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.”