As players from Southwestern University hoisted the NCAA regional trophy high in the air atop the green and orange “Comets” logo at the midcourt of the Activity Center gym, UTD’s volleyball team could do nothing but stand and watch in silence.
After a nearly two-and-a-half hour match that saw the Comets come back after trailing two sets, the Southwestern Pirates finally put the Comets to rest, winning the fifth set 15-13 to move on to the Elite Eight.
But it didn’t come easy. In front of a rowdy home crowd, the Comets scraped and clawed their way back from the brink of elimination multiple times, including holding off six straight match points by Southwestern in the fourth set.
By the time the fifth and final set finished, however, the Comets just couldn’t keep up.
As the victorious Pirates cheered in the locker room across the hall, seniors Abbie Barth and Michelle Toro flanked head coach Marci Sanders at the post-game press conference with blank looks on their faces.
“We definitely felt like we could have moved forward and I think we are disappointed that we got outplayed by Southwestern,” Sanders said.
But even though the volleyball team lost in one of the closest matches in program history, the importance of this past weekend is hard to overlook. For the first time ever, UTD hosted the first three rounds of the Division III NCAA volleyball tournament after the Comet’s took home the ASC championship and won its bid to host the contest.
On top of hosting an NCAA tournament, the athletic department also had to handle the men’s soccer team hitting the road to compete in its own NCAA tournament on Trinity’s campus while women’s basketball tipped off its homecoming game on Nov. 12.
Along with all of this, both the women’s and men’s cross-country teams traveled to Georgia on Nov. 12 to compete in the NCAA regional meet after their best ever finishes at the ASC meet on Oct. 29.
It’s the first time anything like this has happened at UTD. Since 2013, UTD has had at least one team in the NCAA tournament each year and it is quickly becoming the new normal.
Although this level of success may be relatively new at UTD, it isn’t unique.
The volleyball team won back-to-back ASC championships and qualified for the NCAA tournament in 2008 and 2009 and the men’s basketball team made three straight NCAA appearances starting in 2008.
But across the athletic department as a whole, the last three years have seen more programs succeed at the same time than ever before. Since 2013, UTD has had seven different teams make appearances in national competitions.
To put that in perspective, the university fields 13 different teams. That means over half have reached the national stage since 2013, with three teams — volleyball, men’s soccer and women’s basketball — going multiple times in that time frame.
With all of that leading up to UTD hosting the NCAA volleyball tournament over the weekend, Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Bill Petitt described it as UTD’s “tipping point.”
“I kind of think we’re at that point,” he said. “I think we have gone from a regional school to now a national school. I think schools across the country in Division III have heard of UTD now. Five years ago? Maybe not. But now I think we’re getting out there enough, with our NCAA appearances, if we can win a few games and get deep into a tournament or two, I think that will go a long way. I just think we’ve kind of grown up a little bit and the expectations continue to get a little higher because we’re at that point.”
There’s not one single event to explain UTD’s rise, but rather a few that Petitt points at to explain how UTD got to where it is. From hiring Jami Clinton, the strength and conditioning coach, to adding more training staff, to building a weight room and renovating the main basketball and volleyball court, the department has seen several major updates during Petitt’s tenure.
Although the staff doesn’t talk about it too much, Petitt said he wouldn’t be surprised if UTD has a national champion within the next five years. For him, it’s not a matter of if, but when.
“I think the next decade, it could be really special,” he said. “I think it’s just where people go, ‘You know what? They grew up.’ (We) went from a program where the facilities weren’t great and we were just kind of limited in some of the things we do, but I think we’ve just grown up as a department and we’re not even 20 years old.”
The weekend proved eventful, with hundreds of visitors from Texas, Arkansas, Colorado, California and Washington making the trip to Richardson to watch their teams play.
At the same time, just six hours down Interstate 35, the men’s soccer team took on Chapman on the campus of Trinity, falling 1-0 to finish their season. Simultaneously, the women’s cross country team finished in ninth place and the men’s cross country team finished in 20th at the NCAA Division III regional finals, their best ever finishes at the competition.
In what proved to be the final game of the season for the volleyball team, the Comets failed to maintain a substantive lead throughout the course of the match, but they kept scraping their way back. Finishing an emotional fourth set, multiple players dropped to their knees out of exhaustion.
The final set went back and forth, with UTD finally catching a few breaks and finding holes in Southwestern’s defense. But despite the Comets’ efforts, Southwestern still held on.
For the volleyball team, even though it exited much earlier than players and coaches planned, the tournament capped an historic season. The Comets finished with a berth in the Sweet Sixteen, the team’s best ever finish, and a 32-3 record, this is the single greatest team in program history.
“We’ve had the most wins we’ve ever had and we’ve gotten the farthest we’ve ever gotten and a lot of other firsts,” Sanders said. “So we can’t hang our head about it, we just look forward to the future.”
Standing amid a court filled family, friends, fans and former players after the match, Barth, who has played for UTD for five seasons, reflected on what this year’s accomplishments meant for the state of the team.
“I think in the next couple of years it will definitely be a national championship team, for sure,” she said. “The freshman class, I can’t say enough about. They played huge today and this whole year. They have big things ahead of them.”
Assistant Athletic Director Angel Marin organized the tournament for UTD, working 16 to 18-hour day over the course of the week to put everything together. She fought back tears as she watched the court clear out and the nets get taken down for the final time this season.
Despite the emotions of the moment, Marin still declared she had the best job in the world.
“It’s a great time to be a Comet, it really is,” she said. “We are on the rise. It was a lot of fun. This weekend was a lot of fun. I hope that the student athletes come back and remember all the great things that happened this weekend. Obviously the outcome isn’t what we wanted, but there’s a lot to be proud of and I hope that’s the memories and relationships that they take with them.”