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.”