Junior libero Madison Shields high-fives her teammates prior to a Feb. 23 match against BYU in Firestone Fieldhouse. The Waves defeated the Cougars that day, one of their strongest wins to date as they enter the NCAA Tournament.
Photos by Ali Levens
Pepperdine Women’s Volleyball arrived in Omaha, Neb., ready to make some noise and they will open the NCAA Tournament with a first-round match Wednesday morning, April 14.
The Waves cheered loudly in the trophy room in Heritage Hall on April 4, relieved to be selected for the tournament. Nonetheless, the Waves are not content with simply making it to Omaha.
“We’ve been telling our girls, ‘Don’t pack for two days. We’re planning to be there for a little while,'” Head Coach Scott Wong said. “We’re going to have some work to do. There’s some good teams, but we feel like we’re one of the great ones.”
Pepperdine enters the tournament led by a host of West Coast Conference honorees, including four All-WCC First Team players: junior outside hitter Rachel Ahrens, senior outside hitter Shannon Scully, sophomore setter Isabel Zelaya and freshman middle blocker Meg Brown.
The WCC named Brown its Freshman of the Year, and Waves junior Madison Shields earned the top defensive accolade in the conference: Libero of the Year.
Road to Omaha
In a season where only 48 teams made the NCAA Tournament, as opposed to the usual 64, at-large bids were more limited. Thirty conference champions earned an automatic ticket, but Pepperdine did not win the WCC despite going 16-2 in conference play.
“We felt like we were a shoo-in, but you just never know until it pops up,” Wong said.
Fellow WCC teams No. 14 BYU and No. 21 San Diego also made the tournament. The Waves split the season series with the Cougars and Toreros, but BYU won the conference because it swept San Diego in their two matchups.
“This year is just pretty interesting in the way that not a lot of teams have played out of conference,” Brown said. “There’s a really good opportunity for some teams to shock some of these big top-10 teams that haven’t really had much experience outside of their conference. We’re looking to be one of those teams that can do that.”
In 2021, the Waves swept the Cougars in a match for the first time since 1976, and beat San Diego on the road for the first time since 2011.
The Pepperdine team that lost in the second round of the tournament was also balanced with young and experienced players, but Shields said the 2021 Waves may be even better.
“The chemistry that we have with each other, regardless of the year, freshman through senior, is definitely a lot stronger,” Shields said. “Everyone’s willing to make a sacrifice, do what they can to win.”
One of those sacrifices was taking extreme care to follow COVID-19 safety precautions. The team endured a long fall offseason, but once matches began, the Waves did not have a single match postponed or canceled for COVID-19-related reasons.
“Everyone is very disciplined about how they went about things,” Shields said. “It’s definitely paying off, even though we have to take these kind of precautions now, we still get to compete.”
Pepperdine Athletics arranged for the team to be placed in quarantine housing to keep them safe prior to their departure, due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the athletic department.
On short notice, some members of the team moved into the Villa Graziadio Executive Center on campus, while two student-athletes and the coaches were housed in an off-campus hotel. They stayed in the quarantine bubble for four nights before flying out of LAX on April 11.
Opponent and Potential Opponents
The entire tournament will take place in Omaha, Neb., with the top 16 seeds earning a first-round bye and arriving in Nebraska a day later (Monday, April 12, rather than Sunday, April 11). The University of Nebraska is hosting the entire tournament.
Waves players and coaches said they felt good about their slot on the bracket and opening matchup.
The coaches in the America East Conference picked the Retrievers to finish fifth of seven teams in their February preseason poll, so their conference title and trip to Omaha is somewhat of a Cinderella story. UMBC is 10-3 overall and making its first NCAA appearance since 1998, and its roster features 11 players, 7 of whom are underclassmen.
“Whoever we play out of the other 47 teams, it’s going to be tough,” Wong said. “UMBC had a great season.They’re doing some really good things to make teams a little uncomfortable.”
Should the Waves defeat the Retrievers, they’ll take on No. 12 Baylor, a potential rematch of the five-set thriller between the Waves and Bears in Waco, Texas, in February.
The Waves’ match against then-No. 6 Baylor was not on the docket at the beginning of the season, but Wong scheduled it to give the Waves a chance to test themselves against a top team.
“We were saying Scott was like a wizard,” Brown said. “The fact that he was able to schedule that game and get us that really cool opportunity to play a top-10 team and us coming really close — just really instilled in us that we are good enough to be at the top.”
The Waves’ potential second-round match against Baylor would take place Thursday at 9 a.m. PDT, and if Pepperdine advanced further, they would not play again until Sunday, April 18.
Itinerary in Omaha
Practices and matches for all 48 teams will take place in the same building — the CHI Health Center Omaha, which includes both an arena and a large Convention Center. The Convention Center includes eight practice courts and four game courts, which will host the first three rounds of the tournament.
The NCAA allots each team 90 minutes of practice time per day on a practice court and 30 minutes on the game court, so the Waves practiced for two hours Tuesday morning after undergoing COVID-19 testing.
The Waves will attend class virtually as often as they can while on the road, and will be in their hotel rooms by 10 p.m., each night to acclimatize to the time change and prepare for their early match Wednesday.
“It’s not going to be a full bubble; it’ll be more of a controlled environment,” Wong said. “We’ve been doing things the right way. There’s not going to be a lot of change, but just maybe not a lot of flexibility in the structure that we’ve been given with practice times and testing.”
The NCAA and the venue will allow limited amounts of spectators, up to 80 per match, at the first three rounds of the tournament.
The abnormal format, which includes two game courts in the same room, separated only by a divider, reminded Wong and Shields of a club volleyball setup.
Though several NCAA coaches expressed outrage over the flooring, lack of locker rooms and lack of broadcast commentators at the tournament, Shields was not concerned.
“It’s really cool that all the teams are going to be there at one time, as opposed to meeting at one place in the Final Four,” Shields said. “It’s going to be interesting. A lot of us haven’t played club or high school in a while, but we’ve done that our whole lives, so I don’t think anyone’s too concerned.”
NCAA.com named Pepperdine an unseeded team to watch in the tournament, and the Waves say they are confident that they will remain in Omaha for several more days.
“I definitely feel we have a good shot at making a good run in this tournament, so I’m excited,” Shields said.
A season that began in the fall of 2020 with only three athletes allowed to practice, outside, on grass, with the sun in their eyes will end on the biggest stage in collegiate volleyball — the big dance.
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