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OAC Championship Week Preview

Junior midfielder Sarah Puntel has helped the 13th-ranked Polar Bears earn the No. 1 seed in this week's OAC Tournament. (photo/ ONU Sports Information)

This week, three ONU teams will play for OAC Tournament trophies. The 13th-ranked women’s soccer team will look to win their first OAC Tournament title in five years, the 18th-ranked volleyball team will try to win their second straight tournament, and the men’s soccer team will attempt to pull off an upset or two to make it back to their third consecutive tournament final.

While anything could happen during Championship Week, one thing’s certain: what happens this week will definitely have an impact on these teams’ chances of making it into the NCAA Tournament.

Here is a breakdown of where each team stands heading into tournament week:

 

#13 Women’s soccer (Top seed in conference)

Will host four-seed Otterbein in semifinals on Wednesday at 4 p.m.

The Polar Bears (16-1-1) have won 14 straight games heading into this year’s OAC Tournament. They have outscored their opponents 36-5 in conference play, and have not lost a game since Sept. 1 -- the first game of their season -- when they fell to Albion (Mich.) 4-0.

Sophomore forward Rose Nienaber has led the team with 10 goals scored this season, while freshman Jenna Fuller has nine and senior Anna Niemeyer has seven. Fuller leads the OAC in assists and is fourth in points. In goal, sophomore Meagan Grierson leads the OAC in goals against average, giving up just 0.44 goals per game. The Northern defense has recorded 12 shutouts this season, including a stretch of seven in a row in September.

READ: After rough start, 17th-ranked ONU finds way defensively

While the team won the OAC regular season title for the second straight season, finishing undefeated in conference play, however, they will try to win the conference tournament for the first time since 2012. They have made it to the OAC Tournament finals the past two seasons, but have fallen short both times.

Two years ago, they lost to Capital in penalty kicks in the tournament finals, dashing their postseason hopes. Last year, they lost to Mount Union in overtime, and their regular season resume (they finished 15-4) was not good enough to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

MORE: Women’s soccer looks to bridge gap, make NCAA Tournament in 2017

Ranked 13th in the country this season, it’s arguable that ONU might make it into the national tournament even if they don’t win the conference tournament this week. They are currently ranked second in their region and have played well against the best teams on their schedule -- they tied 10th-ranked Carnegie Mellon and beat Thomas More (ranked third in region).

Still, after falling short in the OAC finals and missing the big dance the last two seasons, an NCAA tournament birth is likely not something that these Polar Bears will want to put to chance.

Our prediction: The Polar Bears will likely qualify for the NCAA Tournament regardless of how they perform in the OAC Tournament; however, a tournament finals appearance or victory will give them a chance at a higher seed.

 

#18 Volleyball (Seeded 2nd in conference)

Will host seven-seed Marietta on Tuesday at 7 p.m.

ONU split the regular season OAC title with Otterbein after finishing with an 8-1 conference record. They are seeded second in the conference tournament, however, because Otterbein holds the tiebreaker with ONU after beating them in five sets back on Oct. 4.

The Polar Bears (25-4) are rolling into OAC Tournament play, having swept their last seven opponents. They last dropped a set on Oct. 10, when the team beat Heidelberg 3-1.

ONU has been led in kills by sophomore middle hitter Chelsea Huppert, who ranks third in the conference with 349 total kills this season. Sophomore middle hitter McKenna Jordan is fifth in the conference with 328.

Freshman setter Katie Wade is currently fifth in the country with 1,160 total assists this season, although she spent a few weeks ranked first. Senior libero Megan Nieszala ranks second in the conference in total digs, while Huppert and senior middle hitter Haley Potters rank first and second respectively in blocks per set.

ONU is seeking their second straight OAC Tournament crown, as they topped Heidelberg in five sets last year and won the tournament for the first time since 2008.

They returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012 last year, and this year’s team will likely need to have a strong showing in the conference tournament to guarantee themselves a second consecutive trip to the big dance. After all, even though they are currently ranked 18th in the nation, ONU did miss the NCAA Tournament two years ago after losing in the OAC Tournament finals. That team was ranked 25th in the nation and had a record of 24-6.

Northern is currently ranked third in their region, behind Otterbein and Wittenberg -- two of their four losses this season. They have navigated a treacherous non-conference schedule this season, having defeated ranked opponents such as No. 12 Washington-St. Louis and No. 22 Elmhurst (Ill.). Three of ONU’s losses have come nationally ranked opponents: No. 1 Wittenberg, No. 6 Carnegie Mellon and No. 13 Illinois Wesleyan.

Only top-ranked Wittenberg has had a tougher schedule than ONU in the Great Lakes Region. ONU went 21-1 against Great Lakes Region opponents this year.

Our prediction: If ONU makes it to the OAC Tournament finals on Saturday, they will likely have the strength of schedule and regional resume to make it into the national tournament. If they lose in the quarter or semifinals, however, things could get a little more complicated.

 

Men’s soccer (Seeded 4th in conference)

Will host five-seed Marietta on Tuesday at 7 p.m.

The Polar Bears (12-5-2) finished the regular season strong, winning three of their last four games and tying one. They are coming off of a 1-1 tie with Marietta, who they will face at home in the first round of the OAC Tournament on Tuesday night.

The lowest seed remaining from Tuesday night’s action (which will feature (4) ONU vs. (5) Marietta and (3) Capital vs. (6) Heidelberg) will face top-seeded Otterbein on Thursday in the semifinals -- and if both of the favored seeds win tonight, then ONU would be making the trip to Westerville to do so. The Cardinals have won 13 straight matches coming into the conference tournament, beating ONU 2-0 back on Oct. 3, and have not lost a home game this season.

Closing time: Where each ONU fall sports team stands down the stretch

Senior J.J. Fortner has paced the Polar Bears this season with 14 goals scored, placing him second in the conference in that category. Fortner is also third in the OAC in points. Freshman goalkeeper Dylan Plank is currently third in the conference in goals against average, as he has allowed just 0.94 goals per game.

Although ONU has made it to two straight OAC Tournament finals, the road back to their third straight appearance will be tougher for this year’s team, as ONU was the two-seed last year and the one-seed two years ago. This team will have to beat Marietta on Tuesday -- who accounted for one of ONU’s two losses last season and tied ONU on Saturday -- and then likely need to beat Otterbein on the road on Thursday to make it there.

Our prediction: Given ONU’s five losses this season, the Polar Bears will probably need to win the OAC Tournament to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

Want to hear WONB’s broadcast of the ONU men’s soccer game vs. Marietta on Tuesday at 7 p.m.? Tune in to 94.9 FM or listen online at wonb.net. You can also tune in on Wednesday at 4 p.m. to hear the ONU women’s soccer team face Otterbein in the OAC Tournament semifinals.