The Kansas State volleyball team will compete in its 14th NCAA Tournament and second in a row Thursday at 4:30 p.m. against Northern Iowa in Lincoln, Neb.
The Wildcats (27-9, 8-8 Big 12) face a familiar situation in this year’s post-season trip. They once again face a team out of the Missouri Valley Conference in the first round and a possible rematch looms against No. 4 Nebraska. Last year in Lincoln, K-State beat Wichita State in the opening round and then upset the Cornhuskers — then ranked No. 2 in the nation — on their home floor.
For a team that all season has tried to keep last season’s Sweet 16 run in the past, history has certainly found a way to potentially repeat itself. Still, K-State head coach Suzie Fritz doesn’t think it gives her team that much of an edge.
“Having been there before, period, is helpful no matter what, just knowing that we have been in that situation,” Fritz said. “There are certainly some similarities because we have played in the Coliseum a lot; this is not a new venue for us. I think the familiarity of it and the fact that we have some experiences there is helpful, but I do not think it makes a difference.”
Northern Iowa, meanwhile, is also no stranger to the tournament. The Panthers (24-9, 15-3 MVC) are making their 18th tournament appearance and seventh straight. Thursday will mark the first time the two teams have ever met in the post-season, though, K-State has faced UNI before in the regular season with the Wildcats beating the Panthers in 2008 in the Varney’s Invitational in Ahearn Field House. All-time, KSU leads the series 6-3-1 with Fritz going 4-0 in those matches.
“They are a very good Missouri Valley program,” Fritz said about the Panthers. “They are well coached. They are always a solid team in their conference. They are always very competitive and I really like the way that they play. They are very talented kids and I think their coaching staff does a good job with them. They are the real deal.”
Northern Iowa is coached by Bobbi Peterson, who is in her 13th year coaching her alma mater. The Panthers have won both the past three out of four regular season and tournament titles in the MVC and this season are led by senior outside hitter Megan Lehman with 3.19 kills per set. She is also a first-team all-MVC selection. Three other Panthers were also recognized as all-MVC choices, with senior middle blocker Krista DeGeest and junior outside hitter Macy Ubben also getting first-team nods, while senior outside hitter Amy Braun was picked to the second-team. DeGeest averages 2.75 kills per set and has hit at a .310 clip this season. Ubben is more of a balanced player with 2.48 kills and 2.34 digs per set, while Braun ranks third on the team in kills and is second in digs with an average of 3.81.
Defensively, UNI can keep rallies alive with a team average of 17.79 digs per set, which ranks for 23rd-best in the NCAA, but the Panthers can hurt an opponent offensively, too. Northern Iowa is fourth in the country in kills per set with 14.74.
“We have to go into (this tournament) focusing on them,” senior middle blocker Alex Muff said about the Panthers following Monday’s practice. “We have to get that win, foremost. But ultimately it comes down to how we play on our side, and doing the things we need to do to win. That’s the most important thing.”
Muff continued that the similarities to last season’s tournament and this one is hard to ignore.
“After last year we’ve always said it’s a new year and a new thing, and here we are and it’s the same thing,” she said. “But I think we’re excited. I think it puts us in a more comfortable position. There aren’t going to be any surprises with the gym or anything like that. It’s going to be an environment that we’ll be used to.
“It’s easy (to look back at last year in Lincoln), but we have to wipe our slate clean, take one game at a time and go 1-0.”
The winner Thursday evening will move on to play either Nebraska or Maryland Eastern-Shore Friday.