WVU, Illinois clash to start Mountaineers’ first-ever NCAA Tournament

Gold and Blue Nation

Reed Sunahara returns to the NCAA Tournament after a decade -- but this trip is special

West Virginia volleyball enters uncharted waters on Friday when it competes in its first-ever NCAA Tournament match against Illinois at the Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Kentucky. First serve is set for 5 p.m. ET on ESPN+.

The Mountaineers (19-9, 8-8 Big 12) have had a historic campaign from the start and they look to keep it going against the Fighting Illini. After a 10-game win streak to open the season that tied the best start in WVU history, it finished third in the Big 12 — the program’s highest finish under head coach Reed Sunahara.

“It’s great to be a Mountaineer,” Sunahara said. “It’s an exciting time for our program and our players, and we’re excited to go to Lexington this week.”

Sunahara, however, is no stranger to the Big Dance. While at Cincinnati, the coach made the tournament a total of eight times, making it to the Second Round in four different seasons. It has been 10 seasons since one of his teams has made it this far — so this trip already feels different.

“It’s unbelievable, it’s a great feeling any time you can do something for the first time,” Sunahara said.

WVU made it this far with some experienced leaders mixed with some fresh faces, led by the all-conference trio of Adrian Ell, Briana Lynch and Lacey Zerwas. Ell, a senior outside hitter, joined the program from Florida State this summer and made an immediate impact, leading the team in points and kills. The middle blocker Lynch was right behind her in both categories after returning to the team for her fifth season.

The Mountaineers showed a massive improvement on both offense and defense in 2021, finishing with a .211 hitting percentage and nothcing 13.59 kills per set — the third-best total in the Big 12. They also ranked highly defensively, trailing just Texas in the league rankings in every statistic.

The Fighting Illini finished seventh in the Big Ten standings, and rank about just as highly in nearly every stat. They have been led by some more youthful players, especially sophomore outside hitter Raina Terry, who leads the team in points and leads the league in service aces.

“They’re well-coached. Illinois is tough, they present a lot of problems,” Sunahara said. “They’re physical and they’re good.”

Illinois will be the third Big Ten team West Virginia faces this season. The Mountaineers earned an early-season upset over Michigan, sweeping the then-No. 20 Wolverines at the Navy Tournament in September. Two weeks later, though, WVU hosted Penn State (which was also ranked No. 20, coincidentally), and fell in straight sets.

The victors of this contest will go on to face whichever team comes out of the first round matchup between Southeast Missouri State and host No. 7 Kentucky. That contest follows WVU and Illinois at 7:30 p.m. ET.

“Kentucky is the defending national champion, so we’ve got a tough schedule ahead of us, but we’re up for the challenge,” Sunahara said. “We’re going to do what we need to do and all I want our kids to do is compete hard and see where that goes.”

First serve is set for 5 p.m. ET on ESPN+.

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