TCU volleyball is making the second of back-to-back appearances in the NCAAs, but coach Jill Kramer is not treating it like the last time.
The last time was something rare — TCU hadn’t been in the national tournament in six seasons.
This time, the Horned Frogs’ entry warranted a different approach.
“Last year, our first Monday of practice, we gave them a bracket and we said, ‘Here’s the bracket. It’s cool we’re part of this thing,’ ” Kramer said. “This year, you know what? We gave them a bracket that just had us and Wichita State, and that’s it. And that’s all that matters now.”
Indeed, that’s always the case in tournament play, but it’s likely an especially smart play this year. Potentially awaiting the winner of Friday’s first-round match in Lincoln, Neb., between the Horned Frogs and Wichita State is tournament No. 1 seed and defending national champion Nebraska.
TCU is making its third-ever NCAA tournament apperance in volleyball. The Horned Frogs were 1-1 in 2009, defeating Rice and losing to Texas. They were 0-1 last season, falling to Hawaii.
So while it takes six victories to win the 64-team tournament, for now, the Frogs think of it only as a one-game event.
“I think they understand that,” Kramer said. “It wasn’t surprising to them. They get it.”
TCU (14-12) qualified after finishing sixth in the Big 12, despite a seven-game losing streak in the middle of the conference schedule. The Frogs rallied with wins in four of their last five matches, including the final three in five sets.
The capper came last week against West Virginia when senior Ashley Smith reached 1,000 digs, becoming the fifth player in TCU history with 1,000 digs and 1,000 kills.
The finish boosted confidence and has the Frogs playing closer to the level when they started the season 9-3, including a five-set home victory against NCAA No. 7 seed North Carolina.
“It was difficult. It was a trying time for our team,” Kramer said of the midseason slump, which began Oct. 5 with a three-set loss at Baylor and continued through a four-set home loss to Texas on Nov. 2. In that stretch, the Frogs lost to fellow Big 12 NCAA qualifiers Baylor, Kansas State, Kansas, Texas (twice) and Iowa State, plus Oklahoma.
I’m actually thankful for that time because I think we were tested and our relationships grew stronger because of it. Our team grew stronger because of it.
TCU coach Jill Kramer, on a seven-match losing streak
“It tested our culture a lot,” Kramer said. “Our value system is very, very important for us. I think when you’re going through your toughest times, that’s when it’s tested the most. We grew a lot during that time and have come out a stronger team because of it. ... I’m actually thankful for that time because I think we were tested and our relationships grew stronger because of it. Our team grew stronger because of it.”
The late-season rally means the Frogs reached a goal of getting back to the tournament after making only the program’s second appearance ever last season. And Kramer, with the benefit of seven seniors, is now 2-for-2 in tournament appearances since returning to coach at her alma mater for the 2015 season.
“We walked into a situation where the previous staff had really left a good structure, a good group of players,” she said. “I think we really took them under our wing. Our staff did a good job of teaching them the system and the culture. They really bought in and put everything into themselves these last couple of years. That’s how hard work pays off. It’s really good to see them benefit from that.”
But as much as the Frogs expected to return to the NCAAs, maybe they expected it too much.
“You look back on the season, you go, ‘Man, if we take care of a couple that we should have, we could have been seeded potentially,’ ” Kramer said. “And I think we dealt more with trying to get over that as a team rather than anything else. I don’t think we ever felt a ton of pressure. I do think the players had a lot of expectations going into this season, and they definitely wanted to beat those expectations.”
The Frogs get their first chance Friday. In their first one-game tournament.
TCU vs. Wichita State
4:30 p.m. Friday, Lincoln, Neb.