Two months ago, making the NCAA tournament may have been the furthest thing from Fairfield volleyball coach Alija Pittenger's mind.
The Stags had to replace a pair of starters from last season's team and ended September with a 3-11 record after a nonconference slate that included losses to three opponents who qualified for this year's NCAA tournament.
“It took a little while for us to figure out how to work together,” Pittenger said. “We took a few lumps figuring that out. But our girls are competitive. They were going to figure it out eventually. They know losing is not fun.”
The light came on in October. The Stags (19-12) come to the Devaney Center for Friday's NCAA tournament opening-round match against No. 8-seeded Nebraska having won 16 of their last 17 matches.
Fairfield may not be a name familiar to most Nebraska fans. It wasn't to NU coach John Cook, who guessed Sunday the school was in North or South Carolina — the private, Jesuit college and its 3,500 undergraduate students actually are in Fairfield, Conn. But the Stags are becoming acquainted with facing college volleyball's giants in the NCAA tournament.
This marks the second straight NCAA berth for Fairfield, which earned the automatic bid from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference by sweeping Marist in the MAAC tournament final. Friday's match with Nebraska (23-6), set for a 7 p.m. start following the match between Miami (Fla.) and Oregon, will be the first meeting between the schools.
Fairfield earned its first NCAA bid in more than a decade in 2012, when the Stags were sent to Los Angeles and were swept by Southern Cal in the first round. However, Pittenger, who helped Michigan to three NCAA appearances as a player from 1997-2000, said the Stags know a different atmosphere awaits in Lincoln.
“Playing against USC, they're obviously a very good team. Having the experience playing out there is going to help us out,” Pittenger said. “But playing at the Devaney Center with 8,000 people will be a new experience for us.”
The Stags feature a balanced offensive attack in which four players average at least 2.26 kills per set. Junior outside hitter Marilyn Peizer, who became a starter late last season, has emerged as Fairfield's leading attacker (3.08 kills per set) and was named first-team all conference.
The Stags have to rely on balance and the decision-making of senior setter Rachel Romansky to be successful. Romansky, a four-year starter, was named the MAAC's setter of the year, the third consecutive season she's held the honor.
“She's super competitive,” Pittenger said. “She's a leader, keeps everybody engaged in practice and leads by example, for sure. She's been pushing everyone around her to get better.”
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Lincoln Regional capsules
Conference: Big Ten
Coach: John Cook (14th season)
Rank and NCAA seed: No. 9 and No. 8
NCAA appearance: 32nd
Big hitters: Kelsey Robinson (4.50 kills per set), Kadie Rolfzen (3.52 kps), Amber Rolfzen (2.18 kps)
Top blockers: Cecilia Hall (1.31 blocks per set), Meghan Haggerty (1.03 bps)
Top diggers: Justine Wong-Orantes (3.41 digs per set), Robinson (3.33 dps)
The setter: Mary Pollmiller (10.67 assists per set)
Honor roll: Robinson was named the Big Ten Conference player of the year after one of the best all-around seasons by a Nebraska outside hitter in school history. The Tennessee transfer leads Nebraska in kills, digs and aces. Kadie Rolfzen led all Big Ten freshman in kills, and is one of the nation's best freshman outside hitters. She was named first-team All-Big Ten this week, joining Robinson
Fast fact: Because of a scheduling conflict that caused Florida to back out of hosting an NCAA regional, Nebraska could play each match on its home floor until heading to the Final Four. Florida's O'Connell Center is set to host graduation on the same day as the NCAA regional final, so the Devaney Center became the substitute host site.
Conference: Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference
Rank and NCAA seed: Unranked and unseeded
NCAA appearance: 7th
Coach: Alija Pittenger (6th season)
Big hitters: Marilyn Peizer (3.08 kps), Caitlin Stapleton (2.57 kps), Hadley Orr (2.27 kps)
Top blockers: Maddie FitzPatrick (1.09 bps), Stapleton (0.71 bps)
Leading diggers: Carsen Mata (4.13 dps), Bella Guanciale (2.62 dps)
The setters: Rachel Romansky (9.58 aps)
Honor roll: Romansky was named first-team all-MAAC and tabbed the league's setter of the year for the third year in a row. Peizer joins her on the all-conference first team.
Fast facts: Fairfield made the NCAA tournament last year, losing 3-0 to Southern Cal in the first round in Los Angeles.
Rank and NCAA seed: No. 25 and unseeded
NCAA appearance: 10th
Coach: Jim Moore (9th season)
Big hitters: Liz Brenner (4.62 kps), Ariana Williams (3.08 kps), Martenne Bettendorf (2.70 kps)
Top blockers: Williams (0.98 bps), Canace Finley (0.89 bps)
Leading diggers: Amanda Benson (4.59 dps), Brenner (3.21 dps)
The setter: Lauren Plum (10.74 aps)
Honor roll: Brenner has stepped into the shoes vacated by 2012 NCAA Player of the Year Alaina Bergsma and earned All-Pac 12 honors after leading the conference in kills. Plum and Williams were named honorable mention All-Pac-12, while Benson earned all-freshman team honors in the Pac-12.
Fast facts: The Ducks took a slight step back from last year's club, which capped the most successful season in program history by reaching the national championship match, but Oregon still finished fourth in the rugged Pac-12. Plum missed some time this year with a foot injury but remains one of the country's most gifted setters.
Miami (Fla.) (19-11)
Conference: Atlantic Coast Conference
Rank and NCAA seed: Unranked and unseeded
NCAA appearance: 6th
Coach: Jose “Keno” Gandara (1st season)
Big hitters: Savanah Leaf (3.82 kps), Alex Johnson (2.55 kps), Misty Ma'a (2.40 kps)
Top blockers: Emani Sims (1.32 bps), Alexis Mourning (1.08 bps)
Leading diggers: Ryan Shaffer (4.72 dps), Johnson (2.66 dps)
The setter: Blair Fuentez (10.05 aps)
Honor roll: Leaf, a junior outside hitter, and Sims, a junior middle blocker, were named first-team All-ACC this season. Mourning earned second-team honors, and Shaffer is Miami's all-time leader in digs.
Fast facts: The Hurricanes are making their fifth straight trip to the NCAA tournament in coach Gandara's first season as a collegiate head coach. He previously was an assistant at Washington. Miami, which finished fourth in the ACC, beat Nebraska-Omaha 3-0 in the NIKE Invitational in Norman, Okla., in September.