Arkansas will host NCAA volleyball postseason for first time in 17 years

Arkansas outside hitter Taylor Head reacts to a play during a match against Florida on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — The University of Arkansas volleyball team picked up a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and will host the first and second rounds at Barnhill Arena for the first time since 2006.

No. 9 Arkansas will face Stephen F. Austin in the opening round at around 7 p.m. Friday, following a 4:30 p.m. matchup between sixth-seed Florida State and TCU. 

Stephen F. Austin finished with a 29-4 record and won the Western Athletic Conference regular-season title before losing in the WAC Tournament finals.

Arkansas has a 7-0 all-time record against Stephen F. Austin. The Razorbacks last saw the Lumberjacks in the National Invitational Volleyball Championships in 2021, a match they swept.

Arkansas Coach Jason Watson noted the bracket is anything but easy as Chris Poole, a Heber Springs native who started the Arkansas volleyball program, is bringing his Florida State team to Fayetteville this weekend. In addition, the Seminoles' Kennedy Phelan, a former standout setter at Fayetteville High School, will also make a return home.

“It’s a tough bracket,” Watson said. “The last head coach at Arkansas to host is bringing another team here. So that’s exciting for us.”

The Hogs have been placed in the Lincoln Regional, which features No. 1 seed Nebraska and two other SEC teams in No. 2 seed Kentucky and No. 4 seed Florida.

But getting the chance to host first and second rounds is a big deal for the Razorbacks, Watson said. Arkansas won a first-round match a year ago, but fell to Oregon on its home floor.

“It’s a really important step for everybody,” Watson said. “For our athletes, for our administration, for volleyball in the state of Arkansas to be able to do that. So it’s the culmination of a lot of work I think to change the paradigm a little bit. I know our fan base has rallied around us this season in a way we haven’t seen before. That makes Barnhill a legitimate place to host a postseason event.

“We’re getting 3,000 people in Barnhill and that’s significant.”

Watson said his group just enjoys playing together and they get the chance to do it again later this week.

“They like playing volleyball,” Watson said. “And I think they’re appreciative of the opportunity to play volleyball at a high level, and now we get to do it at probably the highest level here at the NCAA Tournament.”

Arkansas concluded the regular season 25-5, its most regular-season wins since 1999. The Razorbacks haven’t won two NCAA Tournament matches since 1998. The Razorbacks finished with a 15-3 SEC record, tying for second after being picked fifth in the preseason coaches poll.

The chance to play at home is especially big for junior setter Hannah Hogue, who grew up just down the road in Fort Smith and was one of three Razorbacks to earn All-SEC honors on Sunday, along with outside hitters Jill Gillen and Taylor Head.

Hogue was particularly excited to see the “3” next to Arkansas as a host site.

“It’s huge for us,” Hogue said. “We feel that energy. It’s just nice to be home and be with everyone. They’ll bring a crowd. I’m sure they will break another record this weekend. It’ll be great. Growing up, they didn’t host when I was a kid. It really wasn’t something I even thought about when I was coming to Arkansas but now it’s exceeded my expectations, bigger than my dreams. It’s very cool.”

Watson, who was named co-SEC coach of the year, agreed it’s special for a player from Arkansas.

“I think that’s a story that as the coach at Arkansas, you want more of those stories,” Watson said.

Watson has noted all season how the level of play in the league has continued to grow. That showed up in the form of postseason bids. Arkansas is one of eight SEC teams to make the tournament, the most of any conference.

“I think the conference is getting better,” Watson said. “It’s not what it used to be and certainly it’s going to get stronger a year from now. For volleyball, especially volleyball in the part of the country where the SEC is, it’s growing and it’s developing so it’s an exciting time to be a volleyball coach in the SEC.”

All first- and second-round matches will be broadcast on ESPN+. Both single-match and all-session tickets are now on sale through the Razorback Ticket Center. The first 500 students in attendance for the first-round match will receive free admission.