The Little Conference That Could

Sean Meyers Photography
The Conference Carolinas emergence has instigated the first growth of the men's NCAA volleyball tournament.

It’s not a well-known conference, just one that has altered the entire landscape of a sport.

The Conference Carolinas would at first seem to be the most unlikely of conferences to influence some of the biggest reforms to collegiate men’s volleyball in the last 40 years. This NCAA Division II conference is in an area of the country with limited boys’ club volleyball and virtually no high school boys’ volleyball. The conference members scattered throughout North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee are small private colleges, some with less than 2,000 students.

Few high school volleyball recruits and even the most ardent of men’s volleyball fans had ever heard about the Conference Carolinas and its schools until just a few years ago; however, this small conference has emerged as one of the biggest hotbeds of growth in men’s college volleyball and is the reason for the first field expansion in the history of the Division I-II NCAA tournament.

The Start of the Conference

Conference Carolinas commissioner Alan Patterson was faced with a decision in the summer of 2009.

Men’s volleyball had never been a big concern for him, but in the previous few years, conference members Mount Olive, Lees-McRae, Limestone, and Pfeiffer had added the sport to their athletic departments. To Patterson’s surprise, the schools’ athletic directors had fully embraced men’s volleyball and began prompting the idea of expansion along with the conference sponsoring the sport.

“It caught on much more rapidly than I would have anticipated,” Patterson said.

A multisport conference had never sponsored college men’s volleyball since the sport became NCAA-sanctioned in 1970, and there were less than 40 NCAA Division I and II teams spread out in three conferences across the country: the EIVA, MIVA, and MPSF.

The limited number of teams meant that the Conference Carolinas would have to compete for the NCAA championship against Division I schools. But this didn’t deter Patterson. With the support of athletics directors, including several whose schools didn’t even have men’s volleyball at the time, the commissioner said it became an easy decision for him and the conference to make.

“We didn’t even think about being the first full-sport conference to support [men’s volleyball],” he said. “We were just trying to treat it like every other sport that we have and give it the same level of respect.”

The decision was made to add men’s volleyball to the conference, but there was still some uncertainty heading into the first conference season in 2010.

With five teams signed on to compete, the conference came up one short of the minimum required for an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. In addition, the NCAA had classified the Conference Carolinas as an emerging conference for men’s volleyball, delaying the conference’s chances of an automatic bid to the tournament for four years.

Despite these hurdles, with the support of Patterson and the athletic directors, more Conference Carolinas schools began to add the sport. Over the next four years, conference members Erskine, Barton, and Belmont Abbey all added men’s volleyball. In 2015, the conference will expand to 10 total teams with the addition of North Greenville and Emmanuel (Ga.).

Patterson said even he has been surprised with how quickly the schools within the conference have embraced men’s volleyball.

“I’m not sure we understood when we got into it the quality of play and the excitement of the game itself,” he said. “It’s such as fast-paced game with action going on all the time. It’s perfect for us.”

Growing the Conference

Few people have experienced the fast-paced growth of the Conference Carolinas more than Erskine head coach Derek Schmitt.

Within two years, Schmitt has gone from struggling to recruit enough players for the program’s inaugural season to leading Erskine to the verge of a Conference Carolinas regular season title.

The college hired Schmitt to build the program from scratch, and he had only one player commit during the early signing period leading up to the team’s first season in 2013. However, he began to get more interest as he traveled across the country from Florida to Chicago recruiting at junior national qualifiers.

Included in Schmitt’s first bunch of recruits was outside hitter Michael Michelau. Michelau, who as a sophomore averages more than 4.00 kills per game and is among the nation’s kill leaders, was one of the few players on his Wisconsin club team still uncommitted when Schmitt saw him play.

Schmitt was able to sign enough low-profile gems like Michelau to field a team primarily of freshmen for the program’s inaugural season, and the squad reached the six-team conference tournament. The Flying Fleet, now in their second season with a majority of their starters returning, are in first place in the conference and poised to win the regular season championship.

Schmitt said it has become easier to recruit more players as the Conference Carolinas becomes more well-known throughout the nation.

“Our name is getting out there more,” he said. “I’m getting a lot more contacts from recruits. They are initiating contact with me and expressing interest in the program.”

Along with recruiting domestically, several Conference Carolinas schools have successfully placed an emphasis on bringing in international student athletes. Mount Olive has six nations represented on its roster: Australia, Brazil, Cuba, Germany, the U.K., and, of course, the U.S. Last season under first-year head coach David Heller, the Trojans won the conference regular season title after going 15-1 in the conference.

Patterson said he has been impressed with the conference’s volleyball student athletes both on and off the court.

“We were quick to catch on and see the student athletes that [were] recruited in men’s volleyball were good athletes, were good campus citizens, and were respectful,” Patterson said. “They were also quality academic students. That was a factor.”

A big reason for more recruits becoming interested in Conference Carolinas teams, Schmitt said, is because of the schools’ nonconference scheduling. All eight of the Conference Carolinas teams this season have played multiple nonconference matches against programs in the MIVA and EIVA, and Erskine became the first Conference Carolinas program to travel to the West Coast and play a MPSF team when on March 15 they defeated Cal Baptist 3-2.

The amount of travel that men’s volleyball teams have accumulated jetting around the Northeast and Midwest, Patterson said, has been the most of any sport in the conference.

Schmitt argued that these types of schedules are necessary to promote the Conference Carolinas. He also said it’s why he scheduled road nonconference matches against Penn State and Loyola, both NCAA tournament semifinalists last season.

“When recruits contact me, they are going to see the level that we are playing at and that we are trying to compete with these top teams,” Schmitt said.

Although these nonconference matches do a lot to promote the Conference Carolinas, they have been a challenge on the court for the young teams. Through the first half of the 2014 regular season, Conference Carolinas teams went a combined 6-25 against the MIVA and EIVA with a majority of their nonconference wins coming against teams in the bottom half of their respective conference standings.

Despite this record, Schmitt said he has been encouraged this season that the Conference Carolinas is closing the gap between it and the rest of the college men’s volleyball conferences.

“We are starting to make progress,” said Schmitt, “and there is a ways to go.”

NCAA Tournament Changes

With eight men’s volleyball teams competing in the 2013 season, the Conference Carolinas shook off its emerging status and became eligible for an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

The addition of the Conference Carolinas to the tournament field, though, was not a simple process for the NCAA. The men’s volleyball NCAA tournament had remained at four teams—three conference automatic qualifiers and one at-large bid—since it became a sanctioned sport in 1970. In addition, the NCAA had recently implemented a budget freeze that prevented any further expansion of an NCAA tournament field in any sport.

Last summer, with these constrictions in mind, the NCAA unveiled a new format that would have added a single play-in match for the tournament to accommodate the new Conference Carolinas automatic berth. The play-in match was to be played between the conference champions from the two conferences with the lowest RPI from the previous season, but this proposal came up against protest from several head coaches and conference commissioners.

Using the conference RPI format, the Conference Carolinas and EIVA champions were scheduled to compete in the inaugural play-in match, but the components used in the conference RPI format varied so much from the national rankings that the West Coast powerhouse MPSF almost finished behind the EIVA and Conference Carolinas and would have been forced to compete in the play-in match.

This proposed postseason format never made it beyond the preseason.

In October, the NCAA rescinded its initial decision and opted to eliminate the conference RPI and single play-in match format. In its place, the NCAA elected to expand the tournament field to six teams by adding one more at-large bid and a total of two play-in matches.

These changes to the NCAA tournament have been felt the most in the Conference Carolinas.

Schmitt said earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament has altered the entire feel of the conference and has made this season even more competitive. He feels his team could be the first school to represent the Conference Carolinas in the NCAA tournament.

“We’re a second-year program. People think it’s going to take a while, four, five years, whatever. We just really believe this year could be our year,” Schmitt said. “That bid is there for us now and there is something to play for. The regular season championship is awesome. The [conference] championship is awesome. But now there is that next level.”

Both Patterson and Schmitt recognize how fortunate the conference is to get the opportunity to compete for the highest-level NCAA championship as a Division II conference.

“It’s certainly significant for the conference,” Patterson said. “For [the teams] to be able to say, ‘We are working hard to be part of the NCAA tournament that includes Division I and Division II,’ that’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that not many people get to have. For our conference it’s nice. For our student athletes and coaches it’s a special opportunity that they really do cherish. We are looking forward to being a part of it.”

Originally published in May 2014

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