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2022 NCAA Volleyball Tournament First Round Preview: #4 Marquette vs Ball State

The Golden Eagles play an NCAA tournament match at home for just the third time in program history.

NCAA FOOTBALL: NOV 08 Eastern Michigan at Ball State Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

2022 NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament

First Round

#4 Marquette Golden Eagles (27-3, 17-1 Big East) vs Ball State Cardinals ()

Date: Thursday, December 1, 2022
Time: 7pm Central
Location: Al McGuire Center, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Streaming: ESPN+
Live Stats: because the NCAA is super weird about just letting you see stats like a normal person for the tournament
Twitter Updates: @MarquetteVB
All Time Series: Ball State leads, 1-0

Volleyball returns to the McGuire Center, and not just volleyball, but NCAA tournament volleyball.

The last time that we had NCAA tournament matches in Milwaukee was the only other time in Marquette program history that the Golden Eagles got to host the first two rounds of the tourney. That was back in 2018, and the Allie Barber-led Golden Eagles beat High Point and Cincinnati to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history. It was a big ding dong deal, to say the least. On Thursday, Marquette hosts for the second time in program history, and it would be super neat if Marquette could pull it off again.

But that’s for the future, here we have to talk about the first round of the tournament. Marquette got to the NCAA tournament and to hosting privileges by way of a 27-3 record this season. MU lost to just two teams before the NCAA tournament started, and never lost at the McGuire Center. They lost at then-#6 Wisconsin in four sets in the third match of the year after starting the campaign off with a road win over then-#11 Kentucky. After falling to the Badgers, the Golden Eagles then ripped off 13 straight wins heading into a Big East showdown at then-#21 Creighton. That one started out well with MU taking the first two sets, but the Bluejays won the last three to put themselves in the driver’s seat in the league. MU then won their next 12 matches, including sweeping Creighton at the McGuire Center to end the regular season and secure a split regular season title with the Bluejays. That 12 match winning streak included downing UConn in a sweep in the Big East semifinals but ended with yet another five set loss to the Bluejays in Omaha, this time in the Big East championship match.

MU is led by a bevy of all-Big East performers. Aubrey Hamilton and Jenna Reitsma are the top two attackers, and their swings at the net are generated by Big East Setter of the Year Yadhira Anchante. Carsen Murray and Hattie Bray are in the middle of the net for the Golden Eagles, generating blocks and high efficiency offense. Carly Skrabak holds up the back line at libero, averaging over 4.5 digs per set.

Ball State was expected to have a good season after going 30-4 a year ago and beating Michigan to advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament. They were picked to win the western division of the MAC, and did just that with a record of 15-3, three games better than Central Michigan. The Cardinals won 15 of their final 16 regular season matches to enter the MAC conference tournament at 23-7 after starting off the season with a record of 8-6, including back-to-back losses to CMU to start league play. They were the #1 seed in the conference tournament and got their revenge on the Chippewas with a 3-1 semifinals win, but fell in five sets to Bowling Green in the championship.

Yes, that means they are an at-large selection to the field, and a somewhat surprising one given that their RPI peaked for the year at #51 after falling to the Falcons in the MAC title match. BSU went 1-2 against top 50 RPI teams with their regular season win at #42 Bowling Green as the only victory, and they went 5-3 against teams ranked 51-100 in the RPI. It should not surprise you to find out that ESPNU did mention that the Cardinals were one of the last four teams into the field of 68.

Ball State is led by head coach Kelli Miller Phillips, and the Purdue grad won her second straight MAC Coach of the Year trophy this season. This is her third time guiding the Cardinals to the NCAA tournament, and if you toss the weird 2020-21 COVID adjusted season in the bin, it’s the third straight NCAA appearance for her team.

This match will be, to a certain extent, a battle of the two best setters in their respective leagues. We already mentioned that Yadhira Anchante took home that trophy for Marquette, but Megan Wielonski is averaging 11.26 assists per set and steering the ship for the Cardinals to win the MAC’s iteration of the award. Wielonski is one of three Cardinals to earn All-MAC First Team honors. Outside hitter Cait Snyder and middle blocker Marie Plitt both joined Wielonski there, and as you’d guess, they’re Ball State’s top two attackers. Snyder averages 3.27 kills/set to lead the team by a pretty strong margin over Plitt at 2.66. Here’s the catch: Snyder is only hitting .207 on the season. That’s pretty representative of her whole season, as she hit .219 against MAC opponents in the regular season. Believe it or not, thanks to Snyder missing three matches along the way, OH Natalie Risi is actually leading the team in swings while averaging 2.20 kills and hitting .183. That missed time for Snyder was in non-conference action, so there’s no question about her fitness at this point of the year beyond the “everyone’s banged up” issue.

Maggie Huber anchors the defense with 4.61 digs/set, and she was north of five per frame in league action. The Cardinals have three regulars averaging north of two digs per set, so even with Huber doing the heavy lifting, there’s a team mindset to keeping the ball in the air. Ball State averages just 1.8 blocks per set as a team, led by 0.79/set from Lauren Gilliland. Plitt (0.67) and Natalie Mitchem (0.51) are chipping in as well, but generally speaking, it seems that Ball State isn’t quite as effective at the net as Marquette is. Carsen Murray (1.10/set) is doing damage almost all by herself that BSU can’t match.