The Ohio State women’s volleyball team is off to Manhattan, Kansas, for the first round of the NCAA tournament, and its first opponent is the same team that handed the Buckeyes an early preseason defeat.
At 6 p.m. on Friday, OSU and the Missouri State Bears will face off for the second time this year — but this time around, the stakes are much higher. One team will keep its dreams of a national championship alive, while the other will leave empty handed.
On Sept. 9, it was the Bears who locked down the tight, five-set win in front of a home crowd and gave OSU its second loss on the season. The Buckeyes finished off their regular season with two consecutive wins, while Missouri State split 1-1 with a win over Illinois State and a loss to Wichita State.
OSU coach Geoff Carlston said the match against Missouri State will be the culmination of all the work his team has put in thus far.
“This is where all the days in the gym and all the stresses and all of the good memories, all of those things you keep in your backpack — you use them now,” he said.
The Buckeyes have made numerous changes since their last encounter with the Bears, and the team is hopeful the new strategies will pay off.
“We’ve definitely improved our offense, and I think throughout the season, we’ve run a lot of defensive systems and offensive systems,” said junior outside hitter Luisa Schirmer. “I think this versatility allows us to change and adapt in situations where they might be beating us in one area.”
Sophomore setter Taylor Hughes added that OSU has stopped relying on one or two of its hitters, which has diversified offensive options. Hughes has also seen more attacking opportunities with the increased role of fellow setter, senior Abby Fesl.
Hughes joined senior middle blocker Taylor Sandbothe on Tuesday on the Big Ten’s All-Conference teams; Sandbothe received first team and Hughes earned honorable mention.
A goal the team set at the beginning of the season was to advance to the Final Four match of the tournament, which will be played at Nationwide Arena in Columbus this year. But if you ask them about that target right now, it’s the furthest thing from their minds.
“We’re not talking about it. (We’re) focusing on one game at a time and that’s Missouri State coming up next,” said Hughes.
With tournament play soon to be in full swing, every team will be fighting for their existence. One loss and it’s game over for the season. Carlston said the Buckeyes have been preparing for this pressure long before the tournament brackets were even released.
“We’ve had practice and we’ve talked a lot about sense of urgency and treating every match we’ve played for the past three or four weeks as if it is our last,” he said.
For Schirmer, she’s acknowledging the gravity that Friday will bring, but said playing with high risks comes with the territory of playing the sport.
“Especially now, it’s like any day could be your last day, and I think that’s scary but at the same time that’s really cool because we’re fighting for our lives,” she said. “That’s what makes playing volleyball so exciting.”
The first serve between the Bears and the Buckeyes is set for 6 p.m. on Friday in Manhattan and can be viewed on ESPN3.