Continuing with my analysis of the 2018 schedules for some of the top West Region teams.
Another schedule I’ve been waiting to get uncovered was for the Whittier Poets and today we have it. Whittier was one of the more interesting teams in 2017 as they surprised the world to earn their first ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament and may have been the only team to get an at-large bid that didn’t play in their conference tournament. This season they will be returning the bulk of their team and their strength will come from their outsides – Makenzie Thieme and Ashley Whittall. Whittier has the benefit of playing in one of the deepest conferences in the nation but let’s see how they added to it.
Well, week one doesn’t disappoint as the Poets will fly to Emory for the Emory Invitational. They have drawn Maryville, host Emory, Illinois Wesleyan (IWU) and Saint Benedict. Maryville is out of the South region and is the only team out of the four not to have qualified for the NCAA Tournament last year. They are a solid team and look to be returning most of their players. Should be a match the Poets take but one to be wary of as well. I have talked about Emory in other posts and they are probably my current choice to win the championship this year. So, feel free to prove me wrong Whittier and make a statement for your program and the West Region that first day. IWU is coming off a great year and should be strong again this year. A perfect test for the Poets. They end the weekend with a match against Saint Benedict who won the MIAC last season. Saint Benedict lose their setter but should be reasonably strong again this season. All in all, a very tough first weekend for the Poets.
Week two finds the Poets near home in the Cal Lutheran Tournament. They have drawn Clarkson, UMHB, Puget Sound and Whitman. Clarkson is typically one of the best teams out of the New York Region and that should repeat this year. UMHB just missed out on the NCAA Tournament last year and returns everyone but their setter. Both of these should be good tests for the Poets as they continue the trend from week one. Both Puget Sound and Whitman will probably be a step down in competition but are important matches as they reduce competition from the Northwest Conference for a West Region at-large bid. Interestingly, both teams will be replacing their setters this year with Puget Sound also sustaining serious losses across the board.
Week three sees the start of SCIAC play but in early October the Poets will play in the La Verne Invitational. They have drawn UC Santa Cruz, DeSales, UMass-Boston and Nazareth. This is maybe not the strongest group but teams the Poets can’t afford to slip against. UC Santa Cruz is an independent team that is coming off a poor year but should be better in 2018. DeSales is probably the headliner here as they just missed out on an NCAA Tournament berth losing the MAC Freedom final to Eastern (after going undefeated in conference). They return the bulk of their team so they will be tough but even with a good season in 2017 they were never regionally ranked out of the Mid-Atlantic. UMass-Boston is the team fans should recognize out of this group as they did make the NCAA Tournament due to their Little East Conference championship but they were not good last year. Most of their team is returning so they should be better. Nazareth is the poster child of what makes me crazy about the New York Region. They went 21-13 but didn’t beat anyone of note. I like they are traveling to the West Region to play stronger competition but it just means we need to send them home wishing they hadn’t.
As I’ve written before, the SCIAC will be crazy deep again this year with Whittier being one of the teams that has a real shot at taking the championship. Not making the SCIAC Tournament but still getting an at-large bid was very unusual last year and should not be counted on going forward.
Overall, this is an unusual schedule. The Poets have 8 out-of-region matches which is great but it can be a real hit-or-miss game playing teams that may or may not be regionally ranked come November. Getting UMHB is good and this really is an important match for both teams. A Poet victory sort of plants a flag at the top of the ASC but taking a loss opens the door for other ASC teams to claim a common opponent advantage (if they beat UMHB). The matches against the NWC are pretty much must wins as you don’t want to open the door to that conference and teams like Whitworth, Pac Lutheran and Pacific should handle these teams during conference. The Poets miss the SCAC this season so that is a negative but as we’ve seen no schedule is perfect. If Whittier can go 7-1 to start the season (a very tall order) they may secure an at-large bid if they can also make the SCIAC Tournament. Drop the UMHB match and/or a NWC match and things can be real tough in the West Region rankings just because they don’t play a lot of in-region matches (outside the SCIAC).