Paul Boyd is a sports reporter for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He was voted Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2018.
UA volleyball waits to learn its fate
NWA Democrat-Gazette/ANDY SHUPE Arkansas coach Jason Watson watches his team Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019, during practice in Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Jason Watson and his University of Arkansas volleyball team are playing the waiting game.
It’s been 12 days since the Razorbacks swept South Carolina in their regular-season finale in Barnhill Arena, but they will need to bide their time to find out if their season will continue.
The NCAA women’s volleyball selection show is slated for 3 p.m. Sunday on ESPNU. That’s when the field of 48 teams will be announced, and Watson’s team is on the bubble.
Watson and his players acknowledge the anxiety.
“It’s on our minds all the time,” sophomore outside hitter Jill Gillen said. “I know we’re a good team and we definitely deserve the tournament, and that’s why this is hard because we don’t know what’s gonna happen.”
There would be little need for consternation if the field was at the normal number of 64.
“A conference that normally sends five or six teams, and we finished fourth, you’re feeling a lot better than we are right now,” said Watson, who is in his fifth season at Arkansas. “I think we’d be really confident.”
The NCAA decided in October to move the tournament to spring because of the coronavirus pandemic and slice the field to 48, meaning a lot of deserving teams will be left out, Watson said. One of those could be Arkansas, which hasn’t been to the tournament since 2013.
The Razorbacks are 14-8 while playing an SEC-only schedule in both the fall and spring. It’s the first time Arkansas has been over .500 in league play since 2012. Arkansas was also scheduled to play two matches at Auburn a week ago, but the Tigers opted out of the spring season after going 0-8 in the fall.
The Razorbacks also had no covid-related pauses during the season, so they had a two-week gap in competition since this week served as a make-up week for the league.
The entire volleyball tournament will be held in Omaha, Neb., from April 13-24. There will be only 30 automatic bids because the Ivy League and Big West did not compete this season. That leaves 18 at-large bids, but that’s still considerably less than the normal 32.
Kelly Sheffield, the coach of top-ranked Wisconsin, and Nebraska Coach John Cook, who has won four national titles, went public with their pleas last week to return the tournament to 64 teams. But they don’t seem to have gotten much traction from the NCAA currently.
Florida State Coach Chris Poole, who started the Arkansas volleyball program in 1994 and was the coach the last time the Razorbacks won an NCAA Tournament match in 2005, agreed since the tournament is at one site.
“I think the initial response from coaches was that we were thankful the NCAA was moving the tournament to the spring,” said Poole, whose team also sits on the bubble. “I don’t think at that point any of us thought about how it might look as we didn’t know what shape the country might be in.
“I think it’s great every conference has the opportunity to be awarded a bid. But by cutting the tournament, there will be teams in the top 25 not make the tournament at all. With having very little to no nonconference play, it makes sense to increase the field and minimize leaving out a team that deserves to make the tournament.”
Gillen, who ranks sixth in the SEC in kills per set and second in aces, said she’s considered writing an email to the NCAA to provide a player’s perspective.
“This is the hardest year to do this and we’ve done it,” Gillen said. “We’ve put in the work, and we deserve this. It’s the only sport that’s been downsized like this, and it’s really difficult knowing that.”
Watson said his team will continue working in hopes of hearing its name Sunday.
“We’re prepping to go and still think we have a shot, which I think — and I’m highly biased — is pretty danged impressive,” Watson said. “I don’t know what we were picked, but I know it wasn’t fourth.
“I want to play more because I love coaching this team.”
Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.