Robert Morris women's volleyball team digging NCAA tourney bid
When the Robert Morris women's volleyball team qualified for the Northeast Conference Tournament, it marked the 17th straight season it had done so. But for all those trips to the postseason, the last one that resulted in an NCAA Tournament berth was in 2003.
A win over top-seeded LIU Brooklyn in the NEC title match earned that elusive trip back to the NCAAs. Robert Morris (19-12) will travel to face No. 14 Ohio State (23-9) on Friday in Columbus, Ohio, in the first round.
The Colonials won't be satisfied with merely showing up.
“We want to win,” junior outside hitter Arden Fisher (Riverview) said. “It's going to be a battle, but we're going to come out swinging.”
Coach Dale Starr's team is playing its best at the right time, entering the tournament on a seven-match winning streak. Starr, in his sixth season at Robert Morris, knew he had a team that could contend, but how far it could go depended on the development of several freshmen who would need to play key roles after RMU graduated seven seniors.
Freshmen Allie Yurkovich (Thomas Jefferson) and Taylor Lord figured prominently into Starr's plans from the outset. And when setter Brianna Frakes missed time with an injury early in the season, freshman setter Liz Campbell assumed more responsibility.
Lord and Yurkovich wound up playing every set, a rarity for freshmen during Starr's tenure — “I could count them on one hand.”
“It was a lot of responsibility,” Yurkovich said. “But it pushed me to get better fast, and I'm not going to complain about that.”
Lord ranks second on the team in digs and third in kills, and Yurkovich is third in digs. Along with Fisher, who ranked third in the NEC in digs, they helped Robert Morris finish ninth in the nation in digs per set.
But some of what contributed to the end of the Colonials' NCAA drought isn't measured by statistics. Starr praised the players' demeanor, saying they practice and play with a “quiet confidence.” He also credited veterans like Fisher and lone senior Kristin Thompson, an all-NEC first-team selection, for helping the freshmen adapt quickly.
NEC Tournament MVP April Krivoniak (Latrobe) believes this group has more grit than her previous RMU teams.
“I think the biggest difference is the amount of heart everybody plays with,” the junior middle blocker said. “You never know what's going to happen. As long as you're fighting for every point, you'll have a chance to win.”
“It's definitely that mentality that you hate to lose more than you like to win,” Fisher, a three-time all-NEC second-teamer, added.
Toppling Ohio State will take every bit of the Colonials' tenacity. The Buckeyes are one of a tournament-high nine teams from the powerful Big Ten in the field of 64 and one of five Big Ten teams seeded among the top 16.
Robert Morris was 0-2 against NCAA Tournament teams during the regular season. It was swept by Horizon League champ Cleveland State and Western Athletic Conference winner New Mexico State.
But both defeats came in September, long before the Colonials hit their stride. They're hoping to show Ohio State how far they have come since.
“I think we all feel like we've done things that haven't been done in a while,” Yurkovich said. “And at this point, if we did that, why can't we do more? All the possibilities are on the table.”