Dec. 3, 2008

By Lara Boyko
Special to NCAA.com

After Furman University changed to the semester format this year, students there are scheduled to start finals next week. Yet with their women’s volleyball team having made it to the NCAA tournament for the first time in the program’s history, it’s safe to say that the focus this week for at least 13 student-athletes is not on studying.

“That is the understatement of the century,” said senior Nicole Palazzo. “I already have a little bit of senioritis anyways, but it’s so funny because in looking back at four years of college you know that grades are important. However, I am not going to look back and think I should have gotten an ‘A’ in a certain class. Instead, I am going to think about the memories I am making with my teammates. I am at the end of my playing career, so I want this to be the most important thing in my life right now which makes studying hard to do.”
 
Palazzo’s memories of her experiences this season are due to her team earning the automatic bid after winning the Southern Conference tournament championship and a culmination of hard work and proving that the talent of a team is something that can’t be measured on a piece of paper.

“The last two years we had higher expectations with being ranked second in the conference in preseason polls, had a lot of players receiving individual accolades and were probably the most talented team in the conference,” said Palazzo. “In each of the last two seasons we started off strong and upset better teams early on in the season, but then choked in our conference tournament. This year it has been the opposite where we have a lot of young players playing, we had a lot of growing pains in the first half of the season where we dropped a lot of matches that we shouldn’t have. Turns out it was a good thing as I would much rather have us winning now. There’s just a different dynamic on the team as this is more of a team win where we have done this together as opposed to having more expectations and less results.”

While it is the program’s first time at the tournament, it is not the first time for many on the Furman coaching staff. With coach Michelle Young having been to the tournament twice as a player on the 1994 and 1997 Clemson teams that reached the NCAA tournament and assistant coach Bill Egbert having been part of the 2006 Nebraska national championship staff, the excitement of continuing to play in December is a special moment to enjoy.

“It is just the excitement of what a big deal it is as a player where you are getting to play against schools that you normally wouldn’t get to compete against in such a big arena,” said Young of what she remembers about the NCAA tournament as a player. “It’s so much fun. Your conference tournament is great and exciting, but this is a national tournament, there are only so many teams that are left playing and it’s fun to be one of them.”

Despite playing No. 12-ranked Utah in the first round at the Clemson site of the Seattle Regional, the Lady Paladins will almost have a home court advantage working for them.

“Furman is a really small school (2,600 students enrolled) and we have great support,” said Young. “We play in a smaller gym and usually have crowds around 300 people at our matches.”

Just as the team rides high on emotion and confidence after accomplishing this milestone, the coaches at Furman are also enjoying the extra benefits that making it to the NCAA tournament does for the future of the program.

“We thought of how this will help recruiting right away,” said Young. “We’ve already signed one of our top classes in 2009 early and they are excited about joining a championship team. We are also started working on our 2010 recruiting class and have already told our current players that they have made recruiting for the next class much easier.”

Win, lose or whatever grades the players get on their final exams next week, the players already realize that they are part of something special.