Omaha volleyball hopes home field court will help in first NCAA tournament

A coveted spot in the NCAA volleyball tournament hangs in the balance this weekend at Baxter Arena.

The Mavericks want to take full advantage of being on their home pitch.

“Just the confidence to play on our home pitch is huge for us,” said senior libero Jaiden Centeno.

UNO earned the right to host this year’s Summit League tournament by winning the 2021 regular-season championship title.

Now, a roster full of contributors from Omaha-area high schools has the chance to advance the program to its first NCAA tournament — while playing in its home arena.

“That was the dream and the vision for me,” said setter Sami Clarkson. “That was the reason I came here. It is very rewarding to see that hard work pays off. The opportunity we have ahead of us is exciting.”

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The tournament started on Thursday, but UNO (19-9, 14-4) had a first-round bye as the second seed. The Mavs play the winner of the North Dakota-North Dakota State game in the semifinals at 7 p.m. Friday. The final will take place on Saturday at 2 p.m.

“We have the perks of being at home, getting extra sleep, you can have your normal routines,” said Clarkson, an Omaha-Concordia graduate who is third on UNO’s career assists list with 4,146 assists. “And then just enjoy what we earned last year.”

UNO reached last season’s tournament finals before falling to South Dakota on its home floor. USD (27-3, 16-2), led by League Player of the Year Elizabeth Juhnke, is the top seed this year. Two of his three losses went to NDSU — the other loss to fourth-placed Louisville.

Centeno has spent the last two years at the UN after transferring from the state of Iowa. The Millard West graduate has been good friends with Clarkson since they were teenagers, now the seniors are looking to extend the season this weekend.

“I wanted to come to a place that wanted to make history and I will forever be grateful that I chose that place,” said Centeno, who leads the Mavs with 402 digs.

There are a handful of other local products the Mavs have been pushing this fall.

Omaha Skutt’s Shayla McCormick leads teams in kills and aces and is second in digs. Millard North graduate McKenna Ruch is one of the top middle blockers in the league averaging 1.25 ace blocks per set and ranks third on the team in kills with a .361 batting average. Elkhorn South product Brilee Wieseler is the third on the team and an effective server.

Two others — Lincoln Lutheran’s Marriah Buss and Wahoo Neumann’s Kali Jurgensmeier — each have 245+ kills in the Mavs’ 6-2 offense.

“A lot of us knew each other from club volleyball,” Clarkson said.

On Wednesday, Jurgensmeier was named the Summit’s freshman of the year, while McCormick and Ruch were the first-team all-conference picks.

UNO grabbed the second seed on the final day of the regular season. The Mavs and NDSU took second place, then UNO defeated Denver and NDSU was swept by the state of South Dakota.

However, trainer Matt Buttermore said seeding as the regular season progresses is not a problem.

“We told the team that the more we worry about placement, the more it affects our game,” he said. “We have to get better on our side of the net. We have to believe in each other.”