Nov. 11, 2009

By Amy Farnum

Perfection is something that every team sets out to achieve no matter what the sport, but it is rare when it actually happens.

In only its sixth year of existence, the University of Texas at Dallas women’s volleyball accomplished the feat in the regular season, and will enter the NCAA Division III Championship with a flawless 25-0 record.  UTD was the only Division III team to go undefeated this season, joining Division II’s Concordia-St. Paul (30-0) and Division I’s Penn State (26-0) as the only unbeatens in collegiate women’s volleyball this year.

The Comets, ranked No. 9 nationally in the AVCA Division III Top 25, went 23-0 in the regular season, and then won a pair of matches in the American Southwest Conference Tournament to defend their league title and qualify for NCAA postseason play for the second straight year.

Head coach Marci Sanders has been there since the program’s inception, grooming the team to be a national contender.

“This class of seniors is the class that kind of turned the program around for us,” said Sanders.  “They’ve been in a lot of situations where they’ve prevailed under pressure.  They are playing a big part for us.  They have done a good job of bringing in the freshmen and taking them under their wings a little bit.”

The Comets’ senior class includes outside hitter Kyleigh Irish, who has garnered All-ASC honors in each of her four seasons.  She ranks second on the team with 2.94 kills per game, and tops the squad with 3.32 digs per set.

UTD’s junior class paces the Comets offensively, led by middle blocker Jessica Nassau, who was tabbed the ASC East Division Most Valuable Player after ranking in the league’s top 10 in hitting percentage (.291), kills per set and blocks.  

Junior setter Niki Calverley, the MVP of the 2009 ASC Tournament, is averaging 10.46 assists per set, along with 33 service aces and 196 digs on the season, and was a first-team All-ASC selection.  Junior outside hitter Amber Wetz also was picked to the first-team All-ASC squad after contributing 2.33 kills and 3.28 digs per set.

Although Sanders knew she had a talented team, even she never expected them to go undefeated.

“I did tell the team earlier in the season that they played to their potential that it would be something that they could attain,” said Sanders.  “I don’t know if they believed me at the time, and honestly I don’t know if I believed it at the time.

“They’ve stepped up when they’ve needed to and played hard and done the things we’ve asked them to do to put themselves in this situation.  We weren’t expecting to go 25-0 in our sixth season, but with the success we’ve had the last few years, we were knew we were capable of repeating as conference champions and getting back to the NCAA Tournament.”

The competition moves up a notch when the Comets travel to Southwestern University for the NCAA South Regional as the No. 3 seed.  The Comets will face Maryville College (Tenn.) on Nov. 12 at 4:30 p.m. CT.  

The top-seeded team in the region is defending NCAA champion Emory University, which earns a first-round bye after a 34-5 season, while Southwestern (33-3) is the second-seeded squad in the region.  

“We’re hoping the experience – since they’ve been there and done that – will prevail for us,” said Sanders.  “I think also that because our seeding is a little higher this year we’ll be able to get a little bit farther than we have in the past.  It’s not going to be an easy route by any means, but I definitely think the experience of the kids and the success we’ve had this season will help.”

Last year, the Comets were swept by Southwestern in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament – a reminder that Sanders knows her players will not forget.

“We’ve told them they have to finish strong,” said Sanders.  “It’s one and out at this stage in the season.  You have to go in with that mindset.  If you don’t leave it all on the floor then it could be your last match.  It’s just a matter of us executing and sticking to our game plan no matter who we are playing.”

Although it will be tough to keep its perfect record intact this weekend, UTD is enjoying the benefits of its flawless mark.
“We’re getting all kinds of e-mails and a ton of recruits,” said Sanders.  “We are definitely getting a lot of attention around campus.  I think the kids are seeing how special this is and really happy about it.”

Fans can follow the NCAA South Regional via this link: