The anticipation is finally over.
The NCAA Volleyball Division One Tournament is here, and the Wisconsin Badgers have a chance with a potential six matches to create history and hang another banner in the UW Field House.
The No. 3 seeded Badgers are rolling into the tournament with the possibility of hosting matches all the way up until the Final Four, with the First and Second Rounds happening in Madison Thursday and Friday, starting with the Badgers’ first match against the Jackson State Tigers.
The Tigers won the SWAC conference tournament, winning three matches in three days including a 3-0 sweep of the higher-ranked Florida A&M Rattlers to book the automatic spot in the Big Dance.
The Tigers are led by junior outside hitter Alexis Williams, who tallied a double double in the SWAC championship match en route to winning SWAC Tournament MVP honors. The 5-foot-9 outside hitter led the team with 3.27 kills per set and is a threat behind the service line too, averaging .46 aces per set. Another attacking threat for JSU is Hope Briggs, a freshman opposite who is second on the team in kills per set with 2.79.
Defensively, the Tigers have two solid middle blockers up front in senior Jordan Jones and graduate senior Kyahana Robinson. The pair have posted 98 and 90 blocks on the season, respectively as the Tigers returned to the NCAA Tournament — their last appearance was the Covid-19 pandemic-affected 2021 Spring season.
If Wisconsin advances to the next round — which, they should — they’ll face the winner of the other first round match in the region that features the Northern Iowa Panthers and Miami Hurricanes. (That match is at 5:00 p.m. at the Field House and on ESPN+).
The Panthers earned the No. 8 seed in Wisconsin’s region and won the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament after finishing the season unbeaten in conference play.
The Panthers — one of the powerhouses of their conference, earning 21 regular season conference titles, 19 conference tournaments and boasting 25 NCAA Tourney appearances — are led on the attack by senior outside hitter Emily Holterhaus. The Pella, Iowa-native tallied over 1,500 kills in her career at UNI and has 3.67 kills per set.
The Panthers’ offense is set by junior and Oconomowoc-native Tayler Alden, who is sure to enjoy a lot of hometown support returning to Wisconsin. Alden was named the conference’s Setter of the Year and was named Tournament MVP.
The Panthers will take on an opponent who is familiar to the Badgers: the Miami Hurricanes. Although the Canes were swept by Wisconsin at the Field House back in September, Miami was able to get two huge conference wins against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets to prove they can beat elite competition.
The Canes are led by outstanding freshman outside hitter Grace Lopez, who is averaging 3.94 kills per set, and sophomore outside hitter Flormarie Heredia Colon, who is second for Miami with 3.27 kills per set.
In the earlier match against the Badgers, the Canes were out-blocked 8-4 and struggled with service errors. Wisconsin’s defense on the block has earned a conference record this season — marking a high by averaging as a team 3.20 blocks per set. Sophomore Carter Booth also broke the individual record for blocks per set as she stuffed 1.65 blocks per set.
Wisconsin will hope all phases of the game are ready as the tournament is underway. Obviously, UW has the luxury of having Sarah Franklin on the outside. The Lake Worth, Florida-native — who has played her way to earning national player of the year consideration after a health scare in the spring put her volleyball career in jeopardy — will be hoping she can lead the Badgers to Tampa for the Final Four.
But the first step is Thursday night, with UW hosting Jackson State at 7:30 p.m. If Wisconsin wins, they’ll play the winner between Miami and Northern Iowa Friday night in the second round at 7:00 p.m. Both matches will stream on ESPN+.