Volleyball Report: Buckle up for wild Big Ten season

Conversations with Big Ten coaches have had one common theme heading into the start of conference play: No one has any idea where his/her team, or any of their fellow members, will end up in the title race come the end of November. The Big Ten has been the strongest conference in the nation over the past few seasons, but in a year that has witnessed the league set a new NCAA record for teams in the Top 25 (9), the Big Ten’s coaches are hesitant to make any predictions.

Two Final Four teams entered 2013 with the majority of their starters still in rotation and two other perennial contenders also came in with enough talent to make a run at a Big Ten title. While parity has been apparent in recent seasons in women’s volleyball, the start of this year has seen staggering upset after staggering upset. The most glaring example came on the home floor of the Big Ten’s most recent National Champion, as No. 1 Penn State fell to No. 15 Michigan State in a 5-set match that has catapulted the Spartans into the discussion of the nation’s top teams.

Behind senior outside hitter Lauren Wicinski’s 21-kill, nine-dig performance and senior middle blocker Alexis Mathews team-leading six blocks, the Spartans rallied in each of the first two sets against Penn State before closing out the match in dramatic fashion in the fifth. It was Wicinski and Mathews who would combine on a block of Penn State’s Deja McClendon to give Michigan State match-point and its first win in program history over a top-ranked team.

Friday’s win not only marked the Spartans’ first conference victory of 2013 but also their first win over Penn State in the last 19 tries. Head coach Cathy George was quick to focus on this match being one of 20 in the conference race, but a win of this magnitude does not fade away quickly. However, a loss on Sunday to undefeated Ohio State would dim the Spartans’ triumph.

Similar to Friday night in Rec Hall, Michigan State would find itself rallying in the first set from a deficit to overtake the Buckeyes in St. John Arena. Wiciniski contributed another double-digit point effort while freshman Chloe Reinig hit a season best .556 with 12 kills to aid in MSU’s sweep of the 13th-ranked Buckeyes. It’s the 4th time in school history that Michigan State has opened up Big Ten play 2-0 and just the second time it has accomplished the feat on the road.

With the toughest road trip in the Big Ten complete, Michigan State will focus on three unranked teams that will look to trip up the Spartans before their potential top-10 matchup with Nebraska on October 12. Michigan State made a statement to the rest of league about its presence in the Big Ten title hunt, and those around the nation also took notice as the Green and White received two first-place votes in this week’s AVCA Coaches’ Poll.

Live on BTN/BTN2Go this week:

No. 23 Wisconsin at Iowa – 7:30 p.m. ET Wednesday

The Badgers and Hawkeyes are coming off opposite weekends, with Wisconsin claiming wins in its first two matches of conference play while Iowa suffered two straight set defeats. First-year head coach Kelly Sheffield has cobbled together a lineup after a slew of injuries sidelined several Badgers for different portions of the non-conference season. With the team approaching ‘healthy’ for the first time all year, Sheffield will look to build on the team’s upset of No. 20 Purdue on Friday into its Wednesday meeting with Iowa.

Sharon Dingman’s team is searching for kills. The 6th-year Iowa coach feels her team has done well serving and blocking, but it has been lacking in kills. Junior Alex Lovell takes a lot of swings and has handled that role well, but if the Hawkeyes can’t find better balance, it will be difficult to knock off a newly ranked Wisconsin team.

No. 8 Minnesota at No. 10 Nebraska – 8 p.m. ET Friday

The two teams tied for the most underclassman in the Big Ten will meet in a match that could have the most impact on the conference title race of any in the first half of league play.

Though the rosters are dominated by youth, it’s the upperclassmen that have been leading the way for both teams. The Huskers may essentially have an entirely new roster, but senior transfer Kelsey Robinson has been dynamic as a six-rotation player this season and has led Nebraska in kills in five of the last six matches. The Dixon-Wittman combo continues to give Big Ten teams fits, as the two combined for 47 kills while hitting .410 with 17 blocks in two wins last week.

Minnesota has the advantage going in with more experienced starters than the Huskers but the 8,000 fans at the Devaney Center are certain to get under the Gophers’ skin. BTN’s first broadcast at the newly renovated Devaney Center should not be missed.

Illinois at No. 14 Michigan – 7 p.m. ET Saturday 

It was a mixed bag for the Illini this past weekend, as they ended a four-match losing streak by knocking off Iowa at the State Farm Center on Friday night but fell to Nebraska in three the next day at Huff Hall. Kevin Hambly is still tinkering with his lineup as Liz McMahon has moved back to the right side to help balance out the attack; however, Jocelynn Birks on the left has been inconsistent as of late. Illinois has a ton of talent that will produce when they gain confidence, but with a 4-6 non-conference record, the Illini need to avoid a slow start to Big Ten play if they hope to return the postseason.

While the Spartans swept the Big Ten’s most difficult road trip, Michigan returned to Ann Arbor with two losses. The Wolverines have traditionally not found their form until late in the season, but with two matches where Mark Rosen’s team had 30-plus errors (combined attack and service errors) in each, Michigan is not making the task any easier for themselves.

About Mike Wolf 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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