After COVID-19 cost one of the best teams in program history the opportunity to contend for a national title, the University of Alaska Anchorage women’s basketball team is about embark on a postseason that senior Tennae Voliva hopes the Seawolves will remember forever.
“I think we have a lot of momentum going into conference play so I’m excited,” Voliva said.
The Seawolves have been one of the most winningest programs in the nation over the last decade under head coach Ryan McCarthy. One of the best teams in his tenure was the 2019-2020 squad during Voliva’s junior year that went 29-2 in the regular season, dominated their conference and appeared poised for a deep postseason run.
Unfortunately for the Seawolves, COVID-19 swept the globe and shut down virtually all sports everywhere. March Madness turned into March Sadness after the NCAA canceled the postseason for that year.
“That was a hard pill to swallow because we thought we had the best team in the nation,” McCarthy said. “I hadn’t felt like that about a team since we made the national championship in 2016.″
The team McCarthy referenced was the one that made it all the way to the 2015-16 Division II national title game and came up just short with a 78-73 loss to top-ranked Lubbock (Texas) Christian.
Voliva was a junior at East High that year and believes that the team she was on two years ago was destined for greatness. She was disappointed that they weren’t able to finish what they started.
“We were really close that ’19-’20 season and it was hard to see our two seniors go without getting a chance to finish it out,” Voliva said. “We thought we were playing our best basketball at the time COVID happened and everything got canceled.”
Navigating being a student-athlete during the seemingly never-ending pandemic has presented a unique level of adversity that Voliva and her teammates have been able to endure and overcome nicely in the eyes of their coach.
“I think it took a lot of weathering through adversity for this group,” McCarthy said. “It was really good for the future of our program because it kind of got us back on track and catch up with the rest of the country.
As the pandemic raged on, the Seawolves weren’t able to complete a full season in 2020-21. They were limited to just three games while other programs in the Midwest and West Coast were able to play a full slate that year.
After going nearly a year and a half with just 12 periods of basketball played before the start of the 2021-22 season, the team was a little rusty according to McCarthy but were highly motivated and grateful for the opportunity to be able to prove themselves.
“We get the chance to compete in our postseason, which is what we wanted all along,” Voliva said. “Just remembering all the adversity and hardships we went through keeps us motivated.”
The hardships due to the pandemic didn’t stop for the team and even persisted through their current season. An outbreak of COVID-19 around Christmas time caused them to put their season on pause and limited the Seawolves to playing in just one game over a four-week period.
“We had to reset after that because we got shut down,” McCarthy said. “All the things we worked on in terms of conditioning and the improvements that the team made up until that point hit the reset button on the season a little bit.”
The one game they played during that stretch came against Northwest Nazarene and with just nine healthy players, the Seawolves were able to grind out a 76-72 victory.
The emotional toll that the isolation took was as harsh as the physical one for the players considering how close they are. It forced them to be creative with developing workouts to do in their respective rooms and made staying in contact essential in order to stay locked in.
“You feel lonely not being able to be with your teammates,” Voliva said. “As an athlete being someone who takes care of your body so much, having to stay indoors especially in Alaska where you can’t just go outside and get a workout in.”
The UAA women’s team had won six straight regular season titles prior to the pandemic and had its streak snapped this year despite having the highest winning percentage in the league, as a result of the “point based system” provision for this season only due to unbalanced schedules for some teams compared to others.
“You’d think the team with the best winning percentage would win the league, but it is what it is and I’m proud of our ladies for pulling out nine of the last 10 and finishing strong,” McCarthy said.
Nevertheless, he is grateful that his team will be able to play postseason basketball.
“Just to be able to compete in the postseason is the most fun time of the year,” McCarthy said. “It definitely brings out the best in the players once those games get going. March is just kind of a magical time in college basketball and we’re just glad to be a part of it.”
Voliva is excited as well and looking forward to making her last ride last as long as possible.
“I can’t believe how quick time has gone by even with it being my fifth year,” Voliva said. “It seems like yesterday, but I am just trying to make the most of it and finish out strong.”
Voliva has been far and away the team’s best player this season and set career-averages across the board despite playing in a career low 24 regular season games. A dominant final month of the season helped earn her first-team all-conference honors for the first time in her career.
“The hardest workers get the biggest reward and that’s what is happening for Tennae in her senior year,” McCarthy said. “All of her hard work is starting to pay off.”
Her dedication to refining her craft is matched by her emphasis on maintaining academic excellence. Voliva is a four-time Academic All GNAC honoree and a candidate for CoSIDA Academic All-America honors, and she recently earned her second straight Academic All-District award with a 3.89 GPA in undergrad in psychology and a 4.00 graduate GPA in clinical psychology.
“She is one of our best students, she is playing her best basketball, she’s a fifth-year player and represents our program and institution at the highest standard,” McCarthy said. “We’re so proud of how far she has come.”
Volvia wants to prove that she is not the typical athlete and tries her best to dedicate an equal amount of time to both realms.
“Education is important to me and for me to be able to pursue a master’s degree and still play basketball is an honor,” Voliva said.
Voliva says she receives tremendous support from the community and wants to be an inspiration to the next generation aspiring young female athletes.
“You don’t get too many places where people care about women’s basketball that much so being to be the face of it right now during my time here is super cool,” Voliva said.
While the Seawolves brought back the bulk of the 2019-20 team, Voliva is one of the few remaining players who was a full-time starter that year.
“Even though we do have a lot of returners, we don’t have a lot of people that have played in the national tournament,” Voliva said. “I know for them that is a big motivation because that is why I came to UAA, to have that opportunity to compete for a championship at a high level.”
Her coaches have constantly reminded her how great she could be throughout her career and in the second half of her senior year, they believe she started to believe it herself and trust the work that she has put in.
After growing up in Anchorage all of her life, Voliva is grateful for the opportunity to have been able to contribute to the legacy of the program during her time at UAA. She believes that the biggest contributor to her breakout season has been her confidence, which has surged down the stretch, and she vows to empty the tank in the postseason no matter how it unfolds.
“When you see your time running out, you don’t want to have any regrets looking back,” Voliva said. “Even if things don’t end the way I pictured, I can say that I put in the work.”
Discovering, recruiting and developing players like Voliva has been instrumental to the program’s incredible success since McCarthy was hired ahead of the 2012 season.
In his 10 years at the helm, the Seawolves have the second-highest winning percentage and the fourth-most victories in NCAA DII since 2014-15, at 207-22 (.904). From humble beginnings to the league’s elite, McCarthy and his staff have built a winning program from the ground up.
“We had to get some intramural players to field a roster to go five on five in practice,” McCarthy said. “We built it from the ashes to where it is now. All the ladies that have helped us from year one to now have made that happen.”
11th annual Great Northwest Athletic Conference Championships
at Royal Brougham Pavilion — Seattle, Wash. and Marcus Pavilion — Lacey, Wash.
Wednesday, March 2 (First Round)
No. 9 Saint Martin’s 71 No. 8 Western Oregon 62
No . 7 Seattle Pacific 78, No. 10 Alaska Fairbanks 48
Thursday, March 3 (Quarterfinals)
No. 5 Montana State Billings (16-11) vs No. 4 Northwest Nazarene (18-8) – 11 a.m. in Lacey
No. 6 Simon Fraser (12-13) vs No. 3 Central Washington (20-7) – 11 a.m. in Seattle
No. 9 Saint Martin’s vs No. 1 Western Washington (18-4) – 1:15 p.m. in Lacey
No. 7 Seattle Pacific vs No. 2 Alaska Anchorage (19-5) – 1:15 p.m. in Seattle
Friday, March 4 (Semifinals – in Lacey)
11 a.m. & 1:15 p.m. – Matchups TBD
Saturday, March 5 (Title Game – in Lacey)
4 pm: Semifinal winners