshine, Coast, Wave, Tstreet, Vision), Texas (Mad Frog, Houston Skyline) and Florida (OVA) to build a reliably strong program, one that won five straight Ivy League crowns from 2010-14.
One concern for 2017 was replacing the offensive prowess of Brittani Steinberg, a first-team all-Ivy League selection. The task is being spread around the lineup, with junior outside hitter Kelley Wirth doing a solid job when asked to lead and hitting .302 so far this season. One of the most talented players to reach campus in recent years, sophomore setter Franny Arnautou, has merged her talents gracefully with two-year starter Kelsey Crawford, and that’s giving Yale some lock-down excellence at a key position.
“I was concerned for about a day. Franny happens to be one of the best teammates we have. She’s a super competitor, but the setters work hard making each other better,” Appleman said. “She’s a gifted athlete, played on some national teams and in high-performance programs along the way, but she’s one of the best teammates I could find in someone, and for a setter that’s a great skill to have.”
For any coach to have an extended run in the Ivy League, he or she must cope with the pressures and expectations that emanate from the classroom. And with no athletic scholarships to entice, Appleman has to do her best to develop players while knowing they could up and leave anytime for a scholarship offer somewhere else. But the right kids usually find their way to Yale and that’s what keeps Appleman at her post.
“We have to recruit strong academic kids. That’s the starting point. It’s one of the main reasons I’m here and love working at Yale, is because of the student-athletes and their determination,” she said.
“Every one of them wants to be really good at everything they do. They want the extra work, watch more video, get extra passing reps. It’s so refreshing to see that as I get older, these younger kids are still striving to get better. It’s a joy to come into work every day.”
With eight years of history as an assistant coach at Penn State preceding her days at Yale, Appleman has gained a real thirst for the top of the standings, and she admits there’s a steady burn in her thoughts regarding Princeton’s two-year claim on the league title. The margin has been tight: In 2015 the Bulldogs were sent askew because of injuries and the 2016 team was primarily driven by underclassmen who may not have been ready for that next step.
Humble but hungry, Yale is looking to restore order.
“You don’t go into it thinking, ‘I want to win five (league titles) in a row.’ The third one, I wasn’t even thinking about it and I was talking to my mom, and she said, ‘Hey, that’s three in a row!’ and I’m, like, what?” Appleman said with a laugh. “Honestly, my goal is to be the most improved team every year, because then I know I’m doing what I should be doing. But there is a fire under us.
“What makes a program successful is not being high and low, not having that mountain and valleys approach. It’s about us being more mature and sustaining against good runs that other teams make. We do have to get better on the road, and that’s why we played some tough teams on the road (in non-conference). We wanted to have some adversity to overcome and still be able to perform.”
Photo by Rick Yeatts/North Texas Athletic Communcations
As the North Texas volleyball team makes its way through the 2017 season, players and coaches are perfectly fine with exploring the middle of the road.
That means leaning on the centerpieces of the roster, senior middle blockers Amanda Chamberlain and Holly Milam, who have helped the Mean Green show some burst on the front end of their schedule. After Wednesday’s three-set sweep of Abilene Christian, North Texas sits a 9-1 overall, matching the program’s best-ever start through 10 matches and earning a spot in the Top 25 of the VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major Poll presented by the NIVC.
Chamberlain is hitting an astonishing .550 and leads the team in kills and blocks, while Milam is second in kills and paces the team in digs.
“Our system, we really try to force the middle in order to open up the pins. Amanda has the unique ability with her size (6-foot-3) and the speed she plays with – she wasn’t always like that, had to get in shape, but this year she’s putting it all together,” said head coach Andrew Palileo, whose team is on an eight-match winning streak heading into this weekend’s Maroon Classic at Mississippi State. “Holly is all about speed – she’s a little smaller at 6-1, and we really push the tempo with our sets for Holly, especially on our slides. She’s also very versatile and gets some numbers playing outside a few rotations, so she’s not always in the middle.”
With that strong central identity, the Mean Green have elbow room for senior Alexis Wright on the outside, with freshmen Barbara Teakell and Valerie Valerian also swinging effectively and efficiently. That’s a lot of territory and options for opposing defenses to confront, and it’s a huge reason for the program’s strong start.
“Barbara is your traditional outside who has that shot-making ability, and she knows how to manage her play and still score, even if she’s struggling a bit. She’s also holding up on passing, because you know everyone is trying to pick on our two freshmen in serve receive,” Palileo said. “Alexis, on the right side, has always been stuck with that ‘P’ word – potential. She’s finally executing what we are asking, and doing it in blocking as well.”
A year ago, the Mean Green played through a variety of obstacles and ended up with a 13-19 record; it was the first season without two-time Conference USA player of the year Carnae Dillard, and an early ankle injury to Milam jostled the lineup even more. When the backline defense started to wobble, Palileo moved setter Amy Henard to libero – it was a year where nothing came easily.
That last move, however, allowed Karley York to get time in at setter, and now as a junior she’s playing with savvy and confidence, averaging nearly 12 assists per set. Coaches and fans might say their team is on the verge of a breakout moment, but North Texas truly had the elements waiting underneath the surface to spark a terrific season.
“We were in a lot of close matches last year, but the biggest thing about last year was our chemistry wasn’t what it should have been. Anytime we needed that trust when other teams were really pushing us, we didn’t have it,” Palileo said. “I knew we were coming back with a lot of experience, and that the freshmen were going to help. Our girls are getting along and genuinely care for each other – after each match we ask, did we love each other out there, did we make our teammates better, did we respect the game? That’s been our focus in the moment.”
Looking ahead, North Texas knows that Western Kentucky (which has three straight 30-win seasons) is the highest bar within C-USA, and there’s a cluster of other contenders (Rice, UTSA, Marshall, Southern Miss) who have reason to think they can put up a fight. Palileo likes his chances, however, because his roster keeps giving him reason to do so.
“You have to be able to win on the road – that’s always important. But our schedule fits us well, because last year we were at Western Kentucky, at Rice, at UTSA, and this year we have them all at home,” he added. “We’re just playing better, and better as a team at the things that will be required. That effectiveness in the middle has opened up things for us; we stay consistent with ball control, that will drive us in the middle.”
North Texas will face Southeastern Louisiana (1-9), Mississippi State (7-5) and Jackson State (1-10) at the Maroon Classic.