Volleyball: Can DU take it to the Next Level?
Last night, Nebraska swept Texas 3-0 in front of 17,561 to win the NCAA volleyball national championship. Some day, could it be DU?
As crazy as it sounds, volleyball is a sport that DU could be a national player, with a focus on recruiting, strong coaching, and a dash of good fortune (i.e. luck).
Colorado is a major volleyball youth hub, surrounded by other states with talented prep players. Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas also produce talent that feed D1 programs across the country.
One neighbor, the University of Kansas, took a path that DU and other programs can follow. Not a traditional volleyball power, the Jayhawks finished just 15-14 overall and 3-13 in the Big 12 Conference four years ago. This year, the Jayhawks finished 30-4, enjoying a fourth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament, and made it to the national semifinal match Thursday against Nebraska.
How did they do it? Did they throw money at it? Were they a magnet for top recruits? Did they have a dynamic new coach?
None of the above.
At KU, a longtime coach added some new staff and built a roster of overlooked recruits from Texas and under-recruited talent from Kansas. They put it all together this year and made their run to the semifinals. And, they play their regular season games on a venue the same size a DU's Hamilton Gym.
On the other hand, a program like Nebraska has a rich history and gets their pick of top talent. Volleyball is the sport of choice of many girls in Nebraska. According to Nebraska Prep Volleyball, some 100 girls in the state play college volleyball every year. In this year’s NCAA tournament alone, there were 17 Nebraskans with 7 on the Nebraska squad. While DU does not have a volleyball legacy, surely DU can tap the rich recruiting grounds of our neighbors, too. With 12 scholarships per team, the top programs can't take all the top prospects. Also, that being said, Colorado generates nearly the same number of D1 basketball prospects annually as Nebraska. The talent is available here, DU needs to tap into it.
Heritage does mean something and becoming a national power in volleyball is not easy. After the Kansas loss in the semi-final to Nebraska, their lifetime record against the Huskers fell to 0-87-1.
So how about DU?
They are young and have a solid foundation. Coming off consecutive 27 win seasons, two league championships and two trips to the NCAA's they are on a roll. While the loss of Jesse Mahoney is a blow, Tom Hogan worked DU's recruiting pipeline and has solid coaching credentials. Hogan served as the head coach of the USA Junior National Team. That gives DU access to some of the finest young players in the nation and the world for that matter. He has solid head coaching experience. He could become the program's Jamie Franks, taking the helm from a successful coach and taking the program to the next level.
While the RPI of Summit volleyball is relatively low, DU does have a solid chance to make the NCAA's year-in and year-out. Also, half of their matches are non-conference so there is an opportunity to schedule Midwestern powers at a relatively low cost to build experience, reputation, and RPI against larger, historically more powerful programs. Also, DU would benefit from improved conference competition in the Summit League so they are battle hardened for the NCAA's. Both Oral Roberts and University of Nebraska - Omaha have stated their intentions to build nationally relevant volleyball programs. Other programs may improve as well, such as IUPUI, with access to strong recruiting areas for volleyball talent.
There are 347 schools that play D1 volleyball. That is where luck comes in - along with good coaching and recruiting.
What's in for DU? There is the potential, based on what has happened at other successful national programs, that collegiate volleyball could actually be a revenue sport in Denver with the Pioneers bringing in top tier programs. Since there are no relevant professional women's volleyball leagues in the US, collegiate volleyball is the highest level that local fans can pay to see. DU could leverage local interest in volleyball, much like DU gymnastics, to play selective matches in Magness Arena to draw from both the University and the Denver community at large. Finally, the smaller size and academic reputation of DU may actually be much more appealing to some recruits than many of the larger state schools that currently rule the sport.
The odds make it a difficult climb but not impossible.