While athletes on other fall sports teams like cross country and soccer have concluded their seasons, the East Carolina volleyball team is just a little more than halfway through its conference slate, with American Athletic Conference matches scheduled through Thanksgiving.
And those remaining eight contests have plenty of history-making potential for the Pirates, especially since their current win tally of 16 hasn’t been equaled in ten years. Head coach Julie Torbett’s 71 ECU wins put her in a tie as the winningest coach in school history and the remaining conference menu contains real potential for a foray into the postseason.
If the Pirates can win five of those remaining eight, they will own the second best record in program history.
“It’s just crazy, because with where we’ve been in the past three years we would never have even thought about being in this position,” said senior middle hitter Natalie Marini, who is currently second on the team in total blocks and third in kills. “It’s just crazy, and really humbling honestly, because we’ve all worked so hard to get to this point to turn this program around and finally have an opportunity to go to a postseason and make more history.”
The postseason prospectus is a little murkier in collegiate volleyball than in sports like soccer and basketball, because volleyball in the American – as well as the Power Five conferences – doesn’t host a conference tournament at the end of the season. The outright conference winner is guaranteed a spot in the NCAA field, but a strong team that does not win the league can only hope the selection committee respects its body of work and extends an at-large bid.
“It’s been a banner year, but we want to continue strong with these last eight matches,” Torbett said. “Other goals, we have checked off our list, but you always want to keep setting your goals higher.”
It’s unusual for a non-Power Five conference to place multiple teams in the NCAA field, Torbett said, but last year two American teams did make it. A strong RPI and the ability to match up with ranked opponents could spell a trip for a lucky at-large team from the conference this year.
The Pirates also have their sights set on the National Invitational Volleyball Championship (NIVC), a new postseason tournament with a field of 64 teams that get bypassed for the NCAA event.
“If we can get into postseason play, whether it’s the NCAA which is our ultimate goal, or the NIVC, where we can play in postseason play and we can continue to attract recruits, it’s just going to continue to make the program better,” Torbett said.
ECU (7-5, 16-9) is currently fifth in the conference standings and just three wins away from the second and third place squads. At the top of the heap is conference newcomer Wichita State, undefeated at 12-0 in the American.
Wichita State is a classic example of building the kind of winning tradition that can sustain a program even through mediocre years, Torbett said. The Shockers have compiled 17 consecutive seasons with 20-plus wins. In contrast, Torbett said, the Pirates are working to finish only the program’s eighth winning season out of the past 41 campaigns.
Catching Wichita State will be difficult, but the Pirates can certainly make a strong statement to close the season, especially if they fell teams that are ahead of them in the conference. Which brings us to the need for the Pirate Nation to clear its collective calendar for 4:30 p.m. on Friday, November 10.
That’s the day Wichita State visits Greenville for a match that could upend its perfect conference record and draw the attention of every national tournament selection committee member.
The Pirates played a strong match against the Shockers when they traveled to Kansas last month, losing 25-16, 27-25 and 25-19. A feverish home crowd could be the X factor to allow ECU to hand Wichita its first conference loss.
“Wichita State is amazing, they’re a really good program, but we played them and we hung right with them,” Marini said. “I believe we can win, we believe we can knock them off and be the first ones in the American to do so.”
That prospect, against the backdrop of historic success, should be enough to motivate more than a few Pirate fans to action – even those who have never before attended a live volleyball match.