Buffalo's volleyball record in the MAC was dismal by 2008, never winning more than 5 matches in a year. Todd Kress became the head volleyball coach at Buffalo in 2009, having coached teams at two previous universities to NCAA Tournament appearances. In five years under Kress, UB volleyball never had more than 6 wins in the MAC, and never was seeded in the top 8 at the end of the season.
Enter Reed Sunahara, another coach with previous NCAA Tournament experience. Sunahara left after one year, producing 6 MAC victories and the #8 seed.
Enter Blair Brown Lipsitz, a highly decorated player who had won four NCAA Championships, but who had never coached at the collegiate level (except as a volunteer assistant under Sunahara one spring). Lipsitz's first two years were nothing to write home about. Six wins and the #7 seed in the her first year, 3 MAC wins her second year. It seemed as if nothing had changed under Lipsitz.
And then something remarkable happened. The Bulls became good. The next three years (the first two under Lipsitz, the third year coached by Scott Smith who was an assistant under Lipsitz) became the best three years in UB Volleyball history. Lipsitz produced 8 MAC wins in 2017 and the #5 seed, 10 MAC wins in 2018 and the #4 seed, and then Smith produced 8 MAC wins in 2019, and the #7 seed, and the team's first ever MAC Tournament win in the "round of 8" (Buffalo swept #6 Akron).
Lipsitz wanted a high-powered offense, featuring regular back row attacks, something you don't see a lot of in the MAC. And with the 2017 team having "all the pieces" according to Lipsitz, the back row attacks became much more effective and the Bulls started playing at a noticeably higher level, in all phases of the game.
The talent level of the team was certainly higher than previous years. Buffalo players now showed up every year in the list of All-MAC players, whereas before this was a rarity. The Bulls under Lipsitz and Smith did some outstanding recruiting, bringing in talented freshman and transfers who became the nucleus of the team. Andrea Mitrovic, who was a freshman in 2017, made the All-MAC Freshman team that year, and followed it up with an All-MAC First Team honor in 2018, leading the MAC in points per set. Polina Prokudina, who stands 6–4, transferred to Buffalo after one year at Syracuse, and earned two consecutive All-MAC second team awards. Rachel Sanks, a freshman in 2016, had an outstanding senior year and earned All-MAC First team honors. Setter Scout McLerran, a freshman in 2016, would finish fourth on the UB career assist list (although if you account for rules changes, you could argue she finished first all-time). Yes, the Bulls offense was playing at a much higher level.
On defense, the Bulls also picked up some MAC honors. Cassie Shado, during her senior year in 2017, won first-team All-MAC (although her offense contributed to that), and transfer middle blocker Kristina Nieves in was named second team All-MAC in 2018.
In 2019, with seven incoming freshman and two incoming transfers, the Bulls did not get off to a good start, and were 1–5 in the MAC. But then Smith stopped experimenting with the lineup, and the Bulls went on a 7–3 run to finish with 8 wins and the #7 seed. Along the way, Buffalo defeated four different MAC powers, starting with Akron who at the time had the best record in the MAC; then they defeated Central Michigan who at that time had the best record in the MAC. Then Buffalo lost to eventual MAC champion Ball State in five sets (15–13 in the fifth set), and next defeated perennial MAC powers Bowling Green and Miami (at the time the Redhawks had the best record in the MAC). Yikes!
If you had said, after Lipsitz's second year, that all of this would happen, no one would have believed you. It will be up to Smith to keep the momentum going, and based on 2019, that seems like something he can do.
- Kress now coaches at Fairfield, where he has produced 4 NCAA tournament teams in five years.
- Sunahara now coaches at West Virigina, where his teams have not won a lot of Big 12 matches and have been under 0.500 in conference each year.
- Mitrovic transferred to Arizona State, and is now a junior. She led the Sun Devils in points and kills.
- Lipsitz resigned after the 2018 season, and I'm told she is getting a graduate degree. She was listed as a volunteer assistant for UB for the 2019 season, although her name is no longer shown on the web site in that capacity.