Relaxed Bearcats Cherish NCAA Automatic Bid|
Nov. 30, 2011
By Shawn Sell
When the UC Volleyball Team gathered to watch the NCAA Tournament Selection Show on Sunday night, the Bearcat players were able to enjoy a feeling that none of them had experienced before. Instead of nervously waiting and hoping to see Cincinnati appear on the screen, the BIG EAST Champion Bearcats were able to sit back and enjoy the feeling of owning an automatic berth.
While the Bearcats have made nine prior NCAA Tournament appearances (all but two during Reed Sunahara's head coaching reign), UC's victory over Notre Dame in the BIG EAST Finals on Nov. 20th, marked the program's first conference tournament title since 1999. For Sunahara, who was an assistant coach on that squad, it was a feeling he was more than happy to relive.
"It was the first time (in awhile) that we weren't on the edge of our seats hoping that we would get in," he says. "It was a great feeling knowing that we were going to get to go somewhere and knowing that we were in. The only thing we were anticipating was where. For the most part, it was a pretty relaxed atmosphere and a good feeling."
When the Bearcats' name flashed on the screen, they learned their destination would be Tallahassee, Florida, home of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament Champion Florida State Seminoles. UC's first round opponent is Samford, automatic qualifiers out of the Southern Conference. Albany, champs of the America East Conference rounds out the Tallahassee field. Like any of the 16 "pods" across the country featuring the nation's best teams, Sunahara knows his team's draw will be not be easy.
"It is like any other draw, you have to win and you have to play well," he says. "Samford is a good team and are 29-4 for a reason. They have done well in their conference and tournament. I am not too familiar with Albany, but I know Florida State is a good team. All the teams in the tournament are good and anyone can beat anyone and anyone can lose to anyone. We have to make sure we are focused and bring our A game."
The Samford Bulldogs will provide a formidable first round opponent for the Bearcats, after they claimed the Southern Conference North Division Regular Season Title and dropped just one set in cruising to the league's tournament championship. The Bulldogs are led by the Southern Conference Player of the Year, junior outside hitter Elizabeth Neiser and her 3.95 kills per set. Other players to watch from Samford are the all-conference middle blocker duo of Lauren Hutchinson (3.27 kills per set, .437 hitting percentage) and Katie Murphy (2.81 kills per set, .403 hitting percentage). While UC and Samford didn't share any common opponents this year, Sunahara already knows his team will have its hands full.
"We saw some tape and they are good," he says. "They are a pretty athletic team; they have a couple of nice middles, a good setter and their outside hitters are efficient. We have to make sure we play hard and minimize our mistakes."
As if the longstanding UC goal of advancing to the NCAA Sweet 16 weren't enough, the Bearcats will have added motivation this weekend after seeing their nation's-best 48 match home winning streak snapped last Friday against Ohio. While the setback was difficult to take, Sunahara is hopeful his team will learn from the negative experience.
"Hopefully, we don't take anything for granted," he says. "I hope that we can learn from (the loss) and use it to our advantage heading into the weekend knowing that you can be beaten at any given moment if you aren't focused and ready to play. I thought we were flat (that day) and didn't execute. We did some good things, but weren't consistent enough."
Prior to each season, Sunahara always laments the virtues of playing a challenging schedule to get his team ready for the grind of BIG EAST action and a potential NCAA Tournament berth. A scan of this year's docket proves no different as a staggering 11 UC opponents have qualified for NCAA play. Of that 11, two are fellow BIG EAST members in Louisville and Marquette and Sunahara is pleased to see the league earn three bids this year.
"I think the conference is getting better," he assesses. "Anytime you can get as many teams as possible into the tournament, it's a reflection on how good the conference is. With us getting three, hopefully it will continue to get better and we can get more teams in."
UC and Samford will kick off the Tallahassee pod action on Friday with first serve set for 4:30 p.m. inside FSU's Tully Gymnasium. Stay tuned to GoBEARCATS.com for all your NCAA Tournament coverage.