Thursday, September 15, 2016

Volleyball Out of the Gate

Fall is a lonely time at UT Arlington as far as sports go. Without a bevy of team sports like most schools have (UTA is the only school with one team sport in the fall), it puts a lot of pressure on volleyball to be an outlet for the school.

And it makes losing all the more noticeable.

There was a time when UTA was a dominant national power, appearing in the top 25 consistently in the 1980's. The regional representative in the NCAA tournament was either going to be the Mavericks or the team from UT-Austin. It was clear who the top University in the DFW region was, as neither TCU, SMU nor North Texas were on par with what the Mavericks were doing.

A brief period of mediocrity in the mid-1990's was followed by a resuscitation of the program as the UTA volleyball made its seventh and eighth appearances in the NCAA tournament in 2001 and '02 (to go with four AIAW national tournament appearances and one National Invitational).

Since then, it has been nothing. In the 13 completed seasons since then, the Mavericks have won zero conference championships, zero conference tournaments, appeared in only two conference tournament championship matches and had five losing seasons. The days of UTA volleyball being an elite program seem far from over, and that just gets exacerbated by starts like the 2016 team is having.

UTA opened the season at home with a 2-1 tournament, beating Sam Houston State in five sets, but losing to Sacramento State in four (that will be a common theme).

UTA then dropped a five-set match to North Texas in Denton, and have now lost four out of the last five to the Mean Green. Coupled with the two losses to SMU since 2006 and the three losses to TCU since 2007 and it is clear that not only is UTA no longer a top team in the state, but they may be the worst in the region, having gone a combined 3-9 since 2006.

Road losses to poor teams in Mississippi, Abilene Christian as well as Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and neutral court losses to a poor team in North Carolina State and a mediocre team in Nevada-Las Vegas have further cemented UTA as a bottom-half Division I team this year.

Moving into College Park Center, with all of its player amenities, should have buoyed the program. And for a time, it looked like it might. The Mavericks have averaged 21 wins the previous three seasons and three fourth place finishes in the Sun Belt Conference. The Sun Belt is very top heavy in volleyball, with a clear demarcation between the top teams and the bottom teams. By finishing in fourth, maybe the writing should have been on the wall that while they were competitive, they still weren't progressing to the point where they would be a legitimate threat.

This dismal start, 3-8 to begin the year, makes it feel like we are right back to where we were when UTA began play in the Sun Belt. Maybe the ship can be righted this weekend as the Mavericks return to CPC for the first time since the season-opening tournament. Matches against Samford, New Mexico, Houston Baptist and UT-El Paso are winnable, but so were every match they have lost.

In fact, that maybe the most discouraging aspect of this season. I don't mind losing to clearly superior teams. I don't mind losing to an evenly-matched team if the match is well played.

But once again, every match UTA has lost has shown the Mavericks are capable of competing against these teams. UTA might be the only volleyball team with a sub-.300 record that has not been swept. They have won sets against teams in commanding fashion, but have also lost sets by narrow margins and/or very big margins.  The lack of consistent play is frustrating.

This brings back a consistent complaint I have had against UTA volleyball since I started this blog. In one set, they look like world-beaters and control the other team. In the next set, they look in over their heads. Sometimes these sets are back-to-back with no particular order. The only consistent thing this year is the lack of just that.

You'll rarely see me make the following statement - in fact this will be a first. I will point out flaws I see in coaching, but never call for a new coach, until now. The common denominator in these in consistent teams is Coach Diane Seymour. It seems to me that a change in leadership is needed.

I know this isn't out of the blue. In fact, one day I was eating at the Dickey's Barbecue at Central Expressway and Henderson Ave. near downtown Dallas. Happened to strike up a conversation with a table next to me and when I found out they were volleyball coaches from out of state, I mentioned UTA. In the course of conversing, they stated how Coach Seymour was in the hot seat. This was in the offseason prior to 2015.

Players on this team were not players on the teams in the Western Athletic Conference showing the same inconsistent play. She has led the program for 12 years, this is her 13th. There have been no NCAA Tournament appearances in that time. Add the year prior to her arrival and it is the longest stretch in program history with no appearance. The previous long was eight. The 13 years since the last conference regular season championship is also the longest in program history. The previous long was six.

I feel Coach Seymour has lost the confidence of the fan base, based on what I see online and talking to a few people in person.

I'd like a return to, if not nationally-competitive teams, at least a top-level team in the state.

Maybe it's not fair that volleyball gets more scrutiny due to its isolation in the year. I root for the cross country teams to do well, but they don't foster what the team sports do or can. This team still can do well, and I think they have the ability. But there is little confidence they actually will. That needs to change. I can only see one way at this point.

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