Miami on tap for NIU in NCAA tournament


File Photo NIU’s Justine Schelpler (1) dives for a dig while Coach Ray Gooden watches the play closely in a game earlier this season.

By Mike Romor

With its entire 2011 campaign on the line, NIU volleyball will face No. 25 Miami (Fla.) in tonight’s opening round match of the NCAA Tournament.

NIU (28-6, 14-2 MAC) enters the match winning 15 of its last 16 matches, while Miami (25-4, 26-4 ACC) has won 10 of its last 11.

This is the sixth trip to the tournament for the Huskies, the first since 2001. The Hurricanes, on the other hand, will make their third-straight appearance in the tournament. They have failed to advance past the first round during that stretch.

“We’ve had high expectations as a group the whole time since starting the season,” said Miami head coach Nicole Lantagne Welch in an interview. “We’ve had a great year, and we want to continue to have that kind of success in the tournament. The most important thing for us is that we go, we’re more prepared and that we play well.”

The Huskies have not faced an ACC opponent since Georgia Tech in 2009. After spending just a few days reviewing footage of the Hurricanes, the Huskies feel ready to face one of the best teams the ACC has to offer.

“We feel pretty good [entering the match],” said NIU coach Ray Gooden. “We know Miami’s very good. They are experienced; they are from a very good conference, but we feel like we’ve done some very good things as well. Our level of consistency is going to be really important because they are a very consistent team. They are similar to the Big East teams we played against, so we know that it will take a strong match in order to be successful.”

The match will feature two of the most dominant players in the NCAA. For NIU, Lauren Wicinski has been a leader on the court all season and is the only player in league history to win MAC Player of the Year in her first two seasons.

For the Hurricanes, senior outside hitter Lane Carico has been a prominent figure throughout her career. The ACC Player of the Year has 11 consecutive double-doubles and comes off a season-high 29 kills in an upset win of No. 21 Florida State. Carico is first in Miami’s record books in kills in points and second in digs. The winner of the NIU-Miami match will go up against the victor of UW-Milwaukee and Iowa State’s match.

Iowa State (22-5, 13-3) will host the first two rounds and is the fourth seed in the tournament. The Cyclones beat the Huskies at Victor E. Court in four sets early in the season.

Iowa State will enter the tournament for the sixth straight year, and the fourth seed is the best the program has ever received. The Cyclones are ranked third in the RPI and beat three top-25 teams this season including No. 9 Florida in five sets.

Despite Iowa State’s success this season, UW-Milwaukee could end the team’s championship chances. Milwaukee (25-4, 16-0 Horizon) won 18 matches in a row and has only dropped nine sets during that span. In a match earlier this season, the Huskies put away Milwaukee on the road in straight sets.

Although Gooden is not looking further than the match against Miami, he is aware that Iowa State and Milwaukee have made significant strides throughout the season.

“It’s good for us that we’ve played both of these teams so we know what their style of play is,” Gooden said. “Both teams have improved a ton since we last played them in late August and early September. Milwaukee’s won something close to 20 in a row and Iowa State’s one of the top seeds, so both teams have vastly improved and they should have a good match as well.”