With most teams sitting near the halfway point in their conference schedules, there’s plenty to digest as upstart programs look to continue their successes, while teams up against some win-loss adversity look for that finishing kick to hit the conference tournaments in stride.
There are 32 NCAA Division I conferences and they all get automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament. The other 32 spots are filled with at-large bids. But those left out have a great alternative, the 64-team field National Invitational Volleyball Championship, not unlike the NIT in men’s and women’s basketball.
All games, including the semifinals and championship, are hosted by participating schools. Every round is single elimination. And like the NCAA Tournament, the event offers 32 automatic berths, one to each conference, and 32 at-large bids. Accordingly, we take a look at the field that might include some of the teams discussed here.
In the mid-major space, historical hammers BYU (ranked 8th nationally), Creighton (16th), San Diego (18th), Colorado State (20th) and Cal Poly (23rd) are in full possession of their destiny and have rosters and coaching staffs built to withstand the push to the NCAA Tournament.
Here’s a look at some other programs hoping for the high ground of the postseason, some of whom have appeared in the VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major Poll, presented by the NIVC:
Lipscomb — A three-match winning streak has helped the Bison right the ship, but the preseason choice for the Atlantic Sun championship is 4-3 in the league (11-9 overall), behind three teams at 6-1 (Kennesaw State, Florida Gulf Coast, Jacksonville). Carlyle Nusbaum, last year’s ASUN player of the year, is making another case for the honor in her junior year, with 333 kills (4.90 per set) and a hitting percentage of .243. Junior Lauren Anderson had a career-high 15 kills in the team’s sweep Saturday of USC Upstate; the first in a series of big matches comes Friday, when the Bison host Kennesaw State.
Colonial Athletic Association — James Madison holds the highest RPI in the league at No. 59, but Northeastern is 8-0 in the standings, with Charleston at 7-1. JMU is 5-3, but so are Towson and Hofstra, so the back half of the schedule could lead to some volatile changes. It’s a little rare to see three players with more than 200 kills at this point in the campaign, but Charleston is blessed in that regard with Devon Rachel, Krissy Mummey and Kennedy Madison. Hofstra is being piloted with skill and savvy by setter Luisa Sydlik, a sophomore from Germany who has 955 assists (11.37 per set). Hofstra also has players hailing from Serbia, Italy, Croatia and Puerto Rico.
Wyoming — In the past two weeks, the Cowgirls have broken off five straight victories to move to 6-2 in the Mountain West and position themselves as a difficult assignment in the conference. Boise State (4-4 MWC) is still a threat but might be a bit rattled after losing to Air Force, which sits at No. 196 in the RPI metric. Wyoming hits a respectable .228 and more than gets the job done on defense; this also projects as a team to watch in the future, with just three seniors on the roster and the vast majority of playing time going to younger players.
American Athletic Conference — Wichita State (8-0) is holding serve as predicted, but right behind is a four-team scrum featuring SMU (7-1) and three teams at 6-2, East Carolina, Temple and Cincinnati. SMU has a top-70 RPI and is getting back to its normal look with the return from injury of Katie Hegarity, a unanimous preseason first-teamer in the AAC. Cincinnati has 308 kills off the arm of Carly Nolan, and preseason first-team setter Jade Tingelhoff has 735 assists, which all bodes well for the Bearcats, who were picked to finish second in the preseason poll.
Gonzaga — While a lot of the oxygen in the West Coast Conference is claimed by BYU and San Diego – and the Bulldogs just dropped straight-set road losses to those teams last week – there’s plenty to like about Gonzaga, which started league play with six consecutive wins. The team has a taste for drama, going 6-2 in five-set matches, and with five players registering more than 100 kills, there’s a useful bit of variety in the offense. The Bulldogs were picked to finish ninth out of 10 teams in the preseason poll, but with some continued success can eat into the margin between them and Loyola Marymount in the RPI standings.
Patriot League — One would expect just the conference tourney winner to get an NCAA berth, and it looks like Navy, American, and Army are the strongest candidates. Polish junior national team member and 2016 player of the year Aleksandra Kazala paces American with 372 kills (4.77 per set); Carolyn Bockrath leads Army with 238 kills and is hitting a stellar .403, and Navy has benefited enormously with the returns of 2016 setter of the year Patricia Mattingly and libero of the year Sydney Shearn.