The NCAA has passed legislation adding the National Invitational Volleyball Championship as a permanent season-ending event for volleyball – Triple Crown Sports brought the event back to life in 2017 and has seen the programs from Ole Miss, Iowa State, Georgia Tech and UNLV claim an NIVC title. The 2022 event will launch with selection night on Nov. 27, with the championship match slated for Dec. 12 or 13.
By Kyle Koso
Like “Saturday Night Live” in many ways, a college volleyball program takes stage every year at the same time, even if the cast’s turnover leaves folks a little unsure about the product.
But it’s no joke about the ability of the UNLV squad to roll with the changes and provide a lot of entertainment for fans of the brand.
The Rebels had no choice but to move on from some key players that guided the team to the 2021 National Invitational Volleyball Championship title, but head coach Dawn Sullivan is pulling off the tough task of succeeding in 2022 thanks to anticipating the headwinds long in advance. UNLV, which launches its Mountain West Conference slate Thursday at Colorado State, sits at 9-2 on the season and already owns a memorable win, topping then-No. 19 Kansas in four sets on Sept. 9.
The departure of Mariena Hayden (back-to-back MWC player of the year) and setter Lauryn Burt had to sting, but Sullivan had Gabrielle Arretche-Ramos ready to crank up the kills (161) for her junior year, as well as Isabel Martin, a native of Germany who played two years in the JUCO ranks before redshirting at UNLV last season. Martin leads the team with 182 kills; the roster also showed some recruiting foresight as Maya Sands is shining at the libero spot with a team-high 19 aces and 186 digs. She was the MWC freshman and defensive player of the week as announced Sept. 19.
“You think about it a lot, the fact that we’re building a program, how it can grow over time and establish a tradition,” said Sullivan, who also steered the program to the NIVC semifinals in 2018 and Round 2 in 2019. “We moved Gabby from right side to left this year, and we were able to train her there pretty much all spring. She had seen some time there before, but she’s really embraced that role. The we brought in Isabel Martin, who redshirted last year because we had solid outsides and wanted to be sure we had someone strong who could step in and put the ball away. That was something we thought through.”
And if good luck lands on those who work hard, that explains how the Rebels are dealing with the setter position, as grad student Jhenna Gabriel has taken on the task (10.14 assists per set). Originally planning on a coaching role, Gabriel decided to use her last window of eligibility to suit up again after a terrific career at Texas, where she was 2020 Big 12 setter of the year.
“We’ve had a lot of pieces moving around, some graduated, so you keep pushing over time to that same standard, and you hope they are ready to play when they walk in the gym and are ready when they need to be,” Sullivan said. “We spent a lot of time over the spring building our chemistry and culture, because we had a lot of turnover and new people joining the program. You don’t quite know what’s there going into the preseason.”
UNLV started with five straight wins, followed by a five-set loss against Miami that provided a moment of clarity. The Rebels were comfortable with their skills and now just needed steadier focus to pull it all together, and that led straight to the exciting result against the Jayhawks (who pushed No. 1 Texas to five sets Wednesday night).
That’s the roadmap for the conference campaign, leading off with a tough one at CSU, the preseason No. 1 of the MWC. UNLV has shown offensive spark, to be sure, and there’s some impactful punch up front thanks to sophomore Chloe Thomas and junior Jordyn Freeman.
“The Mountain West is tough. We did a nice job in the preseason setting ourselves up a bit, getting some confidence, but there are a lot of good teams in this conference,”” added Sullivan. “It’s on us to continue working on the little things, our block defense or getting a bit sharper on offense, with the serve and pass. We’ll continue to work and believe that when we step on the court together that we are OK. And to keep coming together as a team, that’s important for this group, to be open and embrace each other and provide energy for each other. We want to be a much better team in a month than we are today, and we’ll see different people rise up with this group.”
LAST WORD – Sullivan on the NIVC: “The NIVC has helped us a great deal and I’m thankful that we have it as an option for us to continue playing volleyball. Every year we’ve been in it, I feel we’ve grown a ton as a ton those last couple of weeks. Those opportunities are so special. We of course want to play in the NCAAs, but we’re happy to play anytime there’s an opportunity to grow and learn as players and people.
“The opportunity to be challenged, that this could be your last match, is really important to be put in those situations so they understand the pressure, how to stay confident and composed. All those things add up. What the NIVC has provided us is a lot of confidence, so that in the postseason, we feel good. We know we can step on the court and know what it feels like.”