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.”