Sports

Conference move eliminates small ball option

Undersized Owls face an increase in competition.

The American: Operating Expenses for 2011-2012 Reporting Year

Elyse Burkert grew up in Richardson, Texas, less than 10 miles from Southern Methodist University.

It will be a welcomed treat for the junior outside hitter when her Owls travel to SMU as a part of volleyball competition in the American Athletic Conference next season, and again when Temple faces Houston, which is four hours away from her hometown.

“I’m so excited, it couldn’t have worked out better,” Burkert said. “It’s going to be great because I’ve been working really hard and been doing a lot of things up here, but it’s really great that I can share it with my family, my grandparents and my friends who are going to be able to come and watch.”

It couldn’t be better timing for Burkert, who will play her last season next fall.

But The American, responsible for bringing Burkert back to the Lone Star State, poses a whole new set of challenges for a team used to the Atlantic 10 Conference – a conference they dominated just a decade ago.

“It’s very competitive, it’s much more competitive than it was in the A-10,” coach Bakeer Ganes said. “The A-10 basically had two top teams, Dayton and Xavier, and this new conference, [The American], has basically four or five top teams.”

Last season the Owls went up against several teams in the Top 100 in Ratings Percentage Index. No. 19 Dayton has made the NCAA tournament the past two seasons. Xavier and VCU were second and third in the A-10 in RPI, ranking No. 54 and No. 60, respectively.

The average RPI of Temple’s old opponents was 159. Next year’s conference foes have a collective RPI of 145. But that’s counting a No. 17 Louisville squad (RPI of 7) that has gone dancing the past two years, but leaves in 2014. After that, only Cincinnati (RPI 95) is in the Top 100 in RPI until Tulsa (RPI 49) joins in 2014.

And when Louisville and Rutgers (RPI 130) leave and Tulsa, Navy (RPI 271), Tulane (RPI 287) and East Carolina (RPI 316) join the fold by 2015 the conference’s RPI plummets to what would have been 190 this year.

The one advantage is the pull the old Big East had in the NCAA tournament. The A-10 sent Dayton as its lone representative the past two seasons, while Louisville, Marquette and Cincinnati have all made the tournament at least once in the past two years. If The American can keep the same clout, the Owls have better odds of making the dance, something junior outside hitter Gabriella Matautia said is the team’s goal next season.

“I think it’s going to be a huge challenge, but I think we’re up to it,” Burkert said. “For me and Gabby, it’s our last chance, so we’re going to have to leave everything out there.”

But the Owls must do this without a conference tournament. Despite having 10 teams heading into next season, the conference will simply have each team face each other twice and crown a champion based on the regular season.

“I hope we’re in the Top 5, but we could be in the bottom five because all the teams are good,” Burkert said. “You have a couple games that aren’t your best and you’re [right at the bottom].”

“So what we’ll have to do is we’ll have to learn how to adjust quicker within the game at some points than having to prepare more for some of the things we’re used to playing against,” Matautia said.

But a team that played “small ball” with success in the A-10 with a roster that had just three girls taller than 6 feet now faces a conference with more height and more physicality. The Owls are also without A-10 Libero of the Year Chelsea Tupuola, leaving a defense that was their strength with serious question marks.

“We do feel pretty good about our team and the recruits, but I think we’re still going to be the underdog in the conference,” Ganes said. “So basically our role hasn’t changed from last year. It’s just a different conference.”

Jake Adams can be reached at jacob.adams@temple.edu or on Twitter @jakeadams520.

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