Less than two weeks ago, the Alaska Airlines Center was packed with nearly 3,900 fans who cheered on the University of Alaska Anchorage volleyball team to its 25th victory, setting a Division II record for single-game attendance.
But that was the last in-person glimpse of the Seawolves that most fans will get this season.
Despite garnering the top seed in the Western Regional, the Seawolves (27-2) are hitting the road later this week as the Division II national tournament gets underway.
Due to a scheduling conflict with the Great Alaska Shootout women’s basketball tournament, the university was not selected as a host site.
“In early October, we did approach the NCAA and we started a dialogue about hosting the volleyball regional here,” said UAA Director of Athletics Ryan Swartwood. “Then we submitted a bid that asked for an exception to the prescribed second round match times to accommodate what had already been scheduled with the Shootout.”
After that submission, Swartwood said, the university did follow up with the NCAA and presented what they believed was “the best case possible for why the regional should come here to Anchorage.” But the NCAA decided to take the tournament to Bellingham, Washington, with Western Washington acting as the host team.
“From my perspective, we put together a schedule that we felt good about in terms of our ability to host but the NCAA made the decision to take the regional to Bellingham,” Swartwood said.
Of the eight regions in the NCAA Division II volleyball tournament, the top seed is the host every other region.
The sticking point for the NCAA comes with prioritizing game times. According to the criteria for that committee that makes the selections: “Practice and match times must take priority over other scheduled activities during the tournament. When practice times and match times are prescribed by the committee, any deviations require committee approval.”
The Shootout has games scheduled both Friday and Saturday at 5:15 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. The Friday semifinals in the volleyball tournament are scheduled for 4 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. AKST with the championship set for Saturday at 6 p.m. AKST.
“They just have their prescribed start time, regardless of what time zone the host site is located in, they have the prescribed match time that they want every match to start at,” Swartwood said.
UAA did engage the NCAA in dialogue about a schedule where they would be able to host both events but it was to no avail.
“They referenced (the policy), the importance of uniformity in the match times across the regions,” Swartwood said.
According to longtime Seawolves head coach Chris Green, the players were both saddened by the news but are also using it as a source of motivation.
“They’re upset that we are not able to host,” Green said. ”I think that lit a fire under them too.”
The team members aren’t the only ones feeling frosted by the situation. Members of the volleyball community in Alaska have raised objections.
Anchorage’s Morgan Hooe was a setter on the UAA team the last time they hosted the tournament, in both 2015 and 2016.
“I am frustrated,” she said. “I’m sad for them. We hosted it twice when I was a junior and senior. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have this taken away from them. It’s a big deal but it seems like it’s trying to be downplayed. The girls played their butts off to get to this position.”
Since the NCAA has prescribed times Green doesn’t believe that they are to blame but it’s still a major letdown for the program nonetheless.
“It is disappointing, especially for the seniors,” he said. “It’s disappointing because they don’t have another chance to play home. They were thinking that they were going to get to play at home because we’ve been the No. 1 season since the regional rankings came out.”
Hooe said not only will the team not have the advantage of being at home, but could be at a significant disadvantage. Western Washington, the No. 2 seed, has won the last four conference titles and won the regional last year, advancing to the Final Four.
“Our arena is among the best in DII and our girls have to give up the home court advantage and give it to our rivals,” she said.
Hooe said the situation is a missed opportunity coming on the heels of the record-setting attendance mark and the stellar regular season.
“I’m not trying to downplay our basketball team,” she said. “They’re fantastic too. But there was an opportunity to have both of these tournaments coincide and be a celebration of women’s sports.”
Swartwood said he is proud of the successes of both the women’s basketball and volleyball programs.
“The volleyball program claiming that championship and the basketball program, reviving the tradition of the Great Alaska Shootout,” he said. “I feel very fortunate that both programs are so strong and are competing for championships at the frequency they are.”
Green believes that is also very disappointing for fans and supporters of the program in the community because the vast majority of them won’t be able to come to Bellingham, Washington, to watch the Seawolves play in person.
“It is what it is so we’re going to go and try and battle for another championship,” Green said.