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2023 NCAA Volleyball First Round Preview: #6 Marquette vs Eastern Illinois

The Golden Eagles and the Panthers clash in West Lafayette with the winner advancing in the tournament.

A black jaguar is a panther, so there you go.
Photo by MAURO PIMENTEL/AFP via Getty Images

2023 NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament

First Round

#6 Marquette Golden Eagles (20-10, 16-2 Big East) vs Eastern Illinois Panthers (28-4, 15-3 Ohio Valley)

Date: Thursday, November 30, 2023
Time: 3:30pm Central
Location: Holloway Gymnasium, West Lafayette, Indiana
Streaming: ESPN+
Live Stats: because the NCAA is a bunch of freaks about live stats for the tournament
Bluesky Updates: @AnonymousEagle

All Time Series: I wanted to give this one space, because the record book says Marquette is 2-11 all time against Eastern Illinois. However, that’s 2-7 since MU became a Division 1 program, and 1-0 after a 3-2 loss in September of 2000. That win was back in 2012, one year after the Golden Eagles made the NCAA tournament for the first time ever.

It’s been a bit of a long, strange season for Marquette volleyball. They started off the season without preseason all-Big East middle blocker Carsen Murray and then played what has to be the toughest non-conference schedule in program history and went just 4-7. They won seven straight Big East matches to start league play, including sweeping then-#15 Creighton, before getting clipped on the road by St. John’s. They lost just one more regular season match the rest of the way — on the road against then-#17 Creighton, of course — and secured a third straight regular season title. Along the way, all-Big East setter Yadhira Anchante missed some time with an appendix issue, and hitter/setter Ella Foti suffered a hand injury that was aggravated in the second to last regular season match, a 3-0 sweep of St. John’s. The Golden Eagles then went out in the Big East semifinals.... and lost in five sets to that same Red Storm team, on the same McGuire Center floor that they had just swept them on one week earlier.

And yet, the NCAA selection committee elected to reward Marquette with a top 24 ranking by way of their #6 regional seed. It is almost assuredly not the kind of seeding that head coach Ryan Theis and his players were looking for when they scheduled the way that they did in the non-conference portion of the slate, nor when the season started. But the committee decided that Marquette trying to have the most historic season in program history was worth the seed. Did I see it coming, especially after MU’s second loss to St. John’s? No, I did not, I’ll admit it. In the tournament, sure, probably, but not a guarantee, not even with a top 25 RPI heading into Selection Sunday.

Lining up across the court from Aubrey Hamilton and friends on Thursday afternoon will be Eastern Illinois. There’s a connection here, as MU head coach Ryan Theis was an assistant coach at EIU in 2001, which was the last time that the Panthers qualified for the NCAA tournament. Someone remind me to include Theis in the notable alumni section if the men’s basketball team ever plays EIU again, as Theis earned a master’s degree there in 2002.

The Panthers come in with a record of 28-4 after going 15-3 in Ohio Valley Conference action and winning the OVC tournament title with three wins in three days. 28 wins is the program’s best total since 1982, and their OVC regular season crown is the first outright regular season title for the team since 1998.

While EIU is in the NCAA tournament as an auto-bid participant, that doesn’t mean they’re not a good volleyball team. You don’t get to #65 in the RPI on accident, y’know? With that said, Thursday’s match at Marquette will be just their third contest against a top 100 opponent after a two-fer trip to #34 Missouri that they split 1-1 in mid-September.

Eastern Illinois is heavily decorated with Ohio Valley honors. 5’9” senior outside hitter Giovana Larregui Lopez won her second straight OVC Player of the Year trophy this fall after averaging 4.02 kills per set and hitting .304 on the year. 5’9” sophomore setter Catalina Rochaix averaged 11.10 assists per set to earn OVC Setter of the Year honors. Those two were joined on the All-OVC First Team by 6’2” grad student outside hitter Natalie Mitchem and 5’6” senior libero Christina Martinez Mundo. Mitchem was the #2 hitter on the team at 3.51 kills per set with a .350 hitting percentage, while Martinez Mundo averaged a whopping 5.63 digs per set.

EIU might be a little shorthanded for Thursday’s match. 6’3” middle blocker Julia Staney averaged 1.05 blocks per set this season, but she missed the regular season finale and all of the OVC tournament. No one else on the team averages more than 0.68 blocks per set, and with their best hitter and setter measuring in at 5’9”, it’s safe to say that Eastern Illinois will be a little bit undersized against Marquette without Staney.

The winner of this match will advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament. That contest is scheduled for 6pm Central time at Holloway Gymnasium, where the opposition will either be host and regional #3 seed Purdue or Fairfield, depending on who wins their first round contest, which is scheduled for after Marquette/Eastern Illinois.