The Arkansas volleyball team has spent the season breaking new ground.
The Razorbacks will get another chance to do so tonight when they take on the top-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers in the NCAA Tournament regional final today.
The Razorbacks (28-5) have enjoyed success in the past, but they are making their first appearance in the Elite Eight. Arkansas snapped a 17-match losing streak against Kentucky with a five-set win over the SEC champion Wildcats on Thursday. It was the Razorbacks’ first win over the Wildcats since 2012.
But even Arkansas coach Jason Watson understands they have another huge hurdle in front of them facing 31-1 Nebraska at 5 p.m. today at the Devaney Center in Lincoln, Neb. The match will be televised on ESPNU.
“It’s a pretty big stage for us,” Watson said. “We were able to get our first win over a Kentucky team that in my opinion is the tip of the spear in the SEC. … Now we get to go and face what I think is the marquee women’s volleyball program in the country. Nebraska at Nebraska. We’ve gotta go ride some big waves, so that’s kind of exciting for us.”
The Arkansas-Nebraska winner will advance to the Final Four in Tampa, Fla.
The 28 wins this season are the most by the Razorbacks since 2003 when they went 27-7 and lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Razorbacks — who are undersized, especially on the outside with 5-foot-7 Jill Gillen and 5-10 Taylor Head — have proved doubters wrong again and again. Gillen, whose only scholarship offer was from Arkansas, recently became just the second Razorback to register 2,000 career kills.
“It’s been an unbelievable season and just week after week we’ve been pushing through and breaking these firsts for Arkansas volleyball and it’s just been amazing to be a part of really,” Head said.
Watson said he’s heard many people talking about how he took a chance on some smaller players, but he actually thought it was the other way around. The Razorbacks went only 9-21 in his first season and had the identical record in Gillen’s freshman season.
“It’s been said perhaps we’ve taken a chance on these athletes, but what I think for me they certainly took a chance on me when they decided to come to Arkansas,” Watson said. “We weren’t playing anywhere near like this. This was still a dream.
“So I feel very fortunate that they believed in me enough to come a school that doesn’t have a rich history in our sport. … It’s been an incredibly enjoyable ride and I feel pretty fortunate actually.”
Watson also talked about how grateful he was that the Arkansas administration showed patience to allow him to build the program.
“I have an administration that’s been incredibly patient with me in a collegiate environment that doesn’t always value patience when they make decisions about coaches," Watson said. "It wasn’t always rainbows, ponies and glitter that first couple years.”
Head said the Razorbacks’ toughness is something the entire group has embraced.
“All season we’ve been talking about resiliency,” Head said. “I think we really take that into each match. … We’re all big competitors, and I think that shows each game. We’re all passionate about the game of volleyball. We’re passionate about winning, so I think each game that shows.”
Arkansas is the only No. 3 seed left among the eight teams remaining in the tournament. The other three regional finals match No. 1 and No. 2 seeds.
The Razorbacks are 0-3 all-time against Nebraska. The teams met in the second round of the 1996 NCAA Tournament in Lincoln, which the Huskers won in four sets.
The Razorbacks took on the top-ranked team in the country twice earlier this season when Wisconsin came to Fayetteville for a pair of matches. The Badgers handed them two of their five losses this season on August 30 and 31, including a five-setter.
“August seems like 10 years ago,” Watson said. “I don’t know we can draw any parallels to what happens in August and what happens in December. It’s forever ago.”