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Volleyball in the NCAA Tournament: Five things to know

The 20th-ranked ONU volleyball team qualified for the NCAA Tournament as an at-large bid on Monday. They finished the regular season with a 27-5 record. (photo/ ONU Sports Information)

The 20th-ranked ONU volleyball team will be making their second straight NCAA Tournament appearance on Friday, when they face DePauw (Ind.) at Otterbein’s Rike Center in the first round.

They made it in as an at-large bid after falling to Otterbein in the OAC Tournament championship on Saturday, 3-0. Northern clinched a share of the OAC regular season title with Otterbein two weeks ago, as both teams went 8-1 in conference play this year.

Last year, Northern made it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012, but lost in the first round to Millikin (Ill.), 3-2. This year’s team will try to make it past the first round of the tournament for the first time since 2009, when ONU made it to the Sweet 16.

ONU and DePauw will square off at 5:30 p.m. on Friday. But before you tune into to watch the Polar Bears, we want you prepared; here are five things to know about ONU’s first round matchup.


1. Making the field

While head coach Kate Witte said that she felt “pretty comfortable” about her 27-5 Polar Bears making the tournament as an at-large bid, she still felt a little anxious before Monday’s selection show.

After all, the Polar Bears went 24-6 (8-1 in the OAC) two years ago, but failed to qualify for the national tournament after finishing second in the OAC and losing to Heidelberg in five sets in the conference tournament championship.

“You’re always concerned about getting the opportunity to get in because we didn’t win our conference,” Witte said. “I always tell my players that you don’t ever want a group of people outside of you deciding your fate. Because two years ago, we did not have a positive outcome [with] that.”

Northern was one of 20 teams to be selected into 'Pool C,' as an at-large bid. ONU and Otterbein were the only OAC teams to qualify for the national tournament.

So, what pushed ONU into the field of 64 this year? Their schedule.


2. Brutal September pays off

ONU boasted the sixth-toughest regular season schedule in the country, according to Witte. The Polar Bears played 10 teams in the regular season who made the NCAA Tournament, including nine in their September non-conference slate. They went 6-3 in those matches.

“I felt we were the first team in Pool C out of our region off the board, and we had some very quality wins,” Witte said. “The schedule really worked out well for us. I thought September was kind of ‘survive it and get better,’ and I think we did. We did a solid job.”

Because coaches and schools schedule years in advance, Witte said that while she typically tries to schedule tough, luck is also in play.

“Sometimes you think before you schedule, 'This will be a strong team and we need to play them,' and sometimes things work out that they’re not as strong or regionally ranked as high, and it doesn’t help you,” Witte said. “The schedule really worked out well for us.”

Three of Northern’s ten tournament-bound regular season opponents will play in their region this weekend: DePauw, No. 3 Wittenberg and No. 25 Otterbein. Aside from the competitive advantage of facing top-ranked teams in the regular season, Northern’s schedule will also allow them to be more familiar with their potential opponents.

“It’s always a benefit because you have old tape on them that you look at, and then you have to tape-exchange, so you have new tape,” Witte said. “And then you can watch them live, also, so it’s a positive, absolutely.”


3. Round one: DePauw

Ohio Northern already beat DePauw this season, at the Illinois Wesleyan Classic back on Sept. 9. The Polar Bears won 3-1, winning the last three sets after dropping the first.

Sophomores McKenna Jordan and Chelsea Huppert led the team in kills with 17 and 14 respectively. The win set Northern up to claim the Illinois Wesleyan Classic team title, as they went 3-1 on the weekend.

A lot has happened since that match, which was each team’s seventh of the season. DePauw finished second in the North Coast Athletic Conference this season behind Wittenberg. The Tigers received votes in the final AVCA Top 25 poll, going 20-7 and earning an at-large bid to the big dance.

DePauw went 7-1 in their regular season conference schedule, losing to third-ranked Wittenberg in five sets. They lost to Wittenberg in the conference tournament championship as well last weekend, 3-0 (this scenario nearly mirrors ONU’s, as the Polar Bears lost to Otterbein 3-2 in the regular season and were swept in the OAC Tournament finals last Saturday).

This is DePauw’s fourth NCAA Tournament appearance in the last five years, as they advanced to the second round last year.

“We have a very tough first round match,” Witte said. “DePauw is a very good team, they’re better than the six-seed that they have. We played them in September, they’re very good and have some very good players, especially their right side and left side hitters. They are experienced, they won a match last year with this group of kids. Last year, we did not win.”

Despite their seven losses this year, DePauw has won six out of their last seven matches heading into the tournament.


4. (Potentially) another shot at Otterbein

If Northern beats DePauw on Friday, they could potentially have another shot at beating Otterbein on Saturday.

Otterbein would have to win their first round game as well, as they play CSAC champion Cabrini (Pa.) on Friday night at 8 p.m. If both ONU and Otterbein advance, it would set up the schools’ third matchup of the season. Otterbein won the first two, 3-2 and 3-0, respectively.

For ONU, this could be a chance to break through and beat their newfound conference rival after a disappointing OAC Tournament final result last weekend.

“I think the challenge for us is getting a different mindset. If our season would’ve ended on Saturday the way it did, because they really took it to us -- we really did not compete on Saturday at all, against a superior team -- you want them to leave fighting, and we really didn’t fight much,” Witte said. “We kind of got punched and got laid out and we never got back up. So you want them to have the opportunity again to go fight.”

Otterbein finished the regular season with a 29-3 record after posting a 16-14 record last season. The Cardinals made it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013, and will be hosting eight teams in regional action this weekend.

Aside from the fact that the team lost only one senior to graduation last year, Otterbein also added Div. I transfer Hadley Sterett (who played in 65 sets over two years at Wright State before transferring this year), who led the OAC in kills per set this season. She dominated the OAC Tournament final on Saturday, playing in the front and back row and recording a double-double, as she led all players with 17 digs and 13 kills.

Witte, who is in her 27th year at Ohio Northern, says that this is the best Otterbein team she’s seen.

“They were 16-14 last year, they had the entire team back -- they’re junior and senior dominated -- and they got a Div. I transfer,” Witte said. “And that has made all the difference for them, because she’s the real deal.”


5. Not their first rodeo

Last year, Ohio Northern rode a talented freshman class to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in four years. None of the members of last year’s team had played on the national stage until they faced Millikin in the first round, which could have led to the team dropping the first set, 25-12.

Witte termed last year’s 3-2 opening round loss “disappointing” in an interview before this season, but said that it could serve as a learning experience for the group.

“It showed we hadn’t been there in a couple years,” Witte said. “I was disappointed that, as badly as I felt we played, we still had a chance to win it at the end. But I think we can use last year as a learning experience to get back this year and finish things in the end.”

From August: With Borchers gone, Northern will have big shoes to fill

This year, Northern’s young nucleus has made it back to the national stage, although now they have a year of experience under their belt.

While the team has had to move on without All-American setter Ashley Borchers, who graduated last spring, they have found a more-than-adequate replacement in freshman Katie Wade, who ranks fourth in the nation in total assists this season.

Sophomore middle hitters Chelsea Huppert and McKenna Jordan ranked third and fourth in the OAC in kills respectively this season, while senior All-Americans Haley Potters and Megan Nieszala have been key defensive contributors for the team once again this year.

With seven of ONU’s top nine rotation players being underclassmen, this team is still young. But given their tough schedule and postseason experience last year, Potters believes that this year’s squad can take the next step and make a deeper run in the national tournament.

“Last year, we got a taste of the NCAA and we realized we are one of the big girls and should be part of the competition,” Potters said. “This year, we are ready to compete again and show everyone we belong in the tournament.”

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