Volleyball Report: Five-setter here, five-setter there

“The margin for error in our conference is as thin as it has ever been.” Michigan head coach Mark Rosen made that statement heading into last Saturday night, a night that may have represented a first in Big Ten women’s volleyball. All 12 teams were in action, and at the end of the evening, all but two would play nerve-racking 5-set matches.

Five-setters in a conference as strong as the Big Ten have been commonplace over the league’s history, but for one day to feature nearly every team in a race to 15 points, it could mark the beginning of a new era of Big Ten Volleyball.

From the top of the conference to the very bottom, every team is competitive and depending on the night, you could be in for a battle – whether your opponent is ranked in the top 10 or has not won a Big Ten match this season.

Saturday, winless Iowa took a Minnesota team that came into the year with Final Four aspirations to the brink. Indiana, two nights removed from a demoralizing loss to Penn State on its home floor, nearly pulled off its biggest win in three seasons against Ohio State. Nebraska, fresh off a statement win against the Gophers on Friday, played a Wisconsin team that has struggled to field a healthy lineup and was pressed to the limit at the raucous Devaney Center. The preseason favorite Nittany Lions held off Purdue, which was looking to sweep one of the most difficult weekends on the conference schedule. And in the only upset of the evening, Illinois, desperate for a win and confidence following losses in six of its last seven matches, turned around abysmal set two and three performances to knock off No. 14 Michigan in its home gym.

The only team to walk away from Saturday night with fresh legs and a victory were the Michigan State Spartans. Defeating Northwestern in straight sets, Michigan State is looking more and more like this year’s best contender, not only for the Big Ten crown but also for a national title run.

It’s only week two and a lot of young players are still adjusting to the college game or new roles on their teams. And a few teams will surely rise above the field as the season continues. However, in a conference that has known essentially one champion over the past decade (Penn State), this year could mark the first of many where predicting a champion is as difficult as receiving a jump serve from Penn State’s Micha Hancock. 

This changing of the guard does not mean that Penn State is any less talented than it has been or that Russ Rose is no longer one of best to ever coach the game. But, like the rest of the nation is witnessing, there’s a larger talent pool to pull from for every Big Ten team, and it’s making the conference better and each night more of a guessing game.

Rosen experienced that guessing game on Saturday, and while he said the Big Ten should make for good TV, it’s also pretty nerve-racking to be coach in this league.

Live on BTN/BTN2GO this week:

No. 11 Minnesota at No. 4 Penn State – 7:30 p.m. ET Wednesday

In its first meeting a year ago, Minnesota fell in straight sets to top-ranked Penn State in front of 5,000 fans at the Sports Pavilion. It was the only home loss the Gophers suffered all season.

This year, the first meeting will take place in Rec Hall and Minnesota will have the chance to add a loss to a home record for Penn State that has already seen one blemish. Keep an eye on the serving battle between Micha Hancock and Daly Santana, Hancock leads the nation in aces, while Santana consistently keeps opponents out of system. Both can serve long stretches from the back line that can change the course of sets and the match.

Northwestern at No. 20 Purdue – 6:00 p.m. ET Saturday

The Wildcats are in the midst of playing seven of 10 matches on the road to start the Big Ten season and the ranked opponents continue as they travel to West Lafayette. Stephanie Holthus ranks fifth in the Big Ten in kills per set, and for Northwestern to pull off the win, she’ll have to produce while being counted on to take a lot of swings.

Purdue no longer has Ariel Turner to take the majority of the swings when it’s in trouble, but it does have a balanced attack that almost took down Penn State. The Boilermakers are fourth in the Big Ten in blocks per set this season, and after being out-blocked in their first two conference matches, they won the battle at the net in both matches this past weekend. If the block can hold Holthus in check, there could be reason to celebrate in the Boiler Box on Saturday night.

BTDN Preview: No. 9 Nebraska at No. 7 Michigan State – 7:00 p.m. ET Saturday

Michigan State has already proven itself this season; now, it’s about sustaining that level of success throughout the year. The Spartans and the Huskers split the season series in 2012, with both teams earning wins on their home floors. In those two matches, Lauren Wicinski had 32 kills averaging four per set and aiding Michigan State to its first win over a top-5 team since 1996.

Nebraska enters this weekend looking for a little redemption after last year when its trip to the state of Michigan took them out of the Big Ten Title race. Kelsey Robinson had two monster matches for the Huskers last weekend and likely needs to produce another 20-kill effort for Nebraska to earn the road upset.

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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