Northern Colorado middle blocker Andrea Spaustat wasn't sure why she was named the most valuable player of the Big Sky tournament.
Maybe it's because in the title match alone, a 3-2 comeback victory over Idaho State, she had a career-high nine blocks, 10 kills, one attack error and six digs while hitting .600.
Earlier in the tournament, she hit .583 with eight kills and three aces against North Dakota and .294 with eight kills and one ace against Portland State.
Spaustat, a sophomore from Omaha Marian, said she had been struggling with her hitting, so she's put in extra work with setter Marissa Hughes.
“Finally in this tournament, it clicked and it worked. Thankfully. What better time to have it work than now?” she said. “Hitting is very simple, but I thought about it too much. I was trying to overdo my arm swing instead of going and letting it happen.”
If her hitting isn't working, Spaustat said she concentrates on her serves. She's averaging 2.67 kills, a .337 hitting percentage and 31 service aces, second-best on the team.
The Bears, who tied a school record for wins at 24-10, pushed hard to peak during the conference tournament and won their third title in four years to advance to the NCAA tournament. They'll play at Oregon on Friday.
“I was excited that it came together for our team's sake,” Spaustat said. “I would have been kind of disappointed if we would have lost. I would have felt I could have contributed more.”
Northern Colorado lost in the first round last year to Hawaii. Spaustat is hoping for better luck this season.
“We have a ton of talent and a ton of passion this year,” she said, “which I think will get us pretty far.”
Wait over for Feekin
After three long years, Chelsey Feekin finally got her chance to be the setter for Wichita State. The redshirt junior from Papillion-La Vista had to wait for Mary Elizabeth Hooper to graduate.
“I was very excited when it was finally my time this year,” she said.
Feekin said she's learned a ton this season. The position itself wasn't hard, it was just about making good decisions and setting to the right people. Coaches in the Missouri Valley were impressed with her performance, naming Feekin to the league's first team after she averaged 9.86 sets per game.
Feekin led the 22-9 Shockers to the NCAA tournament for a sixth straight year. They'll play Arkansas in Lawrence, Kan., on Friday.
WSU lost to Creighton in the MVC tournament final, but wins over teams such as Colorado State, Oklahoma and Northern Iowa were good enough to get it into the tournament. The Shockers have never played the Razorbacks.
“We've been playing the same teams the last three months, so it will be nice to have a fresh opponent,” Feekin said.
Arkansas attacks more with its outside hitters, so Feekin said Wichita State is hoping to surprise the Hogs with strong play from middle hitters Ashley Andrade and Elizabeth Field.
She likes WSU's spot in the tournament, with winnable matches in the early rounds.
“Both matches will be really difficult, but we have a chance still,” she said.
Perfect timing for ISU
Everything is coming together for Iowa State, and the timing couldn't be more perfect, senior Jamie Straube says.
“I think we have the potential to go very, very far in the tournament,” said the 6-foot-2 middle blocker from Tecumseh, Neb.
Iowa State hosts Summit League champion Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne (25-6) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday could face the winner of the North Carolina-California match.
The No. 18 Cyclones (20-7, 13-3) accomplished their goal of going unbeaten in the second half of the Big 12 season, winning 10 straight. They relied on strong defense, a good work ethic and determination to not give up against adversity.
Included in that streak was Saturday's five-set victory over No. 3 Texas. The Longhorns had beaten ISU 3-2 earlier in the season, a loss that Straube said was always in the back of her mind.
Saturday was also Senior Night, which Straube said was surreal. It made the victory more special.
“Everybody was really focused and ready for a battle,” Straube said. “Just that mindset we had going into the game was a huge part of our success.”
Straube is one of three Nebraskans on the roster. Others are freshman libero Bria Rasmussen of Grand Island and junior middle blocker Tenisha Matlock of North Platte.
Straube has been named ISU's first Big 12 scholar-athlete of the year. The kinesiology major has a 3.99 grade-point average. During ISU's 10-match winning streak, she's hit .331, averaging 2.58 kills per set and 0.87 blocks per set, best on the team. She also had five service aces and had a solo block in the win over Texas.
Straube said that victory has given the Cyclones momentum.
“At tournament time, every team is dangerous, and we'll have to be ready for anything,” she said.
Jayhawks at home
Kansas outside hitter Sara McClinton says the Jayhawks were thrilled to get a No. 11 seed and host the first two rounds of the tournament.
KU opens with Cleveland State, which has won 13 straight, at 6:30 p.m. Friday. Wichita State and Arkansas meet in the other first-round game.
The No. 20 Jayhawks (25-6, 12-4) are 16-1 at home. Their only loss was a five-setter to No. 3 Texas.
“I think we love having the support system from all our fans. It really gets us motivated,” McClinton said. “Just the fact that we get to go through our routine, everything is comfortable when we are home. That really makes a difference.”
McClinton, a first-team All-Big 12 selection, is a sophomore from Millard North. Outside hitter Chelsea Albers of Papillion-La Vista, middle blocker Jessie Allen of Aurora High School and setter Maggie Anderson of Lincoln Southwest also are on the squad.
Kansas has a balanced offensive attack that is hard to defend, McClinton said, and the Jayhawks are also one of the best defensive teams in the Big 12. The team has set several individual and team records en route to one of its best seasons ever.
“I think this year, the culture in the gym was completely different than we ever had before,” McClinton said. “Everyone is really focused and motivated. We're taking it one game at a time. The team chemistry has been huge. We've been able to achieve more than we could possibly dream of this year.”
>> Creighton transfer Julianne Mandolfo has started 17 of 30 matches for Ohio State (22-10), 16 as defensive specialist and one as a libero. She has 186 digs and a 1.79 per-set average. The Omaha Marian graduate had a season-high 17 digs at Northwestern on Oct. 6 and has recorded seven matches with double-digit digs. OSU opens at Notre Dame on Friday.
>> Taylor Johnson had a career-high eight kills and seven blocks in No. 25 Kansas State's 3-1 loss to Oklahoma on Saturday. The sophomore from Grand Island Northwest is averaging 1.52 kills per set, with a hitting percentage of .256, and 0.64 blocks. The Wildcats play Northern Iowa on Thursday in Lincoln.
Nebraskans in NCAAs
Several Nebraskans will be playing in the NCAA tournament:
California: Lillian Schonewise, MH, Papillion-La Vista South.
Creighton: Ashley Jansen, DS, Omaha Marian; Heather Thorson, MB, Mead; Megan Bober, S, Elmwood-Murdock; Michelle Sicner, S, Millard North; Kate Elman, DS, Omaha Marian; Lauren Smith, MB, Lincoln Pius X.
Iowa State: Jamie Straube, MB, Tecumseh; Bria Rasmussen, L, Grand Island; Tenisha Matlock, MB, North Platte.
Kansas: Chelsea Albers, OU, Papillion-La Vista; Jessie Allen, MB, Aurora; Maggie Anderson, S, Lincoln Southwest; Sara McClinton, OH, Millard North.
Kansas State: Katie Brand, S, Grand Island Central Catholic; Courtney Cook, OH, Fremont Bergan; Taylor Johnson, MB, Grand Island Northwest; Kuulei Kabalis, DS/L, Western Nebraska Community College.
Louisville: Kaitlynn James, OH, Nebraska transfer.
Nebraska: Lauren Cook, S, Lincoln Pius X; Paige Hubl, DS, Lincoln Southeast; Gina Mancuso, OH, Papillion-La Vista; Alicia Ostrander, OH, Gordon-Rushville; Hayley Thramer, MB, Ewing.
Northern Colorado: Andrea Spaustat, MB, Omaha Marian.
Northern Iowa: Kayla Haneline, MH, Plattsmouth.
North Carolina State: Courtney Reiman, OH/MB, Bennington.
Ohio State: Julianne Mandolfo, DS/L, Omaha Marian/Creighton transfer.
Texas A&M: Megan Pendergast, DS/L, Nebraska transfer.
Wichita State: Chelsey Feekin, S, Papillion-La Vista.