Womens volleyball teams in the University Athletic Association never have to look far for a little competition.

The conference, which is comprised of small to medium-sized research institutions highly committed to academics, is arguably the strongest womens volleyball league at the Division III level. Three of the UAAs eight teams " Emory, Washington University (Mo.) and New York University " are ranked in the top four in the latest American Volleyball Coaches Association poll and have posted a combined record of 65-13 with six of those losses against to each other.

NYU All-American senior setter Katya Khmelnitskaya. (NYU)
With their incredible success, the three teams each earned the top seed in their respective regions in the upcoming NCAA Championship. Emory (30-5) is the No. 1 seed in the South Region, Washington (33-1) is the top-seed in the Central Region and NYU (32-7) is No. 1 in the New York Region.

The trios dominance in Division III womens volleyball is nothing new. Washington has advanced to the NCAA Tournament every year since 1987, and won its first of eight national championships in 1989. Emory is making its 11th appearance in the tournament, and has earned 10 straight trips under current head coach Jenny McDowell. NYU is the newest regular member of the NCAA postseason as the Violets earned their fourth straight berth in the tournament this season in addition to previous bids in 1994 and 1998.

McDowell credits the allure of stellar academics as one of the keys in the UAAs strong womens volleyball tradition, and Washington head coach Rich Luenemann and NYUs Ed Caesar are in agreement.

All of the schools in the UAA make a commitment to athletics " thats a big part of it, said McDowell. As far as volleyball goes, there are outstanding student-athletes that are attracted to big research universities like NYU, Washington U. and Emory. You have athletes that really factor in academics when theyre choosing a university, and the UAA portrays that true student-athlete.

Caesar, who took over the NYU womens program in 2001 after serving as the schools mens volleyball assistant coach for eight years, enjoys the relationships with his colleagues and believes that rapport is an asset of the UAA.

The group of coaches in our conference is amazing, said Caesar. I came in four years ago and got to lean on people like Jenny and Rich and ask question after question. They gave me a lot of advice because I had never coached womens volleyball before, I was always a mens coach. I think having that kind of camaraderie in the conference, and the way everyone looks out to help each other, really helps all of the programs.

Rather than traveling to each of the conference schools during the regular season, the UAA schedules two round-robin tournaments where each of the members play one another.

Thats the best part about it, said Caesar. We look around and have the luxury of playing two teams that are ahead of us in the polls " and were No. 4. I dont have to worry about that on my schedule, so we can go to (second-ranked) Juniata and a lot of other places.

The league then sponsors a two-day conference tournament with three matches of pool play and teams seeded in the championship bracket according to their pool records. Emory downed Washington, 3-0, for the title snapping the Bears 33-match streak and becoming the first team in league history to win the UAA championship besides Washington.

Last weekend, we had to play No. 1 (Washington) and No. 3 (NYU), said McDowell. If youre not ready to play in the NCAA Tournament after playing those guys ¦ we kind of laugh because our conference tournament could be the national tournament. Its really been exciting that our conference has made such a commitment to volleyball.

The three teams also have a chance to repeat their accomplishment from 2003 when they all advanced to the NCAA semifinals. Washington beat NYU, 3-0, for the national championship.

Were going to work really hard to do that, but I know there are a lot of great teams (in our regions), said McDowell.

The Division III womens volleyball tournament begins on Nov. 10 with regional action. The eight winners will advance to the quarterfinals scheduled for Nov. 17 at the Salem Civic Center in Salem, Va., followed by the semifinals and championship game on Nov. 18-19.