As December rolls around we find ourselves yet again spoiled by so much high-level volleyball. There have been more upsets around the conferences than ever and new programs have emerged on the biggest stage. The first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament are now over and we are left with 16 teams. The biggest surprises so far are Washington and Creighton being knocked out by unranked TCU and Auburn respectively. Auburn out of the SEC barely got a bid to the tournament but made the best out of it and played the University of Houston in the second round and just fell short to a Houston team who has won 7 out of 8 five-set games this season.
The Cougars are having themselves a bit of a Cinderella season and it will continue on Thursday with them playing #5 Stanford in California. As the clear underdogs in this game, the Cougars are playing with nothing to lose. Stanford is just rising from the funk they've been in for a couple of seasons now and HC Kevin Hambly is looking to restore greatness from the 2018 & 2019 seasons. Getting Kendall Kipp and Caitie Baird going will be key to victory for Stanford. On the other hand for Houston key points will be stopping the Cardinal from running their offense and frustrating them enough to have a chance to get going. I don't think this will be a walk in the park for Stanford and it's going to be fun to see if Houston will come out firing on all cylinders or sit back and try to frustrate.
Also in Stanford's regional is No. 2 in the nation San Diego who plays #15 Kentucky for a spot in the Elite Eight; a match that very well could go to five sets as well. Kentucky has faced some adversity after winning the National Championship in 2020* (played in the spring of 2021). Losing All-Americans in all positions, they dumped out of the tournament in the second round last year after being upset by unranked Illinois but look fit and ready for a fight now. San Diego started the season very impressively pulling off upsets left and right with Penn State transfer setter Gabby Blossom dictating their success, and they don't seem to be slowing down anytime soon. Kentucky and San Diego will face off at 8 PM ET on ESPNU on December 8, 2022. The Stanford - University of Houston game will be starting 30 minutes following the end of that first match.
The road to Omaha runs through the `Ville, as the University of Louisville hosts Oregon, Nebraska, and Baylor. There is a lot of defensive power in this region with Nebraska and Oregon being two of the top defensive teams in the nation. Louisville does not lack any talent in the back row either as sophomore libero Elena Scott picks up a spot on the ACC team of the year for the second year in a row. UofL middle blocker Amaya Tillman also got named ACC defensive player of the year. Sophomore OH Anna DeBeer suffered a knee injury mid-season that put her on the sideline for 12 matches but is back swinging in the front row for the tournament. Despite the loss of DeBeer the Cardinal train has just kept going and going this season. With only one loss to conference rivals Pittsburgh and a pre-season loss to Ohio State, they have been as consistent as ever. The Cardinals are looking to continue their amazing run in the tournament under head coach Dani Busboom Kelly, leading the team to their first-ever Final Four last season. Having swept Purdue in a very convincing manner in the second round the next opponent for the Cardinals are the Baylor Bears out of the Big 12. Baylor surprisingly had some problems getting through the second round at all with Rice University proving to not be as easy of an opponent as people might have been expecting. Baylor had to dig deep to pull off the win but ultimately outlasted the #20 Rice Owls in five sets with Lauren Harrison leading the way with 19 kills.
Nebraska and Oregon are the two other teams trying to find a way to Omaha through Louisville. The Huskers are hoping to achieve what they did last year and then some after falling just short in the championship against conference foe Wisconsin.
There have been some doubts about the state of this Nebraska team this year and the last few weeks as Captain and Senior Kenzie Knuckles went down with a season-ending injury two weeks before tourney time. After being swept by Wisconsin and Minnesota without Knuckles or the starting setter Hames, playing Oregon will prove to everyone if they really are tuned in for greatness this year. Sophomore attacker Whitney Lauenstein has proven to be an offensive spark that many thought would disappear with All-American middle blocker Lauren Stivrins. Nebraska finally got the middles going, Hord and Allick got 8 and 9 kills respectively and Kaitlyn Hord showed Kansas no mercy and ended the night with 7 blocks. If it's too late for Nebraska to get out of the funk they have been in for the past weeks will show on Thursdays when the Oregon Ducks are on the other side of the net. The ducks out of the PAC-12 have gone quietly and consistently about their business this season and it looks like it is about to pay off. Brooke Nuneviller might be one of the most complete players in the entire nation and stacked up 19 kills in the 3-1 win over Arkansas in the second round. Nuneviller was a part of the 2018 team that made waves in the tournament with a wild win over Minnesota but ultimately got swept by Nebraska in the Regional Final. As a team, Oregon had 15 blocks on the night and freshman Mimi Colyer is second of all freshmen in the nation in hitting %. Will Oregon be able to continue their 15-0 winning streak and head into the Elite 8 or will Nebraska as the tournament team they are pull this off? Catch the game on ESPNU, Thursday December 8, 2022 at 11 AM.
In the Austin regional we have the Texas Longhorns that have been ranked #1 all but two weeks this season. Logan Eggleston's collegiate career is coming to an end and she got all of the awards except for the national championship. In no better way to describe it, the Longhorns have been steamrolling through the season and are yet again Big 12 champions. It doesn't look like they have done anything other than get ready for December this season. The defense is smooth and the offense is showing no mercy, they are stacked in all positions and rotations and there is truly no one but themselves that can stop them it seems like. However just because Texas is the favorite to win one should be careful to count Marquette out. Going in waves the Marquette program has years of excellence here and there. This season is one of the better. Snatching the Big West title right in front of Creighton made Georgia Tech not look like the powerhouse they were when they advanced to the Regionals. Marquette has produced three All-Region players and took down Georgia Tech with the offense spread out well, which will also be a key factor in the game against Texas. This is only the second time in program history they've made it this far in the tournament.
In the other game in this Austin final, we are being treated to a Big 10 match-up with Ohio State and Minnesota battling for advancement. This game will obviously be different as the teams know each other so well. The teams split the regular season and there is so much more on the line for this game. Minnesota has the Big Ten player of the year in Taylor Landfair and are not lacking offensive power. Ohio State's Mac Podraza and Kylie Murr became the first setter of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year to come out of the buckeye program. I would say Minnesota had an outstanding ending to the season, finally getting into the groove they have been searching for all year while Ohio St hit a slump and fell short to unranked teams two weeks in a row. You will not want to miss this game as it could become one of the best Regional Semifinals in years to come. Catch the game on ESPN2 at 12 PM ET on December 8, 2022, with the Texas - Marquette game shortly following the end of that game.
The last region of this tournament is the Madison region where reigning champions Wisconsin will treat us to yet another Big Ten matchup against Penn State. Both of these teams have taken some uncharacteristic hits in terms of losses this season but as any seasoned team, they come back stronger. Many people thought the loss of the high number of All-Americans Wisconsin graduated after last season would hit them worse than it has. The only markable difference is that they are now running a 6-2 instead of a 5-1 but that does not seem to phase them at all. Sarah Franklin has been stacking up numbers all season long and has registered over 100 kills more than Devyn Robinson who is next on the list. Turkish international libero Gulce Guctekin has seamlessly taken over for Lauren Barnes and Julia Orzol is top 5 in any category for the Badgers. Will they be able to become back-to-back National Champions or will they fall short to Penn State? Russ Rose, the winningest D1 coach of all time decided to step down as Head Coach and handed Katie Schumacher-Cawley the reins. She is only the third-ever HC in Penn State Volleyball history and it is even more impressive that she has led the Nittany Lions to yet another Regional Semifinal. One could say Penn State experienced an exodus of transfers out of the program after the Russ Rose news but Schumacher-Cawley also managed to get some great players from the portal. Setter Seleisa Elisaia, middle blocker Allie Holland and Outside hitter Kashauna “Kash” Williams all earned Big Ten honors. Penn State was yet another team that took some time to figure things out but once they got the offense going, they immediately became a hard team to play. Wisconsin took the season series with a 3-0 win at the start of the season and a hard-fought 3-2 win in one of the last games of the regular season.
Florida is a team that one has become accustomed to being in the tournament and regularly going far. Pittsburgh is yet another team out of the ACC that has emerged on the big stage just recently. Which team will be the one to face the winner of the Big Ten showdown for a spot in the Final Four? Pitt head coach and the East Coast Region coach of the year Dan Fisher has done incredible things for this Pittsburgh program, getting transfers such as Serena Gray and Courtney Buzzario has been monumental. This team is so explosive and leaves absolutely everything on the court which makes them extremely fun to watch. Rachel Fairbanks is yet another all-around complete player and does essentially everything for this team. And when I say everything I mean everything. Posting a first-ever triple-double in the NCAA tournament in program history in the sweep against BYU. Fairbanks is the first Panther since 2001 with multiple triple-doubles in a season. She ended the night with 10 kills, 28 assists, and 13 digs and will be the player to stop for Florida. Fairbanks runs the offense from everywhere on the court and with her out of balance the rest of the Panthers have to find another way to win. Mary Wise is a legend in the game and is hoping to lead the Florida Gators to their 19th Regional Final. Alexis Stucky is in the running for FOTY and many will give her a lot of credit for the Gators' success this season. It is not easy for a true freshman to start immediately and be expected to dictate the offense of a huge program like Florida, but the freshman has done well. Markon, Beason, and Victoria are all close in the number of kills this season which is a testament to a well-run offense where everyone is involved. An offense where everyone is involved means that the opposing block cannot take any shortcuts and has to stay with all three hitters. This gives Florida the option to read the defense better and set the ball where it's most likely to hit the floor without Stucky being forced to trap set her hitters.
Flordia and Pittsburgh are the first ones to play on ESPNU at 3:30 PM ET on December 8, 2022. The Wisconsin - Penn State will be on 30 minutes after that game.