Mid-Major Momentum?

Some say power conferences continue to dominate college sports across the board, but there continue to be mid-major volleyball programs executing stunning upsets in early NCAA rounds

Wichita State Athletics
Wichita State was one of the mid-major programs making a run in last year's NCAA tournament.

Let’s just say Wichita State women’s volleyball coach Chris Lamb isn’t as reactive about the Shockers’ mid-major label as men’s basketball coach, Gregg Marshall. Though they both share the Charles Koch Arena in Wichita, Kan., they have different responses about what such a label implies.

At a news conference before basketball’s National Invitation Tournament in 2011, a reporter mentioned that the Missouri Valley Conference, of which the Shockers are a member, is regarded as a mid-major conference. Marshall quickly retorted, “Is it?”

Clearly the characterization of WSU as a mid-major had hit a nerve. “Well, check my bank account, check my W-2, check our budget, check the way we travel,” Marshall went on as his blood boiled.

But hey, you can’t argue with Marshall’s success. That’s how he deals with WSU’s identity crisis, the way Marshall sees it, as a mid-major. The Shocker basketball team flexed its muscles with the big boys all the way to the men’s Final Four last season.

In a less contentious tone, Shocker volleyball’s Lamb commented, “I do recognize that some conferences really are somewhere in the middle.” Then he added a more linguistic approach to the meaning of the word mid-major: “If ‘mid’ means middle and ‘major’ makes them feel better, then maybe ‘mid-major’ is not such a bad name.”

No matter how the NCAA slices it, the Division I women’s volleyball teams from leagues other than the six Bowl Championship Series (BCS) conferences have fallen short of advancing to the national semifinals lately. Even though the distinction is driven by college football, other sports programs within these power conferences (AAC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, and the SEC) benefit in the long run due to increased media attention and preconceived status, while non-BCS programs don’t have the same advantage. College volleyball coaches and administrators are starting to take notice of this increased disparity.

Since Santa Clara University’s run to the national semis in 2005, the University of Hawai’i is the only non-power conference team to make it that far – four years ago in Tampa, Fla. (Technically the Rainbow Wahine as a member of the Big West Conference falls into the mid-major category, though it’s difficult to come to grips with that considering their high profile in Honolulu and the non-conference schedule they play. When opening this season, the Rainbow Wahine caught the attention of the volleyball world with a five-set victory over the defending national champion Texas Longhorns).

Compare the recent final four trend to the first four years of the NCAA volleyball tournament (1981-84), when eight of the combined 16 berths in the national semis were gobbled up by universities—either from Hawai’i or California—now categorized as mid-majors.

“When we went to the final four, I can’t even tell you how many mid-major coaches came up to me and said, ‘Hey, my kids were inspired by what Santa Clara did. Santa Clara gave our girls hope,’” said Jon Wallace, the 15-year head coach of the Santa Clara team belonging to the West Coast Conference. Wallace isn’t convinced another mid-major is armed enough for a favorable shot at the championship finals any time soon. “It’s like Alabama in football with all those football recruits,” he said. “The top schools get the top recruits.”

Stanford coach John Dunning doesn’t see it that way, and cites the deep tournament run two years ago by Pepperdine, for example, also a WCC team. In the 2011 Honolulu regional final, the Waves pushed USC to the brink of elimination in a five-set match.

“On the higher level it’s getting better every year, and there are more teams [that are] capable of beating anyone than ever before,” said Dunning. “All over the country there are so many good players that have played for a long time. They’re at every school now. Pretty much everybody that we play on our schedule, we expect, can beat us. It doesn’t matter what conference they’re from or what part of the country.”

How much is the deck of power conference schools stacked against the mid-majors? To University of San Diego coach Jennifer Petrie, it doesn’t matter. She vows not to sell her team’s chances short, starting from the Toreros’ first practice.

“We are training hard to be an elite team,” said Petrie, in her 13th season as the USD head coach. “BCS or non-BCS, we want to be seen as one of the top volleyball programs in the country.” USD was one of six WCC teams in the NCAA field of 64 last year, a number which tied a conference record. Twice USD advanced to the round of 16 – in 2004 under Petrie and most recently in 2006 under interim coach Brent Hilliard.

Like Texas, the Toreros played at the Rainbow Wahine Classic in Honolulu to open this season. They forced the Longhorns to five sets before an eventual loss, and then defeated Hawai’i 3-2 the next day.

“The West Coast Conference is a very strong volleyball conference,” said Petrie. “I think that oftentimes it will get overlooked and that is worrisome to those schools who are hosting any one of us in the first or second rounds.”

Despite the recent drought of mid-majors reaching the national semis, some, like the Shockers last year, still made noise in the NCAA tournament. Lamb directed WSU to its first ever round of 16 appearance after knocking off BCS schools Arkansas and Kansas. Last year’s tournament also marked a breakthrough in the MVC with all three of its teams in the tournament chalking up first-round victories for the first time.

It’s inevitable that a mid-major will shake up the tournament bracket again with early-round upsets this year. Perhaps the major upsets will come from another conference such as the Southland where Central Arkansas, the pre-season pick to win the league, opened this season with a 3-1 victory over Kansas, its first-ever against a ranked team.

While an early upset is bound to happen, it won’t unfold because opposing coaches are caught off-guard.

“Nowadays there’s no guarantee on anything,” said Dunning, who was defeated at home in 2005 by Santa Clara in the second round. “Whoever you’re playing, if you don’t respect them, you could end up going home. It’s more like that now than it’s ever been. Isn’t that exactly [how] men’s basketball is? All the sports, certainly volleyball I think, are headed in that direction.”

There are a lot of mid-major coaches who hope Dunning is right.

Mid-Major Formula

If a team from a mid-major conference strives to make it to Seattle this December, here are the biggest factors that would enhance its chance.

Earn the opportunity to host the first or second rounds. The best way to do that is by locking up a seed in the top 16. Otherwise, a tough road looms because the heat in the kitchen is hotter during the NCAA tournament. More coaches are scheduling non-conference contests in tough environments in an attempt to acclimate their teams to the demanding games they’ll face in the post-season.

Have a core of juniors and seniors who absorbed some hard knocks early in their careers but are better off because of it. The BCS schools might have the edge in recruiting, especially if a high-caliber freshman makes an immediate impact, but mid-major teams have time to develop the chemistry and experience necessary for dealing with any situation.

Get on a roll. Whether or not there’s a conference tournament before the NCAA tournament, it’s important to be fluid and in rhythm on the floor. “You’ve got to have confidence going in,” said Steven McRoberts. As coach of the three-time defending Conference USA champs from the University of Tulsa, McRoberts plans to use the three-year streak to maintain team morale heading into this season. “We’re not built 6'3", 6'4", or 6'5". We’re smallish. So it definitely helps to have momentum and confidence when you have the size of our program.” The prelims are over. It’s time to step up.

Have Lady Luck on your side. Whether a coach wants to admit it or not, there’s always something out of a team’s control that favors a deep run in the NCAA tournament. It starts with staying free of untimely injuries. In the bracket, the luck of the draw helps. If a mid-major avoids a first-round matchup against a seeded team, they have a better chance of advancing to the next round.

Originally published in November 2013

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