Photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
BELTON-Coaches utilize non-conference play in a multitude of ways.
Some look to schedule strong national powers in hopes of raising their NCAA Tournament resume and strength of schedule. Others use non-conference contests as a way to allow their team to see the country, and travel beyond their state or region. The chance to face different playing styles is also a factor.
For most coaches, it is a combination of these things–and others—that make the non-conference portion of the schedule valuable. But at the forefront, it is the exceptional preparation for the all-too-important conference schedule that makes non-conference matches significant.
UMHB head volleyball coach Mark Pryor knows this fact well, and took the setup of the ASC schedule into account when putting together his team’s non-conference slate for this fall. The league schedule calls for Friday night and Saturday morning matches, meaning teams will always be playing twice in a 24-hour span.
So last weekend, the Crusaders had an opportunity to simulate that, and test the roster’s depth and stamina more than any conference weekend will. They began with a Thursday afternoon sweep of Belhaven in Jackson, Mississippi, before making their way to Memphis, Tennessee. At the Rhodes College Classic, The Cru found themselves playing four matches in a 24-hour span. And all five contests resulted in victories, elevating UMHB’s record to a flawless 8-0.
“We went to Ruston and spent the night, then went the rest of the way for about a two-hour drive to get us used to being on the road that day,” Pryor said of his team’s first road trip. “We had our pregame meal and then our warmup, just so they get used to that pattern.
“[After that match], we had to go on the road for about two-and-a-half to three hours that night to get to Memphis. That’s pretty similar to what a lot of these Friday-Saturdays are going to be once conference starts and we’re on the road.”
The results were certainly promising. Hannah Frasca tallied 53 kills and 66 digs, and now ranks amongst the Top 10 in both stat categories amongst American Southwest Conference players. Dravyn Hurd took home ASC Defensive Player of the Week honors after posting 30 blocks over the course of the five matches. And Kendall Harrington and Natalie Hughes joined Hurd on the Rhodes College Classic All-Tournament team.
Additionally, a number of freshmen saw valuable playing time that added to the depth on the roster. That’s another aspect of non-conference play. By competing in matches that do not count towards your conference record, it gives coaches more freedom to give opportunities to younger contributors; players that may be necessary to a team’s success further down the road.
“We had an opportunity to get some more kids in,” Pryor said. “You want to have depth. That’s always important. Even if it’s for one or two points here or there, you want to put them in positions where they’re going to feel successful. You don’t want to put them in when it’s 13-all in the 5th [set] and they’ve been sitting for two hours. The more we can [give those younger players reps], I think that helps us long term.”
UMHB’s stamina was certainly tested on Friday and Saturday. By the time they reached 2:00 p.m. on Saturday and the tournament finale against Bethel (TN), fatigue had set in. But UMHB fought back, and came away with a 3-0 sweep.
“We weren’t attacking at our highest point,” Pryor said of that last match against Bethel. “We didn’t have a great first step. Just because your body is fatigued. But we only had six hitting errors in that last match. That was a testament to following the game plan, even when your body isn’t feeling it, and it’ll give us an opportunity to be successful.”
Possibly the biggest test came in UMHB’s first contest in Memphis, against a fellow Lone Star State program. Austin College, who is currently 7-1, gave UMHB a run in a five-set match. In the decisive fifth set, after the Crusaders took a 12-9 lead, AC responded with four of the next five points. It tied the score at 13, but a kill from Hughes and a service ace allowed UMHB to escape with its undefeated record intact.
“Austin College did a really good job,” Pryor said. “We played well in the first set and they made a good adjustment and did some things in the second set that we just hadn’t seen yet. It was great for us to have our backs against the wall and see how we were going to respond.
“That match could’ve gone either way. We’re very happy with the outcome, but even if we hadn’t been successful, I was pleased to see our progress in that match.”
It brings about another weekend of travel for The Cru, who open the American Southwest Conference slate against LeTourneau in Longview, Texas, on Friday night. That will be followed by a match against ETBU, the favorite to win the league, on Saturday morning. But as Pryor noted, ETBU is not the only program poised to make a run at this year’s conference championship.
“When you look at the conference this year, there are going to be four teams that can absolutely win it,” he said.
Those four being UMHB, ETBU, Hardin-Simmons, and UT-Dallas. Some have been tested more than others through non-conference play up to this point. But at the end of the day, the race for the ASC title comes down to pivotal matches like the ones UMHB faces this weekend.
“It’s going to come down to a lot of little things,” Pryor said of the highly-anticipated showdown with ETBU. “Home-court advantage is one. How long each of our matches go on Friday night will determine who is fatigued and who is not.
“They’ve got two kids that score the majority of their points. For us the question is going to be if we can stop one of them. If you look at our balance right now, we’ve got four kids averaging over two kills per set. So we have some balance that I think will help out. We’ve got a chance to be successful, and if it happens, it happens. If not, we’re going to do our best to get them later on.”