The Missouri Valley Conference’s strongest sport is volleyball, a fact that is proven out each year when the NCAA Tournament reveals its 64-team field.
No Valley sport more consistently grabs at-large bids — 14 since the 2006 season. Softball (seven since 2006), men’s soccer (five), men’s basketball (five) have moments. Women’s basketball last landed an at-large bid in 2002.
Volleyball makes it look easy, placing WSU and Northern Iowa in the field in addition to automatic qualifier Creighton. In 2007 and 2010, three MVC schools earned at-large bids.
Selection day caused Wichita State coach Chris Lamb no worries, despite his team’s third-place MVC finish and a No. 40 power ranking (RPI). He scheduled wisely, the Shockers won two big non-conference matches and didn’t lose to a team ranked lower than 100 in the NCAA’s RPI. By comparison, six MVC men’s basketball teams with an RPI rank of No. 40 or better missed the NCAA field since 2006, a list that doesn’t include No. 45 WSU in 2005 or No. 43 WSU in 2010.
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Three factors boost Valley volleyball.
• The sport’s emphasis on early-season tournaments can help MVC schools build a strong schedule. Men’s basketball teams are thrilled to compete in one tournament with high-profile opponents on a neutral court. Volleyball teams get three of those opportunities, sometimes at home.
WSU played BYU, Tennessee and Colorado State at Koch Arena. MVC champion Creighton played Kansas State at home. Northern Iowa played Purdue, Southern Cal, Michigan, Marquette and Long Beach State in tournaments.
As WSU proves, schools can play a tough schedule with the right mix of planning, boldness, creativity and victories.
“It’s like NASCAR — you have the biggest race of the year is Daytona, and it’s the first race of the year,” Lamb said. “I don’t know if people ever really get how many years of scheduling work goes into putting a season together that gives you a fighting chance, if everybody on your schedule does their job.”
• Geography helps the MVC, according to Lamb. The Big East can suck up eight men’s basketball at-large bids, but got two in this season’s volleyball bracket. The ACC earned three. NCAA champions and runner-ups are dominated by teams from the Pac-12, the Big 12 and the Big Ten.
“The East Coast is behind in volleyball,” Lamb said. “You don’t see the youth programs on the East Coast even touch what’s going on in the Midwest, in Texas, in Florida and the West Coast. The sport started west. It’s slowly expanded through the Midwest.”
It is also no coincidence two of the MVC’s top programs — WSU and Creighton — don’t sponsor football.
• Coaching salaries aren’t growing dramatically in volleyball, so MVC schools can hang onto good coaches. Lamb is in his 13th season. Missouri State’s Melissa Stokes (17 seasons), UNI’s Bobbi Petersen (13) and Creighton’s Kirsten Bernthal Booth (10) run established programs with regular NCAA appearances.
O’Brien suspended — WSU announced Saturday that women’s basketball player Molly O’Brien has been suspended for a violation of team rules. O’Brien, a sophomore guard from Spokane, Mo., is averaging 1 point and 8.7 minutes.
A new crop — Sam Tewes, like most people in Nebraska, is a Cornhusker football fan. When it came time to choose a baseball school, however, he looked out of state.
Tewes, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound pitcher, is one of 10 players who signed with the Shockers last month. Tewes, from Waverly High, also considered Nebraska, Texas A&M and Kansas State.
“It’s hard to walk away from family and friends,” he said. “You want to play Major League Baseball and keep going. Wichita State is the place where I have the best opportunity to get better and develop.”
Tewes will join four Nebraskans on the WSU roster. He played with infielder Tanner Kirk, from Lincoln, since his youth baseball days. Outfielder Taylor Doggett, pitcher A.J. Ladwig and first baseman Casey Gillaspie are also from Nebraska. Kirk and Doggett filled him in on WSU.
“They said they were really happy with it and the coaches are awesome,” Tewes said. “When I went down there, it was everything they said it was.”
Nebraska’s move from the Big 12 to the Big Ten may be hurt its allure for baseball recruits. Looking at a schedule filled with Indiana and Iowa isn’t the same as one with Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma State.
“It took away an element of competition that guys are really drawn to,” Tewes said.
The Lincoln Journal-Star placed Tewes on its Super State second team as a utility player after he went 5-2 with a 1.33 ERA. He struck out 91 hitters (19 walks) in 52 innings, according to the Journal-Star. He said he works off his fastball and uses a slider as his strikeout pitch. Like many young pitchers, his changeup needs work.
“I really like to throw inside a lot, jam guys, get them off balance,” he said. “The fastball is only as good as the changeup you can back it up with. You need a changeup to be really successful at the next level.”
WSU also received signatures from Grayson County (Texas) College reliever Ray Ashford, Coppell (Texas) pitcher Austin Gardner, Northwest pitcher Mitchell McIntyre, Forney (Texas) lefty Cody Tyler, Pine Creek (Colo.) lefty Reagan Biechler, infielder Nathan Winfrey from Liberty (Mo.) High, infielder Michael Burns of Columbine (Colo.) High, Neosho County freshman infielder Connor Goedert and Eastern Oklahoma State College sophomore infielder Zair Koeiman.
Round and round — WSU track coach Steve Rainbolt raised more than $10,000 by running 34.1 miles (55 kilometers) for his 55th birthday by running and walking 55 kilometers (34.1 miles) Friday at Cessna Stadium.
Rainbolt had knee surgery two years ago. He recently strained his hamstring, which hurt his ability to train for the birthday stroll. He started to cramp about halfway through.
“I’m the track coach and I’m there with all my athletes,” he said. “I can’t quit.”
The money will be used for equipment for his program.