Hurricanes earn NCAA Volleyball Championship bid after four-year drought, ranked No. 24 in AVCA poll

Miami’s women’s volleyball team experienced the best start to a season in a decade back in early October.

And as much dominance as it’s exhibited eight weeks since, the ending may be even better.

The Hurricanes (24-4, 15-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) will be competing in the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship for the first time since 2017, as they will first face South Alabama (25-6, 15-1 Sun Belt Conference) in Gainesville, Florida, per the NCAA Selection Show’s announcement Sunday.

“This is like Christmas a month early – the NCAA tournament is the best time of the year, and the selection show kicks off the entire thing,” Miami head coach Jose “Keno” Gandara said in a Miami Athletics release.

Miami, ranked No. 24 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association, received an at-large bid alongside Florida State and North Carolina. Louisville, the ACC Champion and No. 1-ranked team, earned an automatic bid and the No. 1 overall seed with an undefeated record at 28-0.

Wednesday’s Senior Day honors were a chance for the UM athletics community to honor four Hurricanes — North Carolina transfer middle blocker Aristea Tontai, defender Emily Damon, defensive specialist Priscilla Hernandez and outside hitter Janet Kalaniuvalu — and their individual impacts on one of the more memorable seasons in recent program history.

“Senior night is always a wild card. I could wax poetic about this group of graduating girls. They have had some really challenging stretches here at Miami, and they deserve this win, this season, and whatever comes on Sunday night,” Gandara said Wednesday. “This class will go down in history as one that has fundamentally altered the trajectory of this program in the best way, and mostly I’ve just had great seats to watch that process unfold.”

Junior setter Savannah Vach led the Hurricanes with over 11 assists per set and an average of 2.67 digs, logging her 11th double-double of the season Wednesday. The Preseason All-ACC team honoree entered her third season in Coral Gables with the sixth-most assists (1,406) as a Hurricane, and recently posted a season-high of 58 against Wake Forest — one shy of tying her career-high set against Georgia Tech last season.

Outside hitters Angela Grieve and Peyman Yardimci each provided a spark to keep the Hurricanes’ exterior attack as strong as the interior. The two 6-foot student-athletes combined for 622 kills and 46 service aces, while junior middle blocker Janice Leao produced 2.37 kills per set at the net.

Miami finished its 2021 regular season winning 10 of its final 11 matches, with its only loss coming on the road versus No. 14 Georgia Tech before defeating Clemson in back-to-back meetings and sweeping a season series versus Florida State for the first time since 2008. Five other conference teams will join the Hurricanes for the first time since 2017, tying a record for the highest number of ACC teams as NCAA Selections.

South Alabama, on the other hand, enters NCAA postseason competition on a 13-match winning streak with a 7-2 mark in neutral settings. The Jaguars, led by outside hitter Carissa Bradford with 330 kills, are matched up against a Hurricanes team that ranks second in opponent hitting percentage (.186) and fifth in kills per set (13.65).

“I don’t know too much about South Alabama yet, but we’ll chop them up and get a good plan together,” Gandara said. “But we’ll take the night to celebrate the work we’ve done over the season that has culminated in this achievement. I’m already looking forward to getting to Gainesville.”

Five Hurricanes also garnered All-ACC honors, setting another groundbreaking record in team history. No more than four Miami student-athletes had been honored since 2012, as Vach was tabbed to the All-ACC First Team, while Hernandez, Grieve and Leao made it to the All-ACC Second Team. Yardimci earned All-ACC Freshman Team recognition.

Miami and South Alabama will square off on Dec. 2 inside the Stephen O’Connell Center. First serve is scheduled for 4:30 p.m.

“The NCAA tournament is special for so many reasons, but the most underrated one is that you get to extend your time with the seniors,” Gandara said. “I’ll certainly be savoring every moment from now until the end.”