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.