With one weekend home stand left to go in the regular season, with another game on the road in Miami next week, there’s only so much Tech can do now to make any serious moves up or down the RPI table. So, looking ahead to Clemson tonight and Notre Dame on Sunday, it’s well worth a preview of the next two games to see if there will be postseason volleyball on the Flats.
So, how’d Tech Volleyball get to the edge of the tournament? It really didn’t seem like they’d be too far off last year’s pace - mildly frustrating, for how much young talent they have stocked up - the first month of the season. The early loss to Kennesaw State did little to improve the outlook. Yet, somewhere after the turn of the season from invites and non-conference opponents to the ACC schedule, the Jackets found that gear that seemed to be within grasp that whole time. After a tough 1-3 start to the slate, including a five set back-breaker to a middle-of-the-road Boston College team, things weren’t looking particularly rosy. The loss to Notre Dame was the most heartening, since Tech was in the hunt the whole time, and looked better than they had in the past against the Fighting Irish, but it wasn’t quite enough. Upon returning home from the tough Lousiville/Notre Dame road trip, Tech found a second gear. They went nearly a month between losing sets, racking up six straight sweeps and eight straight wins before coming down to the last point against then-no. 2 Pittsburgh on the road, by far the best team in the conference. Since then, Tech has tacked on another two wins and sits about as firmly on the bubble as any one team can be, at no. 64 in the national RPI rankings. So, what might put them over the top?
The Clemson Tigers enter tonight’s matchup sitting at a lowly 142 in national RPI. The Tigers, to be perfectly honest, are a great permanent home-and-home matchup firstly because the fans can turn out for games against rivals, and secondly, but also importantly, because they’re a rather pedestrian. This year is no different. Tech showed about as much in the first matchup against Clemson this year, which was a Friday night game on the road, and the first game of both the six straight sweep streak and the eight straight conference winning streak. Just as in basketball, a loss to a middling team tanks the RPI. A loss late in the season at home to a middling team would be almost catastrophic to the team’s tournament hopes. There’s just not enough leeway or time to make it up and expect to make the final 64 teams. Fortunately, Tech has the exact weapons to take advantage of Clemson’s weaknesses. The most important one is the ability to overpower their opponents. Tech’s attack is incredibly strong, and they really didn’t give Clemson anything easily in their first matchup. The Jackets should look to keep that up tonight at O’Keefe.
Notre Dame, like Clemson, is a team Tech has already seen this season. A traditionally stronger volleyball school, the Fighting Irish have an expectedly higher RPI than Clemson, sitting at no. 32. This is the tougher game left on the schedule. Tech wasn’t without some success against Notre Dame on the road - they secured a set against a good team - but Tech will have to play like they did against Florida State - also a well-regarded volleyball program - in order to get the win. This one, I’d say, is the one that would punch their ticket. Or, at the very least, it would put them in the ballpark. The Jackets have a lot of different angles they can bring and have seen success when playing with precision, and it’s going to take success on the little things to see payoffs against a solid Notre Dame squad.
Tech needs to win both games to be in the conversation for the NCAA tournament. Sure, top 64 theoretically makes the tournament, but, with 32 autobids and only 21 conference leaders in front of Tech, that proposition looks a little dicey. Regardless, Tech isn’t going to sniff the tournament without two wins, so to call for anything else is a fool’s errand and to expect much if they don’t might be wishful thinking. It’s a big weekend at the O’Keefe Gymnasium the next few days, probably the biggest one since maybe 2016, when Tech got awfully close to another bid, if not before then. Time to go out and help get Tech over the hill.
And then, it’ll be time to win one in Coral Gables. Another team Tech has already beat this season. This is what it all comes down to, the chance to live to play another day.
Tune into both games at 7:00 PM Friday and 1:00 PM Sunday live on the ACC Network Extra, over the air on WREK 91.9, or visit the ever-affordable O’Keefe Gymnasium on campus where Techwood dead-ends into Sixth.