5 Things You Need To Know For The NCAA Women's Volleyball Season
Most volleyball programs would look at a season with two freshman options at setter and likely say, "Let's just see if we can improve a lot."
Penn State says that, too, but with the addendum, "As in, improve enough to win another national championship."
The Nittany Lions over the past decade have risen to be the powerhouse in women's collegiate volleyball. They've won six of the past eight NCAA titles, with their other tournament finishes in that time being in the national semifinals (2012) and a regional final (2011).
Penn State lost some big talent after last year's title, including first-team All-American setter Micha Hancock, who had the perfect ending to her college career: winning a national championship in her home state of Oklahoma.
This year's championship will be won two states to the north, in volleyball-crazy Nebraska. It will be the third time Omaha has hosted the final four, with Penn State winning there in 2008 and the home-state favorite Huskers taking the title in 2006.
Nebraska starts this season tied with Wisconsin at No. 5 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll. And if the Huskers advance to Omaha, it will be a huge pre-Christmas party at the CenturyLink Center on Dec. 17. And even more so if they're in the championship match Dec. 19.
Who else -- besides preseason No. 1 Penn State, of course -- might make it to Omaha? No. 2 Stanford, despite a key offseason injury, will be a big threat. Also be on the lookout for other teams from the sport's top two conferences -- the Big Ten (four in the preseason top 10) and the Pac-12 (nine in the poll) -- that might get hot in the NCAA tournament.
Texas took a hit from graduation but is still the preseason No. 3 team. SEC favorite Florida, ranked No. 4, is seeking its eighth final four appearance and first NCAA title. North Carolina (ranked No. 7) and Florida State (No. 9) are powers from the ACC.
Also, let's not forget the so-called dark horses, such as BYU last year. The Cougars made it to the title match, upsetting Texas along the way. The Nittany Lions were too much for BYU, but the Cougars' run surely inspired teams from leagues that aren't as "big."
So there's an opening primer on the 2015 season. Now here are five questions to ponder as we look forward to the opening sets, kills, blocks and digs later this week.
1. Can Penn State win title No. 8?
Asked about title contenders, Penn State coach Russ Rose listed several of the usual suspects, such as Stanford, Nebraska, Texas and Florida.
"And us," he said, in his master-of-understatement way. "We've illustrated that we have to be in that conversation."
Actually, it's everybody else who has to prove they belong in the conversation with Penn State. The Nittany Lions were 36-3 last year and led the nation in hitting percentage (.342).
But with Hancock gone, Penn State goes to the opposite end of the extreme in experience at setter as two rookies vie for the job: redshirt freshman Bryanna Weiskircher and freshman Wilma Rivera.
It's not typical for Rose to have such a lack of experience at setter, at least not in recent times. He acknowledges that in the early years of his program, he had limited scholarships and usually didn't bring in a new setter until the previous one graduated.
"If people had a blueprint now, they'd always have two setters that were two years apart," Rose said. "But things don't always work out that way."
Rose acknowledges that he also has concerns about how the Nittany Lions will replace the gritty competitiveness of graduates Hancock, Dominique Gonzalez and Lacey Fuller. But considering standouts like outside hitters Megan Courtney (the 2014 NCAA tournament's most outstanding player), Ali Frantti and Aiyana Whitney, and middle blocker Haleigh Washington, it's safe to say Penn State will figure it out.
"I think with rally scoring, anybody can win," Rose said of the national championship picture. "There is an awful lot of talent around the country. Coaching is good; everybody has a game plan. For us, it will be a little more of a learning curve throughout the season."
The Nittany Lions have proved, though, that they tend to drive through such curves very quickly.
2. Injuries aside, is Stanford still Pac-12 boss?
Yes, but there is an unexpected hole to fill. Senior middle blocker Inky Ajanaku, a strong candidate for player of the year, suffered a knee injury in June while playing for USA Volleyball that will keep her out this season.
Gone is a first-team All-American who averaged 3.48 kills per set while hitting .428 last year. Ajanaku also had a team-high 144 blocks for a Stanford squad that made the national semifinals last year, where it lost to Penn State.
The Cardinal still have standouts such as setter Madi Bugg, outside hitter Jordan Burgess and middle blocker Merete Lutz. The former two, like Ajanaku, were first-team All-Americans last year, while Lutz was on the second team.
And Stanford is still Stanford. The Cardinal start this year ranked No. 2; Stanford is the only program that's been in the preseason top 10 since the poll began in 1982. Last year's final four was Stanford's 19th, although the Cardinal won the most recent of their six NCAA titles in 2004.
Stanford, which went 33-2 overall and 19-1 in the Pac-12 in 2014, is the pick to win the league again. The Cardinal's top Pac-12 challengers should be Arizona State, Washington, Oregon and USC, who were picked 2 through 5 in the league. Realistically, though, even without Ajanaku, the Cardinal are the most talented and remain a threat to advance to Omaha. Which brings us to ...
3. How will Nebraska handle the pressure to make the final four in Omaha?
This year, the regionals are Dec. 11-12 in Lexington, Kentucky; Des Moines, Iowa; Austin, Texas; and San Diego. And if the Huskers are in one of those regional finals, that match could be the most nerve-wracking they face.
Both previous times the event was in Omaha, the Huskers made it there but had to climb back from the brink in the regional final to do it. Nebraska overcame a 2-0 deficit to advance versus Minnesota in 2006, and did the same against Washington in 2008.
No matter how much the Huskers try not to think about it this year, the carrot will be there of finishing the season contending for an NCAA title an hour's drive from their Lincoln campus. But since Nebraska has not advanced to the national semifinals since 2008, it will be uncharted waters for this particular group of Huskers, led by junior outside hitter Kadie Rolfzen. Coach John Cook, though, has won two NCAA titles with the Huskers.
4. How strong is the ACC becoming?
This definitely is a league to watch. In 2011, Florida State was the first ACC school to advance to the national semifinals. The ACC is still looking for a second school to go that far -- or even further -- and win an NCAA title.
North Carolina is the 2015 preseason ACC favorite by a smidgen over Florida State. The Tar Heels won the league last year, going 29-3 overall and 17-1 in conference play. They came close to pushing Texas to a fifth set in the regional final, falling 31-29 in the fourth.
North Carolina lost the players who were 1-2 in kills for them last season, Chaniel Nelson and Lauren McAdoo. But back are three players -- Paige Neuenfeldt, Victoria McPherson and Taylor Treacy -- who were on the preseason all-ACC team.
A potential rising power in the ACC is Notre Dame, as former Washington coach Jim McLaughlin took over the Fighting Irish in January. He won the 2005 NCAA title and had three additional final four appearances with the Huskies and hopes -- with recruiting success -- that he can shape Notre Dame into a national contender, too.
This year, though, the Irish are picked to finish ninth in the 15-team ACC. The predicted order behind North Carolina and Florida State is: 3. Duke, 4. Miami, 5. Louisville.
5. Can anyone stop Texas in the Big 12 or Florida in the SEC?
In two words: probably not. Texas is 135-8 over the past eight seasons in Big 12 play, winning or tying for the conference championship seven times during that stretch. And since Nebraska went to the Big Ten in 2011, coach Jerritt Elliott's Longhorns have been the lone giant of the Big 12, going 61-3.
Texas has made it to the final four in six of the past seven years but won the championship just once in that stretch: in 2012. The past two years, the Longhorns were upset in the national semifinals by a lower-seeded Wisconsin in 2013 and unseeded BYU in 2014.
Texas has big losses to graduation to make up for, especially three-time Big 12 player of the year Haley Eckerman. But the Longhorns are still very well stocked with talent, led by sophomore middle blocker Chiaka Ogbogu.
Meanwhile, Florida has been even more dominant in the SEC. Since coach Mary Wise took over the Gators in 1991, they are 376-18 in the league play with 21 SEC championships.
Florida is predicted to win the SEC again, led by hitter Alex Holston and middle blocker Rhamat Alhassan. Potential challengers in the league are Alabama, Kentucky and Texas A&M.