An NCAA volleyball tournament like no other, from A to Z

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NCAA volleyball A to Z 4/13/2021-Penn State volleyball-Russ Rose
Penn State head coach Russ Rose during the match with Illinois. No. 9 Penn State opened the women's volleyball season with a 3-1 win over Big Ten foe Illinois on Friday night February 6, 2021 at Rec Hall. It was the first win of the year for the Nittany Lions and the 1,300th career victory for head coach Russ Rose. Photo by Mark Selders

An NCAA Division I women’s volleyball tournament like no other begins Wednesday as all 48 teams are gathered in Omaha, Nebraska, for what will no doubt be an intense 10 days.

Seriously, no one knows what to expect. Four sets of four matches run simultaneously the first two days.

The threat of cancelation at a moment’s notice as COVID-19 hangs over the sport’s head like the sword of Damocles.

Here is this tournament by the letters, with stuff you may know but plenty you probably don’t. And the best part about these lists is they make you think of even more tidbits. So when you have one, please add it in the comments section below. Did I miss some? Let us know.

A — is for Army West Point, which won the Patriot League and is the only team in the tournament that starts with A. But it’s also for what will forever be known in college volleyball as “Announcer-gate,” the decision to not have announcers for the first two rounds of matches that wil be streamed entirely on ESPN3. The masses got loud, ESPN backtracked, and now has someone calling every match of the tournament. See the schedule and list of announcers here.

B — is for the Big 12’s Baylor, which made it to last year’s national semifinals, and Bowling Green, which dominated the Mid-American Conference this spring. And B is for BYU, Brigham Young University, which won the West Coast Conference.

B is for Bernthal and Booth (as in Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth), who lives in Omaha. If you’re going to Omaha, Bernthal Booth said that Blue Sushi is her favorite restaurant, although she also gave a nod to M’s Pub and Pitch Pizzeria.

B is also for beer, because the Nebraska beer scene (trust me) has become one of the best in the nation.

C — is for the CHI Health Center where the tournament is being conducted. It’s also for Creighton, the Omaha school that not only won the Big East, but a place that could have been used as a playing site. For that matter, the volleyball tournament did not have to be kept in one convention center and could have been spread out around Omaha, where another Division I team resides, Omaha, and where some high school facilities are fantastic. Basketball used multiple sites …. Oh, well.

C could have been for Coastal Carolina, the team that was so hot in the fall and then in the Sun Belt Conference final saw its star player, Anett Nemeth, go down with a terrible knee injury. The Chanticleers didn’t play this spring, but had there been a 64-team tournament in the fall would have gotten an at-large. They lost to Texas State in the SBC tourney championship match. The Bobcats are down in the letter T.

D — is for Dayton, the Atlantic 10 champion which we featured this week.

D is also for Dagenais, Todd Dagenais, the 13th-year coach at UCF, who has his Knights in the NCAA tourney for the third year in a row. In 2018, UCF won the American Athletic Conference, which didn’t play a tournament. In 2019, UCF won the inaugural league tournament and upset Florida State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Knights won the ACC tourney again this year and play High Point with the winner getting Purdue.

E — is for ESPN3, which is the only way to watch the first- and second-round matches. Be sure to be in a place with high-speed wireless. The regional semifinals and finals are all on ESPNU, and the semifinals and championship are on ESPN2. E is also for Eggleston, that’s Logan of Texas, arguably the best hitter and also perhaps the best server in the college game. Texas is 23-1 and Eggleston has 379 kills (4.57/set) and 41 aces, second in the nation only to Akron’s Emily Weigand (45) this season.

F — is for Florida, but could have/should have also been for Fairfield, the perennial MAAC favorite. The Stags, who went 9-1 to win the regular season, had to withdraw from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship match because of a positive COVID-19 test within the program at the Connecticut school. As a a result Rider, from Lawrenceville, N.J., got the berth and Broncs (7-4 with two of those losses to Fairield) play UCLA in the first round.

G — is for the Greenys, the coaches at Washington State. Jen, who played at WSU, is the head coach, and her husband, Burdette, is the associate head coach and recruiting coordinator. The Greenys not only have the Cougars into the NCAA Tournament for the fifth year in a row, but they are seeded 15th and await the Western Kentucky-Jackson State winner. 

While no one involved would say it, we can, and the WKU-WSU match will be one you don’t want to miss.

H — is for Hannah or Hanna, of which there were no less than 62 on Division I rosters this year (including Clemson’s Camryn Hanna). 

In this tournament are Baylor’s Hannah Sedwick, Bowling Green’s Hanna Laube and Hannah Best (she’s the Best player), Jackson State’s Hannah Lewis,  Morehead State’s Hannah Keating, Notre Dame’s Hannah Thompson, Ohio State’s Hannah Gruensfelder, Penn State’s Hannah Flowers, San Diego’s Hannah Patrick, and Washington State’s Hannah Pukis.

H could have been for Hawai’i, which surely would have made the tournament but was shut down when the Big West canceled volleyball this spring.

I — is for the Islanders of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, who pulled off back-to-back upsets to win the Southland Conference tournament. First the fourth-seeded Islanders (14-4) knocked off perennial favorite and top-seeded Stephen F. Austin, then they beat second-seeded Sam Houston in five to earn the NCAA bid. It’s the first time since 2004 that the No. 4 seed won the SLC title. TAMUCC has a balanced attack to be envied: Six players have 109 or more kills, 197 by senior outside Chloe Simon.

I is also for Illinois State, which won the Missouri Valley Conference. The Redbirds play  UNLV –with the winner getting Kentucky.

J — is for Jackson, Mississippi, home of Jackson State, the SWAC champion. The Tigers, while unbeaten (they’re 11-0 overall including 9-0 in the SWAC), won the conference title when Arkansas-Pine Bluff had positive tests and couldn’t play.

J is also for Jenny Hazelwood, who is on the ESPN announcing crew. The former Mississippi State head coach lives in Jackson and has become one of the sport’s best volleyball analysts.

K — is for Kelly, as in Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield, who enters the tournament with an overall coaching record of 475-161, 202-49 in his eighth year at Wisconsin. His Badgers are 15-0 and the top seed in the tournament.

K is also for Kentucky, which has four schools in the tournament, second-seeded Kentucky of the SEC, Conference USA-champion Western Kentucky, Ohio Valley-champion Morehead State, and ACC-champion Louisville.

K also stands for Kern, because without the help of Rich Kern and RichKern.com this story would not have been possible. Please visit his invaluable college-volleyball site and subscribe.

L — for LIU and Louisville and also for Lippy, which Lipscomb actually has on its uniforms. The ASUN champs upset the top seed, FGCU, in the conference tourney final, a gripping five-setter that went 25-21, 26-28, 25-19, 21-25, 16-14. Brandon Rosenthal, in his 18th year coaching the Bisons, is taking Lippy to the NCAA Tournament for the eighth time and first since 2016.

Sadly, L is also is for late starts, because there four matches each in the first two rounds starting at 10:30 p.m. Eastern. And in those four matches on Wednesday, four of the eight teams — Rider, North Carolina A&T, LIU, and Pitt — are East Coast teams.

And, for what it’s worth, I also think L should stand for Lee, but that would be a bit much.

M — is for McKenna Melville, the UCF junior outside who led the American Athletic Conference in kills (275, 4.58/set). Others with two M’s include High Point’s Maria Miggins, NC A&T’s Milana Morgan, and you can include Baylor’s Marieke van der Mark. 

By the way, there were 11 McKennas on Division I rosters this season, but Melville is the only one in the tournament. 

That’s nothing of course, compared to Madison, Maddie, Madi, and a host of other derivatives of Madison or Madeleine, or Madelyn, of which there were 146 playing this season.

Seriously. 

And that includes two Madisons and a Maddie on South Dakota’s team; and a Madisen, a Maddie, and Madi on Kentucky’s team (which also has the Skinners, sisters Avery and Madi, who are not related to coach Craig Skinner).

M is also for Minnesota, Missouri and Morehead State.

N — is for Nicole Lennon, the Rice senior who led the Owls in kills and aces and was third in blocks. Rice, which lost to WKU in the Conference USA final, plays NC A&T in the first round with the winner getting 13th-seeded Penn State. A Rice-Nittany Lions matchup will be worth the price of admission. If you could get a ticket … 

N is also for Nebraska, UNLV (Nevada-Las Vegas), North Carolina A&T, and Notre Dame, 

And speaking of Nebraska, which won the tournament the last time it was played in Omaha, in 2015, it could have been a first- and second-rounds playing site even if the Huskers didn’t play there. The Devaney Center is 58 miles from Omaha. For comparison, during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament games were played at Indiana University, 54 miles from Indianapolis.

O — O is for Omaha, where the tournament is being conducted, but also for Ohio State and Oregon. Omaha is where Creighton is located and Nebraska is just down the road, but there are a handful of players coming home for the tournament, including Army’s Paige Fixemer (who is from Omaha) and Peyton Schendt (who is from nearby Papillion), Pitt’s Sabrina Starks (nearby Springfield, Nebraska), South Dakota’s Maddie Wiedenfeld (Omaha), Atley Carey (who is from Lincoln), and Brooklyn Schram (Papillion). Teammate Madison Jurgens is from Odell, Nebraska, on the Kansas border.

P — is for Paul Sunderland, who now will be calling matches from the start of the tournament through the final. 

P is also for Penn State, Pepperdine, Pitt, and Purdue. In our Mondays with Mick, former Texas, USC and USA Olympic coach Mick Haley said to watch out for Purdue.

And P is for Plano, the Dallas suburb that has the following players in the tournament: Baylor’s Shanel Bramschreiber (Lovejoy HS), Florida’s Lauren Dooley (Plano East), High Point’s Evy Eckensberger (Prince of Peace), Rice’s Izzy Rawlings (John Paul II), Texas A&M-Corpus Christi’s Faith Panhans (Plano HS), and UCLA’s Iman Ndiaye (Plano West).

Q — is for Questions, actually Unanswered Questions, like how did Penn State get a seed? Why didn’t Western Kentucky? 

Alas … 

There are three players in the tournament with a Q in their names, Bowling Green’s Jacqueline Askin and Pitt’s Valeria Vazquez Gomez, who could also slot in at Z, too. Samford has Kenya McQuirter.

R — is for Rice, the only team starting with the letter R (see the letter N for more on the Owls’ star player).

But R has to be for the one and only Russ Rose, who is left standing as the only coach and team to have made every NCAA Tournament since the women’s sport broke away from the AIAW in 1981. Penn State has won it all in 1999, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, and 2014. 

Rose, finishing his 42nd season, has a team that hasn’t played since March 26. The Nittany Lions went 9-5 this season and had eight matches canceled. 

R also stands for Salima Rockwell, the former Penn State and Texas coach who is part of the ESPN announcing crew and will work with Paul Sunderland for the regional semifinals and beyond.

S — is for Samford, San Diego, South Dakota, and it’s also for sisters, which, in this tournament, include Whitney and Morgan Bower at BYU. Whitney was named the West Coast Conference player and setter of the year. 

There are also Jaden and Julia Walz at Bowling Green, Georgia Tech’s Matti McKissock and Florida’s Elli McKissock, Louisville’s Tori Dilfer and Lipscomb’s Delaney Dilfer, and the previously mentioned Kentucky Skinners (see the letter M). 

S, it should be noted, is not for Stanford, which is missing the tournament for the first time since it started.

T — is for Texas, Texas State, the previously mentioned Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, and Towson. 

It’s also for the ties that bind, and there’s no way to list them all, but consider that: Louisville’s Anna DeBeer, Alexis Hamilton and Alexa Hendricks, Ohio State’s Rylee Rader, Bowling Green’s Jacqueline Askin, and Wright State’s Callie Martin are all products of Assumption High School in Louisville. 

Ohio State libero Kylie Murr and Nebraska libero Kenzie Knuckles were teammates at Yorktown in Indiana.

In our story earlier this week we had a story that included the ties between Army and Notre Dame.

And there are the following players in the tournament from Puerto Rico, Missouri’s Andrea Fuentes and Dariana Hollingsworth-Santana, NC A&T’s Andrea Laboy-Rivera, Ohio State’s Ceciloa Rocafort, Pitt’s Valeria Vasquez Gomez, Bowling Green’s Yelianiz Torres, Florida’s Sofia Victoria, and Jackson State’s Damassy Thompson.

U — is for Utah, the state, which has four teams in the tournament, Utah, BYU, Weber State, and Utah Valley. U also stands for UCF, UCLA, and UNLV.

Speaking of Utah, the Utes are seeded No. 14 and boast an experienced coach — Beth Launiere — and plenty of experienced, talented players. Start with senior left-handed outside Dani Drews, the Pac-12 player of the year. The other lefty, Kenzie Koerber, gives Utah a 1-2 punch that has combined for more than eights kills per set, 44 aces, almost six digs, and 71 blocks. Utah, a team no one should want to face, gets the winner of LIU-Pitt.

V — is for VolleyballMag.com!

W — is for Wong, Scott Wong, the coach at Pepperdine. We had this story about the Waves of the West Coast Conference and Rachel Ahrens this week.

W is also for Western Kentucky (see our interview with coach Travis Hudson), Weber State, Wright State (see our story), Washington (watch our interview with three Huskies) and Washington State, and Wisconsin (see more under the letter K).

X — when you make these lists, the joke is always that X stands for Xylophone. In this tournament there are two players with an X in their respective names, BYU’s Taylor Ballard-Nixon, and Missouri’s Anna Dixon.

But, in all seriousness, X stands for X factor, and the the big X factor in this tournament is COVID. And, frankly, we’ve written all we care to about that this season. 

Everyone please be safe and may every player and coach test negative.

Y — is for Young, Brigham Young. Coach Heather Olmstead’s team won the West Coast Conference after going 16-1 overall, 15-1 in the league. The Cougars have won seven in a row and have a couple of stars in sophomore setter Whitney Bower and senior outside Taylen Ballard-Nixon. BYU is seeded 16th and awaits the winner of Rider-UCLA.

Y is also for the only player in the tournament named Young, Rachel of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

Z— is for UCLA’s Zoe Fleck, but, unfortunately, not for Utah’s Zoe Weatherington, who was lost for the season with a knee injury. Fleck led the Pac-12 with 334 digs (4.34/set). 

And we finish with the coolest name in the tournament, and she also has a Z in it, Utah Valley’s Kazna Tanuvasa. Kazna is a junior outside from Lehi, Utah, who was born in New Zealand, which also has a Z in it.

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NCAA women's men's volleyball 3/15/2021-Zoe Fleck-UCLA volleyball
UCLA’s Zoe Fleck dives for a short serve against Utah/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

8 COMMENTS

  1. Great list! As soon as I saw the Hanna’s I immediately thought of the 3 Madi’s on SoDak. Glad to see you had it covered already. And I watched the Lippy win over FGCU replay last night, wow, what a great match. Love the Lippy nickname–how does one get one of their T’s (other than being the VBmag.com editor)?

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