Scheduling in the West Region

I make no apology that part of the reason for this website is that I believe the NCAA is not really accountable for their decisions and I wanted to bring certain issues to light when they occur. In fact, when I started, this may have been as much as 50% of my motivation. During my 2-years at this, however, I keep finding things in our little DIII world that interest me and my self-appointed NCAA watchdog role has become less of a motivation. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got my trusty Acme anvil ready to drop on the NCAA roadrunner as he passes by the trampoline park down below but more and more I am enjoying the other stories within the DIII landscape. One of those stories revolves around scheduling and how coaches pull together their list of opponents each year. There are numerous articles on this website where I’m critical of schedules but what really goes into them and what problems do coaches face putting them together? For this article I reached out to numerous coaches within the West Region but primarily bothered the most Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (CMS) Head Coach Kurt Vlasich, Hardin-Simmons University (HSU) Head Coach Sabrina Bingham and University of Dallas Head Coach Kelli Trautmann as I wanted a mix of experience and past results. Coach Vlasich will be going into his 18th season at CMS (9th as a head coach) and has had a 10-16 season during this time as well as winning a national championship. Coach Bingham will be going into her 13th season at HSU and has had a 10-17 season as well as a number of ASC championships and NCAA appearances. Coach Trautmann is a relative newcomer to the head coaching ranks as she will be going into her 3rd season at Dallas and has had a 10-20 season followed by a 20-15 season.

Starting with the basics of constructing a schedule and I quickly realized I had no clue how this is really done. The obvious starting point is that the conference ties up a number of dates with their matches leaving the schools with open weekends for out-of-conference play but how do these dates get filled? Well, the easy answer is that there is actually a massive D3 email distribution list that gets used to notify others of their tournaments. This means LOTS of emails hitting coaches’ inboxes at the beginning of the scheduling season. So, the basic answer on how these open weekends get filled is that coaches look to see what fits within their openings and apply for a spot at these tournaments. In some cases, coaches may not know the teams they will be playing because they are committing earlier than others. As you’ll see, this is fine for some teams but totally unacceptable for others. At a high level this is probably as far as we need to go but there are a lot of factors that go into scheduling and I’ll try to touch on each of these as we go along.

The thing to remember with scheduling is that not all teams are created equally at the start of a season. With that said, each team is going to have certain goals that their schedule can help them obtain. The goals of CMS (a perennial contender) are going to be different than a program that is on the bottom rung of the DIII landscape. It makes no sense for a team at the bottom to schedule the way CMS does, even if they could…which they can’t. I asked a number of coaches who have been at the top if they would even schedule a bottom rung team and the answer was no. It just doesn’t help them with Strength of Schedule (SOS). On the flip side, I asked a couple of coaches who have experienced the other end of the spectrum and they said they wouldn’t even consider asking to play a top team. It’s just not a realistic request. So, being a top team has to be the easiest from a scheduling standpoint, right? Well, as CMS has improved Coach Vlasich has found that it can be difficult to schedule (especially prior to conference play) as he’s had coaches respond that they “don’t want to get our butts kicked early”. He related a story from 2016 when he entered a tournament only to be told 3-weeks later that the host school needed them to find somewhere else to play. The host school wanted to play CMS but the other schools all balked when they learned they were going to have to play the Athenas. The East/West Challenge Tournament, which has pitted some of the best programs in the nation the past two years, was partly born from this experience. More from Coach Vlasich, “Being in the middle and on the rise becomes the easiest [to schedule].” He went on to say that top teams are more willing to take you on because the match will be competitive and it won’t hurt their SOS. He said that top teams will also monitor their results for the entire season as they are looking for common opponent victories as this is another criterion used in the NCAA selection process.

This being DIII, we know that just having an open weekend and a tournament with a slot doesn’t equal a scheduling marriage. Coaches have to worry about finances. As Coach Vlasich stated, “I always tell people I am interested, but that I can’t commit until I talk with my Athletic Director (AD), which is true.  I need to show my AD that there’s value in traveling. The only way to do that is to show strength of schedule and why that particular tournament can help us.” Even at a program like CMS, most sports only travel every other year and that is not the exception in DIII, it is the norm. HSU Coach Bingham concurs, “Financially for my program I find it feasible to take an out-of-state trip every other year. This is just the way it is. We fund-raise a great deal each year just to go on a trip every two years. I would love to set an amazing travel schedule to go to tournaments that would make my SOS number climb to the highest heights, but it’s just not very possible.” Finances are probably the biggest hurdle to scheduling outside of a team’s performance but there are other roadblocks to consider. Before we get into those, let’s dive a little deeper into something that kept coming up in my correspondences with my panel of coaches, strength of schedule.

Coach Bingham put it simply, “SOS means a lot to the national committee and it is always a good idea to try and strengthen that number each year.” After coming off a 20-win season at the University of Dallas, Coach Trautmann made it a point to improve their SOS, “I find it a little tricky each year but this year I wanted to strengthen the schedule a little and play more teams in our region…Our strength of schedule will be a good tester for the team this fall.” Playing more teams in the region is another important step for rising programs to consider as Coach Trautmann has learned. We saw last year that Colorado College was one of the best teams in the nation losing to the eventual national champion in their Regional Final but they didn’t have the West Region skins on the wall to “prove” it during the season. When it came time for the Regional Advisory Committee (RAC) to rank the West Region teams, they punished the Tigers for this. A strong SOS within the region is the Willy Wonka’s golden ticket to a high RAC ranking. It’s not really stated often but the conference is a strong player when it comes to SOS. Coach Bingham, “I feel that it is my responsibility to help my conference become stronger even if my particular team for that season is not very strong. Therefore, no matter what, I want to try and play really good teams so that I do not hurt the SOS of other teams in my conference.” One thing that surprised me about conference play where as a fan you love your team but “hate” everyone else is how much the coaches pull together as one. Coach Vlasich elaborated, “In our conference, all of us are pretty good friends.  No animosity at all.  We have an “unwritten rule” that will allow us to change match days and times to allow another team to travel, or allow a team to travel in.  We often call each other and change things around so this can happen.  Helps when everyone is within 90 minutes of each other, but it is a real advantage for the SCIAC.” Coach Bingham continued, “If your conference teams are doing poorly then there is not much that you can do to help with the scheduling and building of your SOS.” She also echoed the conference lovefest sentiments (this time with the ASC), “I actually really like and get along with the other coaches in my conference and I truly want them to succeed on a national level whenever possible. This is actually my thought for both of the Texas conferences. I want Texas to be highly recognized at the national level because it will help all of us out in the long term.” Another coach I reached out to last year about scheduling (Whittier’s Chris Durarte-McDermott) had this thought about SOS and the importance of conferences, “I try to find tournaments or matches that will help with our strength of schedule (as our budget allows)  as well as help our conference gain more prestige.” So when it comes to scheduling it really is impossible to have a conversion without talking about SOS. It also shows how important every member of a conference is to the overall scheduling picture. If your conference is deep, like the SCIAC has been these past few years, then your teams have a built-in advantage. If your conference is top-heavy with weaker teams at the bottom then it really forces schools to seek out top schools when scheduling out-of-conference.

Another hindrance to scheduling is distance or logistics. This is not the northeast and we simply don’t have an entire region within a few hours drive. Moving a volleyball team from Point A to Point B costs money so we’re back to the finances again. It also impacts the “student” aspect of our athletes as many schools limit the number of classes they can miss. One solution is put forth by Coach Trautmann, “I try to find some weekday games close by so that is why sometimes we are playing NCCAA and NAIA schools and it helps with travel.” Perfect, but the NCAA doesn’t want you filling up on these type of teams so they have a rule that states schools must play at least 70% of their matches in-region against DIII schools. Ugh. I don’t want to go on an east coast bias rant but let’s think a second on who this rule benefits. Here in the West Region, our schools stretch from the University of Puget Sound to Belhaven University. That’s right around 2,500 miles distance if anyone wants to take a road trip this year. The NCAA has a tournament rule where you have to fly if you are outside of 500 miles from the tournament site. The New England and New York Regions can be contained in those 500 miles. In the West Region we have a conference that can’t play another DIII team outside of conference without someone flying. I talked to both Belhaven University Head Coach Justin Dee and Louisiana College Head Coach Brittany Salloum whose schools reside on our eastern portion of the region and both indicated that their location is a huge hindrance when it comes to scheduling.

So, where does that leave us? As a coach you have a couple of open weekends and a slew of emails in your inbox. You have to filter through the tournaments that work and then determine if any are in driving distance against teams you won’t already play during the year. You then need to balance your SOS concerns against teams you may or may not know you are playing. Maybe you have a bit of a travel budget and can fly to a tournament. You won’t have to worry about playing the same teams but you’d better check on that 70% rule. Again, you need to worry about the quality of the opponents and your SOS. All checks out so now it’s off to the AD to get permission. Easy, right? Maybe I shouldn’t be too critical of some of these teams’ schedules in the future? Nah, that’s no fun.

There has to be a better way and one aspect we haven’t talked about with respect to scheduling are the relationships built up between the coaches across the nation. Coach Vlasich thought this was critical, “Knowing how to build relationships with experienced coaches and programs is everything. It can help your program for years down the road.” This isn’t as critical for the lower rung programs initially but as your team continues to improve, it becomes more and more important. Coach Bingham talked about her early years, “I did not come from Texas or grow up around any of the coaches here and I think that made things a bit difficult right off the front end of being a new coach. Getting to know the coaches in the ASC as well as club coaches and contacts around the region was tough at first. But once you make that initial contact and begin to get to know each other then it smoothed out a bit on my end.”

Diving more into relationships, what it also allows is for the personal touch. Prior to those mass emails going out, coaches will reach out to other coaches they know and who have a program that would be a fit in their tournament. You also gain valuable protection over your SOS as the host school is going to look out for you as far as the opponents they give you. While this is certainly a better situation, Coach Bingham brings up a story where it didn’t quite work out that well for her team.

“Trinity had invited us to come to their place and play two matches on the opening Saturday of the season. Hannah Long (then the coach of Southwestern University) got wind of this and asked if I would play her Friday night and then head to San Antonio in the morning. Why not!!? So my first two games of the 2011 season are with Southwestern followed by Trinity. My players are still fired up from being conference champs and ready to take on the world. We get to Southwestern on Friday and we are absolutely obliterated! I looked back at the scores and they were 25-13, 25-21, 25-12!! Absolutely crushed!!! We then get beat in four by Trinity the next day. So not starting off our season on a high note to say the least.”

It would end well as HSU won the ASC Tournament that year and earned the automatic NCAA bid and it in no way dampened Coach Bingham’s outlook on playing tough teams, “I never avoid schools that I would consider to be too strong. I’ve played top 10 schools and done well while other times being completely slaughtered.  No matter the outcome, I believe they are always worth playing.”

Now that CMS has elevated itself to a national superpower program, the relationships built-up over the years are paying off. Coach Vlasich no longer goes through the tournament emails but relies on these relationships to find the right mix of matches for his team. You might think this makes the top programs, like CMS, unreachable but Coach Vlasich says the coaches from the big programs are a lot more open than one would think. He said that although they may keep things close to the chest, they are talking about the up and coming teams and they certainly see the value in playing those teams. Developing more top flight programs in your region only helps these existing top programs when it comes to SOS. On the flip side, one way not to conduct yourself is to stalk these top programs as Coach Vlasich told the story of one coach doing everything in their power to figure out where CMS was playing last year so they could squeeze into their tournament.

As I was researching this article I started thinking about how the art of scheduling has changed over the years. Coach Vlasich remembers a time while he was an assistant when “CMS was pretty out of the loop” and you had a lot of “old-timer” coaches doing pretty much what they wanted. “Now there is more youth in coaching and DIII has become insanely competitive at the highest level”. The NCAA selection criteria have also changed the scheduling landscape as you can tell with so much talk about SOS. Pacific Lutheran Head Coach Kevin Aoki will be going into his 24th season and said initially, “We traveled mostly because we chose a destination more for the experience of the trip and not so much the competition. As we got to be more successful as a program the scheduling process has changed. Now I still like to travel to different places but making sure that we play top competition plays a role as to where we go.” Coach Vlasich put it a little more succinct, “At the end of the day, be smart and don’t just schedule to go somewhere fun.  Have a purpose.”

Scheduling at the DIII level isn’t easy. Even with a generous budget that doesn’t exist you still have to worry about travel, classes missed, the 70% rule and the level of the competition. You have to worry about how your conference is going to impact your SOS and you have to hope there are tournaments that meet your needs or rely on those relationships if you’ve been around for a bit. If you are a program that has to start over at the bottom then you have to worry about other programs that just won’t play you. If you are a program at the top then you have to find opponents that will maintain your SOS but are also not afraid of a loss. As your team improves, you have to improve your schedule so the RAC starts to notice you for their regional rankings. Being in the West Region just makes scheduling even tougher and this has to add even more stress to this process. It probably doesn’t help when you finally get that schedule finalized and then publish it to have this website then complain about your opponents. I wish I could help there, but that last part is really out of my control.

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