If you had Houston Baptist at Louisiana on Friday, September 4, to open the 2020 NCAA Division I women’s volleyball season, you win the pool.
Indeed, HBU of the Southland Conference, a league that has moved volleyball to the spring but left open the opportunity for its teams to play non-conference matches in the fall, is going to Lafayette, Louisiana, and will play the Ragin’ Cajuns of the Sun Belt Conference, a league that intends to have a fall season.
“And we’re going to make it our senior night in case it’s the only match we play,” said 13th-year Louisiana coach Heather Mazeitis-Fontenot.
For the record, she has four of them, including outside Hali Wisnoskie, who on Wednesday was named to the Sun Belt’s all-preseason team.
What’s more, as far as we can tell, it’s not only the first match of the season, but those are the only teams in action that weekend. They not only play that Friday, but again on Saturday.
There are four conferences committed to playing the fall, the SBC and Big 12, and ACC and SEC and most don’t start until later in September or in October.
Whereas the ACC, Big 12 and SEC have said they will play conference matches only, the SBC can take on out-of-league opponents.
Accordingly, Mazeitis-Fontenot was surprised to learn that her match was the first of the season, although HBU was previously scheduled to come to Louisiana that weekend anyway for its tournament.
“It’s obvious that we’re going to play. Our administration and our commissioner have made it clear that they want us to play,” Mazeitis-Fontenot said.
“Once the NCAA came through and said all your kids can get an extra year of eligibility, then I’m very much at ease with it now. I was very concerned if our kids weren’t going to get a season of eligibility back. Whether they want it or not is up to them. The decision is kind of out of our hands. It’s in their hands. They can opt out, which all of our players have the right to do. We’re very, very luck that our team right now is all in. They want to play.”
The Ragin’ Cajuns finished 14-16 last year, but 10-6 in the Sun Belt, good for second place in the West behind perennial favorite Texas State. Wisnoskie led with 359 kills (3.26/set) and had 16 aces, was third in digs at 2.67/set, and had 50 blocks, 13 solo. Senior libero Hannah Ramirez, a transfer from Panola College, was the SBC newcomer of the year in 2019 and senior setter Avery Breax made the All-SBC second team.
“During the quarantine we were on Zoom calls all the time and as soon as we could get our team back in the gym you could see them brighten up,” said Mazeitis-Fontenot, who was a middle at Central Oklahoma and previously was the head coach at Kansas City (Kansas) Community College and for seven seasons at Louisiana Tech. “Just getting them together physically and getting them together as a team again, it was fun for everybody. I know I’m much lighter in my step being able to coach again and be in the gym again.
“And to be the first team to play, we’re going to rock it out. That’s really kind of cool and I hope we are able to get to a place where we have more matches than,” and she paused and laughed, “one.”
HBU, coached by Trent Herman, who enters his ninth season. Last year, the Huskies finished 17-15, 9-7 in the Southland. In its statement about postponing fall sports, the SLC included that “Institutions may choose to participate in limited fall competition.”
Of course, the HBU-UL matches need officials, and that’s where Anne Pufahl comes in.
Pufahl, the director of intramural sports at Marquette University in Milwaukee, is the supervisor of officials for the Sun Belt. She also oversees the Summit League and Big 12, which includes two of the best teams in the nation in Baylor and Texas.
Drum roll … The Big 12 schedule is not out yet — coaches in the league have told us one is coming soon — but Pufahl said she shows Baylor at Texas for two matches on Friday, November 6, and Saturday, November 7.
“But they’re still deciding because of a football conflict,” Pufahl said. “It could be Saturday-Sunday, but that’s the weekend they’re going to play. It’s the only time they meet and they’re at Texas for both.”
Pufahl, who retired as an official eight years ago, said that the SBC schedule shows teams playing conference matches at home three times and away three times. The teams can choose to play twice or three times and the ones playing three times will go Friday morning, Friday evening, and Saturday morning. And SBC teams are only playing teams in their division (see the coaches poll below).
The good news for her is that with only four of the 32 conferences left in the fall, there are plenty of officials to put to work.
“I think it’s my third or fourth time re-doing the entire schedule, it’s a lot easier now because there are a lot of available officials,” Pufahl said earlier this week. “People still really want to work. They’re dying to work.”
She said very few of her officials from here three conferences have opted out.
“Most of it was because they were taking care or living with someone who’s compromised,” said Pufahl, whose resume includes being the NCAA volleyball secretary and rules editor, and being the national clinic director for the Professional Association of Volleyball Officials (PAVO).
Pufahl said she’s told her officials they can’t drive together to a match in case one has a fever when they’re checked at the venue. Also, if the locker room doesn’t allow for proper spacing to show up in in uniform. She said whistles can be sewed into masks if they don’t have a handheld. She said she doesn’t know if she’ll be going to matches this season or doing her evaluations from home.
No matter what, the eyes of NCAA Division I women’s volleyball will make an unlikely turn to Lafayette, Louisiana, on September 4.
“With our athletic directors and administration, they’re like why not play now? There are no guarantees that spring is going to happen, either,” Mazeitis-Fontenot said. “And I do know that if we can’t play basketball can’t play and that’s a big part, too. We’re an indoor sport and to use a word our athletic director is using, clunky, our season might look a little clunky. I’m OK with that and knowing that at any time our entire team could be quarantined.
“Every day our schedule changes. Every single day. But we’re past the point of wondering if we’re going to play. We’re going to play and I feel great about it. Let’s go play.”