Through 10 matches of the Big Ten season, the nation’s deepest and most decorated conference has lived up to its billing. Upsets have been plentiful, top 15 matchups are the norm and contenders have emerged from the pack. The standings have rarely looked the same on any given week, and early-season surprises have struggled to endure the grind of the league.
With five weeks remaining before the postseason, here are the early contenders to take home the Big Ten hardware come December.
Midseason Player of the Year: Kelsey Robinson, OH (NEB)
It’s hard to argue against Robinson at this point in the season, because no player means more to her team than the senior transfer for the Huskers. Nebraska fans likely do not want to imagine what this year would be like without her, as the connection between her and fellow transfer Mary Pollmiller has kept this team in the top three of the conference standings.
In Big Ten play, Robinson leads the conference in kills (4.84), points (5.42) and ranks second in hitting percentage (.385). For an outside that takes more than a good portion of the swings for Nebraska, Robinson’s hitting percentage is all the more impressive, indicating that she can hit a variety of shots to avoid the opponent’s block.
The numbers defensively impress, as well. Robinson leads Nebraska in digs with 3.49 per set, which puts her ninth in the Big Ten over the course of the entire season. Robinson also leads Nebraska in aces (19), which if her current pace holds, she could become the first Husker in program history to lead the team in kills, digs and aces in a single season. Head coach John Cook prides himself in developing and utilizing six rotation players, and Robinson has proven to be the Big Ten’s best through 10 matches.
It is impossible to ignore Hancock’s nation-leading serve, but whether or not service aces factor into an award for setting is not public information from the conference office.
Considering strictly her exploits at the net, Hancock has led the Penn State attack to a Big Ten best .302 hitting percentage and current spot atop the conference standings, with a record of 9-1. The Nittany Lions have hit .385 in their last three matches, all of which were straight set victories. The connection between Hancock and middle hitter Katie Slay has improved this season over years past and predicting where Hancock will go with the ball has become increasingly difficult to scout.
If Penn State remains at the top of the Big Ten standings, Hancock will take home her second straight Setter of the Year award.
What separates middles in a competition for defensive player of the year when their blocking numbers are nearly identical? I honestly don’t have an answer. Offensive numbers should not play a part and clearly digs will be few and far between for the players over 6’3”, so deeper inspection of blocking feats is necessary.
Slay leads the Big Ten in blocks per set by three hundredths of a point over Mathews, and the numbers in the non-conference season are just as close. Slay has nine solo stuffs in Big Ten play, versus five for Mathews, so in one of the more difficult areas of blocking, Slay has slightly better numbers. At the midpoint there is not enough separation between these two, necessitating the only co-honors on the list.
Reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and conference dig leader Kori Moster also remains in the mix, but if Slay or Mathews can hover around the 2-blocks-per-set mark for the rest of the season, Moster would have a tough time reclaiming her title.
Other Contenders: Kori Moster (MSU), Tori Dixon (MINN)
Midseason Freshman of the Year: Lauren Carlini, S (WISC)
Carlini has not been named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week once this season, and the numbers are not going to help her case when competing against the other conference newcomers. However, the former No. 1 recruit has run a Wisconsin offense that has been pieced together from injured parts to a winning record in Big Ten play and upset wins over Michigan State and Minnesota.
For as much as we like to rely on numbers to tell us who should be our champions and award winners, sometimes it is what is left off the stat sheet that can make the biggest difference for a team. Add to it that there is no position more difficult to play as a freshman, and Carlini is at the top of the list among newcomers at the midpoint of the conference campaign.
Midseason Coach of the Year: Kelly Sheffield (WISC)
By the end of the season, the Coach of the Year award will likely be given to the leader of the Big Ten champions. But, at the midway point, there is no one more deserving than Sheffield.
In Sheffield’s first 10 months in Madison, the Badgers have knocked off two top 10 teams, moved from the bottom to top half of the Big Ten standings and are poised for a return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007. Injuries have left the Wisconsin roster depleted, lineups have been juggled and practices have been far from what Sheffield envisioned coming into the year. Yet the ‘Wisconsin Goulash’ has worked to this point and some bold coaching strategies have paid off.
With seven different players missing time due to injuries, Sheffield has made roster moves that have been far from typical. Wisconsin has the shortest front row player in the Big Ten in its lineup in 5’7” Deme Morales, and she has been more effective than anyone would have expected against some of the towers that reside in the Big Ten. Sheffield elected to move Annemarie Hickey back to the libero spot despite a solid start to Big Ten play from sophomore transfer Taylor Morey. Hickey has averaged nearly five digs per set since and has given the Badgers a boost of senior leadership on the floor for a team in need of it.
Factoring in the injuries and length of the Big Ten season, it will be a difficult task for Wisconsin to remain at its current spot in the standings, but Sheffield’s team has been nothing but surprises thus far.
Live on BTN/BTN2GO this week:
Illinois at No. 11 Nebraska – Wednesday, 7:30 PM ET
The second half of the Big Ten season begins Wednesday night, and with it come the rematches. The Illini and the Huskers met in Champaign on September 28with Nebraska taking a straight set win on Illinois’ home floor. Kadie Rolfzen had 14 kills and Robinson chipped in 10 kills and 15 digs as Nebraska took the fight out of the Orange and Blue.
A more confident team travels to Lincoln on Wednesday for Kevin Hambly as the Illini have three wins over ranked Big Ten opponents since, including a four-set upset of No. 16 Wisconsin on Sunday. With the emergence of junior Morganne Criswell on the outside, Nebraska will be facing a very different Illinois team than the one they beat back in September. Hambly’s squad also needs to string together some wins. At 5-5 in the Big Ten and an overall losing record, the Illini cannot continue to split every Big Ten weekend if they hope to return to the postseason.
No. 2 Penn State at No. 17 Michigan – Friday, 8:00 PM ET
The Wolverines are another team that has not been able to go 2-0 on a Big Ten weekend this season. Michigan and Penn State played on the conference’s opening weekend back in September and usually the team that is playing its first Big Ten matches of the year is not the same one you meet in the second half.
Abby Cole was limited for the Wolverines in the first meeting by choice of Mark Rosen and his staff, as her head may have been spinning a bit during her first playing time in the Big Ten. Michigan should get more out of Cole in this matchup, while Penn State will look to continue to play at the level that has earned it three consecutive sweeps.
No. 2 Penn State at No. 14 Michigan State – Saturday, 8:30 PM ET
The Nittany Lions lost leads in both the first and second set in the first meeting with Michigan State, and not letting leads slip away has been a priority ever since. Service errors also piled up for Penn State against the Spartans, totaling 13 errors from the back line in the five-set match. Russ Rose’s squad has done a better job of both recently, ending sets with large margins and cutting down on service errors, totaling just three in each of their past two matches.
Beginning with its road trip to Minneapolis, Michigan State has not looked anything like the squad that opened the Big Ten season 6-0 and received first-place votes in two separate weeks. The Spartans were a low-error team during their 17-1 start and have now become a high-error team in their four match-losing streak. Service errors have been a particular problem as Michigan State has had double-figure service errors in three of those four losses, including 18 against rival Michigan.
If Michigan State cannot get on track serving or Micha Hancock goes off on a lengthy service run – as she did against Iowa (8 aces) – the five-set upset the Spartans pulled off over the top-ranked Nittany Lions at Rec Hall to start Big Ten play will become even more of a distant memory.
|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.|