Volleyball Report: Rolling into Big Ten play

Four weekends of the 2012 women’s volleyball season are behind us and another grueling conference campaign is about to begin. Seven teams came into the year ranked in the AVCA Top 25 and following a month of non-conference foes, the Big Ten remains the nation’s top league. Before the conference race begins here is some of what we learned from the first month.

Following a disappointing early exit from last year’s NCAA Tournament, Nebraska faced the defending national champs in the first weekend and immediately made a statement. In the fifth set against top-ranked UCLA, the Huskers rallied from a 13-11 deficit to win the final four points and defeat the Bruins in front of a raucous crowd of 4,186 at the NU Coliseum.

While it took the Huskers entire team to overcome the Bruins that had hit their stride in sets three and four, it was freshman middle blocker Meghan Haggerty who stole the evening. Haggerty had 17 kills on 25 swings with just two errors to lead the Huskers and was looked to by senior setter Lauren Cook in several key moments. The true freshman was the first Husker middle to record 17 kills in a match since Tracy Stalls did it in 2006. Described as polished by her coach, Haggerty has already drawn comparisons to the two-time All-American Stalls, and Husker fans hope the freshman middle can lift the team to another national title as Stalls did in 2006.

Big Ten Standings (through Sept. 16)
Team Record Pct. Record Pct.
Michigan State 0-0 .000 12-0 1.000
Northwestern 0-0 .000 11-0 1.000
Wisconsin 0-0 .000 12-1 .923
Penn State 0-0 .000 10-1 .909
Nebraska 0-0 .000 8-1 .889
Michigan 0-0 .000 12-2 .857
Minnesota 0-0 .000 9-2 .818
Purdue 0-0 .000 9-2 .818
Ohio State 0-0 .000 9-3 .750
Indiana 0-0 .000 8-4 .667
Iowa 0-0 .000 8-5 .615
Illinois 0-0 .000 6-4 .600

The Huskers would take the top spot in the AVCA poll following the first weekend and they would hold onto it until a trip to Ames, Iowa last Saturday. It was a match of not capitalizing on opportunities according to head coach John Cook, as Nebraska fell to their former Big 12 opponent Iowa State in four sets.

Nebraska had 18 attack errors and 11 service errors, losing to the Cyclones for just the second time in 81 matches played between the two teams. Now the preseason favorite has the unenviable task of making the most difficult road trip in the Big Ten to start conference play.

Similarities abound between the conference’s preseason favorites as the 14-time Big Ten Champion Nittany Lions followed a comparable script to the Huskers to start the year. Russ Rose’s Penn State team would record impressive victories over top 10 opponents in Stanford and Texas before falling unexpectedly on the road to Oregon State. The Nittany Lions also have a freshman making an immediate impact in Megan Courtney on the outside, a player that Rose says excels at every volleyball skill.

The Nittany Lions opened the season where they hope to close it, as they played in the Active Ankle Challenge at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Kentucky, the site of this year’s Final Four. Led by Ariel Scott, Penn State swept the three matches on the weekend including a win over a Louisville squad that has now reached the Top 10, in part because of wins over Purdue and Illinois.

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Returning to Rec Hall for the third year of the Nike Big Four Volleyball Classic, the Nittany Lions held off ninth-ranked Stanford in five sets while dispatching No. 2 Texas in three. Back row play was key throughout the weekend as Lacey Fuller and Dominique Gonzalez combined for 44 digs in the two matches while Micha Hancock set a career high with 23 digs against Stanford.

Securing the number two spot in the poll behind the Huskers, Penn State made the trip to the Chicago Classic for what would prove to be a challenging weekend in a high school gym. Penn State played Oregon State in the nightcap on Sept. 8 and just as the Huskers were plagued by errors in their loss to Iowa State, so were the Nittany Lions against the Beavers. The Lions would finish with 26 attack errors and 13 service errors on their way to a five set loss that would end their unbeaten start to the year.

Nebraska and Penn State may have fallen from the ranks of the unbeaten but Michigan State and Northwestern both finished the non-conference season with a zero in the loss column. Though the competition may not have been as fierce, the Spartans are off to the third best start in program history while the Wildcats 11-0 start is Northwestern’s best. We will learn a lot more about these two teams this weekend as both will face their biggest challenges of the season when Michigan State plays Purdue Friday and Northwestern meets Minnesota on Sunday.

In 2011 it was Illinois who held on to an unbeaten streak longer than any other team in the nation, but that was with All-Americans Colleen Ward and Michelle Bartsch on the left side. This season did not get off to a similar start, as the Illini were swept in their first two matches of the season. However, a win over No. 6 Texas in Austin and three wins overall last weekend should be encouraging to head coach Kevin Hambly. First year starter on the outside Jocelynn Birks earned Big Ten Player and Freshman of the Week honors following a weekend where she recorded three straight double-doubles.

[Related: Get the latest Big Ten volleyball stats at BigTen.org.]

Minnesota joins the Illini and the Nittany Lions in defeating Texas this season as the Gophers ended the Longhorns’ 33-match home winning streak back on Sept. 6. Hugh McCutcheon came back from the Olympics with a talented group of veteran players as well as several transfers that are playing significant roles in the early part of the year. With Laura Bush hanging around as an assistant coach it should make the transition for the Gophers much easier this season.

Purdue was picked to finished third in the conference just ahead of the Gophers prior to the start of the season but dropped two matches against formidable opponents thus far. The Boilermakers were swept by Washington and Louisville with 2011 Big Ten Player of the Year Ariel Turner being held to single digit kills in both matches. Dave Shondell had been tinkering with a 6-2 but had success this past weekend in a 5-1 with Rachel Davis doing the setting.

The first of ten weeks of Big Ten volleyball is upon us and with more than half the league in the top 25 and all 12 squads having dynamic talents, the days of going 20-0 are a distant memory.

Here are the matches airing live on BTN/BTN2Go this week:

No. 3 Nebraska at No. 4 Penn State, Wednesday, Sept. 19 at 8 p.m.
Two of the most decorated programs in the sport with eight combined national titles including five of the last six, meet at Rec Hall to start conference play. Not only will this match have Big Ten title implications, it will also feature some of the most intriguing individual matchups of the year: Gina Mancuso vs. Scott, Haggerty vs. Katie Slay, Cook vs. Micha Hancock and John Cook vs. Russ Rose. After what we saw in the past two weeks, the team that can cut down on errors should come away with the win. If you need one more reason to get excited for this matchup, this should act as a good reminder.

No. 12 Minnesota at No. 20 Illinois, Friday, Sept. 21 at 8 p.m.
The Gophers and the Illini have played a few memorable five setters over the past few years and with an early season matchup between two teams in transition we could be in for another. Katherine Harms and Jocelynn Birks rank second and third in the Big Ten in Kills Per Set during non-conference play and middles Tori Dixon and Anna Dorn can be forces at the net.

Mike Wolf is a BTN announcer and calls Big Ten volleyball matches on the Big Ten Network. His Volleyball Reports will appear on BTN.com every Tuesday for the rest of the Big Ten volleyball season. You can also follow our extended volleyball coverage on Twitter with @BTNvolleyball.

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