One of the beauties of NCAA tournament play, according to Stanford volleyball coach John Dunning, is the opportunity to match wits with an unfamiliar opponent.
"One of the great things this time of year, for me as a coach, is getting to play teams you don't see as often," said Dunning, a member of the AVCA Hall of Fame who has led the Cardinal to four NCAA titles. "That's a really cool part of the playoffs, I think."
The No. 6 seed Cardinal (23-7) will get to do just that Friday when it meets Florida State (26-5) for the first time in program history in the second match of the NCAA regional at the UW Field House.
The opening match, however, will be an entirely different animal as No. 3 Wisconsin (27-4) will be meeting Big Ten rival Ohio State (22-12) for the 76th time in history and the third time this season.
Friday - 2 p.m. ET start between Ohio State and Wisconsin broadcast live on ESPNU. pic.twitter.com/7J8m5XKUhg— OhioStateWVolleyball (@ohiostatewvball) December 9, 2016
But to hear Buckeyes coach Geoff Carlston talk, it's almost like the two teams have never met. As far as he's concerned the first two matches between the teams — both swept by the Badgers — never happened. Or, at least, they're irrelevant at this point of the season.
"In all honesty, I think the regular season means nothing," Carlston said. "I mean, honestly, we have not even watched either of our matches. It's not even a conversation right now because, one, they were very different, we were very different. Two, it's now. We're in the moment right now. This is now, and the past really means nothing to us."
UW coach Kelly Sheffield, however, wasn't buying what Carlston was selling.
"You didn't fall for that, did you?" Sheffield said. "Tell me you didn't fall for that."
Sheffield does agree the two teams are considerably different now than in their Big Ten meetings. For starters, the Badgers were without junior Lauryn Gillis in the first match and freshman Molly Haggerty in the second.
The Buckeyes were experimenting with star middle blocker Taylor Sandbothe on the right side in that first match and have since switched from a 5-1 lineup to a 6-2 set with senior Abby Fesl sharing setting duties with sophomore Taylor Hughes.
Carlston shook things up after his team lost to Indiana right after the second loss to UW. Since then the Buckeyes have gone 7-1.
"Our trajectory wasn't the right way," he said. "And at that point, it was like, you know what, let's make a change. Let's give ourselves a different look."
Stanford might have the youngest team left in the tournament with five sophomores and six freshmen. But it also has the tallest team with 6-foot-8 Merete Lutz, 6-foot-6 Kathryn Plummer and Audriana Fitzmorris, 6-foot-4 Ivana Vanjak and 6-foot-3 Inky Ajanaku playing up front.
"We're checking to see if they'll let us bring a stepladder out and use it," said Florida State coach Chris Poole, who has just one player taller than 6-foot-1 in his lineup.
Fans at the Field House will get to see two of the leading contenders for national player of the year. One, of course, is UW setter Lauren Carlini. The other is Stanford's Inky Ajanaku. Both are two-time AVCA first-team All-Americans and Ajanaku was 2014 Volleyball Magazine Player of the Year.
Ajanaku missed last season with a torn ACL but has returned better than ever this season to lead the young Cardinal team.
"The best part of Inky is that she's always fun," Dunning said. "I really liked watching our team play this year."
This article is written by Dennis Punzel from The Wisconsin State Journal and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.