While eight teams will gather in Conway, AR on Friday, both UIW Volleyball and ACU Volleyball have closed the books on 2016. With no disrespect to seventh seeded Southeastern Louisiana and eighth seeded McNeese, they roll into Arkansas because of asterisks. Their performance in 2016 won't be good enough to join the 2017 party in Corpus Christi. For four years, the University of the Incarnate Word and Abilene Christian University have been required to wear the tag of "probationary" membership in the Southland Conference. But in the volleyball sense - this temporary, but what must have seemed like eternal wait -is over. Both schools gain full membership status in 2017.
When the Southland announced that UIW and ACU would join us in 2013, I wasn't sure what to think. I thought the addition of Oral Roberts in 2012 was a step in the right direction both in terms of geographic footprint and athletic contributions. ORU had a good program and made an instant upgrade on the SLC volleyball landscape. Central Arkansas had been recently admitted and was in the middle of a dominant run. Volleyball was getting better and the loss of perennially good programs like Texas State, UT-Arlington and UTSA looked like it could be pacified a bit. Incarnate Word? Abilene Christian? I wasn't completely deriding of their fit, but it took more of a squint rather than an eyes wide open gaze to visualize their potential impact.
Fast forward to 2016 and the field of vision has cleared. Both schools have established that they can compete well in the Southland volleyball race. If anything, UIW and ACU have added some pressure to some of the SLC programs in Louisiana to get their act together or get used to decorating for Thanksgiving early each year while the rest of us enjoy the postseason.
In four probationary seasons, UIW went 27-35 in Southland play and ACU was just a win behind at 26-36. Those two records aren't all that impressive, but they don't tell the full story of what is being built. This year UIW was 8-8 and would have been SFA's opponent in the first round of the tournament if both teams were eligible. From 2013-2016, UIW would have made the tournament in three of their four probationary years, albeit never higher that the 7th seed. ACU finished a remarkable 11-5 in Southland play this year after posting a 9-7 mark the year before. They would have been seeded in the three-hole this year and in slot #5 last year. Pretty impressive when you consider the team won just six conference matches total over their first two years in the SLC. From a home town perspective, SFA has won 23 conference games in the last two years and ACU has won 20.
Incarnate Word gave a city of great importance back to the Southland. San Antonio became a stop on the tour again and for the sake of conference visibility alone this is a good thing. As full SLC members it wouldn't surprise me in the least if by 2020, UIW was winning bids to host conference events in the Alamo City. People love travelling to San Antonio and it would make a great host for a volleyball championship in the near future. The McDermott Convocation Center would be a fine size arena for hosting the SLC VB Tourney and the backdrop of the city would provide a great atmosphere. Parking might be an issue for a larger event and the lighting in McDermott, which is downright poor, would have to be improved. But, the size of the gym is comparable to the Dugan Wellness Center where we've been before and will be again in 2017.
Besides giving SFA fits at times, the Cardinals began and ended the 2016 SLC slate with a bang. Their early win over UCA cast doubts about the strength of the Sugar Bears and their win over Lamar last week sunk the Cardinals postseason chances. The win over HBU also served notice that they were a dangerous team. With Autumn Lockley having emerged as a star in this league and many other 2016 contributors returning, UIW looks primed to be right in the thick of things for years to come. They have a rich set of local talent to try and pull from as they continue their build.
Until this year, UIW ( Nicholls?) was the SLC school that I personally had the least intersection with during my blogging and broadcasting years. That all ended when the gracious Jen Montoya (along with Lockley) met with me for a full hour this year after I made an interview request. It was classic. One of my favorite memories of 2016 will be just sitting around the visting team hotel with Montoya and Lockley talking about UIW and volleyball in general. They were very inclusive and complementary. I drove away kicking myself for not initiating contact with the folks at UIW earlier. Clearly, I had missed out on getting to know good people and since contacts are what I need to continue to foster a solid reputation, I was grateful for the time that the UIW staff and players afforded me.
How much good can be said about Abilene Christian University and how they portray themselves? Well, here is the highest praise I can give: I have a high school senior in my house who was born and raised here in Nacogdoches and ACU is on his short list of schools to attend in the Fall. In fact, he has already been accepted there. So, my first born may wind up a Wildcat and I'd be darn proud if that's the way it turns out.
No school in the Southland - and I mean this with an honest heart - is more true in their marketing, advertising and social media presence to their mission than ACU. Impressive. Just absolutely first rate. Back in 2014, when I first met head coach Jason Bibler, I told him this. I told him to go back and tell his administration that people notice. I love it when schools make it crystal clear what they stand for. ACU does this in spades and it's refreshing: twitter posts with athletes doing Bible studies while on the road, a spirited student fan club called the Wildcat Reign, an athletic director who pens regular articles that feature prominently on a well organized website. All of this and more reflects well on the university and the Southland Conference as a whole. Personally, I am glad to see two Christian schools like ACU and UIW actively live out their mission rather than be defensive about it. It's the pride that I've always had in Baylor as my alma matter despite our recent troubles and embarrassments.
I'm not going to lie - when I saw ACU play earlier this season at the Texas Tech Tournament, I thought they were awful. We were invited to Lubbock alongside them, but didn't play one another. I watched two of their matches and for one full set I sat next to head coach Debbie Humphreys discussing our game plan and the day's events. When she sat down she asked me what I saw in ACU and my response was "Little. They are so un-athletic . They appear almost feeble." They were getting smashed - I mean DESTROYED - by Texas Tech. Now, clearly the Red Raiders had more talent and so I knew it wasn't the best match to judge them by, but I'll admit I was pretty rejective.
But then came Thursday (what seemed like Friday) the 13th of October. #MoodyMagic they called it. SFA got sent home on a looooooooooong bus ride after our only five-set loss of the year. The next time Debbie Humphreys and I were in the gym together I asked her if she felt like ACU had improved since we had seen them in Lubbock and she was very complimentary. Let me make it clear that Humphreys was never dismissive of the Wildcats. That was all me. I felt confident enough in the trip to Abilene that I was willing to engage in (and lose) gif wars with ACU fans on Twitter. ACU went on to beat Sam Houston two days later. Then they beat Northwestern State and HBU and finished their home slate a perfect 9-0.
Now, compliments in place, both schools have plenty of work to do and areas to improve upon heading into the off season. UIW has to solidify their setting and libero positions - two important pieces if they are going to contend in 2017. ACU has to replace a blocker and learn how to sprinkle some of that Moody Magic to other venues. You can't play 30 games at home and ACU was 3-9 on the road and completely winless on neutral courts - which is exactly what they'd be facing if they were headed to Conway this weekend.
But, when the Cardinals and Wildcats step out on the floor for the first time in 2017 they will be rightful heirs to full membership in the Southland Volleyball club. They've earned their due respect and have bided their time honorably.
If they each bus to Corpus Christi this time next year, then let's remember the road that will have been paved.
If Autumn Lockley is thundering down kills and Bryaunea Hall turning away attacks, it will be players like Shaina Garza, Angelique Vidaurri, Brittany Dear and others that will deserve credit. If I'm blessed enough to be calling their games like I will be doing for others next weekend, I'll make sure people remember.
If Jacey Smith and Kendall Bosse connect on offense and Amanda Chapa is digging balls while ACU faithful have on 2017 SLC Tournament t-shirts in the stands, then let's not forget the names Lexi Mercier, Jennifer Loerch, Sarah Siemens, Madison Hoover, Dorothy Swanson, and others that have made it possible. I know their names. It's my JOB to know their names. Their story will be told in these spaces and on the airwaves.