Above photo courtesy of the UMHB Athletics Department
BELTON, Texas- By this point in the season, the group of undefeated teams in D-III volleyball is an exclusive club; just eight teams remain perfect, UMHB being the only of only two in the west region.
Not to mention that the Crusaders have achieved their 15-0 record without much opposition, having dropped just three sets all season. Not one of UMHB’s matches, including the road ASC championship rematch against UT-Dallas, has gone to five sets. And the number of lost sets is the fewest amongst the nation’s undefeated teams, as all have lost at least four sets this season.
But even with this tremendous success, it is not a topic discussed within the UMHB locker room. The focus is on the immediate future.
“I don’t know if anyone in our gym knows how many teams are undefeated and I don’t think anyone in our gym cares,” UMHB head coach Mark Pryor said earlier in the week. “We’re more concerned about, ‘Hey, what are we doing this week? What’s going on this week?’”
Pryor was quick to note that UMHB, despite its flawless record, has not yet qualified for the six-team ASC tournament, set for Nov. 4-6. That remains the Cru’s top goal entering the final month of the regular season.
“Our first goal this season was to qualify for the ASC tournament,” Pryor said, “and we haven’t done that yet. We think it’s going to take 12 wins in conference [to qualify], and that’s really all we’ve talked about. If we can get 12, we think we can be locked into one of those spots, and after that, it’s going to be, ‘Let’s see if we can work on finding a way to get a top 2 seed.’ And then if we can do that, it’s ‘Let’s see if we can get the top seed and host.’”
All that to say that UMHB is focused on the immediate future, not on the horizon and the NCAA Tournament looming in the distance. By “winning the day”, the Cru can maintain its presence as a national contender, currently ranked No. 8 by the American Volleyball Coaches Association.
“We’re just trying to win today,” Pryor told True To The Cru. “Today we had a light practice, but I think we got better. [We want to] take it in small, incremental steps, and look at what is right ahead of us. It’s a long season, and we’re just trying to take it part-by-part. If it’s good enough, then it’s good enough, and if it’s not, we’ll see what we can do to get better.”
This mentality is very similar to the attitude with which Pryor and his team approached the spring season, focusing on small increments, rather than large-scale goals. Of course, there was no NCAA Tournament during the spring, but the Cru posted a 16-2 record, first clinching a spot in the ASC tournament before earning the right to host, and eventually winning the conference title.
One of those two losses came at McMurry, a program UMHB faces on Friday at 6:00 p.m. CT in Abilene. Winning on the road is not easy, no matter how good a team is, and Pryor noted the importance of being able to withstand road tests as the Cru begins the second half of the season.
“Three of our next four are on the road,” Pryor said of the week ahead. “That’s going to be a challenge. But you’ve got to be good on the road if you want to be good long-term. Last time we were at McMurry [in the spring], we split with them there and lost the first one. From that standpoint, there’s a lot to prepare for to make sure we’re mentally ready.”
It was at that McMurry match last season that the Cru made a change in its gameplan. A change that has continued to pay dividends this season.
For the first half of last season, UMHB ran a 6-2 rotation, which featured two setters, and six attackers, before opting for a 5-1 rotation (five attackers, one setter who plays all six rotations).
The rotation change has helped junior setter Alli Pierce, who has established herself as one of the ASC’s top setters with 9.96 assists per set. She also ranks second in Region X in that category.
“We ran a 6-2 for about two-thirds of the way through last season and it just wasn’t working,” Pryor said. “We switched to a 5-1 at McMurry last year after we lost the first match. We hadn’t practiced it, but we ended up winning it in four sets. Since that point, it’s really helped [Alli] out, just from a standpoint of, very rarely am I ever telling her who to set. She’s out there making decisions, making good reads, understanding where the one-on-one opportunities are.
“But I think the big thing is that Alli has no ego. She just wants the team to do well and she is going to divide the ball as much as she can. When you look at the five hitters we have playing consistently right now, all five can put a ball away in certain situations.”
Less than 24 hours after battling McMurry, the Cru travels just four miles for a match against Hardin-Simmons. Though the Cowgirls’ have posted a 4-5 record this season, putting them sixth in the conference standings, they have beaten a traditional juggernaut in UT-Dallas not once, but twice.
“Hardin-Simmons is always going to be geared up for us,” Pryor said. “Hardin-Simmons has beaten UT-Dallas twice this year. There’s no transitive property where we can say, ‘We beat this team and this team has beaten this team so we can beat this other team.’ That’s not how it works. Every day creates its own issues and we’re trying to make sure we are prepared for that day specifically.”
While UMHB has been able to carry over some of its success and development from the spring season into the fall, Pryor said he feels that there have been some clear changes in the way the Cru has approached this season compared to last.
“I think that the attention to detail has been much better in the fall than it was in the spring,” Pryor said. “I think the commitment this fall was better than the spring. And I think the team would tell you that as well. We just got a lot more buy-in with players. We have players realizing, ’We can do some of these things. We’ve been doing the same things for two-and-a-half years now. They work.’”
Riley Zayas serves as the managing editor of True To The Cru. He has worked in sports journalism since 2016, having been published by Sports Illustrated Kids, Sports Illustrated, Horns Illustrated, Sports Spectrum, D3football.com and College Baseball Nation. Contact Riley Zayas at firstname.lastname@example.org.