MORGANTOWN — In its 44-year history, the WVU volleyball team has never qualified for the NCAA tournament, and were it not for volleyball’s version of the NIT — the National Invitational Volleyball Championship — the Mountaineers wouldn’t even have a postseason win to the program’s credit.
This season, however, the return of the NIVC from a 20-year hiatus provided WVU an opportunity that may pay off in a big way down the road.
As the Mountaineers are bound for the semifinal round of the tournament, to be played Dec. 9, at Ole Miss, it’s worth noting how much added practice time and game reps can turn into success in the years that follow, especially for young teams like this year’s WVU squad.
Head coach Reed Sunahara, who built the program back up from almost nothing, hinged his team’s success on a group of five seniors and a slew of underclassmen, and they put together quite the run over the last week and a half.
Making the semifinals of the program’s second postseason tournament is no small accomplishment. Doing it without dropping a single set is even more impressive, and if history is any indicator, things could be looking even brighter on the horizon for the Mountaineers.
Every year from 1989 to 1995, during the NIVC’s first iteration as the WIVC, at least one of the tournament’s semifinalists qualified for the NCAA tournament the following season.
Five of those seven years, at least half of the tournament’s final four made the jump to the big dance the next season.
It is for this reason that the return of the NIVC had so many in the sport excited.
“The NIVC opportunity has been bubbling up in conversation with coaches and administrators for years,” NIVC director Sean Hardy said in a press release. “Some deserving programs are sent home early after conference tournaments are finished, and the NIVC is a great vehicle to showcase them and grow the rest of the sport.”
It’s a similar story in basketball, the only other NCAA-sanctioned sport with a second-tier tourney.
At least one final four team followed up that performance with an NCAA tournament berth in 17 of the 19 seasons since the inaugural WNIT, in 1998.
WVU, a two-time WNIT runner-up, itself turned a 2015 run to the title game into an NCAA berth as a 6-seed, in 2016. Last year, the Mountaineers earned another NCAA trip after claiming the Big 12 tournament championship.
On the men’s side, the evidence is even more overwhelming.
Last season was the first time in 50 years that an NIT semifinalist didn’t make the big dance the next season. A 2007 NIT title helped prep the Mountaineers for a Sweet 16 run in 2008 and, later, a Final Four in 2010.
Naturally, WVU is hopeful its run will continue to the NIVC title match. Yet, even if Saturday fails to go according to plan, the Mountaineers can rest assured knowing things are headed in the right direction, and that a season of firsts may lead, next year, to a long-awaited first for the program.