After the summer break that seemed a bit longer than normal to me, UT Arlington is set kick its athletic year with the volleyball team competing in its first match of the year on Friday, concluding a tough first week of classes that begin on Thursday (phew).
The Sun Belt Conference released its preseason poll on Monday, so that's as good a place as any to start this entry. the 2016 season marks the first time the Sun Belt will go to divisional play since the Mavs joined the conference in 2013. Parenthesis is first place votes.
Arkansas St (12)
Coastal Carolina (10)
Starting with the West, I don't think anyone is shocked that Arkansas State is thought to be at the top. They return their top two leaders in kills, top two in digs, setter and blocker (though they don't block much). They won the Sun Belt's regular season and tournament championship and finished the regular season ranked 24th in the NCAA. With that many returners from a team that had that kind of success, the crown is theirs until someone can take it.
I was initially surprised at the high ranking of Texas State, but I looked at it further and the Bobcats return every player who recorded over 100 kills, their top setter, four of the top six in digs and their top blocker. Four of their top players are seniors, so on paper, they earned that spot too. Don't know why I thought they lost some key contributors. Texas State swept UTA last year, and have taken five of seven total matches since the teams joined the SBC. In fact, the last time UTA had a winning record against the Bobcats in one season was 2007. So TXST deserves the nod over the Mavs until UTA can take the 'cats on the court.
Little Rock's style of play will be similar to UTA's. The Mavs and Trojans like to control the net. UTA wasn't flashy last year with kills, but were excellent blocking at the net, best in the conference. UTA had three players over 90 blocks and two are back. Little Rock also has two players back who block at the net incredibly well. Like UTA, their offense isn't going to lead the team, but defense should.
Blocking is one stat that isn't just measured in blocks (and therefore points). A great blocking group can totally change the way an offense approaches those teams. It can also lead to more errors, which in turn is also points for the blocking team. A good blocking team should also have more digs, as it creates a more predictable attack.
Louisiana schools aren't known for their volleyball prowess, and I don't expect that to change much this year.
Over in the East, it is going to be a two-horse race. The irony is there is a vast difference between the top SBC volleyball programs and the bottom. From Little Rock on up to Arkansas State, no one would be surprised if those four programs win the West Division. It will be a shock if anyone upsets the Chants or Mountaineers in the East. Georgia Southern has had a history of success, just not in the SBC. The rest of the east teams seem to treat volleyball as a Title IX requirement and not much more.
App is in major rebuilding mode. They lost 56.4 percent of their total team kills when two players graduated and 62 percent total. Their setter also graduated and took her ability to run the offensive attack, 87 percent of their assists in 2015 were earned by her. Their top three players in the digs category are also gone.
In short, the Chants, who finished first in the Big South with a 14-0 conference record (25-5 overall), were voted number one by having more players back than App. It is rare that a newcomer is picked atop the standings, even if there are divisions. That also shows just how weak the East is compared to the West.
As far as UTA goes, I expect them to follow a similar formula to last year; control the net and attempt to win the game defensively. Unless there is a powerhouse hitter in the freshman ranks (and it has happened in the SBC every year UTA has been a member), I just don't see a player who can dominate like Arkansas State or Appalachian State had last year.
UTA's biggest hole to fill will be the defensive specialist position, as Caitlyn Cooney manned that spot for the last few years, leading the Mavericks in digs. There's a lot of youth here and if the coaching staff can find one solid player, UTA will be quite competitive. They have the blocking ability. If they can find an all-conference libero, they will be in the mix.
UTA's schedule is very similar to past years. They host two tournaments and will play many familiar teams. The UTA will play five teams from the Southland Conference, which was rated the 24th best conference by RPI last year. Those teams are Sam Houston State (picked 5th in the preseason by the coaches out of 13 teams), McNeese State (7th) Abilene Christian (6th), Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (2nd) and Houston Baptist (3rd).
Other teams of note include North Texas in Denton (preseason 6th out of 13 CUSA teams), Ole Miss (12 of 13 SEC), North Carolina State (12 of 15 ACC), New Mexico (4 out of 11 MWC) and UTEP (11th in CUSA).
There schedule is a bit harder than those in recent memory and should show where the team is pretty quickly. As far as conference goes, I seem to remember something different than UTAMAVS.com shows. I seem to recall the SBC deciding on an 18-game conference slate. UTAMAVS.com shows sixteen. UTA hosts and travels to every team in their division, ten total matches. They play each cross-divisional University once according to the website. Since the SBC is instituting travel partners, this means that teams will play an unbalanced slate of matches on the road or at home. In UTA's case, it looks like UTA will host two East teams, but travel to four, creating a seven-match home schedule, but nine-match road one. Luckily, UTA hosts both Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina, but it still doesn't sit well with me. If there were an 18-match conference slate, then there'd by nine and nine.
But either way, the season does begin on Friday and with the amount of returners set to come back for both the Mavs and the rest of the SBC, should be a fun season to follow.