Weekend Match to Watch: North Central vs UC-Santa Cruz

D3VB weekends are my favorite, strictly because of the amount of matches available to watch. In this new series I’m going to identify the premier match of the weekend (from my perspective), walk you through the narratives of the match’s importance, and identify the odds of victory for both teams. We have a fantastic game to kick off this new series, as the North Central Cardinals will fly to California and take on the Banana Slugs of UC-Santa Cruz.

National Rankings

Ranking/TeamNorth CentralUC-Santa Cruz
FrogJump Top 209th 17th
AVCA Coaches Poll11th12th
D3 Top 1008th11th

North Central

The Cardinals are a top 10 team in terms of talent, and I think slightly underrated across the landscape for now. The early season losses to New Paltz and Aurora put a damper on the Cardinals ability to stay at the top of the rankings, and results matter. But if by the end of the season North Central was considered a top 5 team, I wouldn’t be surprised.

The Cardinals currently have one of the best offenses in the country, averaging 13.36 kills/set (2nd in NCAA) with a .313% hitting efficiency (4th in NCAA). A lot of this is coming behind the performances of Jared Moser (Outside Hitter) and Jeremy Cardenas (Middle), two All-American level athletes having career seasons through the first part of 2023; but the play of Jake Miller I think is the important X-factor for the team. I prescribe to the notion that no team can seriously talk about winning a championship without having production at Opposite, and Miller has shown his breakout season last year (hit .322 for the year) wasn’t a flash in the pan.

UC-Santa Cruz

The Banana Slugs have enticed the landscape since their 5-set loss with Carthage and pass the eye test as a team who can compete at the national level. The running commentary of D3VB has always been rather detrimental to the California programs, as the Midwest and East Coast largely dominate the conversations. The Slugs are chipping away at this narrative, and the play of freshmen Riley Norman (Outside) and Noy Fisher (Opposite) are a large part of the equation.
The Banana Slugs remind me of the 2021 Benedictine team in terms of style, beating teams in the transition phases of a match when their first ball side-out can’t get the job done.

Why is this Match Important?

Two reasons… 1) Resume 2) Region. Despite the talent of both teams, neither program has an impressive resume right now. The facts of the matter are simply this, there are unranked teams in the landscape who have wins over ranked opponents while NCC and UC-Santa Cruz currently have none. One of these teams will walk away from this match with a victory over a ranked opponent, which will subtly affect narratives shaping the regional rankings come March.

Even with 2,000 plus miles of distance between Illinois and California, North Central and UC-Santa Cruz belong to the same NCAA Region. Despite what people may believe about the Coaches Poll or the FrogJump Top 20, the only rankings which effectively matter are the NCAA Regional Rankings which start being released in March. Let me repeat this, THESE ARE THE ONLY RANKINGS THAT MATTER, because these rankings ultimately determine who will receive At-Large Bids in April. A win for either program helps establish the pecking order of their region and makes it more likely they will have a higher NCAA Regional Ranking.

North Central has to contend with Carthage and Loras for the CCIW at-large bid and entered the tournament last year after receiving one of the coveted Pool-C bids, a regional win over UC-Santa Cruz hedges their resume against losing the CCIW bid. UC-Santa Cruz, as an independent, competes with all of the independent schools (Springfield) for a Pool B allocation. If they don’t receive one, they have to hope their resume is strong enough to earn a Pool-C bid against the remaining teams in the landscape. Essentially, every D3 match for UC-Santa Cruz carries incredible weight, especially when they’re against programs like NCC.

Who Has the Edge?

The mind behind d3mvbt100.com currently has North Central with a 56.3% chance of victory, compared to the 43.7% chance for UC-Santa Cruz. I think this is a fairly solid take given what we know about both teams at this point in the year. However, it’s best to remind everyone a 43.7% chance of victory is not an insignificant number. Carthage had worse odds of defeating Stevens days before their match at 41%, and we all know how that game turned out. I don’t see the Slugs being able to out hit North Central in this match, but if they can prolong rallies and turn this game into a war in transition, I think their chances improve. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a 5-set win by the Slugs, in the same way I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sweep by the Cardinals. It’s going to be an important game.

If you like this and other D3VB related content, please follow our social media channels FrogJumpVball (Instagram) and D3Volleytok (TikTok).