Above the Net: NCAAs Preview

Today starts the 2006 Women's Volleyball NCAA Tournament. 64 teams hope to hoist hardware in three weeks in Omaha, but most of those dreams will be shattered in the next four days of sub-regional play. We dig deep and preview all four regional brackets, with predictions plus players and upsets to watch. Our projected Final Four includes two top-four national seeds plus two upset arrivals...


December 1-2 at Lincoln, Nebraska
#1 Nebraska (27-1) vs. American (25-6)
Winthrop (34-2) vs. Northern Iowa (27-7)

December 1-2 at Knoxville, Tennessee
Tennessee (19-11) vs. Duke (28-3)
Jacksonville State (24-4) vs. #16 San Diego (24-5)

November 30- December 1 at Gainesville, Florida
#9 Florida (28-2) vs. Florida A&M (21-6)
College of Charleston (27-7) vs. Arizona State (15-14)

November 30- December 1 at Albany, New York
St. John's (N.Y.) (30-4) vs. Albany (19-12)
Siena (22-12) vs. #8 Minnesota (23-7)

Most Intriguing First-Round Match
Tennessee vs. Duke - Tennessee, last year's Cinderella team that found itself in the Final Four after knocking out host Penn State in the Elite Eight, stumbled through the Southeastern Conference this year with a 10-10 mark after starting off the year with a strong 9-1 record.  Sarah Blum sits atop the league in blocks per game with a 1.84 average, while Yuliya Stoyanova and Kelsey Fautsch lead the Lady Vols on offense with 4.08 and 3.32 kills per game, respectively.  Duke won the Atlantic Coast Conference for the first time since 1993 and received the league's only tournament bid.  Ranked No. 25 in the country according to the AVCA Top 25 Poll, the Blue Devils swept the major ACC honors, with Jolene Nagel winning Coach of the Year, Ali Hausfeld taking Player of the Year, and Rachel Moss receiving Freshman of the Year.  Despite its high ranking, Duke could fall prey to Tennessee's home court advantage.  And if the three-headed monster offense of Stoyanova, Fautsch and Blum doesn't do the Blue Devils in, the constant blaring of "Rocky Top" certainly will.

Ripe for an Upset
Florida (9) vs. Minnesota (8), Sweet Sixteen – So Florida defeating Minnesota wouldn't exactly shock the world, but according to the seedings, it would still be an upset.  While the Golden Gophers finished second in the Big 10, the Gators powered their way to the top of the SEC, one of only three leagues to receive seven bids into the NCAA Tournament, along with the Big 10 and Pac-10.  While Meredith Nelson and Jessy Jones make quite a one-two punch in the middle for head coach Mike Hebert, Kelsey Bowers and Elsye Cusack have proven to be some of the best defenders East of the Mississippi.  Throw in Kisya Killingsworth and Marci Hampton on the outside, in addition to home-court advantage, and the Gators will be chomping on the Golden Gophers for lunch.

Did You Know?
Ann and Claire Recht, two freshman middle blockers from American University, are the world's tallest set of female twins at 6'7". Ann is a starter for the Eagles and averaged 1.48 kills and 1.05 blocks per game, second on the team.

The "Other" Stars to Watch
Amber McCray (Florida) – Much has been said about fellow Gators Kelsey Bowers and Elyse Cusack due to their phenomenal defense and the SEC honors to back it up, though Amber McCray has been lighting it up on the right side, providing Florida with a great source of offense when needed.  The 6'3" redshirt junior was named to the All-SEC First Team after putting down a team-leading 3.72 kills per game while hitting a .371 clip.

Jordan Larson (Nebraska) – Sarah, Sarah, Sarah!  It's a good thing that Jordan Larson doesn't suffer from Jan Brady syndrome and is all about team glory rather than personal gratification; she'll have to wait after Sarah Pavan graduates before she'll get a sniff at Big 12 Player of the Year accolades.  Voted as Co-Defensive Player of the Year and a First-Team All-Big 12 selection, Larson is currently averaging 4.23 kills, 3.40 digs, and 0.45 aces per game and would be the big dog on any other team that didn't have a 6'5" Player of the Year candidate on its roster.

Malama Peniata (Minnesota) – Filling the shoes of one of the greatest liberos in NCAA history is a difficult task for anyone to handle, but Malma Peniata has stepped up to the plate and established herself as a top-notch back-row defender in the post-Paula Gentil era.  The 5'8" Peniata is essential to the Golden Gopher passing rotation and plays the best defense in the Big 10, as evidenced by her 2006 Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year plaque.  She is currently averaging 5.41 digs per game.

Flying Under the Radar
Kristen Carlson (San Diego) – After suffering such a tumultuous college career, who would have ever thought that Kristen Carlson would bounce back so nicely?  After defecting to the University of San Diego from Washington State after earning All Pac-10 Freshman honors, the 6'2" left-handed outside hitter was hit with injury after injury.  Last season, after being the leading candidate for West Coast Conference Player of the Year, Carlson tore her ACL against Santa Clara and many wondered if she would ever be the same.  However, thanks to a tireless work ethic and the support of the fantastic Torero coaching staff, the Virginia native is back better than ever and should challenge for All-American honors.  The wild-haired, hard-hitting terminator was named the 2006 WCC Player of the Year after averaging 5.10 kills, 3.52 digs, and 0.55 blocks per game.

Champion of the Gainesville Bracket
Florida – Behind a supportive home crowd, Florida hopes to stun top-seeded Nebraska for a chance to play in the Final Four.  The Gators have a great defense in the front and back row, courtesy of Kelsey Bowers and Elyse Cusack, and a potent offense run by All-American Angie McGinnis.  She was named this year's SEC Player of the Year, and her hitters make her look good.  With Kisya Killingsworth, Marci Hampton, and Amber McCray terminating at the antennas and Bowers doing her job in the middle, it'll be just enough to topple the Big Red and disappoint thousands of hometown fans who have waited a season to see the Cornhuskers in Omaha.  Sarah Pavan will get her numbers, but the athletic Gators will take it to the visitors from the start.


November 30-December 1 at Los Angeles, California
#5 USC (25-4) vs. Ole Miss (19-12)
UC Santa Barbara (19-11) vs. BYU (24-5)

December 1-2 at Long Beach, California
Pepperdine (16-11) vs. Long Beach State (25-5)
Oregon (17-11) vs. #12 Hawaii (26-5)

December 1-2 at Fayetteville, Arkansas
#13 Oklahoma (26-5) vs. Oral Roberts (26-8)
Missouri State (26-8) vs. Arkansas (16-12)

December 1-2 at Los Angeles, California
Utah (27-3) vs. Michigan State (19-11)
UAB (27-9) vs. #4 UCLA (29-3)

Most Intriguing First-Round Match
Oregon vs. Hawaii (12) – In the past, the NCAA Committee has not done Hawaii any favors; this year is no different, pairing the Rainbow Wahine with the resurgent Oregon Ducks.  Legendary coach Dave Shoji captured another Western Athletic Conference crown behind the play of All-American Kanoe Kamana'o and all-conference performer Jamie Houston.  Jim Moore, the ex-coach at Texas before he was ousted in 2003, has turned a losing program around; despite his squad suffering a current seven-game losing streak, he'll have his players ready to pull the upset.  If Hawaii makes it past Oregon, it has West Coast Conference power Pepperdine or Big West runner-up Long Beach State awaiting.

Ripe for an Upset
Utah vs. UCLA, Second Round – On track for a seed and a hosting gig, Utah shot itself in the foot after a shocking five-game loss to Colorado State in the Mountain West Conference Championship match.  Due to a weak non-conference schedule and an even weaker conference challenge, Utah was penalized with a possible second-round match-up with Pac-10 power UCLA, despite occupying a spot in the AVCA Top 15 for a majority of the season.  With talented players like Airal Salvo and Whitney Webb on the outside, Emillie Toone and Lori Baird patrolling the middle, and super frosh Sydney Anderson running the show, the Utes will be hungry for respect and will do their best to pull out a huge victory by taming the Bruins in Westwood.

Did You Know?
Two teams in the Honolulu bracket, the University of Mississippi and the University of Alabama-Birmingham, are making their first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament, joining St. John's (Gainesville), Saint Louis (Seattle), and Belmont (Seattle) as postseason newbies.  Penn State, Stanford, and UC Santa Barbara are the only teams to have qualified for all 26 NCAA Tournaments.

The "Other" Stars to Watch
Emillie Toone (Utah) – Teammate Airal Salvo may have been the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year, but Emillie Toone's contributions in the middle have been just as important for the unseeded Utes.  Toone used all of her 6'7" frame to good use, leading the nation with 1.94 blocks per game.  She put down 2.47 kills per game at a team-leading .378 clip, and for her efforts earned a spot on the All-MWC First Team.

Alexis Crimes (Long Beach State) – Brian Gimmillaro has had a long history of churning All-Americans out of The Pyramid, and Alexis Crimes is no different.  A starter of the U.S. Junior National Team two summers ago and a potential senior national team member, Crimes ruled the Big West to the tune of 3.66 kills and 1.34 blocks, white hitting at a .379 clip.  The 6'3" middle blocker was named the 2006 Co-Big West Player of the Year and will contend for a spot on the All-American team after earning Third-Team honors her freshman year.

Flying Under the Radar
Elaine Santos (Oklahoma) – This is the first year since 1997 that Oklahoma will be dancing, and Elaine Santos is a huge reason why her team is punching its dance card to Fayetteville, Ark. as the 13th-overall seed.  After suffering through a 7-22 year in 2005, including a dismal 2-12 mark in the Big 12, Santos helped the Sooners to a second-place finish in conference and an overall record of 26-5.  The 6'2" Brazilian earned Co-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors, in addition to a spot on the league First Team, after rejecting 1.61 blocks per game, all while adding 3.04 kills per game out of the middle.

Champion of the Honolulu Bracket
UCLA – UCLA is the favorite to reach Omaha from Honolulu, which would be its first appearance in a national semifinal since 1994 – a lifetime for such an illustrious program with a history of winning.  The Bruins are favored because of 6'1" middle blocker Nana Meriwether, the high-flying senior who can shut down almost any opposing offense single-handedly, averaging 1.94 blocks per game.  She can also hit almost any set that All-American candidate Nellie Spicer gives her.  Head coach Andy Banachowski has a solid core of outside hitters to rely on, rotating one out if another is struggling.  If the seedings hold true, UCLA will face USC in the Stan Sheriff Center, and the Bruins will look to make it 3-0 this season against the Trojans after beating them twice during Pac-10 play.


December 1-2 at State College, Pennsylvania
#3 Penn State (29-2) vs. Long Island (25-10)
Cornell (18-8) vs. Hofstra (23-6)

November 30- December 1 at West Lafayette, Indiana
Kentucky (18-11) vs. Ohio (28-4)
St. Louis (22-8) vs. #14 Purdue (21-10)

December 1-2 at Louisville, Kentucky
#11 Ohio State (23-7) vs. Belmont (24-6)
Middle Tennessee State (26-7) vs. Louisville (25-6)

November 30- December 1 at Boulder, Colorado
Colorado (16-11) vs. New Mexico State (33-3)
Colorado State (20-9) vs. #6 Washington (25-4)

Ripe for an Upset
Ohio vs. Purdue (14), Second Round – Purdue started off the season on a strong note, winning its first 15 out of 17 matches, but has since faded badly down the stretch, losing six out of its last eight matches.  However, the NCAA Committee still rewarded the Boilermakers with a Top 16 seed and a host site because a majority of its losses were in the difficult Big 10.  Ohio is coming off of a Sweet Sixteen appearance, and senior setter Savanah Parra is the driving force behind the Bobcats, leading her squad to 21 straight victories before dropping the season finale to Louisville.  If Parra connects well with her hitters, including the Mid-American Conference Freshman of the Year Ellen Herman, the Bobcats will dance again into the Sweet Sixteen.

The "Other" Stars to Watch
Christa Harmotto (Penn State) – The Penn State juggernaut has been controlled this year by two hard-hitting outside hitters in Megan Hodge and Nicole Fawcett.  Lost in the shuffle is middle blocker Christa Harmotto, a two-time All-Big 10 selection who has extensive experience with the U.S. Junior National Team.  A terminating hitter who can run the slide to perfection, the 6'2" Harmotto averaged 2.85 kills and 1.53 blocks per game while hitting a conference-best .405 clip.  On any other team, she would be the go-to hitter, but for the Nittany Lions, she's just the third or fourth option for setter Alisha Glass.

Savanah Parra (Ohio) – Playing in the little-known Mid-American Conference, Savanah Parra will try to bring the limelight back to the Midwest by helping Ohio reach the Sweet Sixteen for the second consecutive year.  A great floor general who runs a quick offense, Parra was named the MAC Setter of the Year after averaging 13.50 assists per game and leading the Bobcats to a solid .286 hitting percentage.

Flying Under the Radar
Ana Yartseva Stewart (Louisville) – One of six foreigners on the Louisville roster, Ana Yartseva Stewart is proving to be the best of the bunch.  The 6'4" middle blocker earned AVCA Third-Team honors in 2004 and is on track to earn another All-American accolade with the year she has been having.  The 2006 Big East Player of the Year guided the Cardinals to a Big East regular season championship and tournament title, leading the league in hitting percentage (.412) while averaging 2.59 digs, 2.49 kills, and 1.34 blocks per game.

Champion of the Seattle Bracket
Washington – For a team that hasn't lost at home since the 2004 season, it would seem silly to bet against them, wouldn't it?  After not dropping 13 matches in Seattle this season, senior Courtney Thompson and Pac-10 Player of the Year Christal Morrison will be hard pressed to let their Huskies lose again, no matter who the opponent is.  Add in a super dose of hard-nose defense, courtesy of libero Tamari Miyashiro and middles Alesha Deesing and Jessica Swarbrick, and Jim McLaughlin's crew seems destined for Omaha.  Penn State will be the likely opponent in the regional final, but the heavy reliance on outsides Nicole Fawcett and Big 10 Player and Freshman of the Year Megan Hodge could prove to be costly.  If setter Alisha Glass can dish the rock out to the middles Christa Harmotto and Melissa Walbridge more, the Nittany Lions could have a chance to unseat the Huskies, but even still, it's likely that the defending national champions will get a shot to repeat.


December 1-2 at Austin, Texas
#7 Texas (21-6) vs. Prairie View (23-10)
Stephen F. Austin (30-3) vs. Alabama (17-12)

December 1-2 at Madison, Wisconsin
Iowa State (20-10) vs. Wisconsin-Milwaukee (24-5)
Notre Dame (18-13) vs. #10 Wisconsin (24-6)

December 1-2 at San Luis Obispo, California
#15 Cal Poly (22-5) vs. Michigan (21-12)
California (20-9) vs. LSU (26-5)

December 2-3 at Stanford, California
(moved due to weather travel delay for Missouri)
Missouri (17-12) vs. Santa Clara (20-7)
Sacramento State (30-5) vs. #2 Stanford (25-3)

Most Intriguing First-Round Match
California vs. LSU – Cal finished the season as a regular in the AVCA Top 15 Poll.  LSU ended the year in second place in the SEC, one of only three conferences to get seven teams into the tournament.  Yet why are these two squads meeting in the first round?  A head-scratching move for sure by the selection committee.  An injury to Cal setter Sam Carter could affect the Golden Bears' play, but the outside tandem of Angie Pressey and Hana Cutura should put a "W" in the win column for the Pac-10.

Ripe for an Upset
Cal Poly vs. Stanford (2), Sweet Sixteen – It isn't too often that a team beats Stanford twice in one season, let alone a non-Pac-10 team, but in 2004, Saint Mary's did just that.  Head coach Jon Stevenson had taken over a Gaels program that wasn't known for doing much and turned it into a winner.  Fast forward two years and he is doing the same thing at Cal Poly, taking him only two years to build a Big West championship squad.  The Mustangs have superb ball control and play an up-tempo offense.  While Stanford has the overall superior talent, who knows what could happen with Stevenson on the sidelines calling the shots.  If you believe in déjà vu, then you'll be a firm believer in this upset, though the three-headed monster of Foluke Akinradewo, Cynthia Barboza, and Kristin Richards could squelch any hopes of one.

The "Other" Stars to Watch
Brittany Dolgner (Wisconsin) – Any other year, Brittany Dolgner would have been the Big 10 Freshman of the Year, but unfortunately for her, she just happened to be in the same class as phenom Megan Hodge.  Doglner's numbers suggest that she will be a force in the Big 10 for years to come and could lead the Badgers back to a Final Four before she graduates.  The all-around outside hitter was the first freshman in Wisconsin history to be named to the All-Big 10 First Team, in addition to earning a spot on the All-Freshman squad.  For the year, the 6'2" left sider averaged 4.14 kills, 2.51 digs, 0.50 blocks, and 0.29 aces per game, all while hitting at a solid .233 clip.

Jessica Vander Kooi (Missouri) – Earning her third straight All-Big 12 First Team honor, Jessica Vander Kooi shouldered much of the offensive load for Missouri, putting down 4.11 kills per game at a respectable .257 hitting percentage.  She's also a great all-around player, posting 3.22 digs and 0.94 blocks per game to her credit.  She'll be playing in her final NCAA Tournament, and she won't let the Tigers go down without a fight.

Flying Under the Radar
Kylie Atherstone (Cal Poly) – Only a sophomore, Kylie Atherstone stamped herself as a legitimate All-American candidate with a fantastic year on the right side.  Virtually unknown out of high school, the 6'1" opposite earned Cal Poly's first Big West Player of the Year award, sharing the top honor with Long Beach State's Alexis Crimes, in addition to her second consecutive All-Big West First Team placement.  With a hammer for an arm, Atherstone is an explosive attacker, evidenced by her season average of 4.50 kills per game at a .254 clip.  She also posted 2.00 digs and 1.09 blocks per game.

Champion of the Austin Bracket
Stanford – Stanford has too much talent to be denied a trip to Omaha this year.  Though opponents will target defending against the usual suspects of Foluke Akinradewo, Cynthia Barboza, and Kristin Richards, it is the offensive emergence of middle blocker Franci Girard and right side hitter Erin Waller that will give the Cardinal the necessary balance to advance to the Final Four.  Setter Bryn Kehoe has played well as of late, running the team's offense to a "T" and infusing the team with energy, awesome defense and gung-ho leadership style.  Wisconsin could pose a problem for Texas, with Taylor Reineke in the middle and Brittney Dolgner and Maria Carlini on the outside.  However, the Longhorns have two of the most exciting freshman in the country in Ashley Engle and Destinee Hooker on its roster, and coupled with a seasoned setter in Michelle Moriarty and a crafty left side in Dariam Acevedo, the Burnt Orange should match up with the Cardinal in the Elite Eight.  Hometown fans won't be able to say "Hook ‘Em Horns" with much enthusiasm, as the combination of offense and defense of Stanford should be enough to get them past Texas.

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