RALEIGH — There’s a white board in N.C. State women’s volleyball locker room that has “Nov. 25th” written on it.
The significance of the Sunday after Thanksgiving is that is the day the NCAA will announce the pairings for the women’s volleyball tournament.
In years past, the Wolfpack hasn’t seen the need to remind itself of when the NCAA draw would be announced. The only time N.C. State has played in the NCAAs was in 1987, losing to Kentucky 3-0 in the first round. Most of the time since, the Wolfpack was well out of consideration.
This year is different.
N.C. State has won 13 of its first 14 games to match the second-best start in school history. The Wolfpack beat Duke, North Carolina and Wake Forest to open the ACC season with three wins, the first time it has defeated its Big Four rivals in the same season.
The overall atmosphere around the team is so different that assistant coach Jen Christian pulled aside senior setter and team leader Megan Cyr early in the year and asked if the team ever talked about playing in the NCAAs.
“I just told her, ‘No, we don’t; we never really mention it,’” Cyr said. “She just thought that would be a good idea, so we started talking about it and made it part of our daily routine.”
With visible goals of reaching the NCAA tournament, it’s safe to say the first two-plus years of Bryan Bunn’s tenure as Wolfpack coach have gone about as well as could be expected.
Bunn was the associate head coach at Baylor before deciding in 2010 that N.C. State’s program had potential few saw.
“There was no place to go but up,” he said. “The program could not have got any worse -- they won 12 matches in the conference in 12 years. People talk about rebuilding; we’re building. We’re starting from scratch. That’s appealing to a coach, to be able to come in with basically a blank slate and to be able to do what you want to do, and I saw that right away when I got here.”
The program’s progress was slow at first but measurable. The Wolfpack went 14-18 and 4-16 in the ACC in Bunn’s first year, but that represented the most overall and conference victories for the program since 1999.
N.C. State then started strong last season, posting a 14-2 record and winning two of its first three ACC games. The team then lost five straight matches, all in the fifth set.
“The girls learned that they belong and that they can compete with anybody in the conference,” Bunn said of that stretch. “We were a couple points away from being 12-8 in the conference instead of 8-12. It gave them confidence. While we weren’t winning, it showed that they can compete and it just takes a little bit extra to get past that, winning that fifth set.”
The Wolfpack hasn’t needed to win the fifth set much this season, earning the victory before then in all but one of its wins. The exception was a dramatic victory over UNC-Wilmington when N.C. State rallied from a 24-20 deficit in the fifth set by winning the final six points.
That triumph gave Bunn further confidence the program’s culture had changed.
Bunn said the team doesn’t have a star and instead relies on different players every night. Chemistry and the players’ work ethics are strengths – everyone on the team came back to Raleigh on their own volition nearly a month before summer school to practice and condition together.
The hope now is that the Wolfpack has the pieces to make a run to the NCAAs.
While Bunn is predictably reluctant to take too much satisfaction in the team’s start with so much of the season left, Cyr said the recent wins over Duke and UNC had special significance. The Wolfpack hadn’t beaten Duke since 2000, having only won three sets against the Blue Devils in the 12 years since that victory.
“I have to say – I was a little teary-eyed after the win over Duke,” said Cyr, who transferred to N.C. State after her freshman year at Colorado and has been instrumental in the Wolfpack’s success (she had 36 assists against Duke).
“Coming here two years ago and not beating UNC or Duke and then already beating both of them this season. Those two wins have been the highlight, but there’s a lot more to come. I know those wins are past us and we have to look forward, but definitely beating Duke was the cherry on top for the first three games.”