UAFS Volleyball Set For Elite Eight

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Courtesy: UAFS Sports

UAFS Sports Information

FORT SMITH (KFSM) – After making an improbable run to the NCAA Division II Final Four last season, the UAFS volleyball team has quietly put together yet another surprising postseason run that has the Lady Lions playing in the Elite Eight for the second time in as many seasons.

No. 6 seed UAFS will play No. 1 seed and No. 12 nationally-ranked Wheeling Jesuit at 11 a.m. on Thursday in the Elite Eight at the University of Tampa’s Bob Martinez Athletic Center in Tampa, Fla.

It will be the first-ever meeting between UAFS and Wheeling Jesuit, which is based in Wheeling, W.Va. A live stream of the match will be available at NCAA.com. UAFS also will host a watch party at the Windgate Art and Design theatre on campus.

UAFS (29-3) will carry a 28-match winning streak into Thursday’s match and is the second-lowest seeded team to reach this year’s Elite Eight. Central Region champion Wayne State is a No. 7 seed.

“It feels pretty surreal to be heading back to the Elite Eight again this year,” UAFS coach Jane Sargent said. “We have always had confidence that this year’s team could be really good once all of our new players bought into our system, so it wasn’t a big surprise – at least to us – that we ended up winning the region.”

The Lady Lions are comfortable in the underdog role after advancing to the Final Four last season as a No. 7 seed. This season, the Heartland Conference regular-season and conference tournament champion won three five-set thrillers to win the South Central Region, beating No. 3 seed Metro State, No. 7 seed Colorado Mesa and No. 1 seed and No. 23 nationally-ranked Angelo State to advance to its second-consecutive Elite Eight.

UAFS has thrived on pressure throughout the season and haven’t been beaten in a five-set match, going 6-0. Sargent credits her three seniors – right-side hitter Abigail Phillips, setter Whitney Mills and defensive specialist Macy Ayulo – as being one of the reasons the Lady Lions were able to pull off their nail-biter wins in the region tournament.

“None of them want their collegiate careers to be over, and they become part of our motivation,” Sargent said. “Plus, we try to always go in prepared for what our opponents will try to do to beat us, and so far, it has paid off.”

Atlantic Region champion Wheeling Jesuit (36-4) will carry a nine-match winning streak into the Elite Eight. The Cardinals won the Mount East Conference regular-season title, going 16-0), and the MEC Conference Tournament championship.

The Cardinals swept all three opponents – No. 8 Winston-Salem, No. 5 Clarion and No. Gannon – to win the region tournament. Wheeling Jesuit is one of only two No. 1 seeds to advance out of their region, joining No. 1 seed Palm Beach Atlantic.

UAFS has compiled a 0.207 hitting percentage and averages 13.1 kills per set. Junior Kennedi Coleman, who was the Heartland Conference Offensive Player of the Year, leads the team with 3.62 kills per set and is one of three players averaging two or more kills per set.

Senior setter Whitney Mills leads the team with 10.36 assists per set and ranks in the Top 50 in the nation in assists. Junior defensive specialist Olivia Navato leads the team with 27 aces and is one of seven players with 10 or more aces.

The Lady Lions hold opponents to an average 0.108 hitting percentage – third lowest in the nation – with 10.5 kills per set. Junior middle hitters Payton Hamilton and Shannon Thompson lead the team with 88 total blocks apiece and are two of six players with 30 or more total blocks.

Junior libero Emily Tripp leads the team with 5.63 digs per set and is one of five players averaging two or more digs per set. UAFS is second in the nation with 20.01 digs per set.

“This team is a team of warriors, and they feel like they have the mountain – their teammates – at their back, which gives them all the confidence to swing hard, dig nails, serve tough and beat some teams they probably shouldn’t,” Sargent said.

Wheeling Jesuit is second in the nation with a 0.304 hitting percentage and fifth in the nation with 14.5 kills per set. Junior outside hitter Kayce Krucki leads the team with 2.76 kills per set and is one of six players averaging two or more kills per set.

Junior setter Andrea Thobe lead the team with 12.07 assists per set and is ranked fifth in the nation. Junior middle blocker Emma Schleucher leads the team with 44 aces and is one of five players with 10 or more aces.

The Cardinals hold opponents to an average 0.125 hitting percentage with 11.1 kills per set. Freshman middle blocker Lauran Graves leads the team with 128 total blocks and is one of nine players with 20 or total blocks.

Senior defensive specialist Jessica Thobe leads the team with 5.03 digs per set and is one of four players with two or more digs per set.

“Wheeling Jesuit is a very good team with powerful hitters,” Sargent said. “I believe they are No. 2 in the nation in hitting percentage. They have beaten some very good teams, and they will be a tough match for us.”