Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Volleyball Check-up: Winning Early, but Who?

Time to check in with the UT Arlington volleyball team for the first time this athletic year. To set the stage, last year's team had one of their better finish in quite a while, going 25-9 overall and 14-6 in Sun Belt Conference play. The wins were the most since 2006's 25 and the losses were the least since 7 in 2004. It was a pivotal year for Coach Diane Seymour, who seemed to be losing the support of many UTA supporters.

UTA has a proud history in volleyball. As far as national competitiveness, it has been the University's best sport. Nationally ranked in the 1970's and '80's, seven wins in the NCAA tournament to go with 10 total postseason wins, a Final Four appearance, 12 regular season conference championships, 10 conference tournament championships and a winning record against 135 of the 217 teams they have played (20 are tied) are just some of the accolades the team sports.

However, most of those accomplishments happened a generation ago. The program suffered six losing seasons in the 1990's, first time the program ever had a losing season. Then Janine Smith took over and got the Mavericks back atop the Southland Conference and into the NCAA tournament. Her last seven season with UTA ended with winning records. Coach Seymour's first season in 2004 was a 20+ win season and three of the next four were winning records. After that though, it was 7-23, 12-17, 17-15, 12-19 and 9-21. She has rebounded since joining the Sun Belt, going 19-15 and 25-9.

There was some worry that this could be a slide from last year. Ashley Bennett, Taylor Gross and Amanda Welsh were big time contributors last year and graduated. Replacing them would be a tall mountain to climb. But early on, it looks like UTA has done so and is competing well.

UTA opened the season at home, hosting Campbell, Grambling and Texas A&M - Corpus Christi, with UTA getting the sweep of the first two. The Islanders are picked to finish second in the Southland and won the odd sets en route to a five set win. The loss was eerily similar to losses in the Seymour era where UTA gets blown out in set 1, wins set two by an equal blow out, drops set three while getting the fourth and then falling behind early in set 5 and not having enough to comeback.I was more upset by the loss than I am now after seeing the team in later competition.

UTA followed that up with a sweep of North Texas at College Park Center and there is never anything wrong with that. UNT is a quality win as they are 6-5 on the year and were picked fourth in the preseason Conference USA poll. UNT was also swept by Little Rock, but did pick up a win against Oklahoma. And in the end, a rivalry win in front of 867 fans is pretty nice.

UTA's first road trip happened in Denver. UTA lost to the host Pioneers to open in a similar fashion to the Corpus Christi loss. I was starting to get worried that we were slipping into a similar pattern and would be a .500 team at best, but the team then swept Air Force and beat Villanova in four. While not outstanding compeition, those two are good wins for UTA. It should be noted that Denver was picked to win the Summit League by the coaches there, so once again, UTA went toe-to-toe with a conference championship contender. May concerning that UTA can't beat those teams, but Denver is currently are 8-3 on the year.

A sweep over winless Abilene Christian set the stage for another weekend tournament as UTA went to Fayetteville, Arkansas. There they swept Southeast Missouri on day 1, which was expected. Day 2 saw a four game win against a familiar foe in Northwestern State. They concluded the tournament by getting swept at the hands of the host Razorbacks, which isn't unexpected. Still, at 25-18, 25-21 and 25-18, they weren't blown out, but I would have liked to see a little bit more. This is a game I'd also like to see UTA win in the future, a mid-level Southeastern Conference team, as they would have in the past. Still, they continued their pace for winning two out of three, which will earn a high seed in the conference tournament.

Finally, UTA closed out the season against Oral Roberts in Tulsa. It was as dominating an effort as you'll find in a four set victory. Oral Roberts was picked fourth in the Summit, so it was another quality win for the Mavericks. They never really looked challenged, or at least seemed in control most of the way.

Senior Stacey Koch has been leading the offense, as she sits second in the SBC in total kills and hitting percentage (going into the Oral Roberts match). Junior Cassidy Wheeler is fourth out of the conferences 11 starting setters in assists. I have a feeling senior Caitlyn Cooney will notch up the digs, as she is eighth in the SBC. I think a big part of the Mavericks success this year, as it has the last two, will come in minding the net, where freshman Marisah Ingram leads the SBC in blocks per set.

Sophomore Qiana Canette is right behind Koch's 149 kills with 139 and make a potent duo. Canette also is a big contributor with Cooney on the defensive end, getting 125 digs behind Cooney's 156. Coincidentally, it is another freshman in Zhanelle Geathers that is second in blocks with 41, 14 behind Ingram's.

As a team versus the other 11 SBC squad, UTA is third in hitting percentage, third in opponent hitting percentage, third in kills and second in blocks. The stat they trail the most is in digs, where they sit tenth. Again, I think that stat will improve, but it does show the importance of playing hard at the net. UTA's penchant for blocks creates havoc for the opponents. That may be one reason why digs are lower is the other team has to hit around UTA's blockers cause more errors and UTA points.

There is an intangible I feel this year that could make a big difference if it holds true. Last year, UTA was second in the SBC in average attendance at 551 per match. This year, through the first five home contests, the Mavs are averaging 683 per home match. Great job by the Athletic Department in getting the turnout, as well as President Vistap Karbhari, who I see tweeting about the department all the time. Believe he even challenged the UTA Greeks over Twitter.

While certainly no one would confuse this team for the 1980's squad, It seems the success the team has had the last two years will continue. Glad to see Coach Seymour recruiting talent to replace what has been lost. That will be the key for the Mavericks in the future. In the meantime, look for them to make noise in conference play this year. Maybe she'll even grab her first title and end the longest stretch without one in the program's history.

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