Thursday, November 30, 2023

If Two Outta Three Ain't Bad, Then How Often Do We See Four Outta Six?

 Stephen F. Austin Volleyball will play Friday in the program’s ninth NCAA Volleyball Championship Tournament. With the historic at-large bid earned this season, SFA has now appeared in four of the last six Big Dances.  This year’s entry officially solidifies the most fruitful run of performances in the history of the program.  Other than the current 2018-2023 span, there has been no other six year period in which the ‘Jacks have played in the tournament four times.

The first wave of consistent appearances came in the mid to late 1990’s when SFA had three clubs earn NCAA bids.  The first ever NCAA tournament that the ‘Jacks made it to was in 1994.  That was followed up by repeat appearances shortly thereafter in 1997 and 1999.  I came to SFA as a faculty member in 1997 and this run is what grabbed my attention and first got me into the gym as a fan well before I began working for the team.

That run of three tournaments stood as the most prolific era until now. That’s because aside from the very historic 2006 team, which included some players from 2004 – another NCAA Tournament year, all of the other ‘Jacks NCAA Tourney appearances have come lately.

Twelve years after the 2006 team advanced to the second round with the win over Alabama, SFA returned to the NCAA Tournament to take on Texas in Gregory Gym in 2018.  Coincidentally, I began working for the team in that ’06 season.  I didn’t travel to that 2006 NCAA tournament, but after I had logged several years on public address and eventually began writing in this space, I began consistently traveling to Southland Conference tournaments.  I had long made up my mind – before we began doing radio and TV and I got hired for those gigs -- that I’d go to the NCAA Tournament whenever we made it again. Many years went by.

But then, the 2014 season was as close to a “sure thing” as I had ever felt.  Sweeping through the Southland regular season unblemished, I was confident that ’14 would “be the year” as we made our way across the Louisiana border to Natchitoches for another SLC Tournament.  In the semifinals, we lost to host Northwestern State in one of the two most painful losses I’ve ever witnessed and easily the most painful loss in a match I’ve ever called.  The audio of that match still exists in my repository, but I’ve never once played it back and I never intend to. 

The quartet of setter Paige Holland, right side Jill Ivy, defensive specialist Janet Hill and injured outside hitter Katzy Randall were all seniors in 2014.  I remember after the loss the tears in a group hug that after spotting me they allowed me to join.  It’s one of two times I was so moved by emotion that I boo-hoo’d a bit on the floor.  That was a special team, full of special athletes, all of whom I still loosely correspond with and/or keep up with a decade later.  The other time with tears? The same arena – Prather Coliseum in Natchitoches, LA – precisely four years later when SFA beat Central Arkansas in the Southland Championship match to begin this now unprecedented run of appearances to the NCAA Tournament.

Now, THAT radio call I’ve relived a couple of times.  I signed off rather quickly because I wanted to see the coaches and players have their emotional moments of celebration.  As a walked from one side of the court where I was calling the match to the other side where the benches were, the fray really ensued and fans spilled onto the floor and the celebration began.  It was so surreal to be in the EXACT SAME place and experience that thrill and a small happy cry after the sadness from four years prior.  It was one of those “circle of life” experiences like the one I wrote about this time last year when we were playing in the NCAA Tournament at Baylor.

Since that time, the team won the Southland Conference Tournament in their final year of membership in 2019 and then won the WAC Tournament Championship last year and received their first ever at-large bid this season.  So, that’s four appearances (’18, ’19, ’22 and ’23) in six calendar years.

How does that stack up with other mid-major programs?  Heck, how does that stack up with ANY Division I program? A few days back, I made a list of all the teams appearing in the last six NCAA Volleyball Tournaments.  It is important to remember that the 2020 COVID season saw a reduced field in the tournament and some conferences did not complete in interleague play.  So, some programs that historically have earned consistent appearances in the tournament did not participate in that year.  Here is how the list shakes out:

For the purpose of “Power 5” affiliation or not, we’ll keep it simple and use a school’s current status.

43 schools have appeared in the NCAA Tournament in at least four of the last six years.  What may be surprising to you is that the distribution of those 43 is not really lopsided in favor of Power 5 programs.  That’s because some of the automatic qualifiers have been amazingly consistent in some of the smaller conferences.  Twenty-four Power 5 programs have made the NCAA Tournament in at least four of the last six years, with these 13 powerhouses appearing each time:

Baylor, BYU, Florida, Kentucky, Louisville, Minnesota, Nebraska, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Purdue, Texas, Washington State and Wisconsin.

The remaining 11 Power 5 schools that have appeared either four or five times in the last six seasons are Florida State (5) , Oregon (5) , Stanford (5) , UCF (5), Washington (5), Georgia Tech (4), Iowa State (4), Missouri (4), Tennessee (4), USC (4) and Utah (4).

That leaves 19 non-Power 5 institutions and the only one that has appeared in the NCAA Tournament each of the last six years is Creighton.  So, that’s an interesting piece of trivia.  For all intents and purposes, the Big East’s Blue Jays have a legitimate claim as the nation’s top non-Power 5 program.

So, we’re down to 18 schools and seven additional mid-majors have appeared in more tournaments than the ‘Jacks over our time span of interest. The seven mid-majors earning a bid in five of the last six calendar years are Dayton, Hawaii, Marquette, Pepperdine, Rice, San Diego and Western Kentucky.  Honestly, that’s a good list of schools that SFA is aspiring to join in terms of national reputation.  Those schools tend to hold one rung higher a level of repute than us in the world of non-P5 Division 1 volleyball.  Their tendencies, scheduling, roster construction, etc. are a blueprint in part for what Stephen F. Austin’s “next steps” could and should be.

The remaining 11 mid-majors that have been in the NCAA Tournament exactly four of the last six years are Florida Gulf Coast, High Point, Illinois State, Northern Iowa, Samford, Stephen F. Austin, South Dakota, Texas State, Towson, UMBC, and Wright State.  I think among this particular list, SFA’s reputation is quite favorable, if not near the top.

So, all in all, there are only eight non-Power 5 programs that have been in the NCAA tournament with more frequency than SFA over the last six years.  This will all change next year, of course, and the span of six years is certainly artificial given we defined it by SFA’s first return to the tourney in '18 after a long absence.  Still, it’s an interesting exercise to  look at which other programs have been producing at or above our clip in regard to ultimately landing in the NCAA Championships.

While all of this is rather academic and just of interest “for the record”, I’ll conclude with a list of things that quickly come to mind as I contemplate SFA’s ability to maintain this level of performance or even take a step up to the very top tier of mid-major collegiate volleyball.

  • Recruit a different level of athlete than five or ten years ago (I think we are doing this and need specifically to continue to do this with regards to bigger players that are also great athletes)
  • Schedule progressively tougher.  This is not as easy as it seems, but it would be a nice goal to look for even greater opportunities to play teams listed in this post.  Continue to avoid playing many, if any, low ranking RPI clubs.  After all, a big part of what got SFA to the tournament this year was “no bad losses”. 
  • The counterpart of “no bad losses” is “get better and better wins”.  While ALL of SFA’s losses were to NCAA Tournament teams this year, it would go a long way for the program if the ‘Jacks could secure wins against teams that wind up with RPI/KPI rankings close to where our own fell this year.
  • Finally, play well when given the opportunity on a national stage.  In 2018 and 2022 we played really stellar host teams that would have swept many other opponents (Texas in 2018 and Baylor last year).  However, in 2019, playing in Waco against non-host USC, SFA had a chance to really step out and make more first round noise.  The team didn’t play well and again, USC swept us out.

It is indeed an honor to play in the NCAA Tournament.  There is no doubt about that and this year’s historic at-large bid was a recognition that was unprecedented in our team’s history.  However, when forever looking to take steps forward, winning when given opportunities like this will need to eventually come.

Let's see how it goes against Arkansas here in 2023!