The Southland Conference volleyball championship will be on the line when Sam Houston plays host to Oral Roberts Thursday night and Central Arkansas Saturday afternoon.
The Bearkats, Eagles and Bears have been in a nip-and-tuck race for the last month in one of the most exciting Southland title battles in years.
Central Arkansas, Sam Houston’s foe at 2 p.m. Saturday at Bernard G. Johnson Coliseum, is the hottest team in the league. UCA is unbeaten 12-0 in Southland play and owns a 13-match winning streak. Led by outside hitter Sara Pope, who is third in kills (3.69 per set) in the league, the Bears stand 20-3 for the season.
Oral Roberts come to Huntsville smarting from a three-set loss at Northwestern State Tuesday. The Eagles are 9-3 in fourth place now while the Demons stand in third at 10-2.
Sam Houston State is 14-7 for the year, but the Bearkats have won 10 of their last 11 matches including road victories at Stephen F. Austin and Northwestern State last week. Both wins came over squads who had previously been unbeaten at home.
The Bearkats have a score to settle with ORU Thursday. The Eagles eliminated Sam Houston from last year’s Southland post-season tournament, defeating the Kats in the semifinals. ORU was the lowest seeded team ever to reach the tournament finals.
Sam Houston knocked off the Eagles in both their matches last year, winning in five sets in Tulsa and three in Huntsville.
SHSU and UCA were Southland co-champions last season, each going 15-3. The Bears dropped the Bearkats in three sets in their first meeting in Huntsville but Sam Houston bounced back to win in four in Conway.
Central Arkansas and Oral Roberts bring the Southland’s top two offenses to Johnson Coliseum. UCA leads the league in kills with 14.13 per set and a .270 hitting percentage. ORU ranks second with 13.90 kills and .261 hitting mean.
Deveney Wells-Gibson, this week’s Southland “Offensive Player of the Week,” leads the Southland with 326 kills (4.47 per set).
Haley Neisler, Breanna Homer and Tayler Gray are big factors for the Bearkats both on offense and defense. Neisler ranks third in the league in blocks (77). Homer ranks second in the Southland in service aces (31) and seventh in digs (4.31). Gray has posted the assist on 784 of Sam Houston’s 912 kills this year.
Following this weekend’s showdowns with ORU and UCA, the Bearkats have four more matches remaining on their regular season schedule. The Kats play host to McNeese State and Nicholls next week, then head on the road for the final weekend of action before the conference tournament on trips to Houston Baptist and A&M-Corpus Christi.