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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

By Bethany Bradsher

New path to NCAA's for C-USA volleyball

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

For teams in mid-level leagues like Conference USA, conference tournaments can be more curse than blessing.

There are always the surprising upstarts that come in with a mediocre record, pull out a victory in the tournament and glide to the postseason. But more frequently, it seems, teams that are strong from the first game to the last, teams that seem like a lock for the NCAA tournament, stumble in the conference event and miss their one chance to advance.

That’s what happened to East Carolina softball in 2009, when a stellar season was cut short by failure to win a C-USA trophy. It also happened last fall to the volleyball team from Southern Mississippi, which went 27-4 and entered the league tournament as the top seed, only to fall to Rice in the championship and go home early.

The C-USA volleyball tournament has been the subject of scrutiny in recent years, and last season the league’s athletic directors decided to trim the field to eight teams. East Carolina’s team didn’t make it, and that exclusion ended its season in early November, while other teams continued to practice and play for three more weeks.

Convinced that the risks of playing in the C-USA tourney outweigh the benefits, the athletic directors made the bold decision to get rid of the tournament altogether. This fall the Lady Pirates will play a slate of 32 matches, with the last one on Nov. 26, and their eligibility for NCAA postseason play will be based solely on their record through that regular season.

C-USA’s automatic bid will go to the regular-season champion, but the coaches hope that their teams might get more than one bid under the new system.

“I’m a big believer that you should reward teams that work hard every weekend,” said ECU head coach Pati Rolf. “When Southern Miss got booted after being number one all year, I think we all decided that was enough of that.”

The elimination of the C-USA tournament is the most significant change to the Pirates’ schedule, but they will also open the season with their own tournament, the ECU Classic, which will feature visits from Liberty, UNC-Charlotte and Cleveland State.

Add to that tournament shuffle an increase in home matches — from eight in 2009 to 13 this year — and Rolf and assistant coach Katie Virtue see a stage set for Pirate success. Last year, in the new coaching staff’s first campaign, ECU finished 9-19, but Virtue hopes their opponents let that record lull them into false security when this group takes the court.

“I think the expectations, and the intensity and kind of taking it a little more seriously has been a change for them,” Virtue said of the returning players’ adjustment to the new coaches. “We struggled against everybody last year, but I’m really excited about this year. I think we have a stronger squad, all around.”

It’s a young team. The only senior is Marina Gusman-Brown, a star on the ECU softball team who is using her last months of eligibility to add another sport to her Pirate resume.

Of the five returning players, two are sophomores and three are juniors, and all are eager to prove how they have matured within Rolf’s system.

“Once you work really, really hard, you start fighting for what you have worked for,” Rolf said, “They have really dug in and embraced what we’re doing.”

And even if the majority of players on the roster are new to college volleyball, the newcomers are accustomed to big-time competition. Two ECU freshmen — setters Kasey Kavenaugh and Andrea Queck — are playing for national teams through USA Volleyball this summer.

“We have an excellent group of freshmen coming in,” Virtue said. “They’re young, but they have a lot of experience. They’ve all had a number of years of club experience from some really good programs. They’re young, but they’re not going to seem as young, and I think they’re going to fit in really nicely.”

Gusman-Brown, the rookie senior who hasn’t played competitive volleyball since high school, will still undoubtedly make an impression on opponents because of her tremendous athleticism and toughness. After helping lead the softball team to a 44-18 season and a trip all the way to the finals of the NCAA Regional in Austin, the volleyball staff hopes that above all she brings her volleyball team the habit and spirit of winning.

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08/06/2010 01:57 AM

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