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  • Writer's pictureEmma Treptow

NCAA Volleyball Regionals Preview: Players to Make the Biggest Impact on Each Team

The NCAA Volleyball Regionals are kicking off on December 7, 2023, at noon EST after two action-packed rounds with outstanding performances and upsets. Here is a look at the remaining teams and how they got to the Regional round, along with players that will make the biggest impact for each team.

Lincoln Region

#1 Nebraska vs. #5 Georgia Tech: Dec. 7 at 2:00 p.m. EST on ESPN2

The Cornhuskers had no issues in their first two rounds, sweeping Long Island University and Missouri. Nebraska only has one loss this season, dropping a sweep to Wisconsin in Madison. The young team has proven themselves as the number-one seed in this tournament in their incredibly strong defense and balanced attack. They are led by junior libero Lexi Rodriguez and freshman setter Bergen Reilly. Reilly has been outstanding in her first season with the Huskers, winning Big Ten Setter of the Year, and is surrounded by offensive weapons on the court. Georgia Tech will need to watch out for junior Merritt Beason who had 12 kills in the Huskers’ win over Missouri and has been strong all year long.

As for Georgia Tech, they have been impressive this season, led by Bianca Bertolino who is lethal from behind the service line as well as in the attack. Despite struggling behind the line in the Yellow Jackets’ two opening-round games, Bertolino is one of the team’s best servers and they will hope that she can be effective from behind the line against Nebraska. She added 18 kills against Florida, hitting .341 so Nebraska will look to try to slow her and Tamara Otene down, who recorded 21 kills against the Gators.

#2 Kentucky vs. #3 Arkansas: Dec. 7 at 4:30 p.m. EST (or 30 minutes after the GT-Neb. match ends) on ESPNU

Kentucky swept Arkansas in their two games played this season, winning 3-2 in October and then 3-0 in November. Brooklyn DeLeye had double-digit kills in both matches for Kentucky, with 16 in their October meeting and another 17 in their November meeting. For Arkansas, Taylor Head and Jillian Gillen had 24 and 23 kills, respectfully, in their October meeting and the Razorbacks will want both of those players to be in their top form on Thursday when the teams meet again.

Kentucky and Arkansas in a rally during their second meet-up of the SEC season. Photo from Arkansas Athletics

Kentucky met Wofford in the first round of the tournament, taking them out with a quick sweep. They then saw Baylor, who took down #7 James Madison in the first round. DeLeye had 13 kills in both matches and she will be a huge factor in hoping to take another win over Arkansas. SEC Setter of the Year Emma Grome will also be a key factor for the Wildcats as she recorded a combined 83 assists against Wofford and Baylor.

As for Arkansas, they played Stephen F. Austin in the opening round and then met a TCU team that took down #6 Florida State in four sets in the first round. Arkansas’s offensive production was pretty evenly split between Gillen and Head in the first two rounds, with Gillen finishing with 32 kills while Head had 29 kills. Continuing to look to these two players will be the goal but they will need to find ways to be unpredictable to finally upend the Wildcats.

Stanford Region

#1 Stanford vs. #5 Arizona State: Dec. 7 at 11:30 p.m. EST (or 30 minutes after Ten-Tex ends) on ESPNU

Stanford is looking to make their way back to the Final Four for the first time since their national championship run in 2019 and they are off to a good start but will face a tough Arizona State team in the next round. Stanford’s one Pac-12 loss this season was a sweep at Arizona State but split the series as the Cardinal took the Sun Devils out in a sweep at home. With both in-season matchups being sweeps, it is hard to predict how this match-up will go but it shows that Stanford will need to be firing on all cylinders to make it to the Regional Finals and beyond.

Elia Rubin of Stanford goes up for a kill in regular season match against Arizona State. Photo by Thomas Fernandez and Stanford Athletics

Stanford was pushed to five in their second-round match against #8 Houston, before eventually taking the fifth set with a convincing 15-7 win. Caitie Baird and Kendall Kipp both recorded 16 kills while Elia Rubin was the star of the show against Houston, recording 23 kills on 43 attempts to finish with a hitting percentage of .415. Setter Kami Miner had a huge night as she tied her career high with 60 assists. The Cardinal will need their three hitters to be working with Miner in and out of system in order to be successful against the Sun Devils.

The Sun Devils took down Georgia and #4 BYU in sweeps in their opening two matches. Marta Levinska recorded 17 kills in both games, showing her importance to this Sun Devils’ attack. Levinska was Arizona State’s leader in kills in their win over Stanford, with 17, but only had seven when Arizona State was swept by the Cardinal, so ASU will want to keep her firing on all cylinders, while the Cardinal will look to find ways to shut her down. In order to balance their attack, Arizona State is going to want Geli Cyr or Roberto Rabelo to be getting kills down especially if Stanford is effective in shutting down Levinska.

#2 Texas vs. #3 Tennessee: Dec. 7 at 9 p.m. on ESPN2

The defending national champions may not look as strong as they did last season but they are still a team fighting to get back to the Final Four. Their one conference loss this season was delivered in the form of a sweep by Kansas State in early November. Despite a rocky start in their opening round after dropping the first set to Texas A&M, the Longhorns were able to win three straight sets and then went on to sweep #7 SMU. Madisen Skinner will be the go-to for Texas as she recorded 41 kills in the Longhorns’ first two matches of the tournament. Tennessee’s goal should be to force as many errors as they can from Skinner as setter Ella Swindle will continue to return to her top hitter but if the Vols can frustrate and slow her down, they will have a better chance at finding success.

Tennessee is back in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2005 after two sweeps in the opening two rounds of the tournament. They started with a sweep over High Point and then swept #6 Western Kentucky in the second round. Morgahn Fingall and Jenaisya Moore are the heavy hitters for the Vols, recording 30 and 36 kills in the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament, respectfully. This duo will be key to the success on offense for the Vols against Texas. Additionally, Texas will need to look out for Keondreya Granberry at the net as she recorded 11 blocks over the two opening games of the tournament.

Madison Region

#1 Wisconsin vs. #5 Penn State: Dec. 7 at 7 p.m. on ESPN2

The Badgers and Nittany Lions have already met this season, with the Nittany Lions coming out on top 3-1 in University Park. When these two teams met on November 11, Penn State held Wisconsin to a .176 hitting percentage, a season-low for the Badgers. Wisconsin was playing that matchup without opposite Anna Smrek, who has been incredibly impressive for the Badgers since her return. This is bound to make a significant difference for the two teams as Smrek adds another option on offense and a large blocking presence.

The Badgers took down Jackson State and Miami (FL) in their first two matches of the NCAA tournament in convincing sweeps. Big Ten Player of the Year, Sarah Franklin, combined for 25 kills across the two matches, while Smrek added another 23 kills for the two matches. The Badgers showed yet again that they are one of the most complete teams in the country, recording over 30 blocks across the two first-round games, as well as eight service aces. Slowing down the Badgers will require Penn State to serve tough and work to get them out of system.

Penn State dropped their first set against Yale in the first round of the tournament but Jess Mruzik and Mac Podraza carried the Nittany Lions to a four-set victory, as Mruzik had 19 kills while hitting .486, and Podraza added 42 assists. They then played a close five-set match with No. 4 Kansas, outlasting the Jayhawks 15-13 in the final set. Mruzik showed up big again for the Nittany Lions with 21 kills.

#2 Oregon vs. #3 Purdue: Dec. 7 at 9:30 p.m. EST (or 30 minutes after the Wis.-PSU match ends) on ESPNU

Oregon was the Pac-12 runner-up, behind one-seeded Stanford, and they have been dominant thus far in the tournament with sweeps over Southeastern Louisana and Hawaii. Mimi Coyler combined for 18 kills across the two matches, not having her best day against Hawaii as she only hit 0.037, but she will be a large factor for Oregon to have success against Purdue. Morgan Lewis is another weapon to watch out for as the Ducks play the Boilermakers, after she finished the Hawaii match without any errors, hitting .667 for 14 kills on 21 attempts.

Morgan Lewis celebrates a point against Hawaii. Photo by Kallie Hansel-Tennes for WSX.

As for Purdue, they will turn to Eva Hudson for the majority of their offensive production. When the Boilermakers faced the Marquette Golden Eagles in the second round, Hudson took 73 attempts and converted for 27 kills with only seven errors to finish with a .288 hitting percentage. Oregon will need to find a way to get the block up against Hudson to try and force her to error. Slowing her down will be the key for Oregon to have success. Hudson is not Purdue’s only attacker though as Chloe Chicoine has also been strong this season, with 30 kills across the first two NCAA tournament games.

Pittsburgh Region

#1 Pittsburgh vs. #4 Washington State: Dec. 7 at 2:30 p.m. EST (or 30 minutes after the Cre-Lou match ends) on ESPNU

The Pitt Panthers had a slight scare, as they went down 1-0 in their second-round match against USC but were able to bounce back and secure three straight set wins by at least five points. Olivia Babcock was the star for the Panthers as she recorded 16 kills, but only hit .159 percent, but she added six blocks. This will be something to look out for during their Sweet Sixteen match-up with Washington State because Pitt will certainly want her to be effective and efficient in getting kills down. Emma Monks had eight blocks against USC to lead the team and will be a key factor for the Panthers at the net. Torrey Stafford will be another attacker the Cougars will need to keep an eye on as she recorded 24 kills across the opening two matches of the tournament.

The Washington State Cougars swept debutantes Grand Canyon before taking down Dayton in four sets. The Cougars have the NCAA all-time block leader on their side in Magda Jehlarova, who is an all-around threat as she recorded 22 kills and 13 blocks across the opening two rounds. In the match-up with Dayton, Jehlarova went without any errors, hitting .750 for 15 kills on 20 attempts. Iman Isanovic and Pia Timmer are the other two offensive weapons that Pitt will need to watch out for as they both recorded 27 kills across the two matches played in the the tournament thus far.

#2 Louisville vs. #3 Creighton: Dec. 7 at noon EST on ESPN2

The Louisville Cardinals are on a mission to make it back to the Final Four for the third straight year but have a tough test in front of them with the Creighton Bluejays. Louisville started the tournament over with a scare, dropping their first set to Wright State but have not dropped a set since. The Cardinals are led by senior hitter Anna DeBeer and redshirt sophomore Cara Cresse who plays well beyond her years. The pair combined for 18 kills against Western Michigan in the second round. Louisville has one of the most balanced attacks as all hitters had at least five kills in their match against Wright State showing that it is not easy to slow them down.

Creighton Volleyball celebrates moving onto the Sweet Sixteen after a sweep over Minnesota. Photo by Sullivan Lawrence with Creighton Athletics

The Bluejays were able to walk away with sweeps in both of their opening games, despite playing a tough Minnesota team that took them to five sets in September. Norah Sis and Ava Martin are the go-tos for setter Kendra Wait as they recorded 16 and 15 kills, respectively in the match against Minnesota. Kiana Schmitt will be the one to watch out for at the net for the Bluejays as she recorded eight blocks in the opening two rounds. Creighton will need to balance their attack and get up for the block to stay down a strong attacking team in Louisville.


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