Paul Boyd is a sports reporter for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He was voted Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2018.
Razorbacks set to open NCAA Tournament in Oregon
Arkansas volleyball coach Jason Watson is shown during a game against Washington on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022, in Fayetteville.
The University of Arkansas volleyball team has made it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013, but it was not without a few tense moments during the selection show Sunday evening.
The Razorbacks were left out a year ago when they felt they should have made the field and were among the final eight teams announced this year.
“When it started getting to the last couple brackets, I was like, ‘OK, come on. They’re really making us wait. … It was a surreal moment,’” All-SEC outside hitter Taylor Head said.
“We were like, ‘You’re joking. This is happening again?’ ” senior outside hitter Jill Gillen said. “Then it was called and there’s a little number next to it, and it was the best feeling.”
The Razorbacks (20-8) take on Utah State at 6 p.m. Central today in Eugene, Ore. The Arkansas-Utah State winner faces the Oregon-Loyola Marymount winner at 9 p.m. on Saturday.
It’s Arkansas’ 12th NCAA Tournament appearance, but it hasn’t won a tournament match since defeating St. Mary’s 3-1 in 2005. It’s also the first time the Razorbacks have put together back-to-back 20-win seasons since 2002-03. They also earned two wins over ranked opponents this season — a four-set win over then-No. 8 Washington and a four-set win over then-No. 7 Georgia Tech.
That gave Arkansas something it was criticized for not having a year ago — significant wins. The Razorbacks finished the regular season just out of the American Volleyball Coaches’ Top 25, which came out earlier this week. They are ranked 26th among teams receiving votes.
Arkansas will face a familiar opponent as it defeated the Aggies (22-10) in five sets during the regular season last season in Montana. Utah State won the Mountain West Conference Tournament and is making its first NCAA appearance since 2010.
The Razorbacks enter the tournament riding a five-match winning streak without dropping a set.
Gillen, who led the Razorbacks with 3.67 kills per set and earned her fourth league honor in four seasons, said the strong finish is big.
“I think that is huge momentum. I think we’re gong to take that and run with it,” Gillen said.
“I think we’re ready for it. We’re ready for the opportunity and for the pressure and I think we’re going to perform,” added Head, a junior who became the 18th Arkansas player to top 1,000 career kills late in the season.
“It’s a long time coming, certainly deserving and in my humble opinion has been deserving before [Sunday’s selection],” Arkansas Coach Jason Watson said. “But pleased and certainly proud of our team for their willingness to persevere and to get a seed is significant.”
The top 32 teams were seeded this year rather than just the top 16.
The Razorbacks persevered through injuries and showed some unselfishness throughout the injuries, Watson said.
“It’s not something we as a staff can take credit for, but we can take credit for the quality of individuals we’ve recruited,” he said.
“But we’ve all been around and just because you do that it doesn’t mean that it’s all rainbows, ponies and glitter. That’s been pretty special to see that caring and that heart no matter who is playing. It’s way cool.”
Head said the Razorbacks will go into the tournament with a chip on their shoulder.
“I think we always have,” Head said. “I think we’re going to make a statement and they’re going to be shocked because why not us.”
Watson said the play of 6-4 graduate transfer Tatum Snipes has also made a significant impact.
“We needed to be a better blocking team and it made a whole bunch of sense to go get the best blocker in the SEC in the transfer portal,” Watson said. “What she’s done is pretty infectious. She’s come in and raised the level of that system in our gym. Abigail [Archibong] is playing really well also.”
Watson said his team is playing better now than it was in October and early November. Even he’s not sure how the players will react to the NCAA Tournament since it’s new to them.
“Are they ready for that?” Watson said. “I don’t know. They’ve never experienced it and maybe that’s good because they don’t know what they don’t know. What I know about this crew is they love playing volleyball together. So the fact that they get to do that more I mean, I just think they’re going to relish this moment.”
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