Mar. 24—JACKSONVILLE — The Ohio Valley Conference volleyball schedule-makers blessed fans of the sport by having Jacksonville State and Morehead State meet in the last week of the regular season.
JSU is 14-0. So is Morehead State.
Now, they'll meet in Morehead, Ky., to decide the league championship. Two matches are scheduled, including Sunday at 5 p.m. and Monday at 1 p.m. ESPN+ is slated to broadcast both meetings.
"I feel like everybody has been waiting for this moment," JSU senior defensive specialist Dani Steele said. "Leading up to it, we have to scout and play everybody else and focus on them, but in the back of our minds, we're really thinking about Morehead and how we'd like to go out there and get revenge on them because we played them last year and they knocked us out."
They've got history, as Steele alluded to.
They played twice in 2019. JSU traveled to Morehead State, and the Gamecocks won, which helped vault them to the regular-season title. In the conference tournament semifinals, however, Morehead State got payback with a 3-0 win and ended JSU's season.
There's more than just a championship on the line. The winner also gets to host the conference tournament, and the winner of the conference tournament will get an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
That's a big deal, because the OVC usually gets only one NCAA bid.
Last season, despite their intense head-to-head meetings, neither got an NCAA bid. After beating JSU, Morehead State lost to Southeast Missouri in the OVC tournament finals.
This year, the league tourney will have only four teams because of COVID-19 protocols, instead of eight as usual.
Preseason favorite SEMO (12-2) should finish third, and the JSU/Morehead loser will have to play the Redhawks in the conference semifinals. The Redhawks never played Morehead State this year but lost twice to JSU to open the schedule.
The JSU/Morehead winner will have to play Austin Peay (8-4) or Southern Illinois-Edwardsville (8-4) to open the conference tournament. That tie will be settled this week, too.
What happens if JSU and Morehead State split their two matches? They'll be co-champions of the regular season, but the first tiebreaker to determine who hosts the conference tournament is set score. So if one team wins 3-0 in the first match, and then the other wins 3-1, the team that won 3-0 hosts. If that's even, it comes down to point differential. So, an average of 25-17 would beat an average of 25-21.
After that, it's set differential against the rest of the league, and JSU is 42-4, while Morehead State is 42-5.
Even with the thought of Morehead State at the end of the schedule, JSU has remained laser focused on each match at hand. The Gamecocks swept 10 of their 14 matches 3-0, including the last five. In the four matches JSU didn't sweep, they won 3-1.
"Last year, when we went in relaxed and not as focused as we are this year, we got beat," JSU senior Kaylie Milton said. "This year, every single game counts, and every single practice counts. So we're only looking at that one game or that point, at the least."
This type of focus has been a point of emphasis by head coach Todd Garvey.
"We talk all the time about how important it is to live in the present, not just volleyball-wise but life in general," Garvey said. "It's always good to live in the present and not stress about the future or worry about past mistakes. Just focus on what's in front of you.
"They've really bought into that. I've told them before that to me, win stands for What's Important Now. That's all we need to be concerned with. It would've done us no good to go out and play UT Martin if we're thinking about Morehead."
Senior Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.