OLE MISS 3, TEXAS TECH 0 (25-17, 25-15, 25-19)
OXFORD, MS -- Ole Miss built early leads in the first two sets, then rumbled ahead in the third set after a 15-15 tie, and rode 17 kills from Emily Stroup to beat Texas Tech and win the 2017 NIVC championship.
The Rebels (22-14) dropped just one set in five matches during the tournament, beating West Virginia, Georgia, Arkansas State and Stephen F. Austin in the previous rounds.
Ole Miss won a challenge in the first set, which gave them an 8-7 lead, and the lead expanded to 12-8 on a kill from Stroup. Emily Hill had a kill to draw Texas Tech (19-15) to 17-15, but winners off the arms of Bayleigh Scott and Lexi Thompson pushed the lead to 21-16 for Ole Miss, which rolled to the win from there.
In Set 2, three errors from the Red Raiders allowed Ole Miss to build a 17-11 lead, and again, there would be no rally from the visitors.
Set 3 was more back-and-forth, with Texas Tech taking a 15-14 lead on a kill from Katy Keenan. Ole Miss replied quickly and took a 23-16 lead; Kate Gibson's kill gave her team match point, and Stroup finished it off with her final kill.
Ole Miss had five aces and hit .276 on the night, and Stroup hit .353 against the Red Raiders. Gibson and Thompson each had nine kills, and Jordan Fate had 19 assists. Caroline Adams topped 513 digs on the season, setting a single-season record for the Rebels.
Chandler Atwood had 11 kills for Texas Tech.
The 2017 NIVC all-tournament was announced after the match; those players awarded were:
Emily Stroup (MVP), Ole Miss
Kate Gibson, Ole Miss
Caroline Adams, Ole Miss
Missy Owens, Texas Tech
Kate Klepetka, Texas Tech
Mia Swanegan, West Virginia
Anna Walsh, TCU
When Tony Graystone took over the Texas Tech volleyball program in 2016, he brought plenty of optimism to the task, even if the Red Raiders’ history had a definitely gloomy air. Graystone and his staff changed what they could right away in terms of tone and temperament; a few key transfers moved the needle as well, and the squad posted its first winning record in almost a generation in 2017.
It’s always nice to know if people are paying attention to your work, and Texas Tech can certainly take comfort on that front with its run into the championship match of the National Invitational Volleyball Championship. The Red Raiders will play at Ole Miss today at 7 p.m. ET (ESPN3) for the crown, in this first year of the NIVC’s return from its first run back in 1989-95.
Sitting at 19-14 overall, Texas Tech has won four times on the road already in the NIVC, including a semifinal win against fellow Big 12 foe TCU that was its third win over the Horned Frogs this season. It’s been a meaningful couple of weeks for a program that has typically been an afterthought in D-I volleyball.
“The tournament is part of what we’ve been talking about, in terms of what our goals are and what we expect out of our program. To go later in the semester and play meaningful matches in late November and into December are big goals,” said Graystone, who ran high-achieving teams at West Texas A&M and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi for 16 years before making to move to Lubbock. “Going through the grind of a longer season and to keep training … all those things have been really good for us. The first few rounds of the tournament is where we finished some things we tried to start at the beginning of the season. These were (accomplishments) we were starting to get in conference play that we didn’t quite get marked off our list, so by the time we got to the (NIVC) finals, we could look at our season and say, yeah, we have it all checked off. This has been really good for us.”
Texas Tech’s turnaround is notable in many ways, but on the heels of a 10-21 finish in 2016, it’s downright amazing. The roster today is pretty young, with just one senior, but talent designed to build a future is beginning to emerge while a few critical transfers shore up key positions today.
Having played every match of the NIVC in Texas, the team has been uplifted by the sight of red and black in the stands, and the sense fans are ready to believe.
“I’ve been close to the program a long time, but once you get into it, you realize how hard it’s been. Fans want to win, they are passionate about it – there’s a great community, but they haven’t had much to celebrate,” Graystone said. “You can never fully prepare for a season like that (in 2016) – we won 31 matches my last year (at A&M-CC). We decided to take the team we were given and give them a second chance, have them restart their careers. We also had to fix some things in the culture, and it was important to look at the girls we planned to build around. We had to go through last year to get to this year – not much would have changed that for us in Year 1.”
Leading the way for Texas Tech is junior setter Missy Owens, a California native who played two years at Long Beach State and has found a perfect landing spot with the Red Raiders. She averages about 11 assists per set and, at 6-foot-1, impacts a point in multiple ways. Senior libero Kate Klepetka (who came over with Graystone from A&M-CC) is a defensive anchor, and sophomore Emily Hill (a transfer from Mississippi State) leads the team in kills with 411.
Another sophomore, Chandler Atwood, is second in kills with 369 and has flowered during the NIVC as a hitter with a purpose.
“We’ve had Missy on campus since January, so this was her first season. We like everything about her game – she plays defense, puts up blocks, can serve and just has a good complete game,” Graystone said. “Her touch is good, she can reverse well and set up things one-on-one. She has shined throughout the tournament.
“Emily, we brought her in to build the offense around, and Chandler, as a freshman, we were waiting for her to figure things out. As the season has gone on she’s done it; she has all the talent in the world and we’ve just been waiting for that light bulb to go off and for her to realize what she’s capable of. She’s also taken off in the tournament.”
Whether Texas Tech gets to end the season with an NIVC title will depend on a lot of factors, especially with Ole Miss (21-14) playing very well with three three-set sweeps in its four matches so far. But plenty of positive memories are already secured, including that big semifinal win over TCU where the Frogs seemed to possess the upper hand early.
“That was a satisfying win for sure – they were ready for us and started off playing really hot,” Graystone added. “I was happy with how we rallied together and got things turned around. We felt the matchups were good for us and we liked the game plan – it was about settling in and riding it out. It was an emotional match – we have a lot of Dallas kids just like they do, so there were a lot of familiar faces, and it’s as close as rivalry as we’ll get in the Big 12.”
OLE MISS 3, WEST VIRGINIA 0 (25-23. 25-22, 25-17)
OXFORD, MS -- West Virginia (21-13) played three tough sets against Ole Miss (21-14), but to the delight of the home crowd it was the Rebels that prevailed, 3-0, and secured its spot in the 2017 NIVC Championship.
The Championship Game against Texas Tech is scheduled for Tuesday, December 12, at 7 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on ESPN3.
Mia Swanegan and Payton Caffrey led the way for the Mountaineers on the afternoon. The duo were the only West Virginia players to end in double figures with 13 and 11 kills, respectively. Gianna Gotterba paced the team with 23 digs.
Ole Miss got a giant performance from Emily Stroup on Saturday. The sophomore finished with a game-high 19 kills, two digs and a block. Kate Gibson also finished in double figure kill totals with 10.
Photo by All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks
When postseason brackets are released in college sports, athletes have an almost universal response that involves cheering, high-fiving and phone calls to parents.
For the coaches the excitement can take a different shape, such as getting to answer the question, “Hey, did we get good enough this year to beat good teams?”
West Virginia’s volleyball squad already has a few signature wins on the board in 2017, but more vindication about the program’s progress has surfaced with the Mountaineers’ run to the 2017 NIVC semifinals. That match (Saturday, Dec. 9 at 4:30 p.m. CT) will be played on the road against Ole Miss (20-14), with the winner meeting Texas Tech (19-14) for the championship on Dec. 12 (7 p.m. ET, ESPN3).
West Virginia (21-12) is one of those ideal fits for the NIVC, featuring a young roster that grew through the season and is now getting a feel for the excitement (and work required) that comes with a postseason opportunity.
“This is great for us – for where our program is right now, this is a step in the right direction,” said third-year head coach of the Mountaineers, Reed Sunahara. “They have to understand that the standard is playing in December, playing in the postseason and making a run. We got a year older and a year better. Last year, the key kids were freshmen, and the experience they’ve gained really helped. What worries me (now) is we’ve never been in this (postseason) situation before, so managing the time between school and practice with exams coming up – that’s the tricky part. We’ll try to make it easier on them.”
The team put itself in line for a postseason berth with some stellar play late in the Big 12 schedule, and kept the mission rolling through Monday’s quarterfinal win over Syracuse, a three-set sweep where West Virginia had to come back in all three sets. A five-set win versus Texas Tech on Nov. 11 was uplifting, and Sunahara was over the moon about road wins at Kansas State (a 3-0 sweep) and at No. 14 Kansas, a five-set grinder.
“We’ve grown as a team, individually and collectively. We play in a tough conference where every match is demanding. Playing Texas and Kansas and all those other teams, it’s helped us gain momentum down the stretch,” Sunahara said. “Beating Texas Tech in five at home … we came up a little short versus Baylor, but it built something for us. Coming back against Syracuse and being down every set, I told the team I was proud, and it showed a lot of grit. We’ve always fought – we were down 21-16 in the first set, and we came alive; Erin Slinde served six points and brought us back. They never gave up - you’re worried when you are down, but I had confidence we’d fight back.”
The team is churning up the learning curve despite its youth – 11 players are freshmen or sophomores, with five in the upperclass ranks. Sophomore Slinde is the primary setter, and classmates Natania Levak (265 kills) and Katelyn Evans (203) kills are valuable pieces. Leading the charge is sophomore Payton Caffrey, who has 436 kills and is a two-time first-team All-Big 12 selection.
The 6-foot hitter from Florida (who played for the powerful OVA club program) helped change the dynamic of who would come to West Virginia. It was a team in deep disarray when Sunahara took the job, and his debut season of 2015 was not much fun with a 6-23 record and an 0-16 punch-in-the-gut through the conference slate.
“(Caffrey) is the heart and soul right now. It’s a team effort, but she’s proved she is one of the better players in the Big 12, and maybe the country. She was a great get for us and someone we can build around,” Sunahara said. “It was tough, no question (in 2015). I’ve got a great coaching staff, and they’ve worked their butts off to get recruits. We’ve got better players; when I got here, we didn’t have much as the starters had left even before I stepped foot on campus, before I had a chance to talk to them.
“We believe in what we are trying to do, and we kept working … last year (12-18 overall) was a big step, and this year we’ve played some tough teams which helped us build some confidence in this young group.”
West Virginia showed some of that maturity this season after a four-match losing streak just as Big 12 play began. That downward arc came after a 10-match win streak, which threatened to rattle the roster’s confidence and faith. Ultimately, the hard times just reinforced how difficult the Big 12 was, and the requirement of full focus and effort every single time on the floor.
The mood is lighter and brighter now with a spot in the NIVC championship in their hands Saturday. And the future already looks intriguing, with a massive class of nine freshmen set to hit campus next fall.
“We are looking to build in different positions, and we want the best kids possible,” Sunahara added. “We have kids where we see a bright future, and we have kids who can make an immediate impact. There’s a combination; it’s nice that now kids want to come here and play for a great university.”
TEXAS TECH 3, TCU 1 (23-25, 25-17, 26-24, 25-25)
FORT WORTH, TX -- In a thrilling semifinal round of the 2017 NIVC, Texas Tech (19-14) prevailed over its Big 12 Conference rival, TCU (15-17), 3-1.
The Red Raiders earn themselves a spot in the NIVC Championship where they'll await the winner between Ole Miss and West Virginia. The Championship match is slated for Tuesday, December 12, at 7 p.m. ET.
Despite the loss, Lexi Maclean was absolutely outstanding for the Horned Frogs. Maclean finished with 13 kills and a career high 23 digs. Defensively, Dani Dennison was nipping at her heels as she finished with 22 digs on the night.
No one could beat Kate Klepetka, however. The senior tallied a game-high 32 digs for the Red Raiders. Chandler Atwood led Texas Tech with 19 kills, and added five digs and four blocks.
TCU 3, GREEN BAY 0 (25-21, 25-21, 25-22)
FORT WORTH, TX -- TCU (15-16) fought three hard sets against Green Bay (17-16) and to the delight of the home crowd, it was the Horned Frogs who emerged victorious, 3-0.
TCU will move on the semifinals where they'll match up against fellow Big 12 rival, Texas Tech. The Red Raiders and Horned Frogs will go toe-to-toe on Thursday, December 7, at 8 p.m. ET.
Three TCU players ended the night in double figure kill totals. Lexi Maclean paced the Horned Frogs with 13 kills and also added nine digs and a block. Abigail Buckingham followed right behind her with 12 kills and a block. Anna Walsh had 10 kills and finished with a game-high seven blocks.
Jessica Wolf was near her best for the Phoenix, totaling a team-high nine kills, two digs and a block. Green Bay hit just .131 in the match.
TEXAS TECH 3, UC IRVINE 1 (25-14, 21-25, 25-16, 25-20)
FORT WORTH, TX -- Texas Tech dropped its first set of the NIVC, but built solid leads in the other three sets to hold off UC Irvine and earn a spot in the semifinals.
The Red Raiders (18-14) will play either TCU or Green Bay in the semis, which will be held at TCU regardless at 7 p.m. CT on Thursday, Dec. 7
Texas Tech got 19 kills from Emily Hill, who also had a season-high five blocks. Chandler Atwood came through with 14 kills, and Katy Keenan added nine kills. Texas Tech hit .448 in the first set and .375 in the final set.
For the Anteaters (24-8), Haley Desales had 14 kills, with Harlee Kekauoha adding 13 kills.
Photo by Petre Thomas
Depending on who has the microphone – and what mood they are in – talking about postseason play in college sports outside NCAA tournaments might not sound interesting.
But the Ole Miss volleyball team would gladly pick up a megaphone and head to the highest hill these days when the topic turns to the National Invitational Volleyball Championship, which picked a 32-team Division I field in its first year back after an initial run from 1989-95.
The Rebels (20-14) have earned a berth in the semifinals and will face West Virginia (21-12) at Ole Miss (4:30 p.m. CT on Saturday, Dec. 9); it’s been a potent week for Ole Miss as it has handled Stephen F. Austin, Central Florida and SEC foe Georgia, getting standout efforts from established veterans as well as promising freshmen and sophomores. Like a lot of teams who play in so-called “NIT” postseason events, there’s a moment of lament when an NCAA bid goes elsewhere, but then the relevance of continuing to play begins to sink in.
“That’s one of the main reasons we wanted to play in the postseason, to reward our seniors, as both Kate (Gibson) and Lexi (Thompson) are leaving with a ton of records,” said Ole Miss head coach Steven McRoberts, who is in his fourth year at the helm with the Rebels. “We’ve been averaging 20-plus wins a year in a program that really struggled over its 41 years. Lexi has been here four years, helping change the culture with her work ethic and attitude, and Kate’s added to that for her three years.
“We also wanted our young players to get an opportunity to understand how to balance dead week, finals, and practicing as if we are pushing for a championship in the NCAA Tournament. Getting extra practice and reps and game experience has paid off. One thing I’ve really liked is (the competition) we’ve drawn, as there’s not been an easy match. We’ve played well, against three teams in the top 100 in RPI. It’s been good competition, and we are growing in confidence. We really controlled the Georgia match (a 3-0 sweep), and I was really surprised at how easy we beat them. It was a lot of fun to see our team play like that.”
Offensively, the team has been tenacious with Gibson, Thompson and sophomore Emily Stroup pounding away up front. Stroup set the single-season kills record for the program (438) with her final point of the match against Georgia; in the NIVC, the Rebels have upped their hitting percentage to .300 after finishing the regular season a few clicks above .200.
Steady improvement has been the rule with another key part of the lineup, with freshman setter Lauren Bars and sophomore setter Jordan Fate directing the action with wisdom beyond their years. Amazingly, just one assist separates them both (Bars has 702, Fate has 701).
“I think the Georgia match was the best they have played together all year, for the setters. We had great decision making,” McRoberts said. “Lauren, who’s taller and (also) plays in the front, had a couple of huge solo blocks late. Fate probably has been our most consistent player – she’s very competitive, won state titles in Texas so she knows how to compete … she makes the play when we need it.
“We had growing pains – we talk a lot about how the details in a close match matter. You look back and can think of six points, and maybe getting 4-5 more wins … it’s a huge deal. Other than Florida and Kentucky, Georgia had maybe been playing better than the rest of us, so that win provides a lot of validation about where the program is and where it’s going.”
One reason Ole Miss has looked imposing in the NIVC ties back to the regular season, where the Rebels endured a 2-6 stretch in SEC play. The hard times toughened the roster; with eight matches in 20 days and more than half on the road, everyone’s deepest reserves were tested. It also hurt (and produced lessons) to have two match points at LSU and then lose the match, or to miss a chance to close out Arkansas on the road and then fall short in the fifth set.
With McRoberts regularly stating his interest in changing what Ole Miss volleyball means, inside and outside the program, the NIVC has become part of that new story.
“We’ve played good volleyball but didn’t get the results you might want. There are what-ifs, a couple plays here or there; these are the things a program faces trying to get over the hump,” McRobert said. “The (NIVC) is the right thing for the seniors, who have had three or four years where in the last month, if we’d just get a win and a win there, we’d be in the (NCAA) conversation. It’s heartbreaking, the number of five-setters we’ve lost in the past few years.
“When we discussed this, Lexi spoke up and said why wouldn’t we go? That was all I needed to hear. (The NIVC) would be good for us, and we embraced it. I told the team we are not getting into the NIVC just to play another match or get some extra practices. We are in the tournament to win it, and I could tell by the looks on the faces of the young ladies, they all bought into that. That’s been their attitude and energy; their performance is showing they want to win. This is part of the process when you are changing the culture; the tournament has helped our mentality that way. It’s easy to not give a rip, and we haven’t seen that at all.”
WEST VIRGINIA 3, SYRACUSE 0 (25-22, 25-22, 25-18)
MORGANTOWN, WV -- West Virginia hung tough in all three sets, coming back from early deficits to claim a three-set sweep of Syracuse in the NIVC quarterfinals.
The Mountaineers (21-12) now move to the semifinals, where they will play Ole Miss (20-14). The other semifinalists will be determined Wednesday when Texas Tech (17-14) faces off against UC Irvine (24-7) and TCU (14-16) takes on Green Bay (17-15).
West Virginia was paced by Payton Caffrey, who had 19 kills. Natania Levak added eight kills, while Erin Slinde had 24 assists.
For Syracuse, Amber Witherspoon and Mariia Levanova each had eight kills. Jalissa Trotter added 24 assists and 10 digs.
OLE MISS 3, GEORGIA 0 (25-21, 25-11, 25-19)
OXFORD, MS -- Ole Miss (20-14) continued its journey through the 2017 NIVC, this time facing fellow SEC foe, Georgia (22-12). The Rebels started off slow in the first set, but quickly found its momentum, hitting .290 by the end of the match and committing just nine errors en route to the 3-0 sweep of the Bulldogs.
Emily Stroup was once again spectacular for Rebels, finishing with a game-high 15 kills, five digs and one ace. Kate Gibson led the defense with 12 digs on the afternoon. Ole Miss has dropped just one set in the tournament.
Majesti Bass paced Georgia with 12 kills and added a block as well. Kendall Glover was the defensive standout of game, totaling a game-high 20 digs. Twenty-one attacking errors eventually led the defeat for Georgia, ending its 2017 season.
Ole Miss moves into the semifinals where they'll await the winner of Syracuse and West Virginia.