By Kyle Koso
A serve that floats an inch long; a shot that catches a whisper too much net and lands out; an opponent’s kill that somehow splits the block when it seemed like the defense was in the right spot.
Disappointment is part of the bargain in volleyball, and teams know they quickly must get back in the fight when something they’ve done a million times – for some reason – doesn’t work out.
The Arkansas women’s team is getting a fresh lesson on how to bounce back, making the best of a difficult moment by taking part in the 2021 NIVC after being left out of the NCAA Tournament. The Razorbacks (who got a first-round bye in the NIVC and will play Saturday evening) were excluded from the NCAA field despite having victories over fellow SEC members Ole Miss and South Carolina, two teams that made the cut. Adding extra duress to the mix, Arkansas had just swept South Carolina on the road two days before Selection Sunday.
Contesting the decision-makers is a familiar sight when it comes to any NCAA postseason, and Arkansas (19-10) will probably be talking about this for years to come. But first comes the NIVC, and a chance to wrap up the fall 2021 campaign in a more satisfying fashion.
“Listen, the goal is to go to the NCAA Tournament,” said Razorbacks coach Jason Watson, who is in his sixth year in Fayetteville. “I asked each of them as they came into practice (Monday), how do you feel about playing more volleyball? More times than not, what was expressed was, ‘I’m just so thankful that’s not how the season is going to end.’
“That’s what the NIVC is providing that is so wonderful. You’re giving us an opportunity not to end our season in disappointment, to end the season on the court. We get to define the year and compete, and the NIVC provides the venue where we finish the season on the court. That’s what is so important. Athletes understand winning and losing. You can’t learn without doing what we are about to do. That’s why we are all in on this opportunity.”
The program certainly wants to embrace a sense of positive momentum; it stands at 33-18 over the past two seasons, an impressive bounce that was managed during COVID-19’s disruptions and is a stark contrast from a 22-36 record the two previous years.
“We were able to recruit a little deeper, get more talent on the roster, and put them in situations where they just got better. That’s really helped us, and we’ve blossomed over the last two seasons,” Watson said. “We’re more experienced, and that’s why we’re excited about the NIVC opportunity – to get some postseason looks for a group that might be together still for another two years. It’s been a long time coming and a lot of hard work for people, but this is a fun group to coach. They are competitive, work hard, and in a good place right now.”
Step 1 for Arkansas’ postseason is to get senior setter Gracie Ryan in uniform, on the floor, and let her go to work. She has 1,223 assists (11.12 per set), which ranks 13th in the nation, and has been metronome-steady in tone and temperament for her squad.
“One of things about Gracie is she came in as a freshman and had to work. She didn’t get playing time right away,” Watson said. “She put in her time; last season was the first one she was our setter in a 5-1. That’s an important piece; here’s a talented setter who sat for two years before she got her shot, and then has flourished. Seems like that used to be commonplace, and now it feels like an exception. It speaks to her commitment. She’s her toughest critic. She was in the gym (Monday) trying to get better; that has to inspire others, a senior trying to get better again.”
Offensively, the Razorbacks have a lot of shots come off the swings of Jillian Gillen (444 kills) and Taylor Head (392 kills), two players who don’t profile as classic SEC bangers. Head is a modest 5-foot-10, and Gillen is 5-7, but don’t be deceived as Gillen earned first-team all-SEC honors.
“We are a little undersized … Jill and even Taylor. They certainly have been told at some point, you’re not tall enough to play Division I volleyball,” Watson said. “We have said, we’ll give you this opportunity to shine; we are concerned about how well you jump, play above the net, and they do it well.
“People know we are going to set Jill, and she has to find a way. Her work ethic and mindfulness is extraordinary, and she’s had to be that way because people have told her she can’t do it. Same with Taylor. They are good volleyball players, and that’s what we are trying to do. We don’t want specialists; we want players who can perform well for long periods of time.”
And for this time, this moment, the NIVC will be the springboard Gillen, Taylor and the rest of the Razorbacks will use.