Conference tournaments gave teams second chance to dance

On paper, Lipscomb or Texas State would seem to have very little in common with Miami (Ohio) or St. John's.

But in the world of women's volleyball, they all have one very important thing in common -- each school has qualified for the 2007 NCAA Division I Women's Volleyball Championships by winning its conference tournament.

While some conferences choose to award their automatic berth to their regular-season champion, the Atlantic Sun Conference, the Big East Conference, the Mid-American Conference and the Southland Conference are among the 23 that provide each of their teams a second chance to go the Big Dance.

If there were no conference tournament, Belmont would represent the Atlantic Sun, Lamar would be champion of the Southland, Ohio would own the MAC's automatic berth and Louisville would have won the Big East in a tiebreaker.

So far this year, the top seeds have won 11 of the 20 championships that have been contested. St John's was a No. 2, Miami was a No. 3, Lipscomb was a No. 4 and Texas State was No. 5, and each defeated the No. 1 seed en route to its tournament title.

For the first time in the program's history, the Lipscomb volleyball team will watch the selection show with more than a passing interest. The Lady Bison are eagerly waiting to see where and when they will play in the first round.

But if you think they will be intimidated with the prospect of playing a top-ranked team, head coach Brandon Rosenthal is quick to put that notion to rest. The word he uses to describe his team is "dangerous."

"Every year, we schedule top-25 teams on purpose," Rosenthal said. "It helps us prepare for our conference season and, if we ever got to this point, we have played those types of teams and we're not going into it being overwhelmed by thinking we're playing a such-and-such team. We've already played that caliber of teams."

A trip to the NCAA Tournament was the farthest thing from his players' minds early in the season when Lipscomb lost six of its first seven matches. But the experience of playing matches against Arizona, Pepperdine and Nevada would pay dividends later in the year.

The Lady Bison dropped their first two conference matches, but since then have won 14 of 16 matches, including their first-ever victory over crosstown rival Belmont in the semifinals of the Atlantic Sun Tournament in five games. Their other tournament victories were against Mercer University on its home court and No. 3 Jacksonville University.

"We knew we had a lot of talent on this team," Rosenthal said. "We just had to figure out how to play together. Early on, it was just a bunch of individuals. We went through a lot of tough times as far as arguments and figuring out how we were going to do it together."

Even though the team has never been to the NCAA Tournament, two of its players have tournament experience. Senior libero Ann Mullins played for Tennessee, while junior outside hitter Sarah Snider went to the tournament twice while playing at Alabama. A key player for Lipscomb will be freshman setter Stefine Pease, the MVP of the conference tournament.

"It's a good mixture of old and new," Rosenthal said. "We've got some fantastic freshmen. They don't play scared. They don't know scared. We are one of those teams that nobody is going to know about. We have a chance of sneaking up on some people."

Now in her 28th season at Texas State University, head coach Karen Chisum has seen just about everything. But her Bobcats pulled off an amazing run in the Southland tournament, beating No. 4 McNeese State, No. 1 Lamar and No. 2 Stephen F. Austin.

"We did do it the hard way," Chisum said. "I don't ever remember seeing the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds being beaten by the same team."

The Bobcats earned the program's sixth NCAA Tournament appearance, but their first since the second of back-to-back trips in 2005. There are four players from the team that lost to Hawaii in the first round at Austin, Texas, including three juniors -- outside hitter Lawrencia Brown, middle blocker Emily Jones and middle blocker Amy Weigle -- who play key roles.

The rest of the starters are freshmen and sophomores and the Bobcats don't have a senior on the floor. That helps explain why they have been able to win nine of their last 10 matches after starting the season with a 3-5 record and conference play with a 5-4 mark.

"We're young, but we matured a lot over the last week or so," Chisum said. "You want the team that is playing the best at the end of the regular season going to represent you in the NCAA Tournament, and that's Texas State right now."

Now the Bobcats will find out just how good they can be. They are hoping to leave the state for the sake of getting an NCAA experience that consists of more than a 30-minute bus ride to Austin. It would also mean not having to face No. 3 Texas in the first round.

But right now, Texas State might have the momentum and confidence to give any opponent a good match.

"We're pretty talented and, yes, I think that's the case," Chisum said. "I know the difference in the top-10 programs -- the Texases, the Nebraskas and the Penn States. Are we there? No. But on any given day, any team can beat anybody else. We know that. That's why you play the game."

Miami is another team that is peaking at the perfect time.

The RedHawks beat then-No. 15 Ohio University in the championship match of the MAC tournament for their first title since 1998. The victory over the Bobcats was Miami's second of the season. Those two wins represent the only times the Redhawks have defeated a team ranked in the top 20.

Miami also swept Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan to win the tournament without losing a game.

"It was really a great tournament for us," said head coach Carolyn Condit, now in her 24th season. "I thought we would do well, but I didn't think we would go through it totally undefeated in every game."

MU earned its seventh appearance in the NCAA Tournament, but its first since 1998. That was the year the RedHawks posted their first and only NCAA victory against Nevada.

"It's nice to peak at the right time and they certainly did that to beat OU because they're a very strong team," Condit said. "It's a wonderful restart for our program. Once this gets started, they understand what it is and hopefully will keep this headed in the right direction."

The secret to Miami's success was its willingness to change and to learn.

The RedHawks were 2-4 after losing to Colorado State in Colorado in September, but it was clear the team had the athleticism and skill to turn the season around. That's when the coaching staff decided to make changes and the players responded.

"I credit our team with being the type of kids that are willing to learn and change, and not just stay in a comfort zone," Condit said. "When kids are willing to do that, a lot of nice things can happen on the court. We knew as coaches this team could go somewhere if they were willing to keep making changes."

The Big East tournament was the only final featuring two ranked teams.

This year, experience paid off as the Red Storm won their first-ever Big East volleyball championship, defeating Louisville in the title match.

Last year, St. John's was perfect during conference play with a 14-0 record, but was upset by Notre Dame in a semifinal match. This time, the Red Storm avenged their only regular-season loss by beating the Cardinals.

"Going into the tournament last year, we felt the heat of being undefeated," coach Joanne Persico-Smith said. "This year, we felt we had even more to prove. The team really hung tough and stayed focused."

St. John's prepared for this season by traveling to Vietnam during the spring and by playing the toughest pre-conference schedule in the program's history. The Red Storm played Loyola Marymount, USC and Michigan State to open the season, then Long Beach State and Penn State among others during the year. The result was a 13-1 conference record and confidence heading into the postseason.

"We liked the way we were headed into the tournament," Persico-Smith said. "It took a long time to get a starting lineup that has juniors and seniors on it. That helps a lot. In past years, we had some youth on the court because of recruiting cycles."

Now St. John's has veterans on the court and tournament experience, so its second appearance in the NCAA Tournament should not be quite as intimidating as its first. The Red Storm are hoping to make it past the second round, where they lost to Minnesota in five games last year.

"That was really important last year," Persico-Smith said. "We were a little bit of a deer in the headlights going in because it was all so very different. This year hopefully we can do even better."

Dave Reed has covered college volleyball for national publications since 1996.