BGSU coach Danijela Tomic, left, looks on Sunday evening at the Stroh Center after learning her team will be playing Western Kentucky.

J.D. Pooley | Sentinel-Tribune

The Bowling Green State University volleyball team will return to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in the last three seasons, facing Western Kentucky in the first round of the tournament.

The team gathered at the Stroh Center with BGSU volleyball fans Sunday night to watch ESPN’s nationally televised selection show on the big screen.

VIDEO: Falcons draw Western Kentucky in NCAA volleyball

“I’m so happy that at the selection show we could share this special moment with our fans. It was a good turnout with our fans who came to the Stroh to watch the selection show,” BGSU coach Danijela Tomic said.

“I’m excited. I can’t wait to get to the gym tomorrow to start getting ready again for playing and our opponent. My staff is going to do a great job again with the scout and everything that we usually do for our opponents.”

The Falcons will travel to Lexington, Ky. to go against the Hilltoppers. The winner of the match will advance to face the winner of the match between Kentucky and Loyola Chicago.

The Falcons and Hilltoppers will play at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday inside Memorial Coliseum.

“Western Kentucky is a really good team, we know that, but I like our chances,” Tomic said.

“If we step on the court with confidence and just play with nothing to lose. Just go and have fun and compete, we have the team that can win in the NCAA tournament.”

The Falcons received an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament after defeating the Ball State Cardinals in five sets at the MAC Championship on Nov. 22.

This will mark the Falcons’ fourth appearance in the tournament in program history and the third under Tomic.

The last appearance for the Falcons came during the 2020-21 season with the other two coming in 2012 and 1991. Tomic noted that not all of the best college volleyball players get this opportunity.

“It was special. I was talking to our players and said, ‘You know you realize that some great athletes and great players go through their whole college experience and never go to the NCAA tournament,’” Tomic said.

“I don’t think they understand — they don’t have that perspective. I’ve coached here some really good players during the stretch of years where they didn’t make the NCAA.

“It’s hard to do, especially because of how much our sport has grown and the parity in womens volleyball. It’s just unbelievable, so to be among this elite group of 64 is special.

“That was part of the ‘dreaming big,’ competing for championships. We understand that we are not going to win the MAC championship every year, but we want to be in that group.”

Tomic says this will help the program build for the future, too

“People are talking about the best teams in the MAC and BGSU is going to be mentioned. We’ve shown that,” Tomic said.

“I believe we’ve played in four MAC championships the last four years, and that is pretty good record, and we won two.

“That’s what we’ve been building to, and we are going to continue to recruit even more amazing talent and even better people than what we even have now, and it’s pretty special what we have now.”

The Falcons enter the NCAA Tournament with a 22-9 record during the 2022 season, including a 15-3 standing within the Mid-American Conference.

Bowling Green is currently in the midst of an eight-match win streak, resulting in the MAC Tournament title.

Bowling Green played one of the hardest non-conference schedules in the nation this season and picked up wins over Tennessee and Mississippi State, both of whom were receiving votes in the national poll at the time of the match.

Western Kentucky finished the season with a 28-3 record, going an undefeated 14-0 within Conference USA.

The Hilltoppers, however, lost in the conference championship to Rice in five sets.

In the most recent national rankings, WKU was ranked 21st in the country. Western Kentucky’s attack is paced by the powerful combination of Lauren Matthews with 448 kills and Paige Briggs with 396.

On the defensive end, Abby Schaefer leads the way with 308 digs with Briggs (252) and Ashley Hood (231) close behind.

“We know them,” said BGSU 6-0 outside hitter Petra Indrova. “We played them in preseason, and we are very excited to match up with them again. We’ve improved, they’ve improved, so it’s going to be a good matchup.

“They have a very strong pin presence, so they’re outside hitter is very good, but they are good as a team overall, so we’ll see more. I didn’t follow their season very well, but we’ll see.”

Indrova, from Jihlava, Czech Republic, believes that the Falcons have an opportunity to open with a win.

“I think it’s just taking it one game at a time,” Indrova said. “We don’t look for a run, we don’t look with what goes behind us. MAC play is behind us, and everybody starts with 0-0.”

Indrova and 5-10 outside hitter Katelyn Meyer from Pemberville (Eastwood) were both with the team when the Falcons qualified for the NCAA tournament in the spring of 2021.

“It was during COVID, so it was a lot different,” Meyer said. “The coaches said that, too, that this year would be much different. Not all the teams will be at one place.

“You just treat it like any other game, so my advice would be first, we are going to enjoy traveling and being in a tournament, but we are also there to compete.

“The last year I think we could have played better, so this year it will be interesting to see what we can accomplish because our seniors have been there before, so that will be good because we have had the experience.”

Tomic added, “We do have veteran players, but the only experience our seniors and super (fifth-year) seniors have is when the NCAA tournament was held during COVID, and that was really different.

“I was so happy again we are going to the NCAA for this group to experience the kind of traditional tournament where you have four schools at a site, and it’s not in one convention center, and having the whole experience of what the NCAA tournament looks like is going to be good for everybody.

“Yes, we do have the experience, but not in a way because we do have a different format than what we experienced in the spring of ’21.”

(Sentinel-Tribune multi-media journalist J.D. Pooley did the interviews for this story)