In volleyball, Battle of the Boulevard becomes a war of words

Monday, June 18, 2012 at 7:45pm

When Lipscomb volleyball coach Brandon Rosenthal sent out the 2012 schedule last month, he figured his team would be thrilled to see the likes of Kentucky, North Carolina, Missouri and Arizona on it.

Instead, his squad was more concerned with which team was not. 

“The first question out of all of them was, ‘Why aren’t we playing Belmont?’ ” Rosenthal said. “All these girls have been recruited with the Belmont-Lipscomb rivalry in their heads.”

With Belmont leaving the Atlantic Sun Conference and officially joining the Ohio Valley Conference on July 1, the neighborhood schools have attempted to extend the Battle of the Boulevard in every sport.

Last month, Lipscomb and Belmont announced the highly anticipated men’s basketball series would continue with two games during the 2012-13 season. The men’s and women’s soccer teams followed suit, making room for one game on their respective schedules. Neither baseball or softball has released their 2013 schedules but both want to play two games.

In terms of average attendance (834 in 2011), the volleyball matches are third behind men's and women's basketball when the schools face off.

Despite the interest of fans and competitors, though, Belmont and Lipscomb will not play volleyball in 2012. The schools had tentatively scheduled two matches for September — one at Belmont and one at Lipscomb. But shortly after assistant coach Jeff Wismer left Belmont after two seasons for the same job at Lipscomb in February, the deal was off.

“I was taken aback by it,” Rosenthal said. “It wasn’t one of those things where we stole him or sought him out. He applied for the job and went through the same process everybody else did. ...  To me it’s disappointing all the way around.”

Belmont head coach Deane Webb said a similar situation occurred in 2010 when Tony Howell left his staff after six years for a job as an assistant at Tennessee State. Due to Howell’s familiarity with the Bruins, Webb opted not to play TSU either of the last two seasons.

Howell is now back at Belmont. He replaced Wismer and TSU is back on the 2012 schedule.

“It was a factor,” Webb said of Wismer’s departure. “Any time something like that happens it’s a factor – one of several. For us, we really wanted to keep Western Kentucky on the schedule. Western Kentucky is one of our biggest concerns. That’s a part of it.”

Webb said he wants to continue the rivalry with Lipscomb in the “near future.” Rosenthal said Webb told him in late March that is at least two years away.

“He said he thought the girls had too much emotional attachment to Jeff and it would be too much for them to handle,” Rosenthal said. “It’s hard to hear. Obviously coaches have an effect on a sport but I don’t know if I would buy they have that much effect on it. ... I said, ‘What about the freshmen [from last year that will be seniors in two years]?' He said, ‘Well, they didn’t have as much time to get emotionally attached to him.’ I thought, ‘OK, now we’re pulling for strings here.’ ”

Both coaches took over their programs in 2003 and turned them from cellar-dwellers into championship contenders. The schools combined to win the last six A-Sun Tournament championships and the league’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.

In 2011, Lipscomb and Belmont shared the regular-season title. It was the first time in the program's history Belmont finished atop the A-Sun standings. The teams split the regular-season series, which included a five-set affair in front of an enthusiastic crowd of 1,053 at Lipscomb’s Allen Arena. Lipscomb then won its third straight tournament title when it swept Belmont in the championship match last November.

“It’s just not the same when you’re not playing for something,” Webb said. “It’s nice to play a local match but when you’re not in the same conference ... at some point it becomes a fun match to play but maybe not an important match to play. That’s no down on Lipscomb or Belmont it’s just that when you’re in different conferences it doesn’t mean what it did before.

“It won’t be the same in the future because you’re not playing for anything more than local bragging rights.”

Rosenthal, however, views the rivalry differently.

“Any time Lipscomb and Belmont play each other it doesn’t matter if it’s checkers or tiddlywinks or whatever it is, that’s going to be the marquee match,” Rosenthal said. “Michigan and Ohio State have coaching changes and that doesn’t change anything. They still play. I think that’s what makes rivalries special. Coaches and players and all that change but the rivalry doesn’t.

“For that to continue, especially now more than ever because you’ve got two good teams in two different conferences, we’ve got to play each other.”