UA, NAU volleyball begin play at NCAA Tournament

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                </div>  The Arizona State women’s volleyball team will have to watch from the sidelines while the NCAA Tournament gets underway this weekend.  Its 14-18 record wasn’t good enough to get […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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The Arizona State women’s volleyball team will have to watch from the sidelines while the NCAA Tournament gets underway this weekend.  Its 14-18 record wasn’t good enough to get the Pac-12 school an invite to the party.

But the state of Arizona will still be well represented this year.

The University of Arizona earned its fifth at-large bid to the tourney in the last six years, while Northern Arizona University will be making just its third appearance in program history.  For the Lumberjacks, this is a big deal.

And NAU didn’t need an at-large bid.  The ‘Jacks won the Big Sky Championship by beating Idaho in three sets to cap off a 26-8 record overall and 15-3 conference mark.  They also earned a share of the regular-season title.

NAU last made it into the tourney field in 2015, when they were beat in the first round by San Diego.  The only other appearance was 19 years ago when they also failed to get out of the first round, losing to North Carolina.

This time they will have to upset Washington State, the No. 20 ranked team in the country, in tonight’s opening round.  The Cougars are one of eight Pac-12 teams in the field, posted a 21-9 record overall, and finished fourth in the Pac-12 with a 12-8 record.  This will be the Cougs’ third straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

NAU and Washington State have met before, with the ‘Jacks posting the win.  But that was 38 years ago.

Despite being the underdog, the Lumberjacks are optimistic about their chances against a ranked team, even though they will be playing in a hostile environment in Bohler Gym on the WSU campus.  “Our team is playing our best volleyball at the right time of the year, and we’re still getting better,” said head coach Ken Murphy.

“This is the toughest challenge we’ve had, but this team wants this challenge.  They’re ready for it.”

While the NAU program is still trying to build a base of experience in the postseason, a trip to the NCAA Tournament is nothing new to the Wildcats.  They have been to the tourney 29 times in program history, 20 those trips under head coach Dave Rubio who is completing his 27th year directing the program and has stacked up 512 career wins during that time.  This year, the team is in Nebraska at the Lincoln Regional.

Under Rubio, the Cats are 13-6 in the first round and 8-5 in the second round.  This will be their eighth appearance in the last 10 years.

No. 23-ranked Arizona has met No. 24 Missouri just once before, a 3-0 victory to open the 1995 season.  This year’s Tigers are making their fourth straight NCAA appearance and 15th in program history.  They finished fourth in the SEC and earned 10 wins against RPI top-50 teams.

It will be a tough road to the next round for both Arizona teams.  NAU has to start with a ranked opponent, and Arizona, if it gets past Missouri in tonight’s match, will likely have to face the defending national champion, the No. 6 Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Both Arizona teams enter the tourney with momentum.  The ‘Jacks have won the last 13 matches and the Cats are coming off sweeps of No. 25 UCLA and rival ASU.

(Photo: NAU Athletics)