After wins against Louisiana-Monroe (3-1) and Louisiana-Lafayette (3-0) over the weekend, the UTA Mavericks volleyball team is 2-0 in conference play for the first time since 2009, where they lost the next three en route to an 8-8 year.
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't discouraged early on Friday. Monroe, as I pointed out last time, is not a good team. UTA dropped the first set 25-21, while being out hit .242 to .094. They cruised in the second set and, while not looking like a well-oiled machine, at least played solidly to stay in front by a few points the whole time and reversed the set one score, 25-21.
I almost gave in to despair when the teams returned from the locker room. After an early back and forth, Monroe turned an 11-11 score into a 17-11 Warhawk lead. Both teams began a point exchange and ULM still held a six point lead at 21-15.
Generally speaking, my experience has been that a team in the lead, who needs less points to win than is ahead wins. Monroe needed four to win, UTA needed six to tie and ten to win. Even against a bad team, that is not a good formula. I thought the team was playing a little too unfocused, and here they were, on the verge of going down 2-1 to what is likely the worst team in the conference.
But, I really have to give it to UTA, that would have been a great moment to lay down and say we'll get 'em the next two sets. Instead, they went on a run I have never seen before and certainly didn't expect. They scored three straight points, to close the gap before another ULM point. Then UTA would score four straight to tie it. A 7-1 run erased the gap. Shelby Dickinson had three kills during that stretch and ULM helped with two errors.
Then, it was volleyball at its best. ULM had set point at 24-23, then UTA scored to tie. Then UTA would have set point at 25-24 before ULM would score to tie at 25. Fortunately, Taylor Gross and another ULM error would give the Mavs the set and their first lead of the match.
The fourth set was exactly like the entire match should have been against ULM, UTA won 25-16.
The shaky performance against the former-and-now-renewed conference rival had me a bit shaken. When I made my pre-conference predictions, I waffled between UTA and Louisiana. Their pre-season schedule wasn't as tough, but they were consistent. After dropping a set and almost two against Monroe, I thought that I had gotten it right, sadly.
But they swept the Cajuns by identical 25-19 scores. Unlike the match against the Warhawks, UTA played a more fundamental level of volleyball and limited the mistakes. Against ULM, they had 29 errors and only hit above .200 once. Against ULL, they had a total of 11 errors and hit below .200 once. My hope is that UTA can continue what we saw on Saturday throughout the rest of conference play, which resumes in downtown Atlanta at the GSU Sports Arena on the campus of Georgia State followed by a visit to Bowling Green, Kentucky to play the preseason favorites, Western Kentucky.
Here's the standings after the first week:
WKU 2-0, 12-4
UALR 2-0, 10-4
Texas State 2-0, 12-5
UT Arlington 2-0, 9-6
Arkansas State 2-0, 6-10
Louisiana-Lafayette 0-2, 10-6
South Alabama 0-2, 5-7
Georgia State 0-2, 5-11
Troy 0-2, 5-11
Louisiana-Monroe 0-2, 4-14