Out of the 14 NCAA Division III sports at UC Santa Cruz, all but two belong to “independent” conferences, meaning they don’t automatically qualify for the NCAA playoffs. As one of the teams that falls in this category, the women’s volleyball can only earn a spot in the NCAA tournament through a voting system. Despite their 14-3 record, seven game win streak and third straight sweep, the Slugs continue their fight to qualify for nationals.
“It’s exciting that our hard work is paying off but if you get too focused on winning, you lose sight of the game at hand,” said middle blocker and opposite Jessica Marotte.
In their most recent game last Friday, the Slugs defeated Mills College 25-8, 25-8 and 25-4. In each set the Slugs limited Mills to three or fewer kills and dominated both offensively and defensively. Kellie Graves and Alison Ota led the team in kills, while Jessica Peng sported 14 digs for the defense.
Head coach Dwight Combs points out that his team isn’t just competitive, but also battle-tested with their tough schedule. They swept No. 4 ranked Elmhurst College in three sets on Sept. 13. Combs believes that his team is a legitimate Division III national contender, explaining that their losses were all to ranked teams, were during the second game of the day and were nail biters that ended in 3-2 loses.
However, the UCSC women’s volleyball program is unaffiliated with a conference wherein the team with the best record would automatically qualify for the NCAA tournament. Despite their high win percentage of .824, the team can only access the post-season tournament via a voting system conducted by NCAA, Combs said.
Keeping an eye on the team’s status in terms of the voting, Combs stated that about a week ago the team had acquired two votes, which as of Oct. 8 has increased to nine votes. Out of the 25 top ranked teams, which automatically qualify, none are independent. 17 teams are noted as having received votes to be included in the list of qualifying teams, including two independent teams UCSC and Nebraska Wesleyan University, with 23 votes.
“The difficult part with getting into nationals is that we have to have a very impressive record,” Combs said. “The reality is that we have no guarantee, opposed to other teams who are in regional conferences … even if we win every game from here on out there is still no guarantee.”
Combs also explains that the opponents the Slugs play have a big influence on whether their wins are impressive enough to earn votes. Since this is his first year as head coach, he was not able to make the schedule for this season. Next season, Combs aims to create a tougher schedule to challenge the team and earn a playoff berth to the NCAA tournament more easily.
“It’s difficult to get other teams to play us because it’s not very efficient for other teams,” Combs said, referring to higher ranked teams not wanting to play independent teams.
Considering the challenge of being in an independent league in addition to having a lack of funding and having a first-year coach, the UCSC women’s volleyball team is thriving, setter Sammy Evans said. Evans said the team tries to focus on each individual game instead of the win streak or qualifying for NCAA.
“[Combs] doesn’t prepare for certain teams, we just prepare ourselves for everything,” Evans said. “As long as we focus on our play and give our very best, it seems to work.”
Evans attributes a majority of the team’s success this season to trusting Combs and quickly opening up to his style of play.
“They didn’t have a coach all spring, so we’re still getting used to each other,” Combs said. “We’re developing a new culture, a new organization. We’re really just trying to go with the flow.”
The Slugs will cruise down to Southern California to take on Redlands and seek vengeance on Claremont, with both games taking place on Oct. 11. The Slugs may or may not be headed to the NCAA tournament, but the doubleheader against two solid teams will be a determining factor in the next rankings vote.