Stony Brook vs. SIU for the NCAA volleyball title? Probably not, but this is not all about the Power 5

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NCAA volleyball 8/15/2020-Tom Hilbert-Colorado State volleyball
Tom Hilbert coaching his Colorado State team last week/CSU photo

This was the year.

My hometown university, Stony Brook, was going to play my alma mater, Southern Illinois, in the NCAA Division I volleyball final.

Go ahead. 

Prove me wrong. 

Try to tell me something as crazy as that couldn’t happen in 2020.

“I certainly hope you had the Salukis sweeping, right?” asked SIU coach Ed Allen.

Not saying. 

But I am saying this: This was the damndest week ever as we watched NCAA volleyball implode or explode or both as the entire season basically got postponed to the spring.

As of Saturday morning, there are just six conferences clinging on to the fall, as the American Athletic, Conference USA, and Sun Belt hold on to the coattails of the ACC, Big 12, and SEC, which are hell-bent on playing football.

Good for them, but it’s time to spring, so to speak, the volleyball programs from those six leagues to the spring.

It says here it will happen. Because consider Texas, with its best team since winning it all in 2012, playing a Big 12 schedule only and then shutting it down. 

As if. 

Or Kentucky and Florida doing the same. Or Pittsburgh playing in a pod with only Louisville, Notre Dame, Syracuse, and Boston College. A 10-match season.

Puh-leeze.

And for that matter, dear NCAA, please conduct the men’s championship at the same place and time as the women’s to give the men a boost and a break. Plus it would make for a fantastic volleyball event.

But back to the matter at hand. This is not all about just the Power 5 conferences.

There are 27 other leagues that play NCAA volleyball and, frankly, they should get a chance to win a national championship title. 

I’ve joked that except for the death, pestilence, famine, and ruination of the economy, some good things have come from and will continue to come from the pandemic. One of them might be the redefining of Division I. It’s time for the Power Five and anyone else who wants to come along — BYU, San Diego, Colorado State, Creighton, Marquette, Hawai’i, Long Beach State, and the American Athletic Conference, for example — to play for one championship while the others compete for another.

Think I-A and I-AA football when it was broken down into those two divisions.

The stark truth is when we start every NCAA Division I season, there are about a dozen teams with a realistic chance to win it all. That means more than 300 teams can’t. 

They just can’t.

The rich are too rich and there simply aren’t enough great players who can win a national volleyball title to go around, especially setters. 

There are so many fabulous players in America, but only a select few who can hoist the trophy in December. Or May. Or whenever it happens again.

And there’s proof, by the way. Since the NCAA started conducting a women’s volleyball championship, just 10 schools have won it all, and in the last 14 years, just five schools have done it.

But all that change has to happen down the line.

Now those 320 or so teams have different challenges. At least it’s not playing a shortened season in the fall when positive COVID tests could have easily shut down an entire team, a conference, or the whole thing in a heartbeat.

“It was the correct and appropriate decision. I think the WAC got it right,” said Cal Baptist coach Branden Higa. “It was just going to be extremely difficult to play for all the reasons we know, testing, students returning to school, and it comes down to student-athlete wellness and the student-athlete experience and both those things go hand in hand.”

A lot of coaches have said they’re glad to finally have a chance to train their new players and do it for more than two weeks before the season. 

Stony Brook coach Kristin Belzung

Fourth-year Stony Brook coach Kristen Belzung, who wasn’t biting on that national-championship thing, did agree that on a team that lost six seniors and has just one on its current roster that training her five freshmen an extra semester is a good thing.

“We always talk about that, that fall is so hard. We have two weeks where you come in and have to drink from a fire hose and then you have to compete when you’re a freshman,” Belzung said. “I look at this group of freshmen having the ability to contribute more now than they would have had they gone through a traditional fall season.”

Belzung, who played at Northern Iowa and had been an assistant coach at South Carolina and Wyoming, lives in a fabulous place for a kid to grow up (I know). Stony Brook is 55 miles east of New York City on the north shore of Long Island.

“Our team is doing really well, considering,” Belzung said. “They’re looking forward to being back on campus and being in the gym with their teammates and doing athletic things again.”

Five of her players have been on campus working out and “everyone else is kind of trickling back in.”

SIU coach Ed Allen

In another great place, Carbondale, Illinois, home of the Salukis, SIU’s Allen is figuring out as he goes.

“We just met with (the players) today trying to keep them in the loop,” Allen said Friday after the Missouri Valley Conference finally joined the spring movement. “You can imagine their anxiety in trying to figure out if they’re going to get a chance to play or not.

“They’re handling things pretty well and they’re happy that we’re going to get back in the gym next week, because they haven’t been in there since March.”

Allen, starting his second season at SIU, was the head coach at Anderson, Presbyterian, and Tulsa before spending eight years as the coach at Alabama. 

“Nobody knows what the next six months have in store for us,” Allen said, “whether we’re going to play after the first of the year or what. And if we do it will look differently than it normally looks.”

SIU has a roster than includes five seniors — three in their fifth years — four juniors, two sophomores, and a whopping nine freshman. Having that many newcomers is a challenge for any coach, but Allen was thinking about those seniors.

“Most of them are headed to graduate school of some kind, so it’s not just as simple that you get another year of eligibility (if there is no spring season), it means you might have to put your life on hold for another year if you want to play. And what does that create? There’s a lot there.”

Allen laughed.

“My strength coach is excited about getting to work with 22- or 23-year-olds,” Allen said. “You can put a whole lot more muscle on those kids than you can a 17- or 18-year-old.”

Colorado State is the perennial Mountain West champion and is one of those teams that no one wants to play in the NCAA Tournament. Tom Hilbert has built a tremendous program in his 24 years at the helm in Fort Collins, where he is kind of my hero because he does a weekly radio show at a craft-beer restaurant. 

And not only does Hilbert have to contend with all that’s going on in the volleyball world, he was moving this weekend from one house to another in Fort Collins with his new wife, Claire. They never had a honeymoon and got married on Zoom.

“We had over a hundred people tune in, it was kind of fun,” Hilbert said.

Way more fun than what’s happening in college volleyball. He brought up this point.

“The rug gets yanked from underneath you and each age of a player is affected a different way,” Hilbert said. “The seniors, it’s one of the most disappointing things. Now they have to make a choice, which is do I stick around or do I go on with my life. That’s a really hard thing.

“And we have a kid named Ellie Gubser who has never started but it looked like this year she was going to be a starter. It would her year, finally, and then this happened.

“And then the (six) freshmen, they expect the team-bonding experience when they get here and they get here like July 8 and half of them have to go into quarantine because one of them comes up COVID positive the first week.

“We had one player who had to be quarantined for 35 days because she was in contact with three different people who had tested positive. That’s not her fault but at 17 years old she’s coming into college with a certain expectation and that’s what happened. And that kid never had a symptom and never was sick. She was doing that to help everyone else.”

Hilbert paused.

“It’s really, really an interesting year,” he understated. “I can’t blame it on anything but the virus, but it sure is just a whole plethora of different emotions and stories how in terms of these kids are affected.”

GCU cooach Tim Nollan

The WAC finally moved to spring on Thursday.

“I think it’s a hard time in college athletics for everyone,” fifth-year Grand Canyon coach Tim Nollan said. “I think it’s hard to be a coach, I think it’s hard to be an athlete, and I think obviously everyone wants to play and that’s why they’re in athletics in general.”

WAC may stand for Western Athletic Conference, but its teams are spread out all over the country, from California to Chicago to Texas to Utah.

“We’re an airplane league, so we fly to opponents,” Nollan said. “And some teams in the league are in states with mandatory quarantines. So logistically it’s really hard.

“I think it’s exciting that the NCAA is listening to its membership, if you will, and they’re talking about trying to put together a championship in the winter or spring and that’s a positive.”

GCU is going to continue to practice.

“I think the biggest thing that we had in our (team) meeting is that a lot of our kids are saying it’s just hard and I thrive on and a lot of my identity is from competing in general. Taking away sport has taken away a lot of that. They’re excited to have that opportunity to compete again, whether it’s in practice, whether it’s in mini games amongst ourselves, whatever it looks like. They’re just excited to have that.”

At San Diego, where’s Jen Petrie’s team battles BYU for the West Coast Conference title year in and year out,  the 22nd-year coach said “Hopefully we’ll be starting in about a week or so. We are starting quarantine on Sunday, and getting tested, and it will be small groups after that.

“Everything will be starting outside, and our strength coach will be working with them outside. They’ve been working hard all summer remotely, but it will be nice for them to work out back together again.”

And volleyball in the spring?

“It’s going to be a challenge, and certainly it’s going to be a stress on our facilities, managers, and our support staff,” Petrie said. “Having so many events on a weekend will be a challenge.

“The West Coast plays a nice Thursday-Saturday schedule that should at least give us a little room to navigate around other sports. It’ll be a challenge, but it’s definitely doable, and I think everybody’s committed to making it happen.”

Campbell coach Greg Goral

On the other side of the country, in Buies Creek, North Carolina, the Fighting Camels of Campbell (great nickname, but the Saluki, an Egyptian hunting dog, is better) and coach Greg Goral are working through it.

“We did a decent job during the summer mentally preparing them for anything that could happen,” said Goral, entering his eighth year at the helm as the program’s longest-tenured coach. “We talked about it several times, that regardless that if we have a full season, part of a season, or we get pushed like we did, you have to be OK with it mentally. If we can handle those adjustments better than our opponent, we’re going to be in a much better situation than most teams.”

Campbell, a member of the Big South, has three seniors, three juniors, six sophomores, and just two freshmen. Goral expected to have his best team ever, and Campbell is the host for the Big South Tournament.

The Fighting Camels have been practicing and will continue to, Goral said. Friday they took a break and did a scavenger hunt.

You could make the joke that this whole thing is a scavenger hunt.

“There is a sense of relief from the standpoint that you’re sitting here every week, the people, coaches, conferences, talking about how we’re going to handle this when it starts and yada yada yada,” SIU’s Allen said. “Now those conversations are over. I can’t tell you the number of minutes that were wasted on things that aren’t going to happen.

“It is nice being able to having some resolution to where we’re going to be over the next three months, but there is a lot of anxiety, especially in our kids who are in their last year.”

And with that, we leave the last word to Kirsten Bernthal Booth, who has built Creighton into a Big East power and another team no one wants to play in the NCAA Tournament:

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