Lewis coach Dan Friend told his players Sunday morning that they had at best a slim chance to get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Slim, though, was just enough to get the Flyers into the six-team tournament.
Lewis less than 24 hours after its loss to No. 1 Loyola in the MIVA championship became the second non-West Coast team in tournament’s 45-year history to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Check out Off the Block’s complete interview with Friend as the coach discusses why his he feels his team deserves the at-large bid, its upcoming match against Penn State and dealing with negative comments about his team reaching the NCAA Tournament.
Off the Block: Coach, everyone is wondering this throughout the nation. What was your reaction when you saw your name on the screen and you were in the NCAA Tournament as an at-large bid?
Dan Friend: I was immediately excited. I think we had a slim shot just because of playing Stanford, BYU and Loyola, and we knew that those teams were in. The fact that we played so many good teams that were considered and beat a couple and played a couple of the others really tough, I thought that we had a shot. We met as a team this morning knowing that we had a slim shot, and I think the whole team’s reaction was just excitement and over-joyed.
OTB: What do you think this says about your job and the ability to schedule those big non-conference matches that ended up helping you get the at-large bid?
DF: If you go back to our track record since we started to rebuild this program in 2003 that was one of the things that I tried to do is consistently year-in and year-out. Even the 2012 year when we were fortunate to make the [NCAA Tournament], we played out in the Outrigger Invitational and beat Hawai’i and went out and played Pepperdine and split with Pepperdine that year. You saw last year in 2013 we went to BYU and split with BYU and went out to the UC Santa Barbara Invitational. This year we were fortunate enough to get a couple of those teams at home. We beat BYU and lost to UC Irvine. But we then again traveled ourselves out to Stanford and Pacific. We played Stanford tough and beat Pacific. One of the things you look at too is we haven’t been swept all year. … The body of work that we’ve continued to do over the years is try to make sure we are scheduling as tough as possible. I think that is the thing that puts us in a position to play at the level of volleyball that we want to play at to compete for a MIVA championship every year. And it put us in a position to compete for a national championship.
OTB: Moving forward and looking at this play-in match against Penn State, what’s your initial thoughts on the upcoming match?
DF: Excited. We played them [in the regular season], and they were a really good team. [Aaron] Russell just keeps getting better and better. I’m excited to play them. When we played them it was our third match in four days, and we hadn’t done that all season. I’m excited for the fact that we are not playing them right back-to-back after another match. I know they are playing great volleyball, and I think we are playing good volleyball. I’m excited for the rematch.
OTB: About four weeks ago you had a stretch were you rallied from a 13-7 deficit in the fifth game to beat IPFW and days later rallied from a two-game deficit on the road to beat Ball State in five games. How much did those insane comebacks help catapult you guys towards the final stretch of the season?
DF: They were huge. You talk about you’re in that spot when you’re down 13-7 in the fifth. And I’m not sure how many times I’ve been around to see a comeback like that whether as a coach or a fan to comeback and win a match like that on your home floor. Then to go to Ball State where it’s a notorious place we really struggle to play in, and to be down 0-2 and ride the back of Geoff Powell who had 32 kills and basically carried us to a five-game win in a tough environment. They were two key mental wins for us. It put us in a great position as a team. Both from a playing standpoint and a mental standpoint.
OTB: Speaking about Geoff Powell, what has the All-American meant for you and your team this season?
DF: There was a period in March where all of sudden he just took off. He was playing good volleyball, but about mid-March he just really accelerated at another level. It’s just been a privilege to see and watch. He is thoroughly enjoying it, and our team is letting him do his thing. It’s fun to see and to be a part of when you see players do that occasionally over the course of your career. And I think as a coach it’s a pretty gratifying feeling just to see that step in the process they take.
OTB: Obviously there is going to be some fans or members of the volleyball community who will openly say to you or your players that Lewis didn’t deserve to get the at-large bid. How do you as a coach help your players block out all those negative comments and just keep them focused on match Tuesday against Penn State?
DF: The conservation we’ll have with our guys is that we can’t control the things that are outside of us. What we do is control what we can. We went out and played as tough a schedule as we can put together, and try to fill our schedule with a couple other games at the same time and play at the highest level possible. That put us in a position to be in consideration, and then ultimately that is out of our hands. Whether we did or we didn’t, we did get that opportunity and we have it now. We are going to take it, and we are going to go. You know as well as I do that social media out there is bigger than ever. Everyone’s got an opinion. You got to block some of that stuff out and be aware of that. These kids are pretty aware of social media stuff now. So they are probably even better than some of us older ones in that sense when stuff gets said. The guys will deal with that well.