With the possible exception of “When are you going to get football?”, one question has followed the athletic programs at The University of Texas at Tyler since the first game was played four years ago.
“When are you going to the playoffs?”
For the Patriots fall sports, that time is now.
As a start-up Division III program, UT Tyler had to complete a four-year provisional period during which the Patriots were ineligible for any postseason tournament that guaranteed its winner a berth in an NCAA championship event. After four years as a provisional member, the next time UT Tyler’s soccer, volleyball, and cross country teams compete, it will be as full-fledged playoff-eligible members of the NCAA.
This fall, both soccer teams and volleyball would have made the conference tournaments, and men’s cross country would have sent runners to regional competition.
Men’s soccer, who are two-time defending American Southwest Conference champions, would have not only qualified for the postseason, but also hosted the ASC tournament. Head coach Kenny Jones says being playoff-eligible next year with raise the intensity level for his team.
“There’s going to be a change mentally for the guys. For me, there’s higher expectations.”
Jones said his team saw a good example of the difference in attitudes in a preconference game in San Antonio.
“We came in every year ready to win our conference, but we played Trinity early on, and they are ready to win a national championship. For next year, for us, we’ll need to come in and do what we need to do to make a push nationally and start that journey. It’s a bit different from starting a journey just to win the ASC.”
He says although he’s confident in the abilities of his returning players, it’ll be a challenge.
“It’ll be interesting to see how the guys who’ve been here and made the commitment to win the conference make that adjustment to getting a national ranking. There’s no doubt that we have the talent to do it, but we just have to have that mentality that we’re going to push ourselves to the next level."
“I think the guys will respond well,” he laughs. “They’re already excited about next year."
The women’s soccer team also played playoff-caliber ball this year, finishing in third place in the ASC. Coach Stefani Webb says the transition to a playoff team has to begin in the offseason.
“It’s a mindset change,” Webb said. “We have to approach the season with a different goal, of making the playoffs. We have to be geared towards playing for a long season.”
For volleyball, second year coach Kristee Turpin guided her players to a third-place finish, their first playoff-worthy finish under her. She says since she arrived at UT Tyler, her recruiting has been leading towards this point.
“We try to explain that to girls that we recruited this last year,” Turpin explains, “that they are a group that will be able to go to the playoffs, and that’s kind of a driving force for them.”
“Now, when we recruit, our players have to come ready for that. They have to say ‘We’re here, we’re going to be in the playoffs next year.’”
“Especially now when we’re recruiting, we can tell people we’re a young program and we’re going to the playoffs. That helps sell us to prospective athletes.”
In cross country, the Patriots dominated the ASC Championships with the top three runners in the conference, and five of the top seven. Coach Bob Hepler says now that the possibility of advancing to the next level exists, it makes UT Tyler even stronger.
“It makes us an even more attractive program,” Hepler explains. “As we continue to build our track and field efforts, and not having to deal with the provisional membership anymore, a top runner out of high school will take an even more serious look at our program.”
Hepler says the new on-campus facilities also are a big draw.
“With the addition of our on-campus wellness trail, we have great facilities here. Hopefully they view our staff as strong coaches, so they should have a lot to attract them to UT Tyler.”
The coaches, facilities, and programs are in place. After a long, four year start-up period for UT Tyler, there are no more "what if's" or "if only's".
For soccer, volleyball, and cross country, their time is now.