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Of all the well-represented cities in the Division I NCAA volleyball tournament that opens Thursday, Watertown isn't doing half bad.

The town of 4,659 on the Crow River is home to sisters Paige and Kate Thibault, who played at Watertown-Mayer during standout prep careers and are two of 29 Minnesotans playing on 19 teams in the tournament this year.

"It's such an eye-opening experience," said Kate, who is in her freshman season at Oregon. "Because we're from Watertown, Minnesota. Who even knows where that is? Nobody has ever heard of that ... but even though we're from a small town we're still capable of making it big."

They are not alone. This is a banner year for interest in college volleyball, and the first round of the tournament will be spread over Thursday and Friday with matches starting at 3 p.m. Thursday, all airing on ESPN+.

If you're a Minnesotan looking to get into this tournament, this is a guide to some key first-round matches featuring players that got their start here. They play for top seeds and title contenders like Nebraska, Wisconsin, Oregon and Kentucky; challengers like Northern Iowa, Auburn and Marquette; and long shots like Fairfield, Grand Canyon and James Madison.

(Not to mention the Gophers.)

Note: Seed numbers are regional. Auburn is seeded seventh in the Pittsburgh regional, Oregon is seeded second in the Wisconsin regional, etc. Each region seeds the top eight teams; remaining teams, like Minnesota, are left unseeded.


3 p.m. — Western Michigan vs. No. 7 Auburn

Paige Thibault and Kendal Kemp (Eagan) open the tournament with Auburn. Both have played key roles this season for the Tigers, with Kemp ranking fourth on the team with 2.15 points per set and first with 1.28 blocks per set and Thibault ranking fourth with 2.18 digs per set — including back-to-back wins with 23 digs in October — and second with a .949 receiving percentage.

5 p.m. — Miami vs. No. 8 Northern Iowa

Outside of the Gophers, the Panthers boast the most Minnesotans on their roster in the tournament — they will need them in what figures to be one of the best first round matches. Middle blocker Olivia Tjernagel (Mayer Lutheran) led the team with 121 blocks while posting 228 kills. Outside hitter Kira Fallert (Concordia Academy) ranks second with 382 kills. Freshman middle blocker Kaitlyn Sellner (Eagan) rounds out the local trio.

6 p.m. — No. 3 Purdue vs. Fairfield

Fairfield reached the tournament by going 22-6 overall and winning the Metro Athletic Conference Championship, and sophomores Allie Elliott (Stewartville) and Abby Jandro (Lakeville North) were crucial. Elliott finished second on the team with 2.48 kills per set while also hitting a phenomenal 29 aces to 9 service errors. Jandro, the backup setter, finished second on the team with 242 assists.

6 p.m. — Wright State vs. No. 2 Louisville

While there aren't any Minnesota players in this matchup, there if a fun local connection. Legendary Gophers libero CC McGraw (Prior Lake) is in her first season as an assistant coach at Louisville, the No. 5 overall seed in the tournament.

7:30 p.m. — Jackson State vs. No. 1 Wisconsin

The Badgers continue to excel with Minnesota players — not to mention Gophers transfer Carter Booth patrolling the middle block. Izzy Ashburn (Champlin Park) shares setting duties and led Wisconsin with 6.59 assists per set. Gabby McCaa (St. Louis Park, Minneapolis Southwest) is a reserve middle blocker in her graduate season.

9 p.m. — Southeastern Louisiana vs. No. 2 Oregon

How did Kate Thibault find herself getting solid playing time her freshman season at Oregon? Learning and believing. "Coming into this I thought potentially there was a chance of me getting on the court, but there's always the question of will you redshirt, will you play. It was a decision I made early in the season, I said I believe in myself and I'm going to fight to get on the court." She's learning from a roster of standout fifth-year seniors, and adapted to being a defensive specialist and serving sub playing in 18 of 30 matches, finishing sixth on the team in aces (18) and digs (79).


4 p.m. — No. 6 Utah State vs. Minnesota

Check back for our feature story on the Gophers and a game preview — but Minnesota boasts four local players on the roster: Lauren Crowl (Eastview), Skylar Gray (Maple Grove), Julia Hanson (Prior Lake) and Sydney Schnichels (Willmar).

5:30 p.m. — High Point vs. No. 3 Tennessee

The only match with both teams featuring Minnesotans, Christine Graf (Edina) will be one of the key players as High Point tries to disrupt the Volunteers. After transferring from Cal-Baptist for her grad season, Graf finished second on the team in kills per set (2.81) and added 50 blocks. Tennessee has two Minnesotans on the roster in freshman setter Sydney Jaynes (Northfield) and senior setter Lauren Woodford (Spring Lake Park).

5:30 p.m. — No. 5 Arizona State vs. Georgia

Sophomore outside Estelle Haugen (Southwest Christian) shined for the Bulldogs this season. She played in all 30 matches, averaged 1.44 kills per set, and stepped up when she was called to do more — posting double-digit kills four times, including a career-best 18 kills and 15 digs in a five-set loss at No. 3 Florida.

7 p.m. — Long Island University vs. No. 1 Nebraska

Nebraska is the top seed in the tournament and junior Kennedi Orr (Eagan) appeared in 23 matches for the Cornhuskers, the most of her career, posing six aces and 29 digs over 77 sets played. The other local connection is less celebrated here: freshman defensive specialist Laney Choboy — once a Gophers verbal commit — has been stellar this season.

Other Minnesotans in the tournament:


3:30 p.m. Kali Engeman (Minnetonka) with No. 5 Georgia Tech vs. South Alabama

3:30 p.m. Sienna Ifill (Eagan) and Jadyn Garrison (East Ridge) with No. 6 Marquette vs. Eastern Illinois

3:30 p.m. Elizabeth Helmich (Wayzata) with No. 7 James Madison vs. Baylor

6 p.m. Lilly Wachholz (Waconia) with No. 7 Iowa State vs. Hawaii

6:30 p.m. Erin Lamb (Stewartville) with No. 2 Kentucky vs. Wofford

7 p.m. Molly Schultz (Rockford) with No. 4 Kansas vs. Omaha


6:30 p.m. Abbey Milner (Lakeville North) with No. 3 Creighton vs. Colgate

6:30 p.m. Barakat Rahmon (Tartan) with No. 8 Houston vs. UCSB

9 p.m. Megan Liu (Maple Grove) with Grand Canyon vs. No. 4 Washington State