The last MAC volleyball final that featured neither the Ohio Bobcats nor the Northern Illinois Huskies was in 2002. This year, the two conference powers are a combined 30-2 and own the top two seeds in the upcoming MAC Tournament, hosted by the Bobcats this coming weekend.
This might not be everything you need to know about this weekend's tournament, but it's more than zero:
Tournament Format: It's not just basketball where the MAC looks to protect its top seeds for the NCAA tourney. Even though the conference went from an all-team format to just the top eight in 2008, they no longer run a three-round traditional bracket as you'd expect.
Instead, only two games are played in each round until the final on Monday: the bottom four seeds duke it out first, and then after a bye #3 (Miami) and #4 (Ball State) join in, only for Ohio and NIU to jump in right to the semifinals.
The Favorites: Neither of the top two, bye-to-the-semifinals seeds were ever really in doubt, and the Bobcats and Huskies have to be the clear favorites for anyone looking on. Ohio and NIU combined for a 30-2 MAC record, with Ohio putting together the first undefeated conference season since 2006, and one of those NIU losses coming in the Huskies' final match when they were already locked into #2 seed
It may even be generous to lump NIU in there: The Bobcats swept NIU, 25-17, 25-22, 25-17, and the RPI difference between the two is the same as the difference between NIU and #5 seed Western Michigan.
The Darkhorse: I don't really have a darkhorse I'd encourage you investing much in, but for the sake of the post, maybe Miami? The Redhawks are the #3 seed in the conference with just four losses; three coming from the two higher seeds and one at the hands of Buffalo.
The Redhawks boast the most efficient attacker in the conference in Jenny Ingle and are the lone MAC team to push Ohio to a fifth set in 2014. They also got the Huskies to five but dropped that one, as well. It's the best I can do. Really, this is Ohio's tournament to lose.
Five players who will make an impact:
Karin Bull, Ohio - The 6'2" middle blocker is a force on both sides of the net for Ohio, sitting at third in the conference in both blocks/set and hitting percentage. She's thrice won MAC East Defensive Player of the Week in 2014, with two of those awards coming in the last three weeks of the season.
Whoever's serving for Ohio, Ohio - Is this a cop-out? Maybe, but the Bobcats service game is so far and away the best in the conference that it deserves recognition: In aces/set, Ohio boats four of the top ten servers in MAC play.
Mackenzie Roddy, NIU - In both total kills and kills/set, Roddy is far and away the MAC leader no matter how you splice the data. And while she's the Huskies' primary option, it's not a one-woman show: Three others on the roster have upwards of 200 kills on the season.
Jenny Ingle and Paige Hill, Miami - Roddy racks up the counting stats, but Ingle boasts the highest hitting percentage in the conference while also providing defense in the middle, while Hill joins her, hitting nearly .300 herself. Together the two middle blockers just might slow down the top two seeds.
Three more who could spring an upset:
Tahleia Bishop, Buffalo - Buffalo sits at #8 in the conference, just squeaking into the tournament in the last weekend to finish in the MAC top-eight for the first time in program history, but if you look at the team stats they look like a well-rounded team that should be two or three spots higher. But the Bulls missed their all-conference (#2 in hitting percentage) star for a good chunk of the MAC slate: two matches in the middle of the season followed by two ineffective performances after returning. UB with a healthy Bishop may have very well gotten a win over Kent or WMU, or both.
Bad news for Buffalo: Bishop sat out all but a handful of points during the final weekend, apparently nursing a wrist injury.
Liz Reikow, Kent - Reikow was really the only player to ever break the Ohio stranglehold on MAC East Defensive Player of the Week, leading the conference in blocks for the Golden Flashes. Kent's 8-8 conference record had them in the running for the #5 seed to the last day of the regular season.
Corynne Smith, EMU - The Eagles are one of the bottom four seeds that would need a big run against progressively better-rested opponents to make some noise, but their junior libero could do it. Individually, she's third in the conference in digs and one of the best in service reception, springing EMU to the second-best defense in the MAC: EMU leads the MAC in total digs, and is second in team hitting percentage against and team aces against.
- As mentioned above, it's been 13 years since there was a MAC Volleyball final without at least one of Ohio or NIU.
- Two teams in the tournament are led by first-year coaches: Ohio (Deane Webb) and Buffalo (Reed Sunahara).
- Conference awards will likely be announced on Thursday. If this post is up before then, I'll update here. If not, you won't even know this sentence ever existed.
- In 2013, both semifinal matches and the final were determined in just three sets. In 2012, all three went the five-set distance.
- Ohio looks to defend their 2013 championship. Their last tournament win came in 2010, the last of a three-peat and a run of seven MAC titles in eight years.
- Comparatively, the rest of the conference has been waiting a long time for very few titles: Ball State (2002), Buffalo (never), EMU (never), Kent (never), Miami (2007), NIU (2011), and WMU (2000) are looking to end droughts.