Out of the 16 remaining schools left the NCAA Tournament, none spent less time in the AVCA Top 25 than Texas A&M.
The Aggies were absent from the preseason Top 25, just like Utah and Hawai’i — two other programs still alive in the round of 16.
Utah and Hawai’i, however, both broke into the AVCA Poll in week one. As for the Aggies? It was a consistent flow of NRs (Not Ranked) all the way until week 10. By then it was November 10.
Texas A&M finally appeared to be getting on track.
After two consecutive seasons of suffering tough loss after tough loss, the Aggies put together a six-match Southeastern Conference winning streak that included picking up a head-turning road victory at Kentucky and downing Missouri at home in back-to-back outings.
But even that run in the top 25 however was short-lived.
By week 11 the Aggies were out again, having lost at LSU in four sets and seeing their winning streak snapped. But Texas A&M closed out the conference schedule winning four of its final five outings, losing only to Florida in five in the regular-season finale. So the Aggies were back in at No. 25 in the final regular-season poll.
A&M, last in the NCAA Tournament in 2016, didn’t have to sweat out the selection show. There was no question there. They knew they had done enough to make the field. That wasn’t a debate but being a host for the opening weekend definitely was.
Texas A&M was in the conversation, yet kept its luggage on stand by. The thought was the team was more likely to travel than not. So coaches and players weren’t counting on hearing the good news that popped up on the screen during the NCAA bracket reveal.
“We had no idea we were going to host,” third-year starter and junior setter Camille Conner said. “Being up there was awesome. There were great teams out there as well and it’s something we appreciate.”
But Texas A&M (23-7) earned one of those coveted top 16 seeds — in at No. 13 — and would be playing at home. That resulted in a tough sweep of St. John’s and then a four-set victory over Rice that send the Aggies to Wisconsin.
They will play the fourth-seeded Badgers on their home floor on Friday with the winner facing the Hawai’i-Nebraska winner on Saturday.
Conner (9.98 assists/set) is one of 14 players set to return in 2020. Of course, replacing talented senior Hollann Hans (514 kills, 4.43/set, 57 aces, 54 blocks, 2.32 digs/set) on the outside is going to present its own challenge.
Regardless, any postseason experience now figures to pay off later. The high number of returners plus whatever is learned and gained from this year’s tournament points toward second-year coach Bird Kuhn and the Aggies being frequent tournament visitors in coming seasons.
The win over St. John’s was the program’s first postseason victory since downing Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in the first round in 2015. Now the Aggies are in the round of 16 for the first time since 2009.
“I’m so proud of this team,” Kuhn said. “St. John’s is a solid team that was hot coming in. They knocked off Marquette and Creighton in the conference tournament and we knew they would be good. We knew Rice was going to be a great team too.”
There were certainly tense moments in the latter match.
Up 17-9 in the opening frame, A&M watched Rice rally all the way back and steal the first set 28-26. Then the Aggies had to overcome four set points to win set two 32-30 to even up the contest and avoid falling in a major hole. The Aggies then closed it out 25-20, 25-15.
“It helped being at home and having the 12th man,” Kuhn said, referring to what Texas A&M calls its student-body fan base. “We talked about executing at a high level point for point. We settled in and started executing at a high level and started separating ourselves at the end.”
Of course, the home-court advantage is gone now. To advance, A&M will have to score some major upsets. While the other three teams have plenty of college-volleyball stars, Hans has taken her place among the elite.
Hans, the 6-foot-1 product of Corpus Christi, Texas, and senior setter/DS Haley Slocum (who is from College Station and is the granddaughter of forming A&M football coaching legends R.C. Slocum) are the only A&M players who experienced the postseason in 2016 and Hans, for one, cherishes what it means to be back as a senior.
“To get where we are has been the best four years of my life,” Han said. “I feel super blessed to be ending with this season. I couldn’t have asked for a better senior season. It’s been a huge goal of ours to make the tournament. To make the Sweet 16 is something we’ve worked so hard for. It’s a huge accomplishment.”
Heading to Madison is going to be A&M’s biggest road test since visiting Texas (and losing 3-0) in September and defeating Kentucky (3-1) in conference action to open November. Worth noting is that loss at Texas was the only time A&M was swept this season and of their seven losses, five have come in the fifth set, two against Florida.
For that matter, falling in five has been a point of contention for A&M the past two seasons.
A year ago, the Aggies lost 10 times in the fifth, including four in a row during one conference stretch. Needless to say it led to a lot of frustrating moments, as well as encouraging ones. Kuhn said spring training was centered around those five-set losses. She introduced different challenges during the off-season that focused on each one.
“Every match had a different challenge,” Kuhn said. “But they were battling and that was helping to build a culture.”
It’s hardly a secret the volleyball world is expecting a third meeting between Wisconsin and Nebraska Saturday. The Badgers swept both meetings and the conference champs sit as the favorite to reach the final four. The Aggies are 2-5 all-time against Wisconsin, 1-7 against Hawai’i and 7-32 against Nebraska. Yet, the Aggies pride themselves on their trademark fight and grit. Going to Wisconsin and shocking the volleyball world will require the Aggies to keep with that brand.
“It comes down to ourselves and continuing working hard,” Hans said. “It’s OK to be the underdog. We just need to keep playing hard and play like we know how to. We are excited for the opportunity. We know it’s going to be a great atmosphere. We just need to continue being ourselves.”
If nothing else, the plan is in place.
“This team’s ability to execute a game plan is one of their strengths,” Kuhn said. “I love where we are at competitively and with the chemistry we’ve built. This has been one of the most rewarding experiences. I’m looking forward to it. Going on the road with this group is always fun.”