For the third consecutive two-year cycle, the Atlantic Sun Volleyball Championships finds itself at a first-time host. In 2005 and 2006, Belmont's Curb Event Center served as the venue and for both of the last two Novembers, play at Mercer's University Center capped the season. In March, the conference approved a bid from FGCU to play host for this year's and next year's Championship, marking the first time that Fort Myers, Fla. would be the destination city for six teams competing for the volleyball crown.
FGCU, Fort Myers and Alico Arena welcomes five teams, Lipscomb, Jacksonville, Belmont, Kennesaw State and Campbell to town for the Championship in just its third year in Division I and in the Atlantic Sun. In both of the previous two seasons, the Eagles volleyball team won the league's regular-season title with a combined 28-3 record.
“I think some of the people that have been at [FGCU] longer, it means even more [to host]," FGCU head coach Dave Nichols said. "I came in very late, so for me its been a swift transition. Here it is, my second year and we already got [to host]. I think some of the people who have been here since the beginning and watched it go from fledgling to Division II to Division I to now postseason eligible, I think it means a great deal - this is their baby. We just happened to be pushed along a little bit and I think a lot of that is based on the success of my predecessor. They felt that volleyball could compete right away and be fairly successful”
By fast-tracking the sport, the Eagles gained access to the NCAA Tournament, and thus the A-Sun Championship after two years of reclassifying. Since the program started in 2004, they own an all-time record of 139-36, including 52-5 at Alico Arena.
"I think we have outstanding facilities which is important...for anybody," said Ken Kavanagh, FGCU Director of Athletics. "We play in these events whether [here] or on another campus. Part of the voting process we have is what will benefit the student-athlete the most. I think our weather – for outdoor events – certainly in many cases lends itself to good opportunities for us but our venue here at Alico Arena, we think is probably the finest in the conference, in both size as well as overall amenities we provide and we also have a quality volleyball team that we think will lend itself to a good tournament"
While this A-Sun Championship serves as a first for Alico Arena and the first for an FGCU team that includes and automatic NCAA bid, a second team amongst the field of six, Kennesaw State finds itself at its first A-Sun Volleyball Championship. In contrast to the Eagles, who were picked as the favorite to win A-Sun Championship, the Owls' three-year transition has not gone as smoothly and without the same level of success, picking up only 11 wins.
Enter first-year head Karen Weatherington. She came to Kennesaw, Ga., after serving most recently as the Associate Head Coach at Butler following time at Clemson, Duke and Iowa State. The Owls picked up 11 wins, in A-Sun play alone, and reached 17 wins entering the A-Sun Championship. Despite the lack of a winning tradition, Weatherington and the team set the bar high, and achieved goals not predicted by many in the preseason.
“We are thrilled to be here, we are just elated. We set our goals really high for coming into a new group," Weatherington said. "I've been really excited to take this team to a championship. We have some good background and experience between our coaching staff. [Our team is] very inexperienced, so we have talked about teaching them championship volleyball – how champions think and how they maintain themselves, how they carry themselves and how they prepare, so actually the staff has probably used the word ‘championship’ more than the players.”
Both Nichols and Weatherington acknowledged having a postseason opportunity resulted in substantial changes in the effort from their players, especially late in the season.
“It’s a big difference…when we finished last year’s final conference match, it was like with a whimper instead of a bang," Nichols said. "We had won the conference…we had already sealed it the night before, and we went in that match [against Jacksonville] flat because there was nothing left. It was odd, I had never felt that, it was my first year at [FGCU], I’ve always played for something. This year, after that final conference match, its been a whirlwind getting ready and I like it that way.”
FGCU has secured its spot in the field prior the the final weekend. Conversely, going into the final day of play, there existed remote scenarios that could have knocked the Owls out. Their win against the UNF Ospreys locked up their berth.
“We were very aware, our staff was very aware," Weatherington said. "We just tried to keep it under wraps as far as the players were concerned but the information went public on our Web site with all the different opportunities for the tiebreaker, but they really stayed focused."
One stat trend both teams will look to reverse this week: Only once has the A-Sun Volleyball Championship been won by a school making its first appearance, Stetson in 1985 at the very first A-Sun Championship. In fact among the current membership, only Stetson and Belmont, in 2004, have even reached the final in their first appearance.