For the first time, the University of Central Arkansas was represented at the US Open Volleyball Championships.
The international event was held recently in Phoenix, Arizona and featured more than 500 teams and 5,000 players from Brazil, Canada, Venezuela, Mexico, Australia and Europe.
Sugar Bears and Spice was composed of former UCA volleyball standouts Autumn Erickson (2004), Chloe Smith (2010), Marissa Collins (2013), Jessica Nagy (2013), and Beth Rogers (2013), as well as Jalissa Favors and Lennea Harris from Michigan and Zuzana Buchlova, who played in the German Pro league with Smith. Current Sugar Bear assistant coach Brittany Newberry was at the helm for the team.
Sugar Bears and Spice played in the AA division, the second-highest division behind the professional level. They played 26 sets overall, going 15-11 over the three-day tournament, and finished in fourth place, just shy of a bronze medal.
"You could just see them gaining momentum as the tournament went on," said Central Arkansas head coach David McFatrich. "You could see them working out the kinks as the tournament progressed, and by the end, they looked very, very strong. It would have been incredible for them to get a podium finish in their first trip to the event, but they came up just short, losing 2-1 to a team of alumni from Cal and USC."
"Playing with Beth, Jessica, and Marissa again was a fantastic and refreshing experience," said Smith after the tournament. "Probably the best part about going in to play with a group that I haven’t really been with in three years was going in to our first practice and finding that connection with everyone within an hour.
"The chemistry that our team had is not an easy thing to come by, and I think that having a core group of athletes who are used to each other’s quirks and tendencies immensely helped to acclimate the rest of the players to the team."
Collins added, "It was a really good experience getting to play in the U.S. Open against so many other alumni and professional players. For a team that’s never played together, I think we did a really good job of holding our own. We were looking to get a medal and it didn’t quite happen for us, but hopefully next year we’ll be on the podium!"
Part of the process was the opportunity to spread the knowledge of Central Arkansas throughout the world.
"Meeting and playing with Autumn is something that I will cherish," Smith said. "I think that by having the mix of former Sugar Bears that we had on the team, we can show supporters of UCA Volleyball, as well as prospective student-athletes, that committing to the program is not necessarily just a four-year deal. I eagerly look forward to playing with more past, present, and future Sugar Bears throughout the upcoming years and strengthening the bond that was formed during my time at Central Arkansas."
McFatrich added, "Part of our overall plan is to help our players extend their playing career, either by preparing them to play professionally, or by reuniting and playing this event. I was amazed at the number of fans and other players who recognized the name ‘Sugar Bears.’ Having an alumni team play in this event, and play incredibly well, adds so much to our Central Arkansas volleyball program and family. I can’t thank Chloe Smith enough for putting this team together."