Omaha volleyball hopes home court advantage helps shot at first NCAA tournament

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

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

“Just having the confidence of playing on our home court is huge for us,” senior libero Jaiden Centeno said.

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

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

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

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

“We get to have the advantages of being at home, get extra sleep, you get to have your normal routines,” said Clarkson, an Omaha Concordia grad who is third on UNO’s career assist list with 4,146 assists. “And then just enjoying what we earned last year.”

UNO advanced to last season’s tournament final 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 its three losses have been to NDSU — its other loss is to fourth-ranked Louisville.

Centeno has spent the past two years at UNO after transferring from Iowa State. The Millard West grad has been good friends with Clarkson since they were young, now the seniors look to extend the season past this weekend.

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

There’s a handful of other local products who have propelled the Mavs this fall.

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

Two others — Marriah Buss from Lincoln Lutheran and Wahoo Neumann’s Kali Jurgensmeier — each have more than 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 first-team all-conference picks.

UNO clinched the second seed on the final day of the regular season. The Mavs and NDSU were tied for second, then UNO defeated Denver and NDSU was swept by South Dakota State.

But coach Matt Buttermore said seeding wasn’t a concern as the regular season played out.

“We told the team the more we worry about the seed, the more it affects how we play,” he said. “We got to get better on our side of the net. We got to believe in each other.”

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