Win or come home: Mississippi state volleyball heads to Seattle for its first NCAA tournament appearance

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The Mississippi State volleyball team has gone far enough to get there.

So head coach Julie Darty Dennis and the Bulldogs aren’t afraid to take it a step further.

MSU learned Sunday night that it had made the NCAA tournament for the first time. But Darty Dennis’ side are traveling all the way to Seattle to play in a four-team regional group hosted by No.15 Washington.

It’s a draw that “was not that desirable geographically,” said the fourth-year Bulldogs coach.

Of course, she and her team will take it.

“I think we were a little surprised that we got sent this far,” said Darty Dennis. “But we’re in the tournament, and that’s all that matters, so we’re really excited to start our playoffs. If it takes a few flights to get there, so be it.

Mississippi State (25-5, 16-2 Southeastern Conference) will face Hawai’i (21-7, 18-2 Big West Conference) on Friday at 6 p.m. at American Airlines Arena in Seattle. That’s the next step for a Bulldogs program that finished second in the SEC and ended the year with a 13-game winning streak.

But now, said Darty Dennis, the Bulldogs are 0-0. It’s the playoffs, and everyone has a clean slate.

“We’re not on a winning streak anymore,” she said. “We’re just in a win or come home situation.”

Considering that kind of pressure, maybe it’s best for the Bulldogs that they’re not at home. Darty Dennis said the stakes of hosting a regional would have been high for a young club, and she didn’t think the state of Mississippi was quite up to the task.

“I don’t think we were able to accommodate,” she said. “I think the accommodation would have been a lot of pressure for a first-time NCAA tournament team, so I think going on the road was good for us.”

Mississippi State will face a seasoned Hawaiian team, Darty Dennis said it was filled with “elite level” players – but not the freak athletes the Bulldogs would see at a school like Florida or LSU.

Either way, the Rainbow Wahine know how to get the job done. Hawai’i have won 18 of their 20 Big West games, including 10 in a row before losing to UC Santa Barbara to close out the season.

“These aren’t terrific athletic players jumping out of the gym; they’re just really good volleyball players, ”said Darty Dennis. “They have a great coaching team. They win a lot of games. They keep it simple. There is nothing crazy or flashy about them; they just know how to play the game and know how to win.

The Bulldogs can finally say the same after several years of molten struggles in the middle of an impressive race. They have won more games this season (25) than in the last three combined under Darty Dennis (23); in its first season, Mississippi State went 1-17 in the conference game.

Only two players – Gabby Waden and Deja Robinson – remain on this squad, and they help their coach remind young Bulldogs players of the team’s not-so-old history.

“We joke with our freshmen who think winning is just super easy and you’ll get 16 wins in any SEC season,” said Darty Dennis. “It’s really not that easy.

The former Jacksonville head coach didn’t think that would be the case when she accepted the Starkville job against the advice of several SEC coaches. They warned her of the Bulldogs’ historic lack of success and said she could take a beating from her career at Starkville.

Darty Dennis knew the risks. She couldn’t let them pass.

“I knew it was a risk, and I knew it was going to be really tough,” she said. “I had to be patient with the trip. … It’s one of those things where if I hadn’t taken the risk, I think I would have regretted it for the rest of my life.

Over the years, his goals have changed. Darty Dennis wanted his team to be relevant in the state. Then at the regional level. Then at the national level.

Consider it a success. Mississippi state’s 13-game hot stretch is the sixth-longest active streak in the country and the SEC’s longest.

Not bad for a Bulldogs team that lacks a real star player. Darty Dennis acknowledged that opponents generally go after right-wing forward Gabby Waden, but Mississippi State has other strong players, including libero Lilly Gunter, passer Margaret Dean and a “mighty power” in the outside striker. 5 foot 9 inch Shania Cromartie.

Darty Dennis hasn’t seen this year’s group be so successful so brutally. The Bulldogs have set modest goals ahead of the season: 10 conference wins and an eighth-to-10th place finish in the SEC.

But Mississippi State’s performance in its first SEC series in Florida raised expectations even higher. The Bulldogs forced a fifth set in a loss on September 23, their 53rd straight loss to the Gators; the next day, however, MSU beat Florida in five sets.

MSU hasn’t lost since an Oct. 6 loss to future conference champions Kentucky, and the Bulldogs made their way into the AVCA’s Top 25 for the first time. Darty Dennis was named SEC Coach of the Year on Sunday.

That night, the Bulldogs crammed into the Bob Tyler recruiting lounge at Davis Wade Stadium to watch the NCAA Tournament Selection Show. Darty Dennis wanted an intimate team reunion only for what she knew was an emotional moment.

“As much as we wanted to open it up to our fans, family and friends, I think it had to be kind of a team thing since we’ve been through so much together,” she said.

With ESPN cameras in the room, the Bulldogs had a friendly chat with other teams ahead of the selection show. Then they waited. And waited.

Finally, in the lower half of the last quadrant, the name of the state of Mississippi was called. There were only four more teams left, but the Bulldogs would not have heard from them.

The cheers that filled the room were far too loud.

Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi state sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.


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