Friday, December 6, 2013

NCAA | Seattle sub-regional suggests greater NCAA respect for volleyball

Breaking with past practice, teams fly in from far away
  • Michigan vs. LSU | December 6 | 5PM | Alaska Airlines Arena
  • Alabama State @ #3 Washington | December 6 | 7PM

In 2009, Washington opened its season with 15 straight wins. It ended the regular season with just 5 losses, spending most of the year ranked in the top 6.

But when it came time for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, the Huskies were sent packing. Under the policies in place at the time, the NCAA—trying to save travel costs—put a premium on host sites where one or more of the three visitors were within driving distance. Washington, nestled in Northwest, had no other qualifying D1 teams close enough to hop aboard a bus, so the first two rounds were held in Fort Collins, CO—hosted by Colorado State—because another tournament team, Northern Colorado, was a near-enough foe.

LSU head coach Fran Flory
-LSU Athletics

The rest is a bit of ugly Huskies history, as host Colorado State upset Washington in the second round. And it was one of several similar examples that caused coaches around the country to lobby for guaranteed home court assignments for the nation’s top 16 seeds. One of the loudest voices came from Hawai’i, where Dave Shoji’s consistently top-16 teams got shipped twice to Seattle, only to lose both times.

“We got some really weird combinations,” says Michigan coach Mark Rosen. “Some really quality teams were playing each other way too early in the tournament.”

Four years after Washington’s Fort Collins flop, the tournament has a decidedly different look. Hawai’i gets to welcome teams from Idaho, Arizona and Utah. And in Seattle, the host Huskies welcome teams from Michigan, Louisiana and Alabama, all major plane rides and time zones away.

“I think that shows a level of respect for volleyball,” says LSU coach Fran Flory. “If you play a worthy schedule, and if your season is good enough, solid enough, and you’ve beaten enough teams, you get to play on your home court. That’s a huge step.”

This year, half the tournament participants were the winners of the 32 Division 1 conferences. A significant number of the smaller conferences—with teams less competitive on the national stage—are on the East Coast. Many coaches have privately grumbled that Penn State has been given a relatively easy ride as a result, since its first two rounds rarely include a ranked team.

This season, however, teams like New Hampshire were shipped to Los Angeles (where they lost last night to USC), and Penn State finds Pac-12 up-and-comer Utah in its sub-regional. Hampton flew from Virginia to Palo Alto to lose last night to Stanford, while Alabama made the same trip to lose last night to Oklahoma.

Both Rosen and Flory support the policy, even if it means that, this season,they have to travel three time zones. “People ask me, how’s your draw?” Rosen says. “I think it’s fair.”

“West Coast teams used to get really irritated to have to ship out East,” says Flory. “Now it’s almost payback, we’re all comin’ back the other way.”

But how, you might wonder, can a small school like Alabama State (enrollment: 6,000) fit cross-country travel into its budget? Well, the NCAA picks up airfare, lodging and food for all visiting teams at each stage of the tournament. The collective airline tab alone demonstrates some of that increased respect for volleyball.

Both Rosen and Flory would like to see the NCAA go even further. “I think the next step for parity in our sport and for respect for all of us doing our jobs,” says Flory, “is we have to go to seeding 32.”

“We’d all like to be seeded 1 through 64,” says Rosen.

  • In Thursday’s D1 Round 1 action, the best match was Cal State Northridge’s 3-2 win against Colorado State. Two weeks ago, Colorado State was 27-0 before an upset loss to San Diego State. Northridge—which gave Washington a good contest in the preseason—tied for the Big West title with Hawai’i and UC Santa Barbara. Coached by former Olympian Jeff Stork, CSUN could give Hawai’i headaches in seasons to come. Northridge now faces USC tonight in Galen Center.
  • Also Thursday, UT-San Antonio’s season ended at the hands of the SEC’s Texas A&M. UTSA is on the rise, thanks in part to assistant coaches Pat Stangle and Sanja Tomasevic, both formerly with Washington.
  • In the Division II tournament, Western Washington was swept by Sonoma State, and Central Washington lost 3-0 to Cal State San Bernardino.
  • A big ice storm is blanketing parts of Kentucky, forcing the postponement of the first two rounds of the subregional in Lexington. The matches will now be played Saturday/Sunday, featuring Ohio vs. Michigan State and Duquesne vs. Kentucky.
  • There are several events--some of them free--scheduled around the Final Four in Seattle in two weeks. We'll pass along details next week, but you might want to jump on a free kids' volleyball clinic for girls and boys in grades 3-8. Head to the NCAA Volleyball Championships page and click the Youth Clinic tab on the right hand side to register. 

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