DeKALB – The Northern Illinois volleyball team is headed to Missouri.
The Huskies will open up the first round of the NCAA National Tournament against No. 15 seed Missouri (25-5) at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in Columbia, Missouri, the team learned at a selection show watch party Sunday night.
It will be a 350-plus mile trip for the Huskies – much like many of their conference games in the Mid-American Conference.
"I feel like it's no different, travel-wise, than going to a conference match," NIU coach Ray Gooden said. "We're use to it. We're used to being (on the bus) for two movies and a sitcom. That part we're okay with."
NIU went 7-1 on the road during MAC play, the only loss coming at Miami (Ohio), which also made the NCAA Tournament and will face Oregon (20-9) in the first round in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The Huskies (25-5) earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament after winning the MAC Tournament on Nov. 20 in a three-set sweep of RedHawks (24-6) in DeKalb. Despite knowing the Huskies were a lock to make the field, there was plenty of anticipation from the team, which lined up in front of a big screen TV and exploded with cheers when NIU was announced.
"Just seeing our name up there – personally, I've never seen it up there so it was a pretty cool moment," said senior Jenna Radtke, who was named the MAC Player of the Year. "I know a bunch of friends and family that were watching and I got a bunch of texts from them. We're all really excited."
The winner of NIU and Missouri will play either Iowa State (18-10) or Purdue (18-13).
Missouri is coming off a strong campaign and swept Tennessee to secure the SEC Championship on Saturday. The Huskies also swept the Volunteers earlier this season at the GW Invitational in Washington D.C.
"It's definitely good at this point of the year because we feel really confident in our skills," said senior Mary Grace Kelly, who was named the MAC Tournament MVP. "I think it helps that we've played against SEC-level teams this year. We beat one, so that will give us confidence going in. At this point, we have nothing to lose, so why not go out there and beat an SEC team?"
This season, the Huskies have played against four teams in the NCAA Tournament field – including Miami. They lost in straight sets to No. 8 seed Washington (26-4) – which won the talented Pac-12 – and Hawaii (22-5) at the Outrigger Resorts Challenge in Honolulu in the third week of the season. However, they swept James Madison (21-10) in the first day of the GW Invitational on Sept. 16.
"That's why Ray sets us up with a tough early schedule, because that will help us out here," Radtke said. "We've played top 25 teams multiple times this year and the past year, so we know their style, we know how we can beat them. It's an advantage for us."
For the Huskies, it's the first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2011, in which they lost in four to Miami (Florida). While none of the current players were on that team, Gooden said the experience was a positive one for him in terms of learning how to handle the pomp and circumstance of the biggest tournament of the season.
"I'm praying that I handle it better than I did back then," Gooden said. "You didn't know what you didn't know. There were a lot of things that I wish I would have done better. Just handling it, not enjoying the experience, not going, 'We've the right to do it, so let's go out and do our best.' As opposed to putting pressure on to perform."