The University of Central Arkansas Sugar Bear volleyball team left Los Angeles last week earning a lot of respect and with one big "what if."
In the first round of the NCAA volleyball regional, the Sugar Bears stunned 10th-seeded Southern California in the first set, 25-22. They had the Women of Troy in stun mode in the second set before USC rallied for a 25-23 victory. The Women of Troy stablized themselves and went on to a 3-1 victory.
That second set.
What if the Sugar Bears had taken a 2-0 lead over the hosts? USC ended up winning the regional and will play Minnesota in the regional final this weekend.
"USC is a powerhouse year after year," said UCA coach Jeni Jones Chatman. "To get the opportunity to play on their home floor and do as well as we did for two sets was exciting. In coaching, there are certainly things you’d like to have back. For us, the Central Florida match (an early season loss) and set two."
That second set. UCA was inches away from its greatest victory in its volleyball history. USC, coached by veteran and former U.S. National Team coach Mick Haley, is 30-5 in first-round NCAA tourney games.
A Southland Conference team had not won a set in a an NCAA regional tournament since 2006.
"We were right there and made some unforced errors at key times and lost the set," said Chatman. "There were a couple of balls that were really close. Samantha Anderson had a big block that was maybe an inch out of the line. If we had won set two, there would have been a different vibe on their side in their gym."
Chatman, in her third season, has played in the NCAA at Florida and coached in it at Missouri State (seven appearances) and UCA.
She helped guide this UCA team to a 27-5 record. Her creative strategy of attack had put the proud and seasoned USC team on its heels.
"We played fast and I was pleased with how we responded to what we did," Chatman said. "USC is strong on first-contact plays and I think they expected to come out and get first-contact kills. I was pleased how we could respond to that on our end and we got some first-ball kills."
She credits the 27-5 season and Southland Conference tourney championship season to selflessness, intensity and passion.
"Character and work ethic," she said. "The team chemistry was the reason we were 27-5. Megan Nash, one of our captains and our only senior, is a big reason we are what we are as far as our work ethic and the ability to be good teammates. Team chemistry is very important when you have that many people on the floor in a confined space. We can all be the one running the ship. You have to be able to accept your role. Sometimes, they don’t want to be.
"But the selflessness that comes into creating a team can really make or break you."
The season with UCA making its mark in one of the hearts of volleyball country in the United States.
UCA assistant coach John Newberry stayed behind in the LA area to attend a recruiting combine.
Chatman said, "The reaction he got the next day after that match was ‘Wow. Where in the heck did you guys come from? That’s a really fun style of volleyball.’"