After a 13-3 mark in Big Sky play during the regular season, the Idaho State volleyball team enters the conference tournament set to begin this weekend at Northern Arizona as the No. 3 seed.
The last time the Bengals entered the conference tournament as the No. 3 seed was in 2013, with that group going on to win the title and advancing to the NCAA tournament against Hawaii.
Multiple players from that team are still around and hoping for a similar result one more time.
“It’s exciting because it doesn’t matter where you’re seeded,” said junior setter Hayley Farrer. “Just like when we won, we were a three seed. Nobody thought we were going to win. You just never know, and that’s what’s so exciting about it.”
There are eight teams that will be taking over Flagstaff this weekend, all of which are real threats to take the title.
“Obviously, it’s more fun when the external obstacles are more competitive than when they are not,” said Head Coach Rick Reynolds. “So we are excited to go to the conference tournament and compete against what I think is the deepest Big Sky that we have had in a while.”
Don’t expect the seeding to make much difference, as the tournament is wide-open regardless.
“You can’t go into a game thinking ‘we’re gonna win, this is going to be easy’, ‘cause anything can happen,” said senior outside hitter and reigning Big Sky MVP Tressa Lyman. “Last year Northern Colorado was ranked fourth and they beat us. Kind of gives you that hunger every game. You have to play your best, or you’re not going to win.”
After hosting the tournament last year as a result of winning the regular season title, ISU will be heading into hostile territory at NAU, one of only two road sites in conference play where the Bengals were dealt a loss this season.
“It’s a lot less pressure. We loved hosting last year, it was amazing, but I think there was that little extra pressure on us,” said Farrer. “Now we get to go and plan on beating people on their own court, which is even better.”
For the Bengal seniors, the opportunity to continue extending their college careers is one they plan to make the most of.
“It’s always exciting, just that final opportunity to play,” said Lyman. “And anything can happen in the tournament. Doesn’t matter where you go in, it just matters where you come out. It’s exciting. It’s a culmination of all your hard work throughout the season.”
No. 1 seed Northern Arizona and star outside hitter Janae Vander Ploeg will be a tough out, as well as No. 4 seed Sacramento State and No. 5 Northern Colorado.
During the regular season the Bengals lost to both Sacramento State once and Northern Arizona twice, giving them plenty of motivation entering the tournament.
“In those games we had moments where we played better than they did, but we just didn’t do it as consistently as they did,” said Lyman. “They are good teams. At the beginning of season we kind of started out with a target on our back from last year, but now they are the teams with the target because they have played so well.”
In the quarterfinals on Thursday, Nov. 19 at 1 p.m. the Bengals will take on No. 6 seed Eastern Washington, a team ISU swept in straight sets back in October at Reed Gym.
With a victory, the Bengals would face the winner of No. 2 Idaho and No. 7 North Dakota in the semifinals, looking for a berth in the championship.
“I’ve got 14 athletes that are excited to rise to the challenge,” said Reynolds. “We’re excited to get to the Big Sky tournament and see what challenges lie ahead and we’re excited to rise to those challenges.”