Bulls travel to the Windy City

After claiming third place at last weekend?s SunTrust Invitational with a field that featured a pair of top-10 teams, the Bulls? volleyball team will look to improve on that finish this weekend at the Loyola-Chicago Invitational. In addition to USF, the field will feature Evansville, host Loyola and No. 17 Ohio State.

?These games are important for our national image,? USF coach Nancy Mueller said. ?But we?re focused on our conference, especially matches against Cincinnati and Louisville since they?re at home. Ohio State?s a top-25 opponent, though, so that?s a key match for us.?

Evansville (2-2) is coming off its best season ever in the Missouri Valley Conference with a fourth-place finish. The Purple Aces were 19-15 in the 2000 season. The Bulls and the Purple Aces play the first match of the tournament Friday at 6 p.m.. The Purple Aces dropped their most recent match, a heartbreaker to Austin Peay where they led two games to none before dropping three straight games.

Loyola will close the tournament against USF (2-2) Saturday at 8 p.m.. The Ramblers and Bulls last met in Chicago two years ago when Loyola swept USF 3-0. Loyola opened the 2001 season on the road last weekend, going 1-2 at the Inn Suites Invitational in San Diego. The Ramblers defeated Liberty 3-0 sandwiched between losses to San Diego and San Diego State. Big Ten foe Illinois shut out the Ramblers Tuesday to bring their mark on the season to 1-3. Picked second by the coaches in the Horizon League, formerly the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, the Ramblers won the 1999 and 2000 Midwestern Collegiate Conference tournaments. The 2000 version of the Ramblers finished 22-9, 11-1 in conference play.

The seventeenth-ranked Buckeyes will supply the Bulls with their sternest challenge this weekend. Last season, Ohio State compiled a 26-7 mark before advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the 12th straight season. The Nebraska Cornhuskers eliminated the Buckeyes in the Sweet 16 before winning the 2000 National Championship. Five of the six starters from the 2000 campaign return, including junior setter Katie Virtue, an All-Big 10 and All-Mideast Region selection last season. Undefeated so far this season, the Buckeyes (4-0) have lost just one game in victories against Illinois-Chicago, Tennessee Tech, Ohio and Wright State.

?The conference matches are the ones that will take us to nationals and take us to the place we need to go to,? said USF outside hitter Michelle Collier . ?The next level, teams like Ohio State are already there. We have to beat other teams (of that caliber) in order to get there. But, they?re still not as important as conference.?

Anthony Gagliano covers volleyball and can be reached at oracleanthony@yahoo.com