Coach Amber Dunn and the UW-La Crosse volleyball team have been in the same mode for about a week: hurry up and wait.
The Eagles were in that spot last week as they waited to see who they’d play in the WIAC semifinals — they won that tournament in decisive fashion on their home floor Saturday, sweeping Whitewater. They felt the same way this weekend, waiting to learn their NCAA Division III national championship tournament opponent.
UW-L (21-6) learned Monday it will be traveling to University of Northwestern-St. Paul to play in the eight-team St. Paul, Minnesota regional. The Eagles, the No. 4 seed in the bracket, take on fifth-seeded College of Saint Benedict (19-8) at 5:30 p.m. Thursday.
“I don’t know if it’s easier an automatic bid or a team who’s waiting,” Dunn said of the tension she felt as the Eagles went 48 hours before finding out their tournament foe. “It’s nice to know who we compete against, it’s nice to know where we’re going, and now we can start the planning process for what’s next.”
The eight-team regional includes host Northwestern-St. Paul, Cornell, St. Thomas (Minn.), Wartburg, Gustavus Adolphus, and Aurora (Ill.). First-round winners will play Friday night and then Friday’s winners will play on Saturday for the regional championship. The eight regional champions will then play next weekend at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
This is UW-L’s 15th appearance in the national championship tournament in school history, and its third straight. Should the Eagles win in the first round, they’ll play the winner of No. 1 seed Northwestern-St. Paul and eight-seed Cornell.
After getting key players back from injury and getting a stronger grasp on what Dunn wanted the team to do in her first season as coach, the Eagles have found a groove and are riding a wave of momentum into the national tourney. Winners of seven straight and nine of their past 10, the Eagles are peaking at the perfect time.
“The cool part is that I’m confident in our abilities right now. I’m happy and confident in the way we’ve been playing,” Dunn said. “For us, not a lot is going to change. We’re going to keep practices consistent, not going to add or subtract anything we haven’t been doing.”
For some of the team’s key players — such as seniors Stephanie Henk, Jessica Jablonski, Madison Entinger, and junior Marisa Johnson — this is the third trip to the NCAA tournament. For others, like freshman Laine Hoeffel, it’ll be the first time on the national stage.
“We want to make this experience as special and as exciting for them as possible,” Dunn said. “We talk a lot about appreciating the moment and appreciating what we have because for any coach or player, it could be the last time.”