Above photo provided by the UMHB Athletics Department
BELTON, Texas- It has been two full seasons since the UMHB volleyball team reached the NCAA Tournament. But there is a belief throughout head coach Mark Pryor’s program that the Cru will be booking another trip to the postseason come November.
And for good reason. UMHB checks all the boxes as a perennial postseason contender. The roster features quality depth, something Pryor says lacked in 2019, a senior core, and one of the top hitters in the ASC in sophomore Hannah Frasca.
After being limited to a conference-only schedule in the spring, the Cru is set to play six non-conference matches in addition to 18 ASC contests. UMHB begins its season, though unofficially, on August 28, facing St. Edward’s and Southwestern in exhibition matches.
“This will be our third Saturday in a row that we’ll be practicing twice or playing twice,” Pryor said when asked about the exhibitions. “And next Saturday we will be playing twice as well. It will get them used to gearing up, recovering, and then playing again.”
The Crusaders will need the ability to quickly recover, considering they are scheduled to play seven matches in the span of seven days, between the exhibitions, the ASC opener at Belhaven on Sept. 2, and then the Millsaps College tournament Sept. 3-4.
Pryor noted that there is a sense of urgency with the ASC opener serving as the Cru’s first official match of the season, but he expects his team to be well-prepared.
“We start right off the bat against Belhaven,” Pryor said. “So there’s some urgency there. We’ve got to make sure that we’re really ready to go.”
He also added that while the Millsaps tournament may not count towards the Cru’s regional ranking or conference mark, putting together a successful performance will prove beneficial come NCAA tournament selection time. The tournament, played in Jackson, Mississippi, features UMHB battling Millsaps and No. 19 Birmingham-Southern on Friday, before facing Huntington and Centenary on Saturday.
“Some of these matches are going to count, not from a regional ranking standpoint, but if they’re ranked in their region, we need to have some W’s against those teams,” Pryor said. “The way it is now, with the 10 regions, it is going to be very difficult for us to keep a high regional ranking to be able to receive an at-large bid [to the NCAA tournament] if we don’t get the automatic bid from winning the conference tournament.”
The biggest piece to the puzzle is putting the right rotation on the floor, something that worked especially well for the Cru during the spring season in which it went 16-2 and swept UT-Dallas 3-0 in the ASC Championship match.
“I think the biggest thing is, if you look at, even in 2019 why we weren’t able to repeat as conference champions, we didn’t have any depth,” Pryor said. “That takes a massive toll on your starters. I think our depth now has the potential to help us out to give our kids a break so they’re not hurting as much come conference tournament time. It will also give some of the younger kids a chance to get some developmental time, which allows us to rest some of the starters.
“I think from the leadership and experience of some of those older players to know, ‘I don’t have to play all the time. I may want to but I also know that I need to be fresh for the conference tournament and the best thing for the team is to get some of these younger players some reps when they’re in a position to be successful.'”
The Cru lost just two players to graduation in Corinne Novak and Adrien Valdez. While they each leave holes to fill in the rotation, UMHB is led by a core of senior hitters Kylie Metcalf, Kayla Janikula and Lauren Williams, who is also a defensive specialist. Frasca, the 2020-21 ASC Championship MVP as a freshman, will be critical to UMHB’s offensive attack (164 kills in 57 sets last season), as will Sarah Grace Merry, who was fifth on the team in kills last season (60).
Entering the year, UMHB is ranked No. 15 in the nation by AVCA, though Pryor and his team have given it zero attention in practice. The head coach, who is a voter, is more focused on guiding the Cru through the first month of the season, knowing the only rankings that truly impact the season are those that are released in November.
“I think a lot of people like to win the press release,” Pryor said, “but I’d rather win the match later on.”