After failing to qualify last season, the Seawolves are back in the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five seasons.
Things won't be easy, however, as the seventh-seeded Seawolves open the West Region tournament in San Bernardino, Calif., Thursday against a second-seeded BYU-Hawaii team that is riding a 17-match winning streak. The match starts at 1:30 p.m.
Some good news for the Seawolves: Outside hitter Julia Mackey, who missed the second half of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference schedule with a knee injury, will be back in the lineup. She isn't 100 percent, UAA coach Chris Green said, but getting close.
"Her teammates are happy to have her back out on the court," Green said. "It's just a matter of her regaining her confidence. She's a little nervous about it, maybe a little more nervous than she normally would be."
Prior to the injury, which required surgery, Mackey was averaging a team-high 3.23 kills per set through 20 matches. Despite missing UAA's last nine matches, Mackey still made the All-GNAC team, along with fellow sophomore hitter Katelynn Zanders. Other GNAC accolades for UAA include Green being named co-coach of the year, junior Quinn Barker bagging Newcomer of the Year and Erin Braun taking freshman of the year.
With several players battling illness in the past couple of weeks, Green said preparation for the tournament hasn't been ideal, but the last couple of days have gone well and everyone is healthy for Thursday's match.
"We are about as full strength as we have been for a while," Green said.
With a victory, the Seawolves will advance to play the winner of a Thursday match between sixth-seeded Dixie State and third-seeded UC San Diego. A loss will end UAA's season, a season in which nine was a significant number.
The Seawolves (21-9) won nine straight matches to start Great Northwest Athletic Conference and also posted a program-best 9-0 league road record on their way to a second-place finish. The nine straight wins was the program's best streak since the conference was founded in 2001 and the sixth best winning streak in program history.
UAA, which earned its only NCAA tournament win against Hawaii-Hilo as a fifth seed in 2009, was gathering steam as the season ended nearly two weeks ago. The Seawolves closed with sweeps against Simon Fraser, Montana State-Billings and Seattle Pacific, but will have their hands full when they try to extend that streak Thursday.
BYU-Hawaii (24-1), ranked fourth nationally, has only been pushed to five sets once this season, suffering its only loss in that match, against Hawaii Pacific. In their only meeting with UAA this season, the Seasiders swept UAA, outhitting the Seawolves .204 to .062 in the season-opener for both teams.
Thursday's match will be the ninth meeting between the teams and first in NCAA tournament play. The Seawolves' only win against BYU-Hawaii took five sets in Hawaii in 2009, and the Seasiders swept the seven other match ups.
The Seasiders boast two players on the Daktronics NCAA Division II All-West Region squad. Outside hitter Stella Chen joined setter Michelle Chen, who was named player of the year for the second straight season. Michelle Chen averages more than 11 assists per set and has a team-best .442 hitting percentage. Stella Chen led the team in kills with an average of more than five per set and a .317 hitting percentage.
"She hits any part of the court very well," Green said. "The main focus is just playing well on our side of the net. We aren't scared going into this match."
Zanders lands award
Sophomore outside hitter Katelynn Zanders stellar season hasn't gone unrecognized, and she collected her latest honor Wednesday, when she was named to the American Volleyball Coaches Association's NCAA Division II All-West Region Team.
Zanders' 3.72 kills per set ranks her third in the GNAC. She is fifth in aces per set (.31), 16th in attack percentage (.245) and 19th in digs per set (2.76). Her 13 double-doubles and four matches with 20 or more kills are team highs, and she was named GNAC player of the week three times.
Reach Jeremy Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.
By JEREMY PETERS