By his sixth season, University of Central Arkansas coach Stephen McRoberts has turned volleyball into a standing-room, hard-ticket sport.
When the Sugar Bears played a Saturday game in their invitational last week, the lobby of the Prince Center had about 25 people who were not allowed into main arena because it was at capacity. This season, in a updated and remodeled center, there is a roped-off, standing-room section for the students that gets loud.
It’s one of the most electric volleyball atmospheres in this part of the country in the Prince Center, which is one of the best venues around for volleyball.
The coaches offices have been moved and updated, the locker room has been refurbished and the whole scene is intimate and fan-friendly for volleyball.
The Sugar Bears, who played at home for the first time last weekend, have played in tournament from Wyoming to the University of Oklahoma to Fort Worth and Bowling Green, Ky.
McRoberts has not only been energized by the effort against the toughest schedule a Sugar Bear team has placed but by the aesthetics. When the team visited Oklahoma and TCU, two FBS schools in the national rankings, the coach asked to tour the locker room and offices.
“They’re good, but ours are better,” McRoberts said. “What we’re doing is as good as anybody in the nation, I think.”
He noted how the entire mindset of UCA volleyball has changed since the team playing NCAA Division I competition five years ago.
“Now you come into the locker room after we’ve played these Big 12 and SEC-type schools and the players are angry that we lost,” McRoberts said. “Four years ago, if we scored 21 or 22 points and lost in straight sets to the schools, we were very happy with that.
“This is where we want our program to ge to. It’s nice to go into the locker room and see players disappointed that we didn’t win, not matter who we played.”
The teams that have defeated the Sugar Bears have a combined record of 62-12.
UCA, with a 9-6 mark, is currently has an RPI of 85 among 300-plus NCAA Division I volleyball teams. Last year’s 27-3 team reached an all-time high of 91 RPI.
“That shows the respect we’ve gotten from the teams we’ve played,” McRoberts said.
The Sugar Bears, in their first of postseason eligibility, are certainly on the radar for the NCAA tourney.
“We have a lot of little goals, and our biggest goal is to make the NCAA tourney,” McRoberts said. “We were 16-0 in conference last season, we’ve gotten rings. The focus now is the big picture. I think we have the possibility to do that.”
“We have a big bullseye on our chests from the other conference teams,” he said.
But McRoberts would rather be a target than the hunter. He’s slowly built a program with that mindset.
Sugar Bears is a misnomer with how this team plays on court. These girls apparently have plenty of venom.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or email@example.com)