TAMPA — Earning an NCAA Tournament bid is usually not cause for celebration with the University of Tampa volleyball program. It has become routine.
But after hitting the abyss of a 3-10 record, after players felt their confidence was shot, after coach Chris Catanach openly wondered whether another voice was needed, the Spartans rallied for their biggest turnaround season.
Utilizing win streaks of eight and seven matches, the Spartans (18-13 in the regular season) were selected for the NCAA South Region Tournament about six weeks after the postseason seemed like an impossibility.
No. 6-seeded UT, making its 22nd consecutive postseason appearance, opens Nov. 30 against No. 3 West Florida in the eight-team South Region event, hosted by Florida Southern College in Lakeland. The eight region champions advance to the NCAA Division II National Tournament at Sioux Falls, S.D.
"This has been a big growth experience," said Catanach, whose teams have earned 32 NCAA bids in 34 years, but hadn't weathered a double-digit loss season since 1995. "In a way, it has been good for me … and good for all of us.
"It's hard going from being relevant for 20 years to being irrelevant and almost down and out. As much success as we've had, I've always had a very good awareness of my faults and always known the game can humble you. It has. But to come from where we were to where we are now, it's extremely rewarding."
Catanach said the root of UT's problems began with a trip to the Colorado Premier Tournament in September. The Spartans almost didn't travel. Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Florida's peninsula.
But Catanach decided to make the trip. The Spartans went 0-4 — against great competition — then had to stay an extra three days in Colorado because the hurricane played havoc with flight schedules.
"And after that, one thing led to another and we were playing with a complete lack of confidence," Catanach said. "It's such a fine line. When you win, everything goes right. When you lose, nothing goes right. Then you start to question how you're going about things."
That was true for the players, too.
"A lot of us (were) just like so … defeated," Spartans freshman outside hitter Sorrel Houghton said. "We were working our butts off and the outcome wasn't there. We were wondering, 'When is this going to happen?'?"
"It just stunk," Spartans sophomore middle blocker Taylor Fosler said. "There was losing, sadness, low confidence. It was hard, but once we broke through the slump and came out on the other side, things got so much better."
The players pointed to a five-set rally at Embry-Riddle, when the Spartans had dropped the first two sets and suffered the second season-ending injury to a starter.
There was also an upset of No. 6-ranked Palm Beach Atlantic, which built some much-needed belief.
"I thought we were somewhat young, but I put together an aggressive schedule," Catanach said. "I knew there could be some growing pains, but I didn't anticipate 3-10.
"We have talent and character on this team. I knew that all along. It just took a little longer to bring that out. I coped with it by saying, 'The sun will come up … I love my job … I love these kids … this doesn't define me.' Now we have something very good to show from all this growth."
The players learned that even the reputation of an elite program isn't enough to overcome misfortune.
"At some point, we just began playing without fear," Houghton said. "We just came out swinging and that really turned the tables for this team. The fact that we were the University of Tampa wasn't going to win matches for us. The name on the jerseys wasn't doing it."
"We realized that we couldn't go any lower," Fosler said. "When you hit rock bottom, you question your self-worth. But there comes a time when nothing can really affect you. There's nothing to hold back. You just have to get after it. And that's what we did."
From 3-10 to an NCAA Tournament bid. It won't rank with UT's two national championships or any of the program's lofty accomplishments. But it's something to build upon.
"We have won a lot of matches in this program," Catanach said. "I've always said you have to hate losing and love winning to have great success.
"What I've learned is the thrill of winning lasts just a little bit of time. The hurt of losing lingers. Losing keeps you grounded. You learn from losing. Through all of this, we've all learned a lot about ourselves and we found out we weren't going to give up. It's very satisfying that we were able to turn it around."