Above the Net: NCAAs Preview 2007

Today starts the 2007 Women's Volleyball NCAA Tournament. 64 teams hope to hoist hardware in three weeks in Sacramento, 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. It was hard to not pick all top-four national seeds for our projected Final Four...

Stanford Regional

November 30 – December 1 at Stanford, Calif.
No. 1 Stanford (27-2) vs. Santa Clara (19-11)
Minnesota (18-12) vs. Sacramento State (28-7)

November 30 – December 1 at Athens, Ohio
Purdue (18-13) vs. Ohio (26-5)
Xavier (24-10) vs. No. 16 Cal Poly (21-7)

November 30 – December 1 at Manhattan, Kan.
No. 9 Kansas State (22-8) vs. Tulsa (27-8)
Oregon (20-10) vs. Missouri State (25-7)

November 30 – December 1 at Clemson, S.C.
Alabama (15-14) vs. Clemson (28-3)
Alabama A&M (15-9) vs. No. 8 UCLA (20-10)

Most Interesting First Round Match-Up

Xavier vs. Cal Poly – At the beginning of the season, The Bootleg pegged Cal Poly as one of the Top 10 teams in the country and while mounting losses to Kansas State, Nebraska, Penn State, and Stanford were forgivable, the defeat at the hands of Xavier was inexcusable. Since then, Cal Poly has run the table in the Big West, losing only once in conference to Pacific, and has solidified its position as a Sweet Sixteen squad. Opposite Kylie Atherstone and Ali Waller combined for 39 kills in the five-game loss to the Musketeers, but the duo only hit .188 in the loss. If Atherstone and Waller are smarter with the ball, Cal Poly should easily advance to the next round, but if they struggle, Xavier could pull off another upset.

Did You Know?

With UC Santa Barbara posting a dismal 14-18 record this year, Stanford and Penn State become the only two schools to be chosen for every NCAA Tournament. Currently, the Cardinal and the Nittany Lions are not only making their 27th-straight appearance in The Big Dance, but the two teams have also achieved No. 1 seeds in their respective regionals.

Ripe for an Upset

Oregon vs. No. 9 Kansas State, Second Round – The match between the hometown and ninth-seeded Kansas State and Oregon could be a barnburner, especially if the two program's top guns come to play. For the Wildcats, opposite Nataly Korobkova lived up to the preseason hype after she was voted the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year thanks to numbers like 4.39 kills and 1.16 blocks per game. In addition, Angie Lastra provides great defense in the back row, upstaging Missouri's Tatum Ailes in the ballots as the league's top libero; the 5'6" senior averaged 4.80 digs per game. For the Ducks, it all starts with the arm swing of junior Gorana Marcic, a 6'3" outside hitter who knows how to throw her team on her back and take them to victory. Underrated Katie Swoboda and her 5.34 digs per game lend proper support to the Serbian Bomber, while sophomore Sonja Newcombe is a complementary weapon on the outside, tacking on 3.53 kills and 2.59 digs per game to her name. A fired up crowd at the Ahearn Field House could push Kansas State through to the Sweet Sixteen, but if Maricic gets hot and finds a rhythm, Oregon has as good of a chance as any to leave Manhattan, Kan. victorious.

The "Other" Stars to Watch

Lauren Gibbemeyer, Minnesota – In a season filled with inconsistent and somewhat maddeningly play, freshman Lauren Gibbemeyer was one of the bright spots for head coach Mike Hebert and served notice that she is a star in waiting. The 6'2" middle blocker's number may not be all that impressive, but the future All-American remains an important cog for the Golden Gophers, finishing first in aces per game (0.29), second in hitting percentage (.279) and blocks per game (1.08), and third in kills per game (2.84).

Gorana Maricic, Oregon – Playing in a conferences like the Pac-10, it is easy to be overlooked when the press is directing much of their attention to returning All-Americans like Foluke Akinradewo, Christal Morrison, and Nellie Spicer. However, conference coaches know who Gorana Maricic is, especially after seeing that she averages over five kills a game. The 6'3" Serbian outside hitter recently posted 7.71 kills per game on a .382 clip against USC and UCLA and with that type of output, Oregon has a chance to upset No. 9 Kansas State and reach the Sweet Sixteen.

Flying Under the Radar

Erin Waller, Stanford – Whenever a team is loaded with All-Americans and future Olympians, it's always tough to stand out. However, junior Erin Waller has done an outstanding job attacking from the right side and her contributions are a big reason why Stanford nabbed the overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Whether she's hitting the ball on a "5" set or running around playmaker Bryn Kehoe to terminate on the slide, the 6'1" Ballwin, Mo. native keeps opponents from keying on teammates Foluke Akinradewo, Cynthia Barboza, and Alix Klineman, demanding that they must respect her offensive capabilities as well; she is hitting over .300 in her last 10 matches.

Champion of Stanford Regional

As a reward for playing the toughest schedule in the country, Stanford has the easiest draw to Sacramento and as a result, should come out of this regional unscathed. The firepower of middle blocker Foluke Akinradewo and outside hitters Cynthia Barboza and Alix Klineman should be enough to take the Cardinal to victory over 95% of the teams in the tournament, but once setter Bryn Kehoe gets opposite Erin Waller and middle blocker Franci Girard involved, it's all about over, no matter who the opponent is. UCLA is the weakest No. 2 seed in the tournament, and in all honesty, shouldn't have even been a second seed given its lack of offensive options for All-American Nellie Spicer to play with. Whoever comes out of the Manhattan sub-regional could upset the Bruins, but will be no match for the Cardinal, no matter how hot Nataly Korobkova or Gorana Maricic get. If there is anything close to a sure thing in this year's tournament, Stanford making the two-hour drive to Sacramento is it, barring any injuries.

Friday Night Update: Behind 19 kills from freshman Alix Klineman, Stanford crushed Santa Clara tonight, sweeping all three games by the scores of 30-20, 30-28, and 30-27.

Gainesville Regional

November 30 – December 1 at Los Angeles, Calif.
No. 5 USC (25-4) vs. Pepperdine (18-10)
Long Beach State (25-6) vs. UNLV (24-5)

November 30 – December 1 at Queens, N.Y.
Princeton (22-3) vs. Delaware (30-4)
Long Island (23-13) vs. No. 12 St. John's (31-3)

November 29-30 at Gainesville, Fla.
No. 13 Florida (27-2) vs. College of Charleston (26-7)
Florida A&M (18-7) vs. Oklahoma (21-9)

November 30 – December 1 at Austin, Tex.
New Mexico State (26-5) vs. LSU (24-7)
Texas State (21-11) vs. No. 4 Texas (24-3)

Most Interesting First Round Match-Up

New Mexico State vs. LSU – The Western Athletic Conference is looking for respect in the world of women's collegiate volleyball and with its only at-large berth in New Mexico State taking on the Southeastern Conference's second-place team in LSU in the first round, a statement could be made with a victory. For the Aggies, middle blockers Amber Simpson and Kim Oguh will attempt to lead them to a win, while the Tigers counter with the tandem of outside hitter Kyna Washington and middle blocker Lauren DeGirolamo. The two teams have met four times previously, with each squad coming away with two victories each.

Did You Know?

Florida A&M only has one American on its team – the other seven players from around the world, with the starting rotation comprising of an All-World squad. Outside hitter Maria Gomez hails from Ecuador, while middle blocker Cinthya Corzo, libero Susan Egoavil, and setter Zaira Manzo call Peru home. Middle blocker Hannah Uckelmann is a native of Germany, while middle blocker Iva Lakic and Jovana Blazeski are both from Serbia. The lone American for the Lady Rattlers is Floridian Chelsea Pennick, who plays outside hitter for head coach Tanio Trifonov.

Ripe for an Upset

No. 13 Florida vs. Oklahoma – In one instant, Florida became a team looking to challenge for a ticket to Sacramento to a team who will be struggling to even reach the Elite Eight. That one instant, of course, was when do-everything senior Marcie Hampton landed wrong on a back-row attack last week against Long Beach State. The diagnosis was a ruptured Achilles tendon and the outside hitter's career as a Gator was over. Without Hampton's solid passing and attacking, Florida is vulnerable and will have to insert either Janine Williams or Lauren Bledsoe, players who lack the big-game experience Hampton possessed. The Sooners could take advantage of the Gator's misfortunes and come battle-tested out of the Big 12, where they finished fourth even after graduation decimated the team. If Florida doesn't pass well, look for Oklahoma to go in for the kill and pull off the win.

The "Other" Stars to Watch

Hui Ping Huang, St. John's – One of eight foreigners for St. John's head coach Joanne Persico-Smith, senior Hui Ping Huang led her squad to both the Big East regular season title and the conference championship crown. Terrorizing opponents in the middle, the 6'2" native out of Shanghai, China was one of the most efficient attackers in the country, putting the ball down at a .439 rate, while averaging 4.55 kills and 1.12 blocks per game. Voted as the best player in the Big East, Huang is determined to get the Red Storm past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament and into the Sweet Sixteen, an improvement from last year's five-game loss to Minnesota in the second round.

Julie Rubenstein, Pepperdine – The Waves' top attacker ever since she first suited up for head coach Nina Matthies, Julie Rubenstein combines her 6-3 from with doses of power to put the ball away from the antennas. Currently averaging 4.39 kills per game, the two-time All-WCC performer will be looked upon as a leader on the court, especially after learning that starting setter Kiah Fiers will be unavailable for the NCAA Tournament after suffering a knee injury on Wednesday.

Elyse Cusack, Florida – There is just no nice way of saying it. Sophomore Elyse Cusack was robbed. After averaging 5.31 digs per game and helping Florida hold opponents to just a conference-best .136 hitting percentage, the 5-7 libero gets passed over for SEC Defensive Player of the Year in favor of LSU's Elena Martinez. Nevermind that Cusack's awesome defensive prowess contributed to the Gator's 27-2 mark or that her stable passing enabled setter Angie McGinnis to run the offense perfectly, culminating in a .314 team hitting percentage. Apparently, none of that matters to the voters in the SEC. Well, Cusack will have the last laugh as she will go down as one of the best, if not the best, libero the SEC has seen by the time her career is finished in 2009.

Flying Under the Radar

Lauren Paolini – One of the most versatile players in the country, Lauren Paolini has been a mainstay in the middle for head coach Jerritt Elliott this season. A jack-of-all-trades, the 6-5 utility player has also seen time on the right and left side of the court, as the Longhorns have taken advantage of her athleticism and high volleyball I.Q. to plug her in where they need her the most. With superstars at all positions, Paolini still manages to get her fair of sets and remain a threat up at the net averaging 2.86 kills and 1.24 blocks per game while hitting at a strong .406 clip.

Champion of Gainesville Regional

Life is good for Michelle Moriarty. When high-flying Destinee Hooker is on one end of the court and freshman ball basher Juliann Faucette is on the other, with two efficient hitters in Brandy Magee and Lauren Paolini patrolling the middle, scoring points should be a piece of cake, no matter where the pass is. Oh, and somewhere in the rotation, All-American Ashley Engle is doing her best to help the Longhorns, whether its attacking, blocking, digging, passing, or serving. With such diverse and dangerous weapons at her disposal, Moriarty runs an offense that is tops in the country, guiding the team to a .341 hitting percentage. SEC Champion Florida could rally behind its hometown crowd to challenge Texas, but with the season-ended injury to outside hitter Marcie Hampton, an upset coming at the hands of the 13th seed is unlikely. Right-side All-American Asia Kaczor could power USC past the No. 1 seed, but will need more help from outside hitters Jessica Gysin, Diane Copenhagen, Kimmee Roleder and middle blocker Zoe Garrett. Texas is too balanced of a team and should be able to withstand even a superhuman effort by Kaczor.

University Park Regional

November 30 – December 1 at University Park, Pa.
No. 3 Penn State (28-2) vs. Siena (24-7)
Albany (N.Y.) (23-9) vs. Cleveland State (23-8)

November 30 – December 1 at Ann Arbor, Mich.
Michigan (22-10) vs. Miami (Ohio) (20-10)
Illinois State (21-11) vs. No. 14 Colorado State (22-7)

November 30 – December 1 at Louisville, Ky.
No. 11 Hawai'i (26-5) vs. Tennessee State (20-13)
Middle Tennessee (33-2) vs. Louisville (22-7)

November 30 – December 1 at Seattle, Wash.
Brigham Young (21-7) vs. Mississippi (25-7)
Missouri (17-12) vs. No. 6 Washington (26-3)

Did You Know?

Ever since the 1996 season, Hawai'i has been the leader in women's college volleyball in attendance figures, averaging over 6,000 fans in the Stan Sheriff Center. With those types of numbers, one would think that NCAA Tournament Committee would be happy to make the Rainbow Wahine a host... and yet Dave Shoji's crew find themselves hitting the road yet again for the Big Dance. Despite being considered a consistent Top 20 team every season, Hawai'i has not hosted a first and second round match since 2003.

Ripe for an Upset

Michigan vs. No. 14 Colorado State, Second Round – Earlier in the year, Michigan took out Colorado State in four games at the ASICS Rainbow Wahine Classic in late August. With the comfortable surroundings of the Crisler Arena on hand, could an upset be in the making? Katie Bruzdzinski, the Wolverines top gun on the outside after pounding down 4.64 kills per game, sure thinks so and with Lexi Zimmerman controlling the tempo of the match and defensive whiz Stesha Selsky manning the backcourt, the home team could be on its way to the Sweet Sixteen. Of course, Tom Hilbert's crew won't go down without a fight and Mountain West Conference Player of the Year Mekana Barnes will be leading the counter attack out of the middle, where she lead the league in blocks per game and was also the second highest efficient attacker out of the league.

The "Other" Stars to Watch

Lexi Zimmerman, Michigan – Ann Arbor will play host to the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in Michigan's history and a large part has to do with the play of freshman playmaker Lexi Zimmerman. Possessing great hands and a high volleyball I.Q., the 5'9" native out of Barrington, Ill. made a huge impact on the Wolverines this season, stepping into the starting line-up right away and leading them to an overall record of 22-10 and a tie for fifth place in the Big 10 Conference. Zimmerman earned postseason honors after being named to the Big 10 All-Freshman squad after averaging 13.33 assists on the year.

Chelsea Goodman, Brigham Young – Brigham Young earned a berth into the NCAA Tournament after senior Chelsea Goodman powered her team to a second-place finish in the Mountain West Conference. A hammer on the left side, Goodman finished the regular season the Cougar's top offensive threat and one of their best defenders, recording 4.42 kills and 3.48 digs per game. One of the best all-around players on the court, the 5'11" outside hitter also holds the conference record for the most career double-doubles, as she has put together 55 thus far in her four years at BYU.

Flying Under the Radar

Endia Oliver, Tennessee State – Earning a spot on the Ohio Valley Conference All-Tournament team, Endia Oliver helped her team qualify for the NCAA Tournament by upsetting second-seeded Morehead State in the conference tournament finals. A 6'3" opposite/middle blocker, Oliver is second in the country in blocks per game, registering 1.86 rejections per game and is a big reason why the Tigers are among the top blocking teams in the country, currently residing at No. 17 with 3.16 blocks per game.

Champion of University Park Regional

The NCAA Tournament Committee sure loves rematches. Last year, they sent top-seeded Penn State to the Seattle Regional to face second-seeded Washington. Behind the play of setter Courtney Thompson and outside hitter Christal Morrison, the Huskies overwhelmed the Nittany Lions and their freshman phenom Megan Hodge to punch their ticket to the Final Four. This year, Penn State is not only hosting a regional, but is also the top seed in its bracket. And the No. 2 seed? None other than Washington. The Huskies are aiming for their fourth-straight Final Four run and the Nittany Lions would love nothing better than to snap that streak and pave its own road to Sacramento. So who comes out on top? Unless Washington serves tough and causes massive problems to Penn State's serve receive, Russ Rose's troops are just too strong to be denied its first Final Four invitation since 1999, when it last won it all. Washington has proven it can win on the road, but it will be a tough order to do so in Happy Valley. However, Jim McLaughlin won't make it easy and it will most likely take five games before Penn State can start celebrating.

Madison Regional

November 30 – December 1 at Madison, Wis.
No. 7 Wisconsin (25-4) vs. Northern Iowa (22-10)
Iowa St. (17-13) vs. San Diego (21-7)

November 30 – December 1 at Durham, N.C.
Duke (24-6) vs. American (26-7)
Liberty (27-8) vs. No. 10 California (22-7)

November 30 – December 1 at Dayton, Ohio
No. 15 Dayton (32-1) vs. Lipscomb (20-11)
Kentucky (22-9) vs. Michigan State (19-13)

November 30 – December 1 at Lincoln, Neb.
Wichita State (26-5) vs. Western Kentucky (27-8)
South Dakota State (25-10) vs. No. 2 Nebraska (27-1)

Did You Know?

Two teams in the Madison bracket are making their first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament. South Dakota State, after capturing the Summit League, is set to battle defending national Champions Nebraska, while Lipscomb University's reward for winning the Atlantic Sun Conference is a meeting with No. 15 Dayton. Other teams making their first trip to the Big Dance include UNLV and the University of Delaware, both in the Gainesville Regional, and Cleveland State and Tennessee State, grouped in the University Park Regional.

Ripe for an Upset

No. 7 Wisconsin vs. San Diego, Second Round – If San Diego can get past Iowa State in the first round, it has a really good chance at pulling off a win against Wisconsin. While not as physical as the Badgers, the Toreros have a balanced offense led by All-West Coast Conference performers Amy DeGroot and Laurel Abrahamson, in addition All-WCC Freshman selection Ali Troost. Jessica Nyrop is the main setter for head coach Jennifer Petrie, though she has shared the dishing duties with freshman Kelsi Myers. Wisconsin has the advantage of playing at home and having the services of All-American candidate Brittney Dolgner, but USD is a well coached team that is hungry to build upon a successful 2006 Sweet Sixteen run.

The "Other" Stars to Watch

Erin Boeve, Iowa State – On one of the most improved programs in the country, Erin Boeve has managed to stick out as the best player on the team for head coach Christy Johnson. A two-time All-Big 12 First Team player, Boeve topped the charts for the Cyclones in both kills (3.62) and blocks (1.38) per game. The 6'2" senior manned the middle for Iowa State and was the constant focus of opposing defenses.

Ellen Orchard, California – Despite leading the toughest conference in the country in blocks per game, Ellen Orchard only managed to earn a honorable mention nod when the Pac-10 awards came out. However, her teammates know just how valuable the 6'3" middle blocker is to their success, as her 1.60 blocks per game help in holding opponents to a league low .143 hitting percentage. In addition, the Golden Bears would not be ranked No. 1 in the Pac-10 and No. 3 nationally without her steady contributions on defense. Orchard also does her best to keep defenses honest, averaging 2.53 kills per game at a .322 clip, freeing up Angie Pressey and Hana Cutura to do their thing on the left side.

Flying Under the Radar

Nicole Britenriker, Kentucky – Standing at only 5'11", senior Nicole Britenriker managed to still be one of the best in the SEC at putting the ball away, averaging 3.90 kills per game while hitting .305 on the year out of the middle. In addition, the All-SEC Second Team was such a defensive presence for the Wildcats this season after collecting 3.00 digs and 1.17 blocks per game. Britenriker also stands out because she is one of the few middle blockers in the country to play in all six rotations and even takes part as a primary passer for head coach Craig Skinner.

Champion of Madison Regional

Sarah Pavan and the Cornhuskers will not be denied. The leading candidate for the AVCA Player of the Year, Pavan is an absolute beast on the right side and it doesn't matter whether she's in the front row or the back or how many blockers are up – she's going to put the ball down anyway. Christina Houghtelling, two years removed from her own AVCA Player of the Year campaign, is a much improved player on defense, evidenced by her nabbing the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year award and she wants a national title more than anything. The two seniors will make sure nothing stands in their way, though it could face a stiff test from either Wisconsin or California in the Elite Eight. Wisconsin and California have the physicalness and star outside hitters (Brittney Dolgner for Wisconsin; Angie Pressey and Hana Cutura for California) to bother Nebraska, but supporting players and All-Americans Jordan Larson and Tracy Stalls will make sure that they will get to Sacramento. 

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