Preseason polls are typically frowned upon by fans and coaches alike, but after one weekend of Big Ten volleyball it appears the coaches knew exactly what they were doing when they picked the conference contenders. Four teams have separated themselves, with three of them going 2-0 to start the Big Ten campaign.
Minnesota, Penn State and Purdue won both matches on the weekend, with the Gophers and Boilermakers winning on the road, while Penn State had the luxury of starting at home.
[TONIGHT: Watch No. 24 Michigan State at No. 6 Nebraska at 8 p.m. ET on BTN/BTN2Go]
Nebraska was a few points and possibly a few calls away from being 2-0, as the Huskers nearly took a two set lead last Wednesday night in University Park. Nebraska would lose in four sets to Penn State, resulting in back-to-back losses for the first time since 2009.
On Monday, Penn State would become the second Big Ten team to be ranked #1 this season, with the Nittany Lions earning the top spot for at least one week of the season for the sixth consecutive year. Three Big Ten teams were ranked #1 in different weeks last season, and after the first weekend of league play, it’s not hard to imagine the conference equaling that number in 2012.
Hancock’s got company
For the entirety of the 2011 season, Big Ten fans and announcers could not help but fawn over the serve of Penn State’s Micha Hancock. The Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year posed a threat to run off a string of aces every time she went back to the service line and could often change the course of the match with her imposing left-handed jump serve. Hancock would set a Penn State single-season record with 91 service aces and lead the Big Ten while finishing second in the nation with .75 aces per set.
|Big Ten Standings (through Sept. 23)|
Russ Rose has called her serve ‘the most productive he has seen in his 21 years in the Big Ten,’ and prior to the conference opener, Nebraska head coach John Cook said one of the keys for the Huskers would be how well they were able to side out against Hancock’s serve. While other serving specialists have had their fair share of aces throughout the conference, it seemed no one could disrupt an opponent’s receive game like Hancock.
That was until two newcomers stole the spotlight in the 2012 season’s first few weeks. Michigan State’s Lauren Wicinski and Minnesota’s Daly Santana knocked Hancock off her perch as the Big Ten’s best server, with the pair ranking 1-2 nationally in aces per set through four weeks.
Wiciniski, a transfer from Northern Illinois, finished behind Hancock last year with 71 total aces, and through 14 matches in her first year as a Spartan, she has 31. Northern Illinois head coach Ray Gooden said that her part float, part spin serve has a ‘pace and trajectory that makes it one of the tougher serves to prepare for.’
Santana announced her presence with a seven ace performance against Miami (OH) on Sept. 1, including five aces in the first set to lift the Gophers to a 25-10 win. The Gopher freshman has 26 aces thus far and put pressure on both the Illini and Wildcats this weekend.
While the stats do not reflect just how disruptive these three can be, (there is no stat to represent the number of times a server keeps an opponent out of system) the trio remains in the top five nationally after the first conference weekend. Hancock is not letting her title go easily though, as the Nittany Lion had four aces in two matches this weekend while Wicinski and Santana combined for three.
Here are the matches airing live on BTN/BTN2GO this week:
No. 24 Michigan State at No. 6 Nebraska – Wed. Sept. 26 at 8 PM ET
The Spartans make their first road trip of the conference campaign to the most hostile environment in the country, the NU Coliseum. The Huskers look to reclaim a spot in the top 5 after splitting matches with Penn State and Ohio State. It will be intriguing to see how Big Ten newcomer Wicinski and the rest of the Spartans fare against the conference’s top blocking team.
No. 22 Ohio State at No. 10 Minnesota – Fri. Sept. 28 at 8 PM ET
Hugh McCutcheon got his first Big Ten road trip out of the way with two wins in the state of Illinois, now he will get a chance to experience the home atmosphere of the Sports Pavilion for the first time in a conference match. The Gophers balance continues to be impressive and Tori Dixon on the slide play has looked unstoppable through two league matches. The Buckeyes will need to improve their blocking to come up with a road win.
No. 21 Illinois at No. 13 Purdue – Sat. Sept. 29 at 8 PM ET
The Illini bounced back from a tough three set loss against Minnesota with a five set victory over Wisconsin on Sunday. Kevin Hambly had said he wanted to get Liz McMahon more involved prior to last weekend, that did not occur against the Gophers but the Illini made the effort to find her versus the Badgers as the sophomore finished with a season high 19 kills. The Boilermakers are hoping to build on a weekend that not only saw two marathon five set wins in the state of Michigan but also the emergence of outside hitter Annie Drews at the net who averaged 1.1 blocks per set for the weekend earning her Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors.
|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.|