“No competitive balance attempted” as ACC will play in 3 pods of 5 teams each

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ACC volleyball 8/4/2020-Joe Sagula-UNC
University of North Carolina coach Joe Sagula/UNC photo

Three pods of five teams each.

They’re based on geography. 

This is 2020 volleyball in the ACC. With a guarantee of 10 matches.

“I keep having this dream,” North Carolina coach Joe Sagula said Friday, the day before his Tar Heels would practice for the first time, “that we’re in the middle of practice and I get this phone call an hour in and they say ‘Everything’s canceled, go home.’ And that’s probably not far off.”

Luckily not yet. So far so good as Sagula enters his 40th year as a college coach, his 31st at UNC.

“I’ve got some concerns about a 10-match schedule,” Sagula said. “And so do my players and so do a lot of people and what that means. I think the ACC’s premise was to create an absolute minimum which would allow as much flexibility as possible. And I understand that. But …”

And Sagula explained the breakdown of the three pods.

“You play the teams in your pod. Only. And that’s it,” he said. “These pods are quite interesting.”

North Carolina is in a group with Virginia, Virginia Tech, NC State, and Duke.

“Which makes sense geographically,” Sagula said.

But consider the northern group that has Pittsburgh (which won the league in 2019), Louisville, Notre Dame (which tied with UNC and Florida State for third), Syracuse, and Boston College.

“There’s no doubt our pod with Syracuse, Notre Dame, Pitt, and Louisville is the toughest schedule BC has ever had to deal with,” third-year Boston College coach Jason Kennedy said. “That being said, I told our team in times like these we really don’t get a lot of choices and a lot of say — we have to deal with the cards we’re dealt. 

“Within the last two years everyone in our pod has made the NCAA Tournament, so saying we’re playing a tournament-caliber team and probably top-50 team every night is not an exaggeration. These are the matches you always look forward to when building a program. Now we just get a whole lot more of them.”

The southern pod is certainly geographically challenging, with Georgia Tech (which finished second), Florida State, Miami, Wake Forest, and Clemson.

“There is no competitive balance attempted here,” Sagula said. “It’s strictly based on geography.”

Here is what the ACC said last Friday, which, of course, was part of its 11-game plan for football:

— Fall Olympic Sports competition may begin on Thursday, Sept. 10
— Team sports will play a conference schedule that meets the NCAA minimum amount of games: field hockey (6), women’s soccer (6), men’s soccer (6) and volleyball (10)
— Schools will continue to schedule regular season cross country competitions at their discretion
— Any additional games against conference opponents or non-conference opponents are at the respective school’s discretion and all opponents must meet the ACC’s medical standards
— Any additional games against conference opponents that are beyond the conference-mandated schedules would not count in the ACC standings

Sagula said he would rather play in the spring.

“If they feel like they can’t justify having football without all these other sports, the hell with that,” Sagula said. “Football wants to go. Good. Let them try. Make it happen. But ask the (fall sports) student-athletes. I think they would say they would rather have a full season in the spring than try to do this now and have a shortened season. That’s what kids are asking: A 10-match schedule? I didn’t sign up for that.”

Even though there’s a volleyball plan in place, Boston College itself won’t start competition until October 1, which puts the Eagles three to four weeks behind everyone else.

“At the end of the day we all want to get a season in and find some sense of culmination to the training and dedication these athletes have put in over their careers and for those that have been self-motivated to get themselves ready during quarantine for what lies ahead — particularly for our seniors,” BC’s Kennedy said.

Sagula said they can play every other weekend, “so I’m playing Duke three times. We play two schools three times and the other two schools twice to create 10 matches. Now, I can play Clemson, I can play Wake Forest, I can play Georgia Tech, I can play whomever I can, but I can’t fly. On the other side, Wake Forest has to play three times in the state of Florida. So they have to fly, but it’s only approved for ACC matches.”

Florida State’s Chris Poole, who also favored a full schedule in the spring, enters his 13th year in Tallahassee and is admittedly skeptical that a fall season can be pulled off. He said the ACC announcement took him by surprise. He thought the league was leaning toward spring volleyball.

“Certainly this is going to be a completely different feel for the players, and yet you’re trying to motivate them to get up for every match. It’s going to be more of a challenge, probably,” Poole said. “I understand the concern on limiting some of the travel.

“But I’m worried. It’s going to be a challenge to keep the team up and keep them excited about the season.”

The bottom line is there are no easy answers.

“I feel terrible for those seniors who have to go through a reduced season,” said Poole, whose FSU team has six players — including two transfers — entering what should be their final year.

Like their counterparts in other conferences (see our Pac-12 story), don’t be surprised to see ACC athletes redshirt this season.

The NCAA may provide more later Tuesday when its board of governors makes another announcement, but in the meantime, Sagula has plenty of questions:

“It’s very challenging. It’s August and we still don’t know. And with the uncertainty it’s very concerning mentally and emotionally. Even though we’ve got the ACC schedule, we still don’t know how there’s going to be a champion or any of that stuff. And the question is, what’s the point?

“I could schedule College of Charleston, Coastal Carolina, High Point, Elon, UNC Wilmington, why? What’s it gonna do for me? And in this current situation you could say you get to play volleyball against more teams. Or am I actually putting myself at more risk of getting sick. Not me, but my players. Are we creating more opportunities for potential illness? That’s the balance. Obviously we want to play. The kids want to play.

“And even if there is an NCAA Tournament, how are they going to do this?”

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