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Wayne Cavadi | NCAA.com | November 12, 2018

DII women's volleyball championship: Let's break down the 2018 bracket

The DII Volleyball Championship is set for opening round action starting Nov. 15 around the nation. The 64 teams that advanced to the tournament begin the arduous journey that hopefully ends in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for the national quarterfinals at the DII Festival.

Let's go region by region and break down the 2018 bracket.

MORE: Interactive bracket | Printable bracket | Buy 2018 championship tickets

Atlantic Region

Teams to beat: Gannon, Wheeling Jesuit

Two powerhouses sit at the top of this region. Gannon made it to Pensacola, Florida last year for the quarterfinals by defeating Wheeling Jesuit in the Atlantic Regional finals, and then went on to upset No. 2 seed Regis to advance to its first national semifinals in program history. Wheeling Jesuit? It is one of two schools to win a national championship over Concordia-St. Paul’s 11-year run of dominance, so that speaks volumes right there.

This region is loaded with Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference programs. Seton Hill advances on the heels of its first-ever PSAC championship in come-from-behind fashion against Gannon. Shippensburg, Clarion and tournament regulars California (Pa.) — making its 16th appearance in the past 19 years — also advance to the tournament, marking five PSAC teams to move on. 

Gannon’s first-round opponent is Shepherd. It’s a tough draw for the Rams, who are making their NCAA tournament debut against one of the toughest programs in DII volleyball. WJU draws Shaw, making just its second NCAA tournament appearance after claiming the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association title. The last time the Bears made it to the NCAA postseason they were eliminated by… Wheeling Jesuit.

Central Region

Teams to beat: Nebraska-Kearney, Concordia-St. Paul

Yes, Concordia is the No. 4 seed. Yes, the Golden Bears face a tricky Southwest Minnesota State that defeated them just a few weeks ago. But until someone takes Concordia down in the postseason, Brady Starkey’s bunch are the team to beat in the entire bracket. Period.

MORE: What to know about Southwest Minnesota State after taking down two No. 1 teams in a row

Nebraska-Kearney is as formidable a No. 1 seed as there is in the entire tournament, which will make this regional that much tougher to advance. Four teams in this region —Concordia, UNK, Minnesota Duluth and Northern State — claimed the No. 1 spot at one point this season.

The reigning DII player of the year — SMSU’s Taylor Reiss — is also in this part of the bracket, making the Mustangs a sleeper of sorts. The Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association sends Washburn and Central Missouri, who may very well be the best No. 7 seed in the entire tournament, along with UNK. Harding fought its way to its second Great American Conference title, and draws UNK in the first round, a daunting task for anyone in the top 25. 

Go ahead and try to pick a winner in this region. Any team is worthy of making it to Pittsburgh here.

East Region

Team to beat: New Haven

For the second consecutive season, the Chargers are the top dog in the East. Winners of their 14th East Region title in 2017, New Haven has the largest target on its back here. The Chargers' biggest advantage? Familiarity, as there are five Northeast-10 teams in the East bracket. Their stiffest test may very well be the first round, matching up against a Saint Anselm team they have to face for the third time since Nov. 3. The Chargers took the first match, but Saint Anselm struck back, upsetting the Chargers in the quarterfinals of the NE10 championship.

If there is a sleeper, it is the Daemen Wildcats. The Wildcats enter just their second NCAA tournament after winning the program’s first-ever East Coast Conference title. Pair that momentum with their first-round matchup against American International, and you have a team on a mission. The Yellow Jackets upset Daemen in the East Region finals in 2016, the Wildcats only other trip to the postseason.

Midwest Region

Teams to beat: Drury, Rockhurst

Heading into the 2018 season, no DII coach had more division victories than Rockhurst’s Tracy Rietzke’s 1,212. His Hawks now have 30 more, including victories over No. 4-seeded Lewis and No. 1-seeded Drury this past weekend on the way to yet another Great Lakes Valley Conference title. Rockhurst won the Midwest Region last year, and as the No. 3 seed have to be seen as a contender once again. They face off against a very intriguing Illinois Springfield team. Earlier this season, UIS upset its first top 10 program in school history, and now it moves on to its first NCAA postseason ever. 

MORE: Meet UIS, who just upset the first top 10 team in program history

It doesn’t get much better for Drury than the 2018 season. Not only are the Panthers making their first NCAA tournament appearance, but it is also doing so as the No. 1 seed. Its first-round opponents, Great Midwest Athletic Conference champion Hillsdale, is no stranger to the tournament, making its 11th appearance in program history. That should make for an intriguing matchup. 

The rest of this region is full of familiar foes, as the GLIAC sends Ferris State, Michigan Tech and Ashland into the tournament mix. A Ferris State vs. Ashland first round should be a good one. The two had a back-and-forth five-set match earlier in the season.

South Region

Teams to beat: Palm Beach Atlantic, Barry

Welcome to the Sunshine State Conference tournament part two. Five teams from one of the stronger conferences in DII volleyball head to this regional tournament. Tampa is here, who had a 19-game win streak snapped by No. 1-seeded Palm Beach Atlantic late in October. The Spartans struggled a bit down the stretch, losing to Barry and Florida Southern who also head to the South Regional tournament. The Spartans did, however, defeat Saint Leo this past Friday, and will face the Lions in round one action.

Tournament regular West Florida returns once again, winning its second-straight Gulf South Conference title along the way. The Argos draw the reigning runners-up Florida Southern who have a new look from last year’s team with new head coach Chris Keen. West Florida is joined by the team they defeated in the GSC championship West Alabama. The Tigers are making their first tournament appearance in program history.

That leaves Spring Hill. Behind legendary head coach Peggy Martin, the Badgers are making their first appearance as an official DII program. They draw the Sailfish in the first round. It will be interesting to see how Spring Hill responds after such a successful season.

MORE: 5 teams that could make a deep run in the DII Volleyball Championship

South Central Region

Teams to beat: Tarleton State, Texas A&M-Commerce

The NCAA tournament is obviously a different time and a different place, but the Lions earned their way to the No. 2 seed by being giant killers earlier this season. Texas A&M-Commerce had early season surprise victories over Central Oklahoma, Concordia-St. Paul, Lewis, and Regis that set the tone for the season. Though they had their struggles with the TexAnns earlier in the season, the Lions stepped up when it mattered most, beating Tarleton State for their first Lone Star Conference title since 1987.

That doesn’t diminish the season Tarleton State had, as the TexAnns play host to the South Central tournament for the first time in program history. They face Arkansas Fort Smith, who is returning to the tournament for the first time since 2016 behind its sixth Heartland Conference title. There are plenty of familiar faces that make up this part of the bracket, as Colorado School of Mines, Metro State, and Angelo State were here last year, and Dixie State and Colorado Mesa have all been here before. This is one of two regions that will have a new face in the quarterfinals as last year’s South Central champion Regis did not make the tournament.

Southeast Region

Teams to beat: Wingate

That brings us to the second region that will have a new champion in 2018. Flagler advanced to the quarterfinals last season and will not have a chance to repeat in 2018. So, who has a chance to move on?

Wingate is the only top 25 school in the mix. No team has won a title out of the Southeast Region and if there is a team that could have a chance, it may be Wingate. South Carolina Aiken, Anderson, and Georgia College return from last year’s regional, but Augusta, Lincoln Memorial, Lander, and Emmanuel are new. Augusta heads to the postseason as the three seed for just the second time ever and will face No. 6 Georgia College, a team it faced four times this season. The Jaguars recently defeated the Bobcats for their first Peach Belt Conference title in program history. This bracket is wide open and anybody’s for the taking.

West Region

Teams to beat: Cal State San Bernardino, Western Washington

This turns out to be one of the tougher regions in the entire bracket. Cal State San Bernardino has been in and out of the No. 1 spot all season and just wrapped up its third-straight California Collegiate Athletic Association championship coming off of a quarterfinals appearance last year. All that earned the Coyotes the No. 2 seed in this region.

The No. 1 seed goes to Western Washington. The Vikings have won 25 consecutive matches and just three sets since the calendar flipped to October. Their opponent is Cal State East Bay, making the program's first-ever NCAA appearance. A surprise run to the CCAA semifinals earned them an at-large bid behind five all-conference performances.

Chaminade is another unfamiliar presence to the postseason, returning for the first time in 14 years. The Silverswords draw the experienced Coyotes in round one and look to play spoiler early on. Cal State LA also returns to the tournament after a long hiatus, not appearing in the bracket since 2010. The Golden Eagles have been in the top 25 for much of the season alongside Cal Poly Pomona who is making its 16th appearance. With GNAC powers Central Washington and Azusa Pacific also in the mix, the West will be a wild one once again. 

MORE: Programs with the most DII volleyball titles | DII volleyball news