Kim Wudi scheduled a trip to St. Louis early this fall for a reason. That was where UW-Eau Claire volleyball hoped to end the year.
“You usually fly somewhere the first weekend of the season, but due to COVID we were restricted to driving,” said Wudi, in her 15th season as the program’s head coach. “We said, ‘Alright, where can we go that opening weekend?’ Well, the national championship is in St. Louis, so let’s go get familiar with the court and the area. I told them that the first weekend. Our goal was to get back there.”
That goal was achieved when the Blugolds pulled off a come-from-behind victory against Hope College in Saturday’s regional final. Next up is the Elite Eight and a battle with Tufts University Thursday on that familiar St. Louis floor. Play kicks off at 3 p.m.
The final three rounds of the NCAA Tournament will be played at the field house on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, the same venue where the Blugolds defeated Texas-Dallas and the host Bears at the start of September. Wudi has the ability to recite facts about the facility, including its unusual red and green color scheme. Little should surprise them.
“Knowing where the bathrooms are, where the locker rooms are, that’s huge,” senior outside hitter Arianna Barrett said.
For half the team, the familiarity runs even deeper. UW-Eau Claire is playing in its second Elite Eight in four years — the Blugolds reached the Final Four in 2018 — meaning a large chunk of the roster knows what to expect from the pinnacle event of DIII volleyball. That extends to the schedule, thanks to the Blugolds getting the No. 4 seed in both 2018 and 2021.
“When we went in 2018, it was the first time in history we had been to the Elite Eight,” Wudi said. “I am a planner, so I try to plan every day. I was so excited when I saw the four seed because that meant I could copy and paste the schedule from 2018. Literally, we practice at the same times, we play at the same times. ... I just told our team that. I said, ‘Who was at the Final Four? Remember the schedule?’”
That adds up to a tremendous amount of comfort for the Blugolds, who are coming off a regional where they got the advantage of playing on their home floor. UW-EC fans packed McPhee for three nights of regional play, watching the hosts defeat Greenville, Gustavus Adolphus and Hope to keep their season alive.
Hope brought the stiffest challenge. The Flying Dutch won the first set 25-18 and took a quick 10-5 advantage in the second. But the Blugolds stormed back to win the second, and then the match in four sets.
“There was no doubt in our mind at all today,” middle hitter Kendra Baierl said after the team celebrated with its regional championship hardware. “I think we all knew that we had prepared well and knew that we could do it, 100% believed in each other. That kind of propelled us to the end.”
Tufts, the fifth seed, received an at-large bid after falling to Wesleyan in the NESCAC Tournament semifinals. The Jumbos, now 21-5, swept Cabrini and Springfield to open regional play before knocking off host Johns Hopkins in four sets in the championship bout.
“They’re awfully scrappy, very much like the teams we saw this past weekend,” Wudi said. “Nothing’s going to hit the floor, and they have a couple lethal hitters too.”
It’s already been an impressive year for UW-Eau Claire. In addition to the regional title the Blugolds won both the WIAC regular season and tournament crowns. Three players were named AVCA All-Americans earlier this week — Barrett, Baierl and Charlie Nelson — while Baierl was also the WIAC’s offensive player of the year.
The 2018 postseason push ended with a semifinal loss to Calvin. The goal remains getting further than this program ever has before. After last year’s season was canceled, the squad has been working two years for this.
“As much as going through a global pandemic together was difficult and hard, I would give credit to that being a reason we are the team that we are,” outside hitter Makenzie Bachmann said. “We have been resilient for two years together as a team. We finally got the chance to play volleyball again this year and we were just so grateful to be able to have this opportunity to come back.”