On Saturday night, the career of Edina Begic, one of the best athletes ever to attend an Arkansas university, ended with what she called a "heartbreaking loss" to Oregon State University.
Begic was part of UALR's most powerful team in program history, the Sun Belt champions with a nation-best 24-match winning streak. The team went to the NCAA Tournament in Topeka, Kan., on Friday, Dec. 5, knocking out the host No. 11 University of Kansas in the first round.
But on Dec. 6, the Trojans lost an excruciatingly close contest to Oregon State, which is part of the volleyball powerhouse Pac-12 Conference. "My hat's off to Arkansas-Little Rock," said OSU Coach Terry Liskevych, former head coach of the United States' women's national volleyball team. "They've got a really good team. There's not much difference in the two teams." Senior outside hitter Begic had led UALR through a 20-0 tear in conference play, the most dominant in Sun Belt history, and to the brink of the NCAA Sweet 16, reached by only one Sun Belt team in 22 years. "We feel so empty," Begic said after the loss to Oregon State.
All the same, the 22-year-old Begic can take solace in the history her team made. UALR won five sets (each match is best-of-five) after winning zero sets in four previous NCAA Tournament appearances. That flourish topped off a career unsurpassed by any other student-athlete playing a team sport at an Arkansas university this century. Consider these Begic bona fides:
*Three-time Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year (most in conference history).
*Last year, set an NCAA record by winning a conference player of the week award seven times, five of them back to back.
*Broke that record this season by winning the award eight times.
*In 2012, ranked No. 1 in the nation in kills (an attack not returned by the opponent, resulting in a point) per set.
*In 2013, ranked No. 3 in kills per set and paired with teammate Sonja Milanovic to form the nation's top spiking duo (with 9.09 kills per set).
*Consensus top hitter in program history, finishing first in career kills, second in digs and fourth in service aces.
Begic isn't one to relish individual accomplishments. The 6-foot-2 Bosnia native gives much credit to her coaches, trainer and teammates' strong play. Still, her overall career brilliance puts her in a class of her own. Henderson State University quarterback Kevin Rodgers just finished a career in which he also shattered multiple career records and finished as a three-time conference player of the year, but his team didn't win a post-season game. Former Harding University basketball player Matt Hall and Kayla Jackson, a former University of Arkansas at Monticello softball star, also both won multiple conference player of the year and All-America awards.
In Division I women's sports, former UCA basketball player Megan Herbert comes closest to Begic. Herbert, a three-time conference player of the year (who should have won it all four years), was one of the nation's most prolific rebounders despite standing 5-foot-10. But she never led a team nearly as impressive as Begic's 2014 squad, and her Sugar Bears never broke into the NCAA Tournament.
On the Division I men's side, former Razorback Darren McFadden had some legendary games against elite competition, and he twice won the nation's award for best running back, but his overall game-to-game running statistics were not as impressive as Begic's kill statistics.
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock doesn't have many athletic programs clearly better than the Razorbacks'. This season, volleyball qualified as one. The Trojans ranked higher in national polls than the Razorbacks, who were beaten decisively by Kansas in a regular season match.
Now that Begic's career is over, can UALR preserve this in-state supremacy and its emerging mid-major power status?
Next year, with seven returning players, UALR should again contend for a conference crown. Milanovic, a junior, and Megan Mathis, a sophomore, last month joined Begic on the Sun Belt all-tournament team. It had been nine years since a UALR player had made an all-tournament team. That player, Amilia Barakovic, returned to her native Bosnia-Herzegovina and told a young Begic about UALR and its coaching staff's experience working with foreign players. The teenage Begic loved what she heard.
Begic's longtime goal has been to play pro volleyball, which is far more lucrative in Europe than in the United States. (Begic has heard some veteran players in Turkey fetch up to $100,000 a year). But she didn't want to go pro immediately after graduating from her Sarajevo high school. She wanted better education and training. "The opportunities at home are not as good as here," she said. "The gyms are not as nice, we don't have as much equipment. ... I thought that [UALR] is perfect for me for going to another level."
She never considered another school, and joined a UALR team that now has five Bosnians, a Serb and an Australian. No other Sun Belt team has more than one player born outside of the United States. The team's international flavor is due in large part to the time UALR head volleyball coach Van Compton and her assistants have put into developing relations with foreign coaches since recruiting their first Bosnian in 1994. Compton said her department spends about $5,000 every other year on recruiting trips abroad.
In some circles, the internationalization of college sports is a controversial one. Some complain that foreign student athletes take taxpayer money for spots that would otherwise go to locals. Others point out that U.S. colleges invest in the best foreign student athletes only to see them later join their native national teams and beat the U.S. in international competition. Smaller schools, though, have found foreign stars provide their best shot at leveling the playing field.
Although Baylor's men's tennis team is now among the nation's best, in the late 1990s its coach, Matt Knoll, struggled with a mostly American team. He tried to close the gap by recruiting top American high schoolers, but lost hope in signing them when elite programs like Stanford, Duke and UCLA entered the ring. He told the Kansas City Star in 2006 that Baylor "can't beat them for these kids. ... So do we let Duke beat our brains in because we're taking third-tier Americans while they're picking from the first tier? Or do we get first-tier [foreign] kids and try to beat them? What would you do?"