It's not every decade that UB volleyball strings together consecutive winning seasons. With a late-November win over Albany, this year's edition of the Bulls did it for the first time since 1995 and 1996, when the Royals competed in the Mid-Continent Conference. It shouldn't take 18 years for the next time.
Before we got there, though, we had a controversial coaching change, a senior returning to the court after two years, and 30+ games from a team losing just one contributor as it heads into 2015 off its best season since joining the MAC. Relive the 2014 UB Volleyball season with over 30 links from this fall's Bull Run coverage.
I've arbitrarily drawn the line between 2013 and 2014 at the coaching change. And with that, the 2014 got started when Danny White hired former UCLA star and Al Scates pupil Reed Sunahara to move to Buffalo from Los Angeles and take over the program. Sunahara had previously led the Cincinnati Bearcats for over a decade.
In our season preview posts, we eagerly awaited Sunahara's influence, as well as the return of Tahleia Bishop, while we expressed concern at a team replacing six seniors, most notably MAC Defensive Player of the Year Kelly Svoboda and Carissa McKenna.
The first weekend of matches, the UB Tournament, reflected those conflicting concerns, as the Bulls went 2-2 with all four matches taking only three sets. After an error-prone and surprising loss to Lehigh, UB bounced back on the second day with easy wins over Siena and Canisius, before losing to Ole Miss, an SEC team making the trip north for the five team tournament. The highlight of the weekend was the return of senior Sable Staller to the court after the Russiaville, IN native missed two seasons to injuries.
September and the three tournaments awaiting the Bulls went a lot better for UB: They dropped two matches in four in August, and only dropped two in all of the following month. First up was the USF invitiational, which the Bulls wonthanks as much to Florida International's win over the host Bulls as our Bulls' victories over FIU and South Carolina Upstate. Tahleia Bishop averaged 17 kills and 13 digs a match en route to Tournament MVP honors.
UB stayed on the road and headed to Chicago for the UIC invitational and their second straight tournament win, this time leaving no doubt with wins over Western Illinois, the host Flames, and Eastern Kentucky. Tahleia Bishop this time averaged 18 and 11, but again earned Tournament MVP honors and UB Athlete of the Week.
Buffalo couldn't complete the September sweep in their final Tournament, but only lost out to host Indiana in the Hoosier Invitational on a "sets lost" tiebreaker. But for a four-point lapse in a rematch against Western Illinois, UB would have had that one as well.
The Bulls finally came home just before the end of the month to crush Niagara in straight sets. Most of the subs got some time to play in the third set, and Buffalo hit well above their season average. I also figured out how to make gifs with my phone:
UB opened MAC play on a tear, with twin home sweeps of both Miami and Bowling Green to finish September at 10-2 for the month. Miami would go on to play in the MAC final, and the win over Bowling Green would prove crucial down the stretch in MAC tournament positioning.
When October came, everything changed. Bishop and setter Marissa Prinzbach missed road games and three-set losses at Ohio and Kent. When both missed a third straight game against Akron, freshman Skyler Day stepped up and got her first-career double-double as UB moved back above .500.
Bishop would return, but only to varying effectiveness for a few matches, and the Bulls really hit a tailspin, losing eight of their next nine stretching all the way to the final weekend of the regular season. Before the very last match of the MAC slate, the Bulls were 0-5 in matches that went to fifth sets, with three of the losses coming to Eastern Michigan, Bowling Green, and Kent State.
UB's one win in this stretch, a strong defensive performance at home against Central Michigan, helped them stay in the hunt for a MAC tournament berth as they slowly fell down the pecking order from a 4-way tie for 5th place to a 3-way tie for 7th.
A late-season home match against Kent State seemed a must-win, but UB fell in five and into a 2-way tie for 9th, one game behind CMU for the last tournament spot.
Somehow UB was still in the hunt, and maybe even the favorite, with three games to go, though a loss to MAC regular season champion Ohio preceding Senior Night festivities for Sable Staller and Liz Scott.
With two games to go, the Bulls' remaining games came against the two weakest teams in the conference and UB owned tiebreakers over both the teams also in contention for the eighth seed. Tahleia Bishop once again sat with a new injury, but as the games played out, only the Thursday home win over Akron was necessary to clinch the playoff berth, but the Saturday five-set victory over a scrappy Toledo squad kept the Bulls from scoreboard watching and also matched the 2013 team's conference win total.
Prior to the MAC Tournament, UB placed two Bulls on All-MAC teams for the second straight year, as Tahleia Bishop matched her 2013 First Team All-MAC performance and Cassie Shado was named to the All-MAC All-Freshman Team.
Once the postseason got started, the Bulls were still without Bishop and bowed out quickly in three progressively less competitive sets to the surprising eventual conference champions from Western Michigan. A post-postseason home match against SUNY rival Albany was an easy UB win and gave the Bulls consecutive winning seasons for the first time in 18 years and only the second time in the Division 1 era.
If it feels strange to you to celebrate eighth place in the MAC and a 6-10 record, the fact of the matter is that it is the highest placement in the conference UB has ever had, it ties 2013 for the most MAC wins in a year, and it happened without the same senior-laden lineup as last year and even without Tahleia Bishop for four matches and parts of three more. Want for better based on how the season went, sure, but the little preseason volleyball chatter we had here hoped for a MAC tournament berth, and we got that.
Add the fact that winning seasons of any sort are rare here, and it was a good year by Reed Sunahara, who will only lose Sable Staller in terms of 2014 contributors and welcome in two recruits: Gabriela Maciagowski of Ontario, and Madison Clark from Williamsville South right down the street.