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When does a program, become more than "just another program." At the University of Alabama, where football rules supreme, the other sports on campus have a only recently begun to make themselves known. Alabama began football in 1892 and it took until 1988 for a non-football team, gymnastics, to win a national championship. Alabama Gymnastics would have to wait until 2012 for the women's golf team and softball team to join their ranks. Right now, Alabama Volleyball is taking strides to be the fourth women's team and fifth non-football team to bring a national title home to Tuscaloosa.
The Lady Tide will arrive in Palo Alto to compete against the Oklahoma Sooners today at 7:30pm EST. While Alabama is still "just another program" in the field of 64 this year, their mere presence in the post-season represents one of many victories for the Tide this year.
Alabama Volleyball has trudged along most of their existence at the Capstone in obscurity. The Tide sprung to life between 2000 to 2007 and strung together 3 straight NCAA appearances in that time. The success would not last as Bama regressed by the end of the decade to a program competing for last in the SEC. Bama responded by hiring Ed Allen, a up and coming coach from Tusla University. Allen had quickly turned the Golden Hurricanes in to a contender within Conference USA and led them to multiple NCAA Tournaments. Allen had been a success at every coaching stop since his first stint at Anderson University in the early 90s.
Upon arriving in Tuscaloosa, Allen soon realized the task at hand as the 2011 SEC delivered him the first losing season in his career. Since finishing 4-16 in the conference, an easy W on any quality team's schedule, Alabama has rebounded in 2 short years to top of the conference. Alabama finished 4th in the SEC this year with a conference mark of 11-5.
In the national picture, few have noticed the ripples coming from Tuscaloosa. The Big 10 and Pac-12 run the show in College Volleyball; the SEC have 0 National Titles and only on trip to the final by the Florida Gators in 2003. No one is really expecting much from Alabama as they travel to their fourth NCAA appearance in program history. If Alabama advance past OU, they will cement themselves as the most successful squad in program history as the Tide is 0-3 all time in the Tournament. Almost assuredly #7 Stanford will await the winner of tonight and most associated with the Cardinal program have likely never given a second thought to Alabama before the brackets were announced on December 1st.
Alabama have punctuated their 2013 campaign by shutting down various losing streaks. Broken this year were 4 straight away losses to Auburn, 7 straight losses to Arkansas and most importantly, 10 straight to Tennessee. Now 3 straight NCAA Tournament losses loom. The future is bright for Ed Allen's Alabama as they look to join the elite of the SEC in Wayne Kerklow's Missouri Tigers and Mary Wise's Florida Gators. Bama is led by mostly underclassmen with a stellar incoming class signed so far (including the #1 prospect out of Tennessee). Freshman Krystal Rivers earned the Tide's first All-SEC honor since 2008 and overall, Alabama matched their best team record in history with 24 victories.
Alabama may not burst onto the scene this year, but the program looks to be on the right path. Their home court, Foster Auditorium, has seen program high attendance since Allen's arrival and a growing student section. Bama fans who watch tonight's game will grow familiar with names like Krystal Rivers, Laura Steiner, Brittany Thomas, Sierra Wilson, Bria Green, Mattie Weldy and Kryssi Daniels. One of the reasons Alabama's outlook is so good? Every girl mentioned is a freshman or sophomore.
Few can recall Alabama Gymnastics' first journey to the National Championships back in the 80s, not many noticed Alabama Softball's first trip to the Women's College World Series in 2000 and a good deal of Bama Nation watching the Tide's match vs. Oklahoma will have heard about it in the last few days. What is unfolding could very well be history in the making and the beginning on another championship-caliber team in Tuscaloosa.
One day down the road, maybe Alabama will be a program that the Penn States, Texas' and Washingtons of the volleyball world take heed of, no longer the team everyone looks forward to playing. The athletes of that national contending team will have the 2013 squad to thank, the team that took the first steps to shake the moniker of "just another program."