SAN ANTONIO, Texas – Few coaches have a better perspective on the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championships than Tulsa coach Steven McRoberts.
He had the misfortune of losing to three of the four semifinalists, including both combatants in Thursday’s second match between Illinois and USC. Tulsa also lost to Florida State, which plays UCLA.
“You know, all three of the teams left big impressions on me,” said McRoberts, whose Hurricanes finished 28-7 after a 25-20, 25-10, 25-19 shellacking at the hands of USC in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Another person with not only knowledge but a vested interest is Karch Kiraly, perhaps the best U.S. men’s player ever, but also an assistant on the USA national women’s team and an analyst for ESPN2, which is televising all three contests.
In late August, in a tournament at Florida State, Tulsa lost in five sets to Kentucky and then the next day in four sets to the Seminoles. It was the only time all season Tulsa lost back-to-back matches.
“The girls were really down and I told them that I feel like that Florida State is a [national quarterfinals] team. I told them when the season was done we would look back and see it was not a bad loss.”
Florida State (28-6), coached by Chris Poole, was just getting warmed up for a season in which it got to this point, beating Albany, Cincinnati, Purdue and Iowa State.
“Chris has done a great job with that team. The thing I remember about them is how big and physical they were at every position,” McRoberts said. “And they were very good defensively, especially at the net. I would say out of the three teams they are definitely the best blocking team. But we got it past the first line of defense quite a few times and they did a great job of playing defense and extending rallies.”
Two weeks later, Tulsa won the first two sets against Illinois in a tournament at Middle Tennessee State and the third set was tied 24-24.
“We were two points away from getting an upset sweep,” McRoberts lamented, instead saddled with a very tough loss, 15-11 in the fifth.
Illinois is 31-4, defeating Central Michigan, Marquette, Ohio State and Florida to get here.
“That’s another team that’s just got great size,” McRoberts said. “They’re solid in all positions and they go through their left sides a lot. That was a team that when we got them out of system some we had a chance, but they did a good job of getting back in system.”
USC, coached by Mick Haley, a former Texas and U.S. Olympics coach, is 29-4. It survived a remarkably tough regional, beating Yale, Tulsa, Hawaii and Pepperdine (the latter two in five sets) to make it here.
“Watching them the night before against Yale, we saw a few things we thought we could take advantage of, but when they came out to play us, they looked like they had a totally different mindset,” McRoberts said. “We started the first set down 5-0 and I was thinking this isn’t what I was hoping for.”
“I was hoping they might overlook us a little bit. I was hoping maybe the same way we jumped on Illinois early that we could do that again and give ourselves some confidence. They never allowed us to do that.”
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At one point, 6-foot-1 Tulsa freshman middle Carly Boatwright, who was getting schooled by USC, told him in frustration, “I’m jumping as high as I can.” He laughed again. “They hit the ball at a higher contact point than any of the teams out of the three.”
“I guess I favor UCLA slightly, but I sure was impressed with Florida State’s calm and composure,” Kiraly said. “They’ve got a lot of experience with a lot of athletes from overseas who generally end up being a more mature group when you leave your country to get an education and learn a new language. It should be a great matchup.”
UCLA, 28-6, beat Maryland-Eastern Shore and San Diego before knock out four-time defending-champion Penn State one night and upsetting Texas, top seed in the tournament, the next.
“UCLA didn’t finish strong, losing three of their last five [in the regular season], but they got their mojo back,” Kiraly said.
Kiraly was impressed with USC’s triumphant trip to Hawaii.
“They are battle titanium hardened,” he said, “and I don’t know how much hardened they can be. I favor them a little bit over Illinois.”
So does McRoberts.
“I really feel like USC is the favorite,” McRoberts said, “and there’s a reason why the coaches who vote in the polls voted them No. 1.”