The NCAA volleyball tournament Sweet 16 cranks up Friday and three Big 12 teams are each just two victories away from the final four in San Antonio.
Texas, the NCAA No. 1 seed, will face Kentucky in Lexington. Friday. Iowa State, the No. 4 seed, faces Minnesota in Minneapolis at 7 p.m. And unseeded Kansas State, which upset No. 2 seed Nebraska, in the 2nd round, will face No. 15 seed Pepperdine in Honolulu at 9 p.m.
Thus far, the NCAA tournament has been all about surprises. Five of the seven teams from the Pacific-12 Conference were eliminated during the first weekend. Big Ten Conference champion Nebraska was stunned on its home court in the second round as unseeded Kansas State won in five sets.
The victory earned the Wildcats a trip to Hawaii. The other semifinal in that four-team regional is powerful as USC faces Hawaii. The Trojans were ranked No. 1 in the last American Volleyball Coaches Association Poll while the Rainbow Wahine were ranked No. 3. The NCAA volleyball committee disagreed; USC was seeded No. 7 and Hawaii No. 10.
The trip to Hawaii will be homecoming for junior libero Kuulei Kabalis, is the first Wildcat to hail from the island state. The front line duo of Kaitlynn Pelger (an All-Big 12 first teamer) and Caitlyn Donahue were key factors in Kansas State’s upset of Nebraska.
If Kansas State beats Pepperdine, it will face the winner of the USC-Hawaii match.
Kansas State has reached its third Sweet 16. Pepperdine has reached the regional semifinals seven times. USC has won six national championships and 20 regional semifinals appearances while Hawaii has three national titles and is making its 24th regional semifinals appearance.
Big 12 champion Texas and runner up Iowa State each face the challenge of winning their semifinal matches on their opponent’s home court.
The Cyclones, playing in Ames, swept both of their first two opponents. This is Iowa State’s fourth trip to the Sweet 16 in five years. The Cyclones rely on middle blocker Jamie Straube, Big 12 Libero of the Year Kristen Hahn along with Rachel Hockaday, Carly Jenson and Alison Landwehr.
Minnesota, the No. 13 seed, rallied from an 0-2 deficit to upset 11th-seeded Washington in the second round. The Gophers reached the Sweet 16 last season. Minnesota defeated Texas twice this season but also lost to Kansas.
Bailey Webster, Haley Eckerman and Rachael Adams were All-Big 12 first-team selections. Webster was chosen as the player of the year while Eckerman was named the freshman of the year.
The Longhorns are a mix of youth and experience. The senior class has won 107 matches but the freshmen class – featuring players like Eckerman and 6-5 utility player Madelyn Hutson – has made a huge impact.
The Longhorns, who swept their two opening weekend opponents, are currently riding a 16-match winning streak and they have not lost in more than two months . UT's last loss was at Oklahoma on Sept. 28.
NCAA Volleyball Regional Semifinals
(All times CDT)
Lexington Regional Friday
No. 8 seed UCLA vs. No. 9 seed Penn State, 4 p.m.
No. 1 seed Texas vs. Kentucky, 6 p.m.
Minneapolis Regional Friday
No. 5 seed Purdue vs. No. 12 seed Florida State, 5 p.m.
No. 4 seed Iowa State vs. No. 13 seed Minnesota, 7 p.m.
Honolulu Regional Friday
Kansas State vs. No. 15 seed Pepperdine, 9 p.m.
No. 7 seed Southern California vs. No. 10 seed Hawaii, 11 p.m.