Despite a slight stumble down the stretch, the Stanford women’s volleyball team once again finds itself in the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championship this weekend, the team’s 31st consecutive appearance in the tournament. Stanford is one of just two teams to qualify for all 31 NCAA Tournaments (the other being No. 9 Penn State) and is looking to add a seventh title to its mantle.
No. 6 Stanford (21-7) is the No. 11 overall seed in the tournament, as well as the No. 3 seed in the Gainesville regional. The Cardinal’s road to the Final Four will start Friday against Sacred Heart. However, the Pioneers are no easy foe as they went 27-7 this season and won the Northeast Conference (NEC) for the second year in a row. They head to Maples Pavilion riding a nine-game winning streak and would love to pull off a major first-round upset over the reeling Cardinal.
The Pioneers are led on offense by senior middle blocker Kimmee Roleder, who ranks third in the NEC in kills per set and points per set, with 3.94 and 4.60 respectively. But Sacred Heart’s other star is sophomore outside hitter Dianis Mercado, who led the conference in aces per set and also ranked in the top ten in kills. The dynamic duo is heavily featured in the Pioneers’ offense, and together they accounted for over 50 percent of the team’s total hitting attempts for the season. Limiting them will be the key to a Cardinal victory.
The winner of the Stanford-Sacred Heart matchup will face the winner of the match between Baylor (18-14) and Michigan (20-12). No. 22 Michigan finished its season ranked eighth in the Big Ten and had to rely on strong out-of-conference performances to earn its at-large bid to the tournament. The Wolverines feature one of the strongest service games in the nation, with three players ranking in the top 10 in the conference in aces per set.
The Bears did not perform well in their conference either, finishing seventh out of the nine Big 12 volleyball teams. They enter the tournament riding a three-game losing streak and would like to turn things around against the Wolverines. The Bears are fronted by All-Big 12 First Team senior middle blocker Briana Tolbert, who led the team in kills, kills per set and hitting percentage.
Overall, the Cardinal will face a tough task on the road in pursuit of another berth in the NCAA title match–which would be its seventh in the last 11 years. If Stanford makes it past Sacred Heart and the Michigan-Baylor winner, it will likely face the University of Northern Iowa in the round of 16. No. 11 UNI received the No. 6overall seed in the tournament, despite its low AVCA ranking. In fact, the No. 1 seed in the Gainesville regional, Illinois, is ranked No. 7 in the nation, also below the Cardinal.
But the inconsistencies in the NCAA seeding compared to the AVCA rankings appear to be in Stanford’s favor. Not one team from the Pac-12, widely considered the strongest conference in women’s volleyball, is in its regional, and the Cardinal finds itself as the top-ranked team in Gainesville.
If Stanford does manage to make it to the Final Four, it will face a major test against the winner of the Honolulu regional. In yet another demonstration of the strangeness of the tournament seeding, the top three teams in the nation (Pac-12 champion USC, Big Ten champion Nebraska and WAC champion Hawaii) were all placed in the same regional. No. 10 Cal, which finds itself unseeded despite at one point being ranked No. 1 in the nation, No. 13 Oregon and No. 18 Pepperdine were also placed in the Honolulu region, and none should go down easily. Whichever team survives Honolulu will be a major obstacle in Stanford’s path to the championship game.
The other side of the bracket figures to be competitive as well. The Lexington regional features the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, Big 12 champion, No. 5 Texas; the defending national champions, No. 9 Penn State and No. 4 UCLA, who finished second in the Pac-12. Whoever survives Lexington will face the winner of the Minneapolis regional, which appears to be the weakest of the four. No. 14 Iowa State received the top seed and the only top-10 team is No. 8 Purdue.
Stanford kicks off its NCAA Tournament at Maples Pavilion at 7 p.m. Friday after the 4:30 Michigan-Baylor showdown. The winner of the two matchups will face one another in Maples at 7 p.m. on Saturday.