You can argue that Friday and Saturday represent the toughest and most exciting two days of the season in NCAA Division I volleyball.
Eight matches Friday.
Four more on Saturday that decide the national semifinals.
A tournament that has seen its share of surprises, twists and turns that comes down to this:
Can anyone beat Stanford?
The top-ranked and top-seeded Cardinal have won 28 matches in a row since losing at BYU the last day of August. For that matter, Stanford (30-1) has only lost 10 sets in that streak, which includes sweeping eighth-seeded Penn State, beating second-seeded Minnesota in four, and beating fifth-seeded Texas twice, 3-0 at Stanford and 3-1 three days later at Texas.
Stanford then went 20-0 to win the Pac-12.
And then last weekend it swept Alabama State and Loyola Marymount in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
Up next is 16th-seeded Washington State, which lost to Stanford twice in the Pac-12 season but took a set off the Cardinal when they played three weeks ago in Pullman.
The four top seeds are all at home, including No. 2 Minnesota, third-seeded Illinois, and BYU, which sustained a late-season injury to a key player and took its only loss of the season in the last match of the West Coast Conference regular season, getting swept by Loyola Marymount. But BYU swept Stony Brook and Utah to get to the regionals.
Illinois (30-3) vs. Marquette (28-6)
Wisconsin (24-6) vs. San Diego (18-12)
Third-seeded Illinois and 14th-seeded Marquette get things going early, with an 11 a.m. Central first serve on ESPNU.
It’s always a madhouse inside Illinois’ Huff Hall, but things will be just as nuts outside. Parking on the expansive campus is extremely difficult during a normal day, none of the spots free, and in addition, as the newspaper The News-Gazette pointed out this week, “College officials were trying to decide whether to move or cancel classes that are scheduled to meet in Huff that day, given the crowds and noise expected from the gym. Students would ‘definitely’ hear it, said college spokesman Kent Reel.”
Marquette has its hands full with an Illinois team that is loaded under second-year coach Chris Tamas. The Illini, who finished second in the Big Ten have won 15 matches in a row, swept Eastern Michigan and then beat Louisville in four in the first two rounds.
Senior setter Jordyn Poulter is arguably the best at her position in the country and the weapons at her disposal are many, including outside hitter Jacqueline Quade to blocking machine middle Ali Bastianelli.
Marquette, featured Thursday on VolleyballMag.com, is a battle-tested group that dropped three of its six losses to Creighton in Big East. The Golden Eagles are battle-tested, losing to Baylor, BYU and Wisconsin and boasting victories over NCAA tourney teams Texas State, USC, Syracuse and Illinois State. Marquette is big, too, with 6-foot-5 outside Allie Barber leading the way and 6-6 Jenna Rosenthal a force in the middle.
In the second match, you have the Big Ten’s Wisconsin, which won at Illinois this season, and upstart San Diego, a team that once stood 3-7 before righting itself in the West Coast Conference season.
On paper, this one’s a mismatch, with sixth-seeded Wisconsin’s firepower, starting with 6-8 middle Dana Rettke, who leads the Badgers in kills and blocks. Setter Sydney Hilley has Madison Duello, Grace Loberg and Tionna Williams as options on a team that will be a lot for San Diego to handle.
USD, on the other hand, is balanced and likely a team that most people have not seen that much. Sophomore outside Roxie Wiblin leads a balanced offense in kills with a lineup that includes big-blocking senior middle Addie Picha, freshman Katie Lukes, senior Lauren Fuller and junior Megan Jacobsen. It’s a homecoming of sorts for Fuller, who is a product of Hinsdale Central High School, a Chicago suburb.
Nebraska (26-6) vs. Kentucky (26-4)
Oregon (22-10) vs. Minnesota (27-3)
You could make a case for this being the most intriguing foursome. Nebraska won two of the last three NCAA titles but to do so last year, it had to beat Kentucky on its home floor, which it did in the regional final. This year, Nebraska is the No. 7 seed and Kentucky, which went unbeaten in the SEC, is 10th.
Oregon, when at its best, is as good as anyone. But that’s the rub, since the 15th-seeded up-and-down Ducks have won four in a row, their longest winning streak since winning four in a row in early September. And Minnesota simply is a well-balanced wrecking crew.
This foursome is loaded with national player-of-the-year candidates. You could make a strong case for Nebraska senior outside hitter Mikaela Foecke, Kentucky junior outside Leah Edmond, and Minnesota senior setter Samantha Seliger Swenson.
And how about the setters? Nebraska’s Nicklin Hames has had a fabulous freshman season, Kentucky’s Madison Lilley is the most underrated setter in the country, Oregon’s August Raskie has taken full advantage of finally running a 5-1, and Big Ten player of the year Seliger-Swenson simply sets the standard, no pun intended.
Nebraska opened with wins over Hofstra and Missouri, while Kentucky beat Murray State and then surprisingly swept Purdue.
Minnesota steamrolled Bryant and then beat South Carolina last weekend, and its attack that includes Stephanie Samedy, Adanna Rollins, Alexis Hart, Taylor Morgan and Regan Pittman is a relentless monster.
Oregon knocked out NM State and then had to go five to get past Baylor. Worth noting is that Oregon beat Minnesota in four at Stanford in early September, but then got swept by Penn State the next day.
If anyone beats powerful Minnesota other than Stanford it will be an upset, but the three matches here should all be worth the price of admission.
Texas (22-4) vs. Michigan (24-9)
Florida ( 26-6) vs. BYU (29-1)
Texas probably doesn’t want to hear it, but the Longhorns could not have asked for a better scenario without being a top-four seed. However Michigan (see Oregon), when hitting on all cylinders, is as good as anyone. Such was the case last weekend when the Wolverines upset Pittsburgh in five in the second round. Michigan has won five in a row, which includes beating Navy in the first round, but had lost three in a row and six of seven before that.
What’s more, Michigan is 0-3 all time versus Texas. They last met in the 2012 national semifinals, when Texas went on to win the NCAA title.
Michigan has junior outside Carly Skjodt, who hits as hard as anyone in the game and can carry her team. Senior libero Jenna Lerg is outstanding and freshman outside Paige Jones is as good an all-around athlete as anyone in the tournament.
Texas, which beat Stephen F. Austin and Texas State in the first two rounds, is simply loaded. The Longhorns may be the one team to match Stanford and Minnesota for firepower, from Big 12 MVP Micaya White to Logan Eggleston, Yaasmeen Bedart-Ghani, Morgan Johnson and Brionne Butler. And Texas made a late-season setter switch that has paid off when coach Jerritt Elliott gave the reins to freshman Jhenna Gabriel.
Even without outside McKenna Miller, BYU’s second-leading attacker when she was lost for the season, the Cougars are a tremendous team. Senior outside Roni Jones-Perry is a strong national player-of-the-year candidate, setter Lyndie Haddock-Eppich does a great job of running the show, libero Mary Lake is considered by some the best at her position in the country, and 6-5 Kennedy Eschenberg and 6-4 Heather Gneiting give BYU tall and formidable middles.
Florida beat Florida State in the first round and got a break when FGCU knocked off 13th-seeded UCF. Florida then swept FGCU. A big key for the Gators was the return of do-everything outside hitter Thayer Hall, a freshman who missed significant late-season time with an undisclosed injury. In her absence, the other outside, Paige Hammons, played some of the best volleyball of her career and Florida will need more of that this weekend. The Gators, who lost to Nebraska in last year’s NCAA title match, have a middle as tall as Wisconsin’s Rettke in 6-8 junior Rachael Kramer, who is having another strong season. Holly Carlton, a 6-7 right side, has carried a big load since transferring from North Carolina and will have to be big against BYU.
Washington (20-12) vs. Penn State (25-7)
Stanford (30-1) vs. Washington State (23-9)
Three Pac-12 teams and Penn State.
And a very different Penn State, a team that relies heavily on the offense of two freshmen, right-side Jonni Parker and middle Kaitlyn Hord. For that matter, there are eight freshmen on the roster, but Penn State still has the longest-tenured coach in Russ Rose. Rose is winding up his 40th year, all at Penn State, and boasts seven NCAA titles, including back-to-back in 2013 and 2014. His Nittany Lions swept Howard and Syracuse last weekend.
In addition to Parker and Hord, two seniors, Nia Reed and graduate-student transfer Taylor Leath, give Penn State a multi-faceted attack for senior setter Bryanna Weiskircher, and junior libero Kendall White is having an All-American season.
Washington had lost three in a row heading into the postseason but then beat Saint Mary’s in four before sweeping ninth-seeded Creighton on its home court. Washington graduated more starters than can be imagined last year, were up and down all season, but have an interesting mix of players that includes leading attacker junior outside Kara Bajema, Maryland transfer Samantha Drechsel, a 6-4 outside who has been invaluable, 6-4 sophomore middle Lauren Sanders, and a few others who take turns handling the load.
Washington State has to be excited that it took a set off Stanford the last time they met. But the Cougars hit .186 and had no answer — does anyone — for Kathryn Plummer. Plummer, almost sure to be everyone’s national player of the year, had 24 kills that match. For that matter, she has 467 this season, is averaging 4.67 kills per set, has 31 aces, and, well, at 6-6 simply does it all and can carry her team. And it’s a team with the very best at a handful of positions, like libero Morgan Hentz and right-side Audriana Fitzmorris (also 6-6). And when Plummer goes to the back row, where she’s also a vicious hitter, Meghan McClure is as good as any second outside in the country. The middles — Tami Alade and freshman Holly Campbell — and setter Jenna Gray are right up there.
Washington State, the No. 16 seed, admits it plays with a chip on its shoulder. The Cougars are talented and boast two of the best outsides in the country in seniors McKenna Woodford and Taylor Mims. The chip will have to be large and everyone on the WSU team will have to sparkle to win this one.