The Mississippi State volleyball team has come far enough to get to this point.
So head coach Julie Darty Dennis and the Bulldogs don’t mind going a little farther.
MSU learned Sunday night it had made the NCAA tournament for the first time. But Darty Dennis’ team is headed all the way to Seattle to play in a four-team regional pod hosted by No. 15 Washington.
It’s a draw that “geographically was not that desirable,” the fourth-year Bulldogs coach said.
Of course, she and her team will take it.
“I think we were a little bit surprised that we’re being sent that far,” Darty Dennis said. “But we’re in the tournament, and that’s all that matters, so we’re just really excited about the opportunity to start our postseason. If it takes a couple flights to get there, then so be it.”
Mississippi State (25-5, 16-2 Southeastern Conference) will take on Hawai’i (21-7, 18-2 Big West Conference) at 6 p.m. Friday at American Airlines Arena in Seattle. It’s the next step for a Bulldogs program that finished second in the SEC and closed the year on a 13-game win streak.
But now, Darty Dennis said, the Bulldogs are 0-0. It’s the postseason, and everyone has a clean slate.
“We’re not on a win streak anymore,” she said. “We’re just in a situation where it’s win or go home.”
Given that kind of pressure, perhaps it’s best for the Bulldogs they’re not at home. Darty Dennis said the stakes of hosting a regional would have been a lot for a young club, and she thought Mississippi State didn’t quite measure up.
“I don’t think we were in a position to host,” she said. “I think hosting would have been a lot of pressure for a first-time NCAA tournament team, so I think that going on the road was good for us.”
Mississippi State will face an experienced Hawai’i team Darty Dennis said is filled with “elite-level” players — but not the freak athletes the Bulldogs would see at a school like Florida or LSU.
Whatever the case, the Rainbow Wahine know how to get the job done. Hawai’i won 18 of its 20 Big West matches, including 10 straight before a loss to UC Santa Barbara to close the season.
“They’re not tremendous, athletic players who jump out of the gym; they’re just really good volleyball players,” Darty Dennis said. “They have a great coaching staff. They win a lot of games. They keep it simple. There’s nothing crazy or flashy about them; they just know how to play the game and know how to win.”
The Bulldogs finally can say the same after several years of struggles melted away amid an impressive run. They’ve won more games this season (25) than in the past three combined under Darty Dennis (23); in her first season, Mississippi State went 1-17 in conference play.
Only two players — Gabby Waden and Deja Robinson — remain from that team, and they help their coach remind the Bulldogs’ younger players of the team’s not-so-ancient history.
“We joke with our freshmen who think that winning is just super easy and you’re going to get 16 wins in any SEC season,” Darty Dennis said. “It’s really not that easy.”
The former head coach at Jacksonville didn’t think it would be when she took the job in Starkville against the advice of several sitting SEC coaches. They warned her about the Bulldogs’ lack of success historically and said she might sink her career in Starkville.
Darty Dennis knew the risks. She couldn’t pass them up.
“I knew this was a risk, and I knew this was going to be really hard,” she said. “I’d have to be patient with the journey. … It’s one of those things where if I didn’t take the risk, I think I would have regretted it for the rest of my life.”
As the years progressed, her goals changed. Darty Dennis wanted her team to be relevant in the state. Then regionally. Then nationally.
Consider that a success. Mississippi State’s 13-game hot stretch is the sixth-longest active streak in the nation and the longest in the SEC.
Not bad for a Bulldogs team lacking a true star player. Darty Dennis acknowledged opponents typically key in on right-side hitter Gabby Waden, but Mississippi State has other strong players, including libero Lilly Gunter, setter Margaret Dean and a “pint-sized powerhouse” in 5-foot-9 outside hitter Shania Cromartie.
Darty Dennis didn’t see this year’s group having so much success so abruptly. The Bulldogs set modest goals before the season: 10 conference wins and an eighth-to-10th-place finish in the SEC.
But Mississippi State’s performance in its opening SEC series at Florida set expectations even higher. The Bulldogs forced a fifth set in a loss Sept. 23, their 53rd consecutive defeat to the Gators; the next day, though, MSU beat Florida in five sets.
MSU hasn’t lost since an Oct. 6 defeat at eventual conference champion Kentucky, and the Bulldogs broke into the AVCA top 25 rankings for the first time. On Sunday, Darty Dennis was named SEC coach of the year.
That night, the Bulldogs piled inside the Bob Tyler Recruiting Lounge at Davis Wade Stadium to watch the NCAA tournament selection show. Darty Dennis wanted an intimate, team-only gathering for what she knew would be an emotional moment.
“As much as we wanted to open it up to our fans and our family and our friends, I think it needed to be kind of a team thing since we’ve been through so much together,” she said.
With ESPN cameras in the room, the Bulldogs chatted amicably with other teams before the selection show. Then they waited. And waited.
Finally, in the bottom half of the final quadrant, Mississippi State’s name was called. Only four more teams remained, but the Bulldogs wouldn’t have heard them.
The cheers filling the room were much too loud.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.