Story by Thomas Corhern, Cookeville Herald-Citizen
DAYTON, Ohio - As Tennessee Tech prepares for this afternoon's NCAA Tournament opener against Tulane at the University of Dayton, it's hard to overlook just what kind of turnaround the Golden Eagles have truly made.
Just four seasons ago, Tech was near the bottom of the Ohio Valley Conference standings. Then, it was barely missing the OVC tournament.
Now, the Golden Eagles are sitting at the top of the OVC, claiming both the regular-season championship ? their first since 1986 ? and OVC tournament championship ? the first since 1997.
"It's been a slow, steady progression," said Tech coach John Blair. "It starts with getting quality student-athletes into the program and more of them. That's what we've had. We've had good balance, some depth at positions that we didn't have the first couple of seasons, so it's been a little more competitive.
"Certainly, we've had some ups and downs in that we've lost a few players along the way ? for what I think were the right reasons ? and we were fortunate that we had depth and flexibility and really didn't lose any ground per se because of that. I think this is a culmination of early years of evaluation of talent and persistent recruiting."
A lot of the successs has come from this season's senior class. They saw a 7-22 record during their freshman campaign, but the class has continually stepped up their games, determined to bring the Golden Eagles back to the peak of the OVC.
"I think a lot of that comes from when you get to play all the time," Blair said. "That's a good learning experience. Caitlin (Bullock) and Jessica (Asplund) have probably been the two workhorses of the conference. I don't think there's any team that's had the same middles for the last four years, virtually for every single match. We've been kind of fortunate that they've held up their end of the bargain ? taken care of themselves and done the kind of things that needed to be done to play.
"Kappy (Lang) came in after winning a national championship on the high school level. So we knew she had a lot to offer when she got here. Once she figured out the speed of the college game and how to interact, she took a big leadership role and I was able to give her a lot of flexibility and freedom to make choices on the court."
There's no question that the turnaround to prepare for this tournament was hectic.
True, the OVC Tournament was two weeks ago, but Tech was at Louisville last Saturday, had the selection show on Sunday, practiced Monday though Wednesday, then bussed over to Dayton on Thursday. Now, they play tonight ? the culmination of a solid week of preparation.
"It's just been a whirlwind," Blair said. "It seems like a year ago since we played the OVC Tournament. It's barely been two weeks. It just goes so fast. I think the difficult thing has been making that mind switch from the OVC to a Big East challenge match to international players who are heading to Europe to play professionally. I hope that's going to take us right where we want to be."
Some of the past teams who have been able to make it to the tournament in the last five or six years have all been spring sports where classes at Tech have already been out of session.
That wasn't the case with the volleyball team, with finals about to begin next week ? or already started for some Tech students.
Bullock, a senior middle blocker, had to ride up with the Tech media personnel instead of with the team early Thursday because of an exam that could not be rescheduled.
So that's just been one additional obstacle the team has had to overcome because of the timing of the tournament.
"It's really condensed things," Blair said. "These guys have had to work very hard to ready to go. That only happens if they are able to take care of business on the front end. We stress 'keep up with things, don't get behind. If anything, get ahead.' The schedule played to our favor in October. The only real road trip was Austin Peay and Tennessee State so we never even left the borders. That helped us a lot because we were able to stay ahead academically. That allowed us to relax and stay focused on playing when we needed to play."
HOME COURT ADVANTAGE?
The Golden Eagles may be playing in Dayton, Ohio, but that's not going to keep Tech from having a little bit of a home field advantage going into tonight's match.
Tech has five players from nearby Indiana, one from Kentucky and one from Illinois ? much closer distances for the Golden Eagle parents than traveling to Cookeville for a home match.
It's also a little more convenient than it is for the Tulane Green Wave, who has two Serbians, two Croatians and a Puerto Rican in addition to a trio from Louisiana and a player from North Carolina being the closest to the NCAA site.
"This will be the second closest match we've played to where the majority of our team is from," Blair said. "We're going to have some family there."
ODDS AGAINST TECH?
Since the OVC started receiving an automatic bid to the tournament in 1994, the conference has only yielded one victory in the NCAA tournament ? Southeast Missouri in 2000 who upset North Carolina 3-2 in Gainesville, Fla.
The Golden Eagles' lone appearance in the tournament field prior to tonight was a 3-0 sweep against Colorado in Boulder.