Arkansas volleyball embodied what is still right in college sports

Arkansas' Jill Gillen (10) and Hailey Schneider (12) embrace after the team's win over Kentucky in an NCAA women's college volleyball tournament match Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Nikos Frazier/Omaha World-Herald via AP)

FAYETTEVILLE — When a well-respected, national-championship winning coach says something in matter-of-fact fashion, you listen.

This was the case Aug. 30 after the Arkansas volleyball team nearly toppled top-ranked Wisconsin in front of a record crowd at Barnhill Arena. The Razorbacks were defeated by two points in the fifth set, the closest a team can lose in the sport.

Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield, who led the Badgers to a national title in 2021 and has been in the championship match two other times, made a strong remark about the Razorbacks afterward.

“We have got all the respect,” he said. “This team is really good. We could tell it on film. We could see the evolution of their team from last year.

“This is a team that could go really far in the NCAA Tournament.”

Three months and 31 matches later, the Razorbacks proved Sheffield right. Arkansas, a program that had not advanced past the tournament’s first weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 1998, became the sport’s darlings with a regional finals run.

The veteran-heavy group of undersized, under-recruited and gritty players had the best season in program history. And the adjectives used to describe those players explains what made them capture hearts throughout not only the NCAA Tournament but the entire season.

It was a relatable group for many. But it was also an against-the-grain team in today’s landscape of college sports.

For the Razorbacks to become one of eight teams left standing, it took unwavering commitment. Graduates Jill Gillen and Maggie Cartwright, along with seniors Taylor Head and Hailey Schneider, stuck with a program for four-plus seasons.

They stuck with not just any program, but one that was struggling.

In 2018 and 2019, the Razorbacks went 11-17 and 11-19, respectively. Arkansas, which had a 5-13 SEC record both seasons, was among the league’s cellar dwellers.

But something flipped during a shortened 2020-21 season. The Razorbacks went 14-8. On initial glance, the record may not jump off the page, but it did something for the team’s culture: instilled belief.

And if the story of 2020-21 was about gaining belief, the encore season was about giving Arkansas something it carried through the breakthrough 2023 campaign: a massive chip.

Despite a 20-11 record, including a 10-8 mark in SEC play, the Razorbacks were left out of the 2021 NCAA Tournament. It is something Cartwright, Gillen and Head have regularly attributed to lighting a fire under the team. They felt disrespected. But it was something the trio was not unfamiliar with.

Gillen, who was named a second team All-American following the season, is the headlining example of qualities the team embodied.

She was told in high school her game could not work in college due to her height. The 5-7 outside hitter did more than prove people wrong. Not only did she have success in college, but she became the Razorbacks’ record holder for service aces, second in career kills, a four-time All-SEC selection and in her final season was 12th nationally in total kills.

When looking at the nation’s kills-per-set leaders in 2023, her name being near the top stands out. Gillen is surrounded by players who stand at least 4 inches taller, many of whom surpass 6-feet tall. Throughout her career at Arkansas, she emphatically demonstrated the size of her work ethic and heart could overcome a relative lack of size.

And she made people who passed on her out of high school due to size regret it.

“The opportunity to play D1, let alone in the SEC, was something starting at the age of 14 people loved to inform me was unrealistic for the kind of player that I am,” Gillen said in a video posted to the team’s social media account prior to the Senior Day match against Florida. “And, of course, due to my height.”

She went on to thank those who counted her out.

“To all the people who said, ‘You can’t, you won’t, you’re too small,’” Gillen said, “I can, I will, I am, and so what? Thank you for forging the iron chip on my shoulder.”

Gillen delivered the swing against Kentucky in the regional semifinals to give the Razorbacks their most memorable moment in program history. Her kill gave Arkansas a 15-10 win in the fifth set to defeat the Wildcats, who won the SEC and swept the Razorbacks a little over two weeks prior.

She was in many ways the face of the team this season, a clear embodiment of the same chip many of her teammates also played with. The group was regularly praised during its hot start to the season when it was constantly rising to new heights in national polls and setting program records.

The Razorbacks did not bat an eye. They kept working. 

To those who followed the team throughout the record-setting season, it felt as if no praise could outweigh the level of disrespect the team had felt from years past. They played like it from Game 1 to Game 34.

The end result was a loss to top-seeded Nebraska, which looks to be every part a volleyball dream team, in four sets during the NCAA regional finals.

For some sports at the university, an Elite Eight run is praised but quickly forgotten due to a wholistic look at the program. This team was different.

In this case, what the 2023 volleyball team accomplished should — and likely will — stick around in the minds of many for a while. 

The Razorbacks were the national feel-good story of the season.

“In an era where we are struggling to hold together what is right and our why in college athletics, these women reminded me why I continue to do what I love,” Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek wrote in a social media post. “They stuck together, worked hard together, fought through the tough times together, and lived out their dream together.”