VBALL’s Hope for NCAA Tourney Bid Quickly Fading

by Matt Case / Beacon Staff • November 4, 2016

This article originally appeared in the October 6, 2016 issue of The Berkeley Beacon.

Next to the Super Bowl, it’s debatably the most exciting Sunday in sports.

The NCAA basketball Division I conference championships finish up across the U.S. on this day. Members of 32 teams sit comfortably in gyms, locker rooms, and bars, awaiting the announcement of their spot in the national tournament, while 36 other squads sit anxiously on the edge of their seats, huddled around TVs, hoping for a record strong enough to get a bid into the bracket, too.  

This is Selection Sunday.

All NCAA national tournaments, with the exception of football, are seeded this way. Teams who have won their conference get an automatic spot. It is then up to a committee to decide who else gets in, and who plays who. So even teams who don’t win their conference aren’t out.  

In Division III women’s volleyball, the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference has been highly represented in the national competition for the last few years. Outside of the conference champions, one extra team was selected in 2014, and two extra were chosen in 2015.

Emerson head coach Ben Read was looking toward the same thing for his squad, in 2016.  

“The last two years, Babson has won our conference, and they’ve been near one of the top teams in our region. MIT and or Springfield have been one of the top three of four teams in our region the last couple years,” Read said. “So Babson won our conference, got to go in, and MIT and Springfield got to go in because they beat enough strong teams to advance. So that’s what I was hoping to set up with our scheduling this year.”

The Lions have missed the playoffs the last two years, and could not get past the first round the season before that, giving them an 0-1 postseason record since joining the NEWMAC in 2013.

With a near .500 record last year, 12-13, but a conference record of 2-8, Read said he attempted to arrange a schedule for this season, that would include matches against tougher nonconference opponents.

The reason, he said, was to help give the team a better chance to get into the tournament if they could not win the NEWMAC. If they had enough wins against tougher opponents, the selection committee might add them to the national draw. This being their own sort of sports loophole—a way of qualifying without going about it the traditional way. Read’s list of notable contests included University of Massachusetts Boston, Bowdoin College, Plymouth State College, and Bates College. 

“The more top ranked teams you play in the region, whether it’s in your conference or out of your conference, if you have success against those teams, you have a better chance of getting selected, if you show you have a better profile than other teams,” Read said.

Even with a 13-6 overall record so far this season, surpassing last year’s, the door for a tournament bid is quickly closing for the Lions. In an email to The Beacon on Sept. 26, before an interview, Read speculated that to get a selection, they would have to win around 12 of their final 13 matches, including those against the higher-tier programs Read organized. Since that statement, Emerson is 3-1.

Most of their more competitive games have resulted in losses, which is why things look so bleak. After taking the first set against UMASS Boston, the Lions were overtaken and were handed their first loss of the season, 3 sets to 1 on Sept. 8. Their second non-conference loss came two days later when they were swept by Western New England University.

The losses that followed came by way of top conference teams like Wellesley College who brought them down 3-1 on Sept. 13, and Springfield College, who defeated them 3-0 on Sept. 24. Emerson currently has a 2-4 NEWMAC record, and is eighth in the standings out of 11 teams.

“We try and stay as hopeful as we can,” senior middle blocker Jules Augustine said. It’s hard because we’ve done better in the conference this year than we have in past years, so we’ve been happy with how we’ve been doing. But when it comes to the bigger picture, like making it into the NCAA [tournament], we still want to have hope that we can. We all know the reality of it, and what we want from it.”

Read said he hopes some of the sets his squad picked up in those defeats, might still put them in the conversation.

“It can break down to that,” Read said. “They’re going to look at head-to-head record between teams. They’re going to look at common opponents as well. If we didn’t play each other but we both played a common opponent and I beat them 3-1 and you beat them 3-2, well in theory my team’s stronger.”

Emerson picked up a 3-0 win over Plymouth St., another opponent on Read’s list, on Oct. 1. They’ll take on Bowdoin and Bates College in a doubleheader on the 15th.

Along with UMASS Boston, Read said Bowdoin is the crux of their schedule.

“They’re a team that’s been traditionally strong, gone to the NCAA’s the last few years,” Read said. “I figured that’d be a great chance for us to play a really strong team near the end of our season to maybe help with the qualification process. Or at least prepare us for the tougher teams the last couple matches of the season in NEWMAC play.”

Augustine, a captain, said her coach has been honest and proactive since the beginning of the season, regarding their NCAA tournament outlook.

“After a match we always talk about what our chances are,” Augustine, a visual and media arts major, said. “And we know that it’s going to be a long shot, but we are suckers for an underdog story.”

The team leader in blocks, Augustine attributed her squad’s losses to an unsettled mental game.

“We put a lot of pressure on ourselves when it comes to tougher matches like that,” Augustine said. “I think that kind of kicks us in the butt. We think about [the significance of the match] a lot; it definitely gets in our head, and we want to put in our best effort.”

The Lions have nine regular season matches remaining. Augustine said they’ll be fighting mostly for an NCAA tournament spot via conference championship, but haven’t given up on a committee selection, despite its unlikeliness.

“We’re still going fight for each game, and a bid, and fight for NEWMAC,” Augustine said. “But the odds are not in our favor.”

Emerson (13-6, 2-4) takes on back-to-back NEWMAC champion Babson College (9-7, 5-2) tonight at 7 p.m.