By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
We’re just one week into the Southeastern Conference volleyball season and already an opportunity to take the driver’s seat in the league race is upon us. This weekend will be critical as perennial league contenders Kentucky and Tennessee travel to Gainesville to compete with No. 6 Florida, which has won 19 of the last 20 conference crowns.
Sure, there is still a lot of SEC volleyball to be played, and as we have seen in 2008 and 2009, it could and likely will come down to the last weekend of league play before a conference victor is decided. Still, this could put any one of the three teams in a more comfortable position moving forward. We saw it last year with the Gators defeating the Wildcats and Lady Vols on the road to begin league play, and then continuing on to a perfect 20-0 conference record while the other contenders battled to play catch-up.
What’s great about SEC volleyball is that it’s the only league sport that plays a true round-robin schedule. The implementation of that, which levels the playing field considering an 11-team conference dynamic in the sport of volleyball, means that every league team plays each of the other 10 conference schools home and away on an annual basis. So, even though one of these three teams could get an early jump on the title pursuit, they will have to play one another again later in the season. LSU also is always a factor for the conference title, having captured six consecutive Western Division crowns.
Just how competitive has the race for the SEC title in volleyball been in recent years? Let’s take a look at the 2008 and 2009 races.
Midway through November in the 2008 season, Florida appeared to be on the way to its NCAA record 18th consecutive conference crown, before suffering a five-set loss to No. 22 Kentucky in Lexington. That’s when it got interesting.
If Florida were to beat South Carolina in Columbia the next Wednesday night, it would give them at least a share of the conference crown. If the Gators lost, the SEC title would escape them for the first time since 1990. Down two sets to one in that critical match the day before Thanksgiving, Florida rebounded to win a five-set thriller against the Gamecocks. It would seem that the Wildcats would share the league title with Florida, but a costly loss to Tennessee two days later dashed Kentucky’s title hopes. The Gators won it outright for their 18th regular-season championship in a row.
A year later, Florida lost an early five-setter to Kentucky essentially making it a four-team race to the finish. The Gators, Wildcats, Lady Vols and Tigers were all mounting a charge for the conference crown. And then Florida lost home and away meetings with LSU before eliminating themselves from the conference picture with a 3-1 loss at Tennessee in Knoxville. That gave the Wildcats a two-match lead in the league race.
But Florida was able to rebound with a win against Kentucky two days later in Lexington, thanks to an empassioned locker room speech by junior Callie Rivers following the Gators’ defeat at the hands of the Lady Vols. With one final chance to lock up the league title against Tennessee, Kentucky led the fifth set 14-10, before UT rallied to win the frame, and the match, 16-14. That opened the door for LSU to take home the 2009 SEC title.
It’s shaping up to be another wild ride and it could start to take some shape after this weekend. Buckle your seatbelts, it should be a lot of fun yet again.