Following up the post from last week, it was announced earlier this week that Oral Roberts University (Tulsa, OK) will begin play in the Southland Conference effective next academic year. In case you didn't watch the 20 minute press conference on the web (link here) when the announcement was made, here are a few nuggets of interest:
1) The Southland went to ORU, instead of ORU soliciting membership. I would have guessed this, but ORU's athletic director made a point of saying the university would have been perfectly content to have remained in the Summit League had the Southland not come knocking. There were no other opportunities available, so it is not like ORU was considering some other conference.
2) Southland Conference commissioner Tom Burnett made a point of saying that the conference would look to any future members to be eventual contributors to football. ORU has no intention of pursing a football presence. This was specifically asked by a member of the media to ORU's athletic director and academic president.
3) The Southland is prepared to go into next year with its current 10 teams and dissolving the East/West structure. It was specifically stated that in basketball all teams will play all others in home/road contests resulting in 18 conference games. One would assume the same would be true about volleyball.
4) When asked about ORU's intent to pursue conference tournaments, volleyball was specifically mentioned as a sport in which ORU would remain interested as a potential host.
So, with that selective recap in place, what do we know about Oral Roberts Volleyball?
Their head coach, Sheera Sirola, has a rich ORU tradition. She was a member of the ORU Elite Eight Volleyball team in 1995. During that year, she lead the NCAA in service aces. This is currently her 8th season at the helm of the program with the last five years producing records of 12-14, 12-15, 22-9, 16-14 and 26-9, respectively. That 26-9 season was in 2006 and that was good enough to earn ORU their most recent trip to the NCAA tournament. SFA fans will remember that year as possibly the most memorable in Ladyjacks Volleyball history. In 2006, SFA also made the NCAA tournament and beat Alabama in the first round before being eliminated by overall 7th seeded Texas in the Austin Sub-Regional. ORU was across the bracket from us in the Fayetteville Sub-Regional (hosted by Arkansas) and they lost in straight sets to overall 13th seeded Oklahoma. Texas made it to the Elite Eight and Oklahoma made it to the Sweet 16.
Sirola played on the Yugoslavian Junior National Team as a youngster and the after wars in Yugoslavia split the country and Croatia was formed, Sirola played on the Croatian National Team. Her background has clearly given her an international vision because during recent years, ORU has been able to attract volleyball athletes from around the globe. While you will see some international players on a few Southland rosters from time to time, ORU has probably concentrated their efforts in international recruiting at a higher rate than most or all of the current SLC membership. Their current roster includes 12 girls, half of whom are from Brazil. Of the six girls listed as having hometowns in America, four are from Oklahoma, the other two representing Arkansas ...and Idaho, of all places.
The 2011 ORU Volleyball club looks strong and this probably means that next year, ORU will instantly be competitive in the Southland. This is because they will return everyone - no seniors this year - and they currently have a national RPI ranking of 61. Interestingly, they also have no freshman. All 12 girls are either sophomores or juniors. Concerning RPI comparisons, the top ranking Southland Conference team - UTSA - holds a current RPI of 85, with Texas State coming in at 98. For what its worth, SFA is 134th out of 327.
So, is it possible that upon entry in the conference, Oral Roberts should be picked to win the league in their first year? Remember, UTSA and Texas State will be gone. The highest RPI school currently among those that will be with us next year is Sam Houston at 122. However, read on... I am not so sure their current competition could truly be considered equivalent to ours. Now, I know RPI is meant to partially include strength of schedule, but still, I am not completely convinced ORU would waltz through the Southland if they were playing in it currently.
Oral Roberts is currently on a 12-game Summit League winning streak and they stand at 19-4 overall and 12-1 in conference play. Their only conference loss came in the first league game of the year when they lost to South Dakota in five sets. Notably, they lost their first match of the year 3-1 to Missouri State, a team SFA beat in Nacogdoches about a month ago. ORU has also played McNeese (ORU won 3-2) who we will see in the final week of the season, ULM (ORU won 3-0, we lost 3-2) and South Dakota State (ORU won 3-2, we won 3-0).
I know that we all are more familiar with Southland Conference volleyball than teams from the Summit League, but my general impression is that our league is slightly more competitive in volleyball (by that I mean, slightly stronger overall) . Current Summit League foes for ORU include: South Dakota, Univ. of Missouri at Kansas City (UMKC), Southern Utah (who is leaving the conference for the Big Sky next year), Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI), Oakland University, South Dakota State, North Dakota State, Western Illinois and Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne (IPFW). Clearly, the the Summit League puts a new spin on acronym schools. For fun, folks often pronounce the acronym IUPUI as "ooo-eee poo-eee". I think the comparison between Southland Volleyball and Summit League Volleyball is just a a reflection of overall conference strength. Ranking the mid-major conferences is tough, but I'd stand by the statement that the Southland was an overall stronger mid-major conference than the Summit League before ORU joined. The gap now widens even a bit more with the Golden Eagles on board.
Overall, I think the Southland does good here. And I think Southland Volleyball does good here. In general, this represents a little shift for the Southland. Oral Roberts becomes the school with the smallest enrollment in the conference (by quite a ways) and also becomes the first private school in the conference. Overall, I have always considered ORU to have a decent to strong academic reputation, but I worry a tiny bit about ORU being a really, really small school. Maybe this is inconsequential and offset by the Tulsa market, but it still concerns me a bit. As I said last week, I would have been happy with either ORU or schools like UALR or HBU getting an invite. If you know ORU athletics, it is probably from their decent basketball reputation and for what it is worth, they have won the Summit League in baseball for 14 straight seasons.
In case you don't recognize the "Summit League" as a long-standing conference, that's because the name "Summit" has only been used since 2007. Prior to that date the league was known as the MCC - the Mid-Continent Conference.
Overall, I see this move as positive. I can also see why ORU would want to come here. I think they have a better recruiting base by looking to the South - and Texas in particular, than in the Midwest where they sit toward the south of the Summit footprint. ORU's athletic director admitted as much in the press conference. The fact that the Southland now has a presence in Oklahoma is also positive. Geographically, it extends the Southland to truly be considered a multi-state conference as opposed to historically, I believe, people identifying the Southland as primarily a league of Texas schools despite our membership in other places.
In coming months, I intend to make contact with some folks in Tulsa, and surely, I will run previews about the club in 2012 and attempt to interview coaches and players when they come here for the first time next Fall.
For now, "welcome" to Oral Roberts University... and specifically, "welcome" to ORU Volleyball. If you are a fan of an SLC Volleyball club, you've got to acknowledge this as a positive step towards replacing the quality programs at UTSA, Texas State and UTA.
I've got a very different topic brewing for our next post here at sfavolleyblog.net.. our next post will focus on parenting. You read that right. Curious? Then check back in a few days as we tribute the parents of student-athletes. Don't forget... live chat available on Saturday from UTA starting at 1:45. Be here!