National powers to square off in Omaha

The 2005 college volleyball season opens this weekend with tournaments around the country.

Although many of the top-ranked teams will coast through matches against opponents content with playing at a well-known venue against an elite program, that will not be the case at the AVCA/NACWAA College Volleyball Showcase.

Four of the top five teams from the CSTV/AVCA Division I Coaches Top 25 will go head-to-head in the 11th edition of the most prestigious early-season tournament.

A near-capacity crowd of 9,000 fans is expected to pack the Qwest Center in Omaha, Neb., Friday to see No. 3 Stanford, the reigning national champion, take on No. 5 Penn State in the opener, then No. 4 Hawaii square off with No. 1 Nebraska, the tournament host. The event will conclude Saturday, when Friday's winners and losers face off.

All four of this year's participants have won the event, which has featured many of the biggest names and most storied programs in the history of women's collegiate volleyball. Stanford (1995 and 2002) and Southern California (2003 and 2004) are the only two-time winners of the tournament. Hawaii took top honors in 1996; Penn State claimed the trophy in 1997; and Nebraska was victorious in 2001.

Stanford has won six national championships since the NCAA began sponsoring women's volleyball in 1981. Hawaii is one of three schools with three titles, while Nebraska owns two and Penn State one.

Nebraska is playing host to the College Volleyball Showcase for the third time and will try to make history by becoming the first host to win the event. NU went 1-1 in 1995, falling to Stanford in the championship match, and lost twice in 1999. The Huskers are 27-3 all-time in season openers and 5-0 in them under head coach John Cook, who will be coaching his 400th career match Friday.

Three All-Americans are among the six returning starters for Nebraska. Senior middle blocker Melissa Elmer, sophomore opposite Sarah Pavan and senior outside hitter Jennifer Saleaumua are back to lead a defense that held its opponents to a .103 team hitting percentage. Elmer led the nation with 200 total blocks, averaging 1.89 per game, and sophomore Tracy Stalls was 11th at 1.65. Stalls will be out of the lineup until mid-September while recovering from offseason knee surgery.

Pavan, an AVCA first team All-American and National Freshman of the Year, led the Husker offense with 481 kills for an average 4.54 per game. Saleaumua averaged 3.09 kills and 3.74 digs. Nebraska's third-rated recruiting class features outside hitter Jordan Larson, and the Huskers added depth with sophomore setter Maggie Griffin, a transfer from Michigan State.

If any team is prepared to face the top-ranked Huskers before those 9,000 Nebraska fans, it might be Hawaii. The Rainbow Wahine return all six starters and their libero from a team that won 30 consecutive matches before falling in five games to Wisconsin in a regional semifinal last year. UH has split its 10 previous matches against the Huskers but is 0-2 when Nebraska has been ranked No. 1.

Junior setter Kanoe Kamana'o, a two-time All-American and the 2004 Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year, returns to run the Hawaii offense. She led the Wahine to a .257 team hitting percentage in 2004 while amassing 1,593 assists. Kamana'o led UH's balanced attack, in which junior outside hitter Alicia Arnott, senior opposite Susie Boogaard and senior middle blocker Victoria Prince post more than 400 kills apiece.

Penn State returns four starters and its libero from last year's team, which posted a 29-3 record and won its second consecutive Big Ten championship. Senior setter Sam Tortorello averaged 14 assists per game in 2004 while leading PSU to a .282 team hitting percentage, which ranked 12th in the nation. Sophomore outside hitter Kate Price averaged 3.93 kills per game and was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

Defensively, the Nittany Lions ranked sixth in digs per game and 19th in blocks. Senior libero Kaleena Walters set a school record with 619 digs and became the first player in Penn State history to surpass the 600-dig plateau in a single season. Junior middle blocker Cassy Salyer led the team with 130 total blocks, and sophomore middle Melissa Walbridge led the conference by averaging 1.5 blocks per game.

Penn State made up for the loss of opposite Syndie Nadeau by signing the second-best recruiting class in the nation, according to Volleyball Magazine. Three of its newcomers -- outside hitter Nicole Fawcett, middle blocker Christa Harmotto and outside hitter Laura Holloway -- were named the Gatorade High School Players of the Year in their respective states.

Stanford might have the toughest assignment, finding a replacement for AVCA co-Player of the Year Ogonna Nnamani. But as with Cardinal teams of the past, it did so by signing the No.1 recruiting class in the country. Someday, fans in Omaha might look back and say they saw middle blocker Foluke Akinradewo, outside hitter Cynthia Barboza and outside/middle Erin Waller in their first collegiate matches.

There also is no shortage of returning talent down on the farm. Junior outside hitter Kristin Richards and sophomore setter Bryn Kehoe were named to the all-tournament team at the NCAA Championships. Stanford also will be strong in the middle, with junior Liz Suiter and sophomore Franci Girard returning. As a team, the 2004 Cardinal ranked eighth in the country in blocks per game (3.32) and held their opponents to a .187 hitting percentage.

My prediction for the 2005 College Volleyball Showcase: Stanford will slip past Penn State in four games, and Nebraska will need five to get past Hawaii. In the championship match, the Huskers will prevail in three. Unless Penn State beats Stanford … the Huskers and Nittany Lions always go five.

Pac-10 Has Poll Position

The Pac-10 appears to be the strongest conference in the country, according to the voters in the CSTV/AVCA Coaches Top 25 Preseason Poll. With six ranked teams (No. 2 Washington, No. 3 Stanford, No. 7 USC, No. 13 UCLA, No. 17 Arizona and No. 19 California), the Pac-10 has two more than the Big Ten or the Big 12. The Pac-10 also has three of the top seven teams, while the Big Ten has three in the top 10 (No. 5 Penn State, No. 6 Minnesota and No. 10 Wisconsin.) The surprise in the poll was the West Coast Conference coming in fourth with three ranked teams (No. 18 San Diego, No. 23 St. Mary's and No. 25 Pepperdine). The Big West and Southeastern conferences placed two teams in the poll, while the Atlantic Coast, Big East, Mountain West and Western Athletic conferences had one apiece.

Sun Belt Conference Names All-Time Volleyball Team

In commemoration of its 30th season of women's volleyball, the Sun Belt Conference announced its all-time volleyball team Monday. Javonne Brooks, who starred at the University of New Orleans from 1989 to 1992, was selected as the conference's all-time top player. Brooks still holds the Sun Belt records for career kills (2,932), which is second in NCAA history, as well as records for season and single-match kills. She also ranks second in blocks (545) and third in service aces (272). She earned all-region honors in each of her four seasons and was an All-America selection in 1992. Coach Van Compton, who has compiled a 299-205 record at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, also was honored. The only coach in conference history to win 100 career Sun Belt matches, she led the Trojans to four Sun Belt Tournament titles during the 1990s. Thirty players were named to the team.

George Era Begins At Michigan State
A new era will begin for Michigan State volleyball when the Spartans play host to Kent State Saturday. Cathy George, who spent the last 11 years as head coach at Western Michigan University, was tabbed as the successor to Chuck Erbe, who retired in December after 12 years with the Spartans. George has a 376-216 record in 18 years as a head coach, first at Division II North Dakota State, then at Texas-Arlington. She was named the NCAA Division II National Coach of the Year at NDSU in 1988, her second season as a collegiate head coach, and became the first woman to coach in the NCAA Division I national semifinals in 1989. George ranks among the 50 winningest coaches in NCAA Division I volleyball history. Under George's direction, WMU posted a 187-131 record, won a Mid-American Conference championship and made six postseason appearances. The Broncos played in eight consecutive MAC tournaments, including back-to-back appearances in the championship match in 1999 and 2000. A 1985 graduate of Illinois State, George helped the Redbirds win three consecutive Missouri Valley titles and earn three NCAA Tournament appearances.

Pettit Honored At Nebraska
Terry Pettit, who retired in 1999 after 23 seasons as head coach at Nebraska, was honored during the Red/White scrimmage Saturday. The recognition was held in conjunction with a reunion of the Huskers' 1995 national championship team, the first Huskers volleyball team to win a national title. Petit finished his career with a 743-159-11 overall record, which included three seasons at Louisburg Junior College in North Carolina. He ranked fifth nationally in winning percentage and sixth in total wins. At Nebraska, Pettit posted a 694-148-11 record and led his teams to six national semifinals, with runner-up finishes in 1986 and 1989. The Huskers made 18 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. Among his many honors, Pettit received USA Volleyball's "All-Time Great Coach Award" in 2004. He was a three-time AVCA Division I Coach of the Year and was the Big Eight/Big 12 Coach of the Year nine times.

Dave Reed has covered college volleyball for national publications since 1996.