Joy, excitement, and exhilaration were just some of the emotions Blugolds volleyball head coach Kim Wudi was experiencing when the NCAA selection committee announced that UW-Eau Claire had been selected for the NCAA tournament on Monday morning.
“We had quite the emotional outburst at that point,” Wudi said. “It was pretty exciting.”
For the second consecutive season, the Blugolds are going dancing. This time around, UW-Eau Claire has a tougher road, drawing third-seeded College of Saint Benedict, who finished its regular season with only five losses. Despite their disparity in records, the Blugolds look to make a deep run in the tournament.
“At this point in any regional, you throw those seedings out the window,” Wudi said. “Everyone is playing at their best.”
The Blugolds will take on St. Benedict at 12:30 p.m. on Thursday at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The matchup with the Bennies has become all too familiar for UW-Eau Claire, as this will be the fourth time the two teams have seen the court against each other in the last two seasons. Last season, the Blugolds defeated them in the postseason to advance to the Elite Eight. Earlier this season, St. Benedicts won the matchup in four sets.
“Playing St. Ben’s first is a really good opportunity for us,” junior and team captain Makenzie Bachmann said. “We lost to them in earlier in the season in a tight match, but I think we are an entirely different team at this point.”
UW-Eau Claire volleyball had a historic season last year, finishing with a final record of 33-4 and winning the WIAC conference championship. The Blugolds made a deep postseason run before being defeated in the Final Four by Calvin College.
This year’s run to the tournament wasn’t as successful, leaving UW-Eau Claire’s fate in doubt. The Blugolds’ early exit in the WIAC tournament this season — Eau Claire fell in the semifinals — meant that they didn’t receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
That left Eau Claire at the mercy of the selection committee, which ultimately decided its resume was strong enough to receive a No. 6 seed in its region.
“We all had a pit in our stomach waiting,” sophomore Abbey Pederson said. “When we heard our name everyone was crying and just so happy.”
The Blugolds do not consider themselves underdogs, though.
“We are underdogs in terms of rankings, technically. But we don’t see our team as that,” said Taylor Scalia, who was selected as to the WIAC All-Defensive team. “We know what we are capable of.”
Whatever happens on Thursday, being selected for the NCAA tournament is an accomplishment in itself, Wudi said.
“It’s so critical to be able to introduce our players to that postseason energy and postseason expectation,” Wudi said. “It’s really crucial for the future success of our program.”
Despite the accomplishment of being invited to the tournament, the Blugolds’ ultimate goal is a deep run and national championship, Scalia said.
“We just need to get after it this week in practice,” Scalia said. “If we set our mind to it we can beat any team.”