The innermost layer of a volleyball is comprised of a rubber bladder, the second is made out of cloth and the third shell consists of 18 rectangular leather panels arranged in six identical sections. Just as a volleyball has evolved into a multi-layered invention, so too has the sport, with each layer ushering in a new era.
Consequently, a team’s historic timeline endures various ebbs and flows, and the volleyball program at UTD is no exception to that rule.
The volleyball program at UTD was founded in 2004 — the youngest established program alongside women’s golf. Head volleyball coach Marci Sanders was hired shortly thereafter. Sanders said there were obvious growing pains in being a rookie head coach of a brand new program.
“One of the reasons I accepted the job was because UTD pretty much already had everything in place as far as facilities, for the most part, so that was pretty easy,” she said. “Just as it is now, the hardest part to our job is recruiting. So starting to recruit kids to a program that didn’t really have any history was definitely the hardest part.”
The program had back-to-back losing records in its first two seasons, going 14-17 and 16-17 in 2004 and 2005, respectively. As it stands now, those are the only two losing seasons in the program’s 12-year history.
Amid the early struggles, Sanders said she didn’t necessarily feel any pressure to provide immediate favorable win-loss records as long as there were visible improvements year to year.
In 2006, those visible improvements led to a favorable ASC East championship record of 24-7 — an eight-win improvement from the prior season. The success was in large part due to the talent pool from that year’s recruiting class.
“If you look statistically, we kept getting better. … It took us a few years to get a good recruiting class in there,” Sanders said. “(The success) came down to building a track record and getting our name out there.”
The program reached its peak in the 2008 and 2009, posting a combined overall 49-9 record and a 31-3 conference record. The Comets won their first ever ASC title in 2008 and successfully defended it in 2009 in convincing fashion by going undefeated in conference play. They are only the third team in ASC volleyball history to win back-to-back championships, and the lone UTD athletic program to accomplish such a feat.
“We lost in the conference championship in 2006 and I had quite a few freshmen in that class,” Sanders said. “Obviously they grew up a lot during their time at UT Dallas. So they were learning and we were learning and we just ended up working together (to make) everything fell into place in 2008 and 2009.”
Due to the competitive nature of sports, defeat is inevitable. Despite establishing themselves as a premier team in the ASC, the Comets, unable to recreate their 2008 and 2009 magic, fell short of the conference championship in each of the next five post-seasons.
During that five year span, the Comets had five 20-plus win seasons, including a program high 31 wins in 2013, and never registered more than four conference losses in a single year.
The volleyball program was having relatively successful seasons, but at that same time, Hardin-Simmons was developing into an ASC powerhouse, defeating or eliminating the Comets en route to their four consecutive titles.
“In those years, it wasn’t like we were having bad seasons,” Sanders said. “We just couldn’t really get over the hump. I felt like the other programs in our conference were just getting better.”
For the Comets, success doesn’t begin and end with their ASC accolades. The ultimate goal is still to win a national championship. For the second time ever, last year’s squad advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Sanders explained this year’s ASC championship squad is the best to ever step foot inside UTD’s gym because of the way they gave meaning to the word ‘team.’
“There isn’t one person on this team by the end of the season that wasn’t all in,” she said.
Sanders said she feels the program is taking the proper steps towards winning a national title.
“We obviously know it’s not going to be an easy task but the years that we did lose (in the NCAA tournament), we lost to Cal Lutheran,” she said. “This year they went on to win the national championship and the last time we lost to them they were runner-up. I think it’s nice that the current players that we have are able to see what Cal Lutheran does, which points out weaknesses not only to our players but also to us as a staff on what we have to get better at.”