WILLIMANTIC, Conn. – The Eastern Connecticut State University women’s volleyball team faces host Johnson & Wales University in the opening round of the 2018 NCAA Division III tournament Friday at 8 p.m. at the Wildcat Center at the JWU Harborside Campus.
Unranked Eastern (23-6) rides an eight-game winning streak into its first NCAA tournament in 11 years when it meets Johnson & Wales (31-1), ranked first in the NCAA New England region and second nationally in the AVCA Top 25. The Wildcats have won 31 straight since dropping their season-opener to Cal Lutheran University in the first round of the Pacific Coast Classic Aug. 31 and have won their last 56 at home.
Despite its 11-year hiatus, Eastern remains second all-time among New England Division III institutions in NCAA appearances. The Warriors qualified for the first-ever NCAA tournament sponsored, in 1982 -- the first of six straight and 13 in a span of 17 years.
In earlier games Friday in the regional, Wesleyan University (17-5) faces Kean University (19-15) at 12:30 p.m.; Springfield College (23-7) faces Maine Maritime Academy (22-6) at 3 p.m., and Franklin & Marshall College (23-7) plays SUNY New Paltz (26-8).
Five of the eight teams in the regional were automatic qualifiers in the 64-team field, with Franklin & Marshall, Springfield and Wesleyan being taken on an at-large basis.
Eastern represents the Little East Conference (LEC), Johnson & Wales the Great Northeast Athletic Conference (GNAC), Kean the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC), Maine Maritime the North Atlantic Conference (NAC) and New Paltz the State University of New York Athletic Conference (SUNYAC).
In addition to Johnson & Wales, other regional teams ranked in the NCAA regional poll are Wesleyan (third in New England), Springfield (eighth in New England), Franklin & Marshall (fourth in the Mid-Atlantic), and New Paltz (eighth in New York).
Among this regional’s team, only Johnson & Wales is listed in the Oct. 30 AVCA national Top 25.
The Warriors’ current eight-game winning streak is the longest since an identical streak in 2005, with the eighth victory in that run coming at home in a sweep of Johnson & Wales.
Eastern features four seniors in Carly Balskus (Hebon), Jackie Orlowski (Woodstock), Caryn Sibiskie (Rockfall), and Leah Sopneski (Deep River). Freshman Anna Barry (Andover) and Balskus are the top offensive players, junior Mckenzie Maneggia (Andover), Sopneski and freshman Meg Verizzi (Lebanon) the team’s setters. Freshman Madison Bell (Salem) is the libero and sophomores Abby Stern (Manchester) and Alaetra Long (Lincoln, NE) are effective both offensively and defensively.
Johnson & Wales, the leading team in Division III with a .298 attack percentage, features four All-Americas in senior Katie Leidhold and juniors Brylee Frank, Kate Walker and Maria Coniglio. Walker leads New England and is fourth nationally in attack percentage (.418), while Frank tops New England and is fifth nationally in assists per set (11.09).
The Warriors are making their 17th NCAA appearance – first under fifth-year head coach Megan Silver-Droesch (89-61) and first since winning their last LEC tournament (prior to 2018) in 2007. The Warriors are 7-9 in NCAA first-round play – winning their NCAA opener in five straight years from 1983-1987 but having lost their opener the last three times (2005-07) to SUNY Cortland, Endicott College and Williams, respectively.
In 2007, Eastern lost ten straight late in the year and finished 2-4 in the LEC regular season but rallied to win the Little East Conference championship on the road against three higher-seeded teams to claim the title and gain the automatic NCAA berth.
Johnson & Wales has posted a 99-3 overall record (one loss each year) the last three years under fifth-year head coach Nancy Somera, a former 17-year Division I head coach who has transformed a losing program into one of the top programs in Division III. Last year, the Wildcats won the regional championship at home and advanced to the national quarterfinals.
Eastern is 13-7 all-time against Johnson & Wales. Since Somera took over, the Warriors won in four sets in 2014 and were swept in 2016.