As the 2017 Central Arkansas volleyball team looks ahead –- and the view is pretty sweet at the moment, with the Sugar Bears sitting at 6-0 overall –- what the program did months ago certainly seems to be paying off.
First off, the 2016 season ended with seven victories in the final eight matches. Springtime workouts and summer preparation allowed Central Arkansas to refine the team’s front-row offensive firepower while also remedying some concerns on defense, and those developments have coach Jeni Jones Chatman very enthused for the future.
“We were able to put together some good spring competition (Louisiana Tech and Ole Miss) and won both those matches. I know it’s spring and it doesn’t matter in terms of wins and losses,” said Chatman, whose team received votes this week in the VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major Poll presented by the NIVC. “But it was good for our players to see that, yes, what we’re putting together was starting to work, not just pieced together in drills but in match play.
“One thing that has not been a strong suit here has been our first-ball contact. We’ve grown leaps and bounds with that, not only with the returners we have but the new players as well. We’ve got a freshman libero (Emily Doss) we are very confident with and the load she’s carrying, and will continue to carry.”
The Sugar Bears began the season with a three-match sweep at the Buffalo Invite, a tourney scheduled so the two Canadian players on the roster (junior Savanah Allen and senior Megan Nash) could play relatively close to home. That was followed by three wins at home at the UCA Invitational, where junior outside hitter Haley Tippett was named tourney MVP.
Tippett, classmate Samantha Anderson and Nash all earned Southland Conference honors after last season and have continued to hammer away with efficiency. Steadier hands in the back, including sophomore setter Elizabeth Armstrong and freshman Bailey Waddington, have surfaced with the guidance of new assistant coach Marissa Collins, who started four years at setter for UCA and guided the team to consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
So in her third season at the helm, Chatman has some pieces she can use to confront two performance questions in 2017. First, with back-to-back season of 16 wins, can the program move past that and get to 20? Also, is Central Arkansas closing the gap with Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, favored to win its third straight Southland Conference title?
“I have personal goals and program goals, but certainly getting as close to a 20-win season as a mid-major program is very important. Not just for (NCAA) RPI and potential at-large bids, but with the NIVC coming in as another opportunity for postseason play, it could be a big part of the selection process,” she said. “If you can show you can win and are consistent against your peers or teams that are perhaps better than you on paper, that’s a great thing.
“Certainly, Corpus Christi has run the table in our conference the past two years and is very intact, and has played together the past four years. Credit to those players and coaches who got that going and have maintained it – it’s hard getting there, but maintaining it is even harder. It’s certainly a goal of ours to put up wins and championships back-to-back like that.”
Such aspirations probably seemed fanciful in Chatman’s debut season of 2015, when injuries immediately affected the roster. Nash, a force in the middle from the start of her career, missed several weeks with a dislocated thumb, and her backup went down with an ankle injury three days later. When the libero went down in the same week, the mood seemed pretty grim, but the roster rallied and ended up putting together a winning season.
“Megan is veteran attacker, very versatile, and it’s been honestly all about finding ways to get her the ball more. We added beach volleyball this past year, and Megan played beach prior to coming here. She was on our (No. 1 beach team) and has grown a lot playing beach,” Chatman said. “The mentality of ‘I have to make something happen’ is a big part of it.”
Next up for the Sugar Bears is another tournament on their home floor, the UCA Classic that starts Thursday. In-state rival and perennial mid-major power Arkansas State (3-4) will certainly bring energy to the gym, Central Florida (3-3) has played a tough early schedule, and Southern (0-3) is a bit of an unknown, having cancelled four matches because of weather disruptions caused by Hurricane Harvey.
The lineup looks up to the challenge, with two sophomore attackers (Abbie Harry and Amanda Beaton) having evolved into rotation assets who provide real insurance in case something goes awry, while setter Waddington has proven to be a quick study.
“Last year, I don’t know if we had legitimate backups at every position, but this year we do,” Chatman added. “The progression of these tournaments, getting harder and harder as we go through the (non-conference) weeks is something I really like, but as we pointed out while watching film, there’s a long way to go.
“Our objective is to be playing in December, and that’s a really long time from now. It’s a fun challenge, to get them to buy into pushing themselves.”