With a 12-8 record and a sixth-place finish in the Big Ten, arguably the nation’s best conference, the Ohio State women’s volleyball team believes it is prepared for the do-or-die nature of the NCAA tournament.
As the No. 12 overall seed in the tournament, OSU (23-9) is set to take on Robert Morris (19-12) in the first round on Friday at 7 p.m. in St. John Arena.
“It really is the third season,” coach Geoff Carlston said. “This is the fun part. There’s 64 teams now that have a chance … We beat Nebraska and went five (sets) with Minnesota, so I think our team believes we can make a run.”
By earning the right to host for the first time since 2009, the Buckeyes accomplished one of the goals they set at the beginning of the season.
“Getting to host is a huge opportunity, we’re so excited about that,” senior outside hitter Katie Mitchell said. “It’s something no one on our team has ever experienced. It’s been a long time since St. John (Arena) has hosted.”
Unlike Robert Morris, which has won seven consecutive matches to end the season, OSU isn’t coming into the tournament on a winning streak, having gone 5-7 since Oct. 21. But after taking eventual No. 2 overall seed Minnesota to five sets and sweeping Rutgers in their final two regular-season games, the Buckeyes are going into the weekend with renewed confidence.
“Battling with Minnesota is something I think we’re all going to remember and know that it could be a potential (big) match for us in the long run of the tournament,” senior middle blocker Tyler Richardson said.
Nearly every player on OSU’s roster has previously played in the tournament, as the program advanced to the Sweet 16 last year and has qualified in three of the last four seasons.
Carlston believes having that experience will be huge for his team, especially in helping the two freshman starters — outside hitter Audra Appold and setter Taylor Hughes — who haven’t been there before.
“Our freshmen have played great under pressure all year long and the rest of our team’s done a great job of laying the dynamic and supporting the rest of us so we can play fearless,” Carlston said. “The team that’s going to win the national championship is going to be the one that wants those moments and plays fearless in those moments.”
Most of the team has tournament experience, but the grueling conference schedule has prepared OSU more than anything, said senior middle blocker Andrea Kacsits.
“It’s one of those conferences that every single match is a big match,” she said. “You never have a team that will let down or anything … and because we’ve had that kind of training over the last three years, I would say that the tournament becomes a little bit — I don’t want to say easier — but it becomes a little bit more in step with what we’ve been doing the rest of the season.”
Scouting Robert Morris
After winning the Northeast Conference tournament, the Colonels earned an automatic bid and will be making their sixth tournament appearance and their first since 2003.
Carlston noted Robert Morris for being an evenly distributed team, as it has five players averaging 16 or more attack attempts per game.
“You can’t key, necessarily, on any one individual and they run a system (where) they can mix it up,” he said.
Four Colonels have registered more than 200 kills this season, led by junior outside hitter Arden Fisher’s 353 (3.12 per set).
Robert Morris has also proven itself to be a scrappy defensive team, sitting ninth in the nation in digs per set (17.62). Three different players are averaging more than three digs per set: Fisher (4.53), freshman outside hitter Taylor Lord (3.67) and freshman libero Allie Yurkovich (3.46).
To compare, OSU has one such player in junior libero Valeria León, who has picked up 4.34 digs per set.
“The thing that they do well is they really keep the ball in play,” Carlston said. “You can tell they’re a well-coached team and a high-IQ team … They’re going to force you to be patient.”
The Buckeyes and Colonels have met three times before, twice in the first round of the tournament. OSU has swept all three matches, with the last coming in 2006.
4 Buckeyes win conference awards
The results of the postseason awards for the Big Ten conference were released on Tuesday, and four OSU players were recipients.
Junior middle blocker Taylor Sandbothe was unanimously selected to the all-Big Ten team by conference coaches. It’s the third straight year she has taken home a postseason award, having been named to the all-freshman squad in 2013 and an all-Big Ten honorable mention last season.
Sandbothe led OSU in hitting percentage (.364) and blocks per set (1.22), while ranking fourth and seventh in those two categories, respectively, in the conference.
Senior outside hitter Elizabeth Campbell was named an all-Big Ten honorable mention, while Appold and Hughes were selected for the all-freshman team.
Campbell was one of the Buckeyes’ top offensive threats, leading the team and finishing fourth in the conference in kills per set (3.65). She also added 2.21 digs per set, second on the team, and had a team-high 11 double-doubles on the year.
Appold had the highest single-game kill total of any Buckeye this season with 29 against Iowa on Nov. 18 and was named Big Ten Player of the Week once and Freshman of the Week twice. She ended the regular season third on the team in kills (312) and digs (234).
Hughes still established herself as the starting setter, leading the team in assists (867) despite battling an elbow injury since late October. She was named the Big Ten’s Setter of the Week once.
If the Buckeyes are able to top Robert Morris, they’ll move on to face either American or Kentucky in the second round. OSU has met Kentucky in the Round of 32 the last two times it has made the tournament, falling to the Wildcats in 2012 before defeating them last year.
First serve for the second-round match is scheduled to be at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday in St. John Arena.