For the Oklahoma volleyball team, the destination for this season is very clear. The 2014 NCAA Volleyball Final Four will take place just 20 minutes up the road from Norman at Chesapeake Energy Arena. But just because the destination is easy to see (and even easier to drive to), it doesn't mean the journey is easy.
So far, the journey has been pretty smooth for the Sooners, but it's about to get a lot more treacherous. Oklahoma is currently 14-5, 5-1 in the Big 12, and three spots out of this week's AVCA coaches poll, but plays four of its next five games on the road, including a brutal two-game stretch this week.
The Sooners travel to No. 22 Kansas State on Wednesday and then travel to Austin on Saturday to take on arch-rival and No. 2 in the country, Texas. It's the toughest possible two-game road trip in the conference this season, but OU coach Santiago Restrepo said it comes with the direction the Sooners are heading.
“I think if we execute to our potential we should be in those matches and we should win them, simple as that,” Restrepo said in his office on Monday. “These are two road games and one of our goals is to win the Big 12. If you want to win the Big 12, you're going to have to win these two matches.”
The Wildcats have been up and down over the past few seasons, missing the NCAA tournament last year after two straight trips and a terrible season in 2010. Restrepo said the balance KSU presents could be a problem for the Sooners.
“I think their setter is extremely talented,” Restrepo said. “I think she distributes the ball extremely well. She's very offensive, which gives them another weapon. Two, they are very balanced as far as attack. Three, I think they block the ball really well and there are a lot of touches that they get. Four, since the block is so tall and so big, the defense behind the block is also very good. That is a big challenge ahead of us, but we don't shy away from challenges.”
As difficult as the Wildcats may be, Saturday's game in Austin against the Longhorns is going to be that much more difficult. The Sooners have defeated Texas just three times in the series history, all coming under Restrepo. In Austin, OU has left victorious just once, in 2008.
Despite that challenge, Restrepo and the Sooners aren't looking past Wednesday just yet. Restrepo also said he won't remind the team it's not impossible to win in Austin, as evidenced by the win in 2008.
“You want to work with the team that is here and in the moment instead of bringing up the past,” Restrepo said. “You just stay in the moment and try to stay focused on your goal.
“I'm not thinking about Texas at all. I know we have two road trips, but I'm not thinking, oh my goodness, Texas will be tough. I'm 100 percent dedicated to the preparedness of the team to play Kansas State, not Texas.”
Not only does Oklahoma have a tough week this week, but with four of its next five matches on the road—a home match against West Virginia the only reprieve during this brutal stretch—focusing on the present can be difficult in the middle of such a daunting run. But Restrepo said that's the only way to ensure the Sooners can be successful.
“Don't look behind, don't look into the future, look at today,” Restrepo said. “What can we do today to get better? Look at the first match ahead of us. Wednesday we play for Kansas State, let's prepare for Kansas State without looking at anything beyond that. If you look beyond or behind, you're not going to perform well at the next match.”
Two wins this week would be a great thing for the Sooners, as it would put Oklahoma in the driver's seat in the Big 12 title race. But while wins are important to accomplishing the goal of a conference title, Restrepo wants the effort to be there first.
“I think no matter what, how I look at it, I want them to come out of the match satisfied they did their absolute best,” Restrepo said. “They worked 100 percent and left everything out on the floor, no disappointments, win or lose. When you come out and say, ‘Coach I did my best,' that's what I'm all about.”
Make no mistake, Restrepo wants to win and isn't about being satisfied with moral victories. If the Sooners want to take the next step as a program and win their first Big 12 conference championship, they have to win games like this. Restrepo has done a phenomenal job making Oklahoma into a good program, but winning games like the Sooners have this week is the sort of thing champions do.