Volleyball to open NCAAs in Iowa

The NCAA announced the 64-team bracket for the 2011 NCAA Volleyball Championships Sunday night on ESPNU and the Florida Gators (24-5, 17-3 SEC) learned they will travel to Cedar Falls, Iowa for the first round to face future Southeastern Conference member Missouri (21-12, 7-9 Big 12) . The Gators will face off against the Tigers at 5 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 2, on the University of Northern Iowa campus in the McLeod Center.

“Everything that we are doing now for the next few days is all going to be about Missouri,” Florida coach Mary Wise said. “Easily one of the toughest opponents we have ever had in the first round.”

This marks the 21st consecutive season, and 22nd overall, the Gators have advanced to the NCAA Tournament.

“We look at it as a privilege,” Wise said. “There are only 64 teams that are left playing and what we are asking the players to do is to organize their time and their efforts so that everything goes into putting ourselves in the position to play our best volleyball. There are no guarantees once you get to the tournament.”

This is the first time the Gators and Tigers have met and only the second time in program history that Florida will travel for the first and second rounds.

“I think it’s an advantage, you can get a little bit more comfortable when you’re at home,” senior outside hitter Kristy Jaeckel said about having to travel for the first and second round of the tournament. “Going on the road you know you have to have that warrior mentality and have to fight for every point. I think in a way, it could make us more focused and more prepared for the game coming up this weekend.”

The Gators are 53-21 (.716) all-time in the NCAA Tournament, including a 52-20 (.725) stand under coach Wise. The Gators have advanced to NCAA regionals in 19 of Wise’s 20 seasons and have reached the national semifinal seven times.

The Mizzou volleyball program was selected for the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year and for the 10th time in the last 12 seasons. Last year, Missouri advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 and this season with nine underclassmen, the Tigers will be one of the youngest teams in the 2011 NCAA Tournament.

“We look at it this year, we will have to fight and claw,” Wise said. “We will be in a huge battle just to get out of the first round, one of the toughest matches we will play all year will be in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. We are looking as it’s a tough journey to get to the second round.”

If the Florida Gators advance, they face either the No. 6 overall seeded-host and Missouri Valley Champion University of Northern Iowa Panthers (32-1) or the MAAC Champion Niagara Purple Eagles (25-8) in the second round. 

Five additional teams from Florida’s 2011 schedule are competing in the NCAA Tournament, including the No. 1 overall seed Texas Longhorns, where the Gators were victorious in a five set win, 3-2 (25-22, 20-25, 25-13, 21-25, 15-12) in the 2011 Nike Big Four Volleyball Classic earlier in the season.

“We’re excited, we knew no matter what happened it was going to be tough,” senior setter and right-side hitter Kelly Murphy said. “We’re just happy that eventually, hopefully we’ll get to make it back to Gainesville. Right now, we’re all focused on Mizzou.”

Three teams from the Southeastern Conference qualified for the tournament, including the SEC Champion Tennessee Lady Volunteers who clinched a No. 14 national seed while Kentucky also grabbed a spot in the tournament. 

The Tennessee Lady Vols make their 13th overall appearance in the NCAA Tournament, marking the seventh time they have done so in the last eight years. Kentucky’s bid puts the Wildcats in the tournament for the seventh consecutive season, notching their 13th appearance overall. 

“I think that we’re really excited and we were just ready to see who we play,” Jaeckel said. “We’re just ready to get in the gym and work on how we’re going to beat them. Missouri is obviously a really good team. They’re from a great conference, so we know they’re going to be tough. We’re really excited to put ourselves to the test against someone new.”

The SEC’s highest finish in the NCAA Tournament was back in 2003 when the Florida Gators advanced to the Championship Final.  In 2010, the Gators advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. 

The Stephen C. O’ Connell Center in Gainesville, Fla. has already been established as one of the pre-determined regional sites for Dec. 9-10. The other regional sites include Honolulu, Hawaii, Minneapolis, Minn. and Lexington, Ky. All regional semifinal games will be shown on ESPN3.com and regional final games will air on ESPNU.

On Dec. 15 and 17 the University of Texas will host the semifinal and final matches in San Antonio, Texas. Both national semifinal games and championship game will be broadcast on ESPN2.

“It’s hard knowing we’re not going to be in Gainesville for the first round,” Murphy said. “We love having the crowd here, but either way we are going to have to play tough teams, whether it’s first, second, third, any round. It’s just taking it one match at a time and hope for the best.”