Jeff Huth: Team-by-team look at regional field

Illinois (18-14)

AVCA Ranking: No. 18

NCAA RPI: No. 20

Coach: Kevin Hambly (fifth year, 114-50)

Top players: Jennifer Beltran (Sr. L); Jocelynn Birks (So. OH); Liz McMahon (Jr. RS)

About the Illini: On Oct. 30, after absorbing its second 3-0 loss of the season against Nebraska, Illinois was 9-12 and scrambling for its postseason life. Now the Illini are two wins from their second Final Four appearance in three years. It’s been a remarkable revival by Illinois, which went on a six-match winning streak after that trip to Lincoln, Neb., and has won nine of its last 11 matches. “I think it proved to us and everyone else that we’re tough,” McMahon said after the Illini’s second-round win against Marquette. “And that was really cool to see us take the fate into our own hands and do something about it.” Perhaps no team in the tournament has been more battle-tested or needed to be more tough-minded. Illinois has faced a program-record 21 ranked opponents this season, going 10-11. That number is guaranteed to grow. The entire Champaign Regional field is ranked.

Purdue (22-11)

AVCA Ranking: No. 19

NCAA RPI: No. 27

Coach: Dave Shondell (11th year, 236-130)

Top players: KiKi Jones (Jr. MB); Catherine Rebarchak (Sr. OH); Val Nichol (Jr. S/OH)

About the Boilermakers: Purdue created the biggest buzz of the tournament’s opening weekend, knocking off fourth-seeded and undefeated Missouri in the second round. “That is one of the all-time greatest wins in Purdue volleyball history, to beat a team that is 35-0 on their home court,” Shondell said. The Tigers were the third Top 10 victim this season of the Boilermakers, who are making a habit of advancing beyond the second round. This marks their seventh Sweet 16 appearance in the last nine years. All-Big Ten and All-Northeast Region pick Nichol was at the forefront of the upset of Mizzou. The 2010 News-Gazette All-State second-teamer from Normal University High produced her second triple-double (14 kills, 10 digs, 27 assists) of the season.

Wisconsin (25-9)

AVCA Ranking: No. 13

NCAA RPI: No. 15

Coach: Kelly Sheffield (first year, 25-9)

Top players: Lauren Carlini (Fr. S); Ellen Chapman (Jr. OH); Haleigh Nelson (Fr. MB)

About the Badgers: Wisconsin, which enters as the highest-seeded team (No. 12) in the Champaign Regional, has yet to lose a set in the tournament. The Badgers brushed aside Horizon League champion Wisconsin-Milwaukee before also sweeping the Pac-12’s California. In both wins, Wisconsin hit over .400. Wisconsin was the surprise team of the Big Ten this season under former Dayton coach Sheffield, going from a 5-15 conference record last year to 12-8 and a tie for fourth place with Illinois. The Badgers have won six of their last seven matches, the exception being a four-set loss at then-No. 11 Minnesota. “I knew we had talent,” Sheffield said after the Cal match while reflecting on the season. “I knew that I was fortunate to walk in here with talent. The only thing we talk about is dream big. Let’s not put a number of how far we want to go in the tournament.”

Florida State (26-7)

AVCA Ranking: No. 16

NCAA RPI: No. 19

Coach: Chris Poole (sixth year, 156-41)

Top players: Ashley Neff (Sr. MB); Katie Mosher (Jr. L); Nicole Walch (So. OH)

About the Seminoles: It’s been a terrific fall for FSU athletics, what with the football team headed to the BCS title game and the women’s soccer squad finishing second in the NCAA tournament. The women’s cross-country team, directed by former Illini distance-running coach Karen Harvey, fits in, too, by placing eighth in the NCAA Championships and producing the No. 6 individual finisher. Now Seminoles volleyball is making its play for the spotlight, advancing to the Sweet 16 two years after reaching the Final Four. Few outside the program expected this, not with fifth-seeded Florida standing in the way in the second round. And not with the match on the Gators’ court, where FSU had lost 16 straight against Florida. But the Seminoles knocked off their state rival in five sets after losing two of the first three. “It seems to be the mark of the team this year — being able to come back,” Poole said afterward. “They never gave up.”


 

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