Playing in the NCAA tournament is nothing new to Penn State fifth-year senior Bryanna Weiskircher, who’s in her fourth year as the starting setter for one the most storied Division I volleyball programs.
But it will be a first for one of her friends and former Boylan Catholic High School teammates.
Lexi Varga is a senior right side/outside hitter for Illinois State, which earned at an at-large bid to compete in the national tournament for the first time since 2014.
“It’s awesome,” Weiskircher said. “When I saw ISU pop up on the screen during the TV show I was like ‘Oh my gosh, Lexi! That’s so exciting.’ It’s an awesome opportunity for her and her team as well.”
Varga, who’s a year younger than Weiskircher, has played since her freshman year with the Redbirds, but as a senior she’s helped lead them to their best season since she arrived at ISU. The Redbirds are 25-7 and earned a share of the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title.
“This year has been amazing,” Varga said. “You work so hard every single year and it finally pays off. Finally making it to the tournament, it’s a good send-off as a senior. It’s been fun and I’ve just been enjoying the ride.”
Varga has 229 kills and her 2.66 kills per set is second-best on the team. Unseeded ISU will begin tournament play in Milwaukee at 4:30 p.m. Friday against unseeded Cincinnati (25-7). It’s a match that Varga has been eagerly anticipating ever since the Redbirds found out they would be a part of the 64-team field.
“You get so jittery about it because you finally make it,” Varga said. “You’ve waited so long for and now you finally get to go so it’s super fun.”
Weiskircher’s team heads into tournament facing high expectations as Penn State always does. The No. 8 seed Nittany Lions (23-7) have made it to nationals 38 consecutive years and have claimed seven national titles — tied with No. 1 seed Stanford for the most ever.
This season has gone a little differently than last for Penn State, which entered the tournament as the No. 1 seed a year ago before advancing to the Final Four. But Weiskircher said her team’s expectations aren’t changing even if the target isn’t squarely on their back this season.
“In the tournament, you’re on a clean slate,” Weiskircher said. “Anything that happened earlier on doesn’t really matter at this point.”
Weiskircher has a team-high 826 assists and 22 aces. She’s also third on the team in digs with 179 and fourth in blocks with 49. But her biggest impact might be as a leader. The Nittany Lions entered the season with only six returners and 12 new players.
“It’s just a different role being a six-rotation setter with new players and new hitters, and just an entirely different team,” Weiskircher said. “I think it’s just getting them to the level of having the same expectations no matter what team it is, what team we’re playing, we’re always going out to win.”
Penn State will open the tournament by hosting unseeded Howard (20-10) for the second straight season at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
The Nittany Lions are Redbirds are on opposite sides of the bracket, so the former Titans won’t square off unless a long-shot scenario plays out where Penn State and ISU reach the national championship match. But they’ll both be paying attention to each other’s tournament runs.
“I always watch her games when I can,” Varga said, “and we’re still good friends and it’s fun to see how well she does. Every year she amazes me and it’s so cool to see her succeed.”
“I couldn’t be more proud of everything she’s done in her career,” Weiskircher said. “It’s an exciting time of year. Yes, there’s a lot of pressure but it’s a great opportunity that only 64 teams get.”
Adam Kradle: 815-987-1388; firstname.lastname@example.org; @AdamJKradle