There are 435 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada that sponsor NCAA Division III women’s volleyball programs.
Of that group, there are only a handful that reach the 30-win plateau in a season. An even smaller group ends up in the Top 25 rankings of the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) national poll. And fewer still advance to play in the final rounds of the NCAA Division III National Championship Tournament.
In 2016, UT Dallas was one of those select few teams.
In the last four seasons, UTD has won 30 or more games three times, become a fixture in the national NCAA Division III poll and continued to progress toward its ultimate goal of winning a national championship for UTD.
UTD reached milestones in all three areas in 2016: The Comets finished the season with their most wins ever (32), achieved their highest national ranking (No. 3) during the year and advanced to the regional finals of the NCAA Division III national tournament before a heartbreaking, five-set loss ended the season.
“I’m still not over it,” said UTD head coach Marci Allison (née Sanders), who started the program in 2004 and had her team just two points away from advancing to the quarterfinal round of the national tournament. “Winning a national championship is obviously something that every coach and every team strives for, but for us, that is the ultimate reward, not the goal.”
The Comets have been following their coach’s mantra the past few years. Since 2013, UTD has won 116 matches, advanced past the first round of the NCAA Tournament three times and become a fixture in the national polls.
The Comets have not lost an American Southwest Conference regular season game since 2014 and have ASC Championship banners from each of the last two seasons hanging above their home court.
“The best part of it all is knowing we accomplished all this with good kids; kids who have strong academics and who are willing to do the work it takes to be successful for a sustained period,” Allison said.
An epitome of that “good kid” has been senior Michelle Toro, who will graduate as one of the most decorated players in University volleyball history. Toro, who finished her four-year career with multiple awards and records, was selected twice to the AVCA All-America team and was named to an Academic All-American team. In 2016, she became UTD’s first ever first-team honoree on both prestigious squads — meaning she was one of the top 14 Division III players in the country as well as one of the top seven student-athletes.
“I think one reason for our success is the culture that has been built in the volleyball program. The foundation was set my freshman year and it has only grown since,” Toro said. “We were a committed team, not just great individual players.”
The 2016 squad had eight players named to the ASC’s All-Conference team, including Toro and fellow senior Abbie Barth, who overcame three serious knee injuries to stay with the program for five years.
“But it wasn’t just the seniors who helped us have the year we did,” Allison pointed out. “We had a group of freshmen who came in and played phenomenally for us, as well.”
Freshman Dylan Brinkman finished the season as the team’s leader in kills (424) and service aces (44). She was named the AVCA Regional Freshman of the Year after joining the upperclassmen on the All-ASC squad.
The combination of young and old paved the way to the most successful season in UTD history — despite some tense moments throughout the year.
During the regular season, the team played several close matches against five nationally ranked teams, claiming four victories.
In the conference tournament, the Comets lost just their second game of the season and had to battle back with three wins in one day to claim the crown. And, in the NCAA regional finals, UTD fought off seven match points in the fourth set to win and force the deciding fifth frame.
“This team was resilient, no doubt about it,” Allison said.
If history is any indicator, the Comets should continue to bring national attention to UT Dallas for years to come. People ask Allison all the time what the secret is to the sudden success of her program. “There’s no secret,” she responds. “It just takes a lot of hard work — by the kids, the coaches and the University. It takes a strong effort in recruiting the right kind of kids. And, getting those kids to buy into what we’re trying to do.”