BTN Volleyball Report: 2014 Season Preview

For the first time in almost a decade, Big Ten Volleyball is a guessing game heading into the season. Talent returns and the conference’s stalwarts will still have success, but when was the last time one class left such a void in the league all in one offseason? All-Americans always move on and youth will have to emerge, but the Big Ten has lost the majority of its star power. While the conference is still overflowing with talent, the outlook for 2014 is yet to be defined.

Seven All-Americans graduated following last year’s record-breaking season and many were multi-year stars who had impacted their teams from the first day they stepped on campus. Names that had become synonymous with Big Ten programs for what seemed like more than a standard academic career, are now overseas or working in the professional world rather than prepping for this fall’s slate.

Despite the departures of numerous stars, the Big Ten is poised to spend another season atop the conference power rankings. Let’s take a look at what we know about each 2014 Big Ten volleyball squad:

No. 11 Illinois

The Illini are one of the few teams in the conference that return essentially all of their starters from a year ago with the exception of all-time digs leader Jennifer Beltran.

Freshman Brandi Donnelly had 25 digs in the intrasquad scrimmage on Saturday but the libero spot will be contested between Donnelly, Julia Conard and Danielle Davis.

Head Coach Kevin Hambly has been known for his recruiting prowess since his days as an assistant with the Illini, but now is the time for highly touted players like Liz McMahon, Jocelynn Birks and Alexis Viliunas to reach that next level where they can dictate matches. Viliunas is the incumbent setter but do not be surprised if the Illini attack struggles at times this fall and Arizona State transfer Allison Palmer or sophomore McKenna Kelsay get a shot.

Illinois will also be seeking a more productive effort from its middles this season. Will Anna Dorn be 100 percent considering her nagging injuries over the past few years? And can Maddy Mayers be a more consistent threat so the Illini do not need to rely so heavily on the pins? Both are lingering concerns from last year heading into the fall.

One area that will not be a concern for the Illini will be the home atmosphere at Huff Hall. A recent renovation as well as the presence of the nation’s premiere volleyball student section, The Spike Squad, will continue to make Champaign one of the most difficult road trips in the Big Ten.

Indiana

The Hoosiers had just one conference win in 2013, a five-set victory over Michigan State, but dropped five other five-set matches that could have significantly altered their season. Indiana was not going to the tournament even if those matches had gone its way, but a program looking to exit the cellar of the league needs to build confidence through any wins it can tally.

Sherry Dunbar’s team should be able to gain some confidence during the non-conference portion of the schedule next month as there is not a team that is even sniffing the Top 25 on the docket until Big Ten play begins. A soft early schedule is likely to get some flack, but it is what this Indiana team needs with a new libero to break in and several transfer players getting used to a new system.

As for players returning to the lineup, Indiana will need an Ashley Benson-esqe season from senior Morgan Leach if it has any hope of returning to the postseason. Leach has received praise from the staff early in her career and has been compared at times to Benson. The Hoosiers will count on her to carry a lot of the production in 2014.

Another bright side for the Hoosiers is that with the additions of Maryland and Rutgers, a few more of those confidence-breeding wins should be attainable as the Terps and Knights adjust to the Big Ten.

Iowa

Hawkeye alum and Iowa native Bond Shymansky takes over the head coaching job in Iowa City following the departure of Sharon Dingman after six seasons. Shymansky faces a tall order, taking over a Hawkeye team that has combined to win just seven Big Ten matches in the last four seasons.

Shymansky spent the last five seasons at Marquette where he led the Golden Eagles to their first ever NCAA tournament appearance, as well as two more appearances in the last two years. Setting new standards is what a program like Iowa is looking for in a coach as a much needed shakeup was required for the Hawkeyes.

Challenges abound for Shymanksy and his team this year as not only will Iowa tinker with a 6-2 this fall, but it must replace one of its leading scorers in Rachel Bedell, a four year starting setter, Nikki Dailey, and the team’s all-time digs leader in Bethany Yeager. Alyssa Klostermann saw action at setter last year making the transition somewhat easier but there will be a lot of new faces and youth on the floor for Iowa in 2014.

Making matters more difficult, Shymansky and his team will be thrown to the wolves to start Big Ten play. The new travel partner portion of the conference schedule has Iowa opening league play with two straight matches against Nebraska.

Maryland

Big Ten volleyball fans know little about Maryland as the Terrapins join the league. With a brand new coaching staff in place this season, even those in College Park don’t know what to expect. However, a familiar face around Big Ten volleyball has taken the helm of the Terps, as former Penn State assistant Steve Aird was named the head coach in January.

Aird brings with him former Penn State Director of Volleyball Operations Adam Hughes as an assistant coach and the two of them bring a wealth of knowledge about Big Ten opponents into Maryland’s first year in the league. This will be Aird’s first season as a head coach, and much like Shymanksy at Iowa, he will have his work cut out for him.

Between injuries and a talent gap, Aird and his staff will need significant time to get the program up to a competitive level in the Big Ten. A challenging trip to face Washington and USC in the Pac-12/Big Ten Showcase in September is a good way to get the team ready for the conference slate, but don’t expect any upsets in Seattle. Maryland went 1-11 on the road last year and will need the experience of Aird with Big Ten atmospheres to prepare the Terps for a daunting road schedule.

Ashleigh Crutcher is one of the top returning threats for Maryland. A second team All-ACC selection, Crutcher led the team in kills per set last season and will need to get off to a strong start if Maryland continues to be hampered by injuries.

Michigan

The Wolverines never found their stride in 2013. Michigan did not win consecutive matches in a Big Ten weekend last year and closed by losing five of its last six matches to end with a first round NCAA exit. The Maize and Blue will need to replace their top two outside hitters in Lexi Erwin and Molly Toon, as well as All-American middle Jennifer Cross, meaning more responsibility falls on the shoulders of senior setter Lexi Dannemiller.

Mark Rosen mentioned last season that Dannemiller had to create offensive situations often for the Wolverines as her hitters were not consistent enough for her to count on them. Dannemiller may need to do more of the same this year with more inconsistency on the way in the form of inexperienced hitters taking over for last year’s departing class.

While the Wolverine hitters may be raw, they will be joined by a talented group of freshmen that were ranked as the seventh best recruiting class in the nation by Volleyball Magazine. Out of the rookie trio of Adeja Lambert, Katherine Mahlke and Claire Kieffer-Wright, at least one will need to emerge as a major contributor if the Wolverines are to make noise in the Big Ten this season.

The progression of Abby Cole will also play a crucial role this fall for Michigan as the sophomore showed signs of high level play last year while being used in the middle and on the right side. Another highly sought after recruit, Cole gives Michigan a presence at the net, which is something this team needs considering the Wolverines typically do not out-block their opponents.

No. 16 Michigan State

For the second straight year, the Spartans have a top 10 recruiting class ready to make an impact in Week 1. With the departures of Lauren Wicinski (and her mystifying serve), Alexis Mathews and Kristen Kelsay, the incoming class that was ranked sixth in the nation will play a crucial role from the outset this season.

In 2013, the decorated senior class led Michigan State to its best start since 1995, including a 6-0 mark to begin Big Ten play with wins over Penn State and Nebraska. However, Big Ten parity would eventually bite the Spartans as they lost five of their next six and did not win back-to-back conference matches for the remainder of the season.

This is a young group, with the exception of 2-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Kori Moster patrolling the back row for Michigan State, as well as senior outside Taylor Galloway. Moster is a star but the emergence of the talented freshman class is the key for the Spartans this season.

Michigan State found success early last year while running a 6-2, and with the arrival of No. 22 recruit Rachel Minarick out of the Sports Performance club in Illinois, the Spartans could once again excel in the two setter system. Holly Toliver and Alyssa Garvelink also hope to replicate the first year success of Chloe Reinig and Alyssah Fitterer from last season for the Spartans.

No. 12 Minnesota

It will be an odd sight this weekend when for the first time since 2009, Tori Dixon and Ashley Wittman will not be on the floor for the Gophers. Fixtures at Minnesota, Dixon and Wittman depart after decorated careers in Minneapolis that included some of the most memorable matches in the Big Ten over the past four years.

The core of this year’s team benefited from the guidance of Minnesota’s long time stars and now will make their own mark on the program. Daly Santana will be the new face of the team, not only because of her animated reactions, but because of her performance. Santana’s serve will once again plague teams and she’ll see an increased role on the outside this fall.

Adrianna Nora also returns after she emerged in the latter portion of last year’s conference season on the right side. Hannah Tapp will take over the blocking production left by Dixon. Tapp actually finished ahead of Dixon during Big Ten play last year with an average of 1.4 blocks per set in conference action. Katie Schau set for a portion of last season, but at 5-8, she may give up too much on the block. Transfer Erica Handley could see time setting. Morgan Bohl will likely remain the team’s libero after taking over the job late last year.

Hugh McCutcehon and his staff will seek to find replacements for the second outside spot, as well as another middle. Sarah Wilhite had her chances on the outside but never locked down a starting spot as a freshman, while Paige Tapp could follow her sister into a more significant role in the Gopher middle.

No. 7 Nebraska

John Cook presented a challenge to the recently expanded Husker volleyball student section at last Saturday’s Red/White Scrimmage: rush the court this fall. Nebraska is the last school in the Big Ten that needs to drum up excitement for its volleyball program, but a court storm at the Devaney Center would leave a lasting impression.

There will be no shortage of opportunities as Nebraska will host potentially four top 10 opponents in front of its nearly 9,000 fans beginning this weekend. The Husker faithful always rise to the occasion at Devaney, but will this young team be able to surpass the expectations of the more seasoned squads of recent years?

Last year’s youth yielded results alongside senior transfer and Big Ten Player of the Year Kelsey Robinson; however, Nebraska was too reliant on its left side hitters as a lack of balance allowed opponents to lock in on Robinson and freshman All-American Kadie Rolfzen. Cook and his staff will be looking for Amber Rolfzen to take the next step in her sophomore season and to create the necessary balance while also counting on more production out of their middles.

Cecilia Hall appears to have solidified a spot in the middle, while former 2012 Big Ten All-Freshman selection Meghan Haggerty battles Melanie Keil for the second spot. Another question remains at the second left side position as several players, including Kelsey Fien and Alicia Ostrander, make a push for playing time.

Senior setter Mary Pollmiller returns for a second season as the team’s setter, but sophomore Kelly Hunter has made a case for more court time during the preseason. Hunter has familiarity on her side, as she was the setter for the Rolfzen twins at Papillion-La Vista South during their decorated high school careers. The Huskers may tinker again with a 6-2 in the non-conference season, but it would be a surprise if it became the norm in Lincoln.

Unlike the rest of the conference, Nebraska will get a severe test in its first weekend as No. 13 Florida State and No. 3 Stanford visit Devaney to open the season. The first tournament won’t make or break the year, but the fans will be hoping to fulfill Cook’s request earlier than even he may be expecting.

Northwestern

It is still baffling that Northwestern was left out of the NCAA tournament a year ago. Eight wins in the nation’s toughest conference did not gain the Wildcats enough respect from the selection committee to earn a spot in the postseason when clearly they belonged over several SEC and even Pac-12 teams. Northwestern has moved on, some broadcasters may not have.

A bigger concern than dwelling on last season for Keylor Chan and his staff is how to replace the production of all-time kills leader Stephanie Holthus. The former All-American accounted for nearly a third of the team’s kills last season while being the focal point of every Big Ten team’s defensive game plan against Northwestern. Sophomore Kayla Morin will take on a bigger responsibility, while senior Yewande Akanbi may come out of the ‘closer’ role she played last year to be a regular contributor.

Katie Dutchman thrived in the opposite position at times last season, but she is just as capable in the middle if Chan and his staff feel they have another weapon to use on the right side. Caleigh Ryan was one of the biggest surprises of 2013 as the 5-10 setter excelled in her first year with the team, leading the Big Ten in assists per set (11.23).

The Wildcats could get off to a strong start, with a relatively soft non-conference schedule before facing the league’s two newcomers in the first two matches of Big Ten play. Look for a more balanced attack without Holthus, which could open things up for Northwestern this fall.

Ohio State

The 2014 season could not arrive fast enough for the Buckeyes after a brutal Big Ten campaign last year left Ohio State in a baffling tenth place finish in the league. After a 13-0 start, the Buckeyes won just five matches out of their remaining 19 and had few bright spots once the team began to spiral.

Newcomers will immediately impact OSU as both freshmen and transfers will likely see playing time for a team that lacked an identity and lost its most productive player from last season.

Junior middle Tyler Richardson transferred from Middle Tennessee State where she earned All-America Honorable Mention status after ranking 13th in nation with a hitting percentage of .414. Outside hitter Elizabeth Campbell also joins the program as a junior after transferring from Duke where she averaged 2.84 kills per set.

The freshman class is led by the No. 32 recruit in the nation, outside hitter Luisa Schirmer, who head coach Geoff Carlston expects to have a special career in Columbus.

Taylor Sherwin returns to set the Buckeyes after finishing tied for fourth in the Big Ten last season in assists per set (10.84). Other returnees include sophomore middle Taylor Sandbothe, who led the team in blocking in her first season, as well as outside hitters Erin Sekinger and Kylie Randall.

The Buckeyes open with the nation’s unofficial No. 26 team in Oregon, presenting an early challenge on the road for a new-look Ohio State squad.

No. 1 Penn State

A collective sigh of relief went up from Big Ten coaches last December as Deja McClendon, Ariel Scott and Katie Slay played their last match in Nittany Lions uniforms. That feeling of relief was temporary. Penn State and Russ Rose once again signed the top recruiting class in the nation and this year’s group of freshmen is being considered one of the best collective classes to ever be assembled. There will be early mistakes, lessons and disappointment, but expect to hear several of these names grace All-Big Ten and All-America lists often over the next four years.

Haleigh Washington, Simone Lee, Nia Reed, Ali Frantti, Heidi Thelen and Bryanna Weiskircher represent six players from the Volleyball Magazine Fab 50 list that will be on the Penn State roster this fall. The incoming class adds to a group that already includes 2013 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player Micha Hancock, Nia Grant, Megan Courtney and Dominique Gonzalez. You can see why Penn State was the preseason choice to win the Big Ten conference.

One player who will not return this fall is Paulina Prieto-Cerame, who transferred to Texas in the offseason. Prieto-Cerame was considered to have one of the best arms on the team over the past few seasons but never seemed to be content while at Penn State. Considering the influx of talent, she may have had a tough time getting on the court this fall.

There are also new faces on the bench with Russ Rose after assistants Steve Aird (left for head coach job at Maryland) and Kaleena Davidson departed following last year’s championship season. Former Nittany Lion All-American and assistant Salima Rockwell returns to Penn State after spending the last five years with Texas where she was named the 2013 AVCA National Assistant Coach of the Year. Also joining the staff is former Virginia assistant Stevie Mussie, who was a member of Washington’s 2005 national championship team.

As usual, the lineup will be in flux for the Nittany Lions early in the season and no spot will be secure, even as the year progresses. Expect different combinations and potentially an early loss or two as the Penn State staff sorts out the best lineup for this group. Matches against Stanford and UCLA in Week two will reveal a lot about the freshmen before beginning the Big Ten season with a brutal stretch of four straight matches on the road at Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska.

No. 8 Purdue

Five seniors who helped take the Boilermakers to two Elite Eight appearances in their collegiate careers are gone. However, Purdue remains in great shape to make a run in 2014.

The losses of Catherine Rebarcak, Rachel Davis, Katie Griffin, Hilliary Fox and the vocal Carly Cramer will be felt, but head coach Dave Shondell has players ready to contribute.

Last season saw Val Nichol and Davis split time at setter and the Boilers have the option of going with a two setter system again this year. Nichol could combine with redshirt freshman Ashley Evans, who has impressed in the preseason, to mimic 2013’s success. Purdue will also have the option of Evans taking the job solely, allowing Nichol to focus strictly on left side production. Nichol was so good in her dual role last year that Purdue may not want to mess with success.

Shondell and his staff use so many players each season that there is not a concern over replacing a program stalwart like Carly Cramer. Junior Amanda Neill has made numerous memorable digs in her first two seasons in West Lafayette that you can expect little drop off at the libero spot for Purdue. Add in two exceptional middles in Kiki Jones and Faye Adelaja, as well as Sam Epenesa in the L2 position and Annie Drews on the right side, and there are few questions to be answered with regard to Purdue’s lineup.

The Boilermakers are another team that will benefit from just one match with both Penn State and Nebraska this season. The Boiler Block Party will be primed for the sole meeting with the Nittany Lions on October 17.

Rutgers

The Scarlet Knights will benefit from joining the Big Ten. This program will get more exposure, better competition and a greater emphasis on volleyball. However, getting things started will not be easy for Rutgers.

The Scarlet Knights have not won more than four conference matches since 2006, with the majority of those years spent in the Big East and last season in the American Athletic Conference, two leagues that pale in comparison to the Big Ten. Last season, Rutgers went through an injury plagued campaign that witnessed a 14-match conference losing streak before earning its only league win against Temple in late November.

Kills leader Alex Lassa returns after leading the team with 3.25 kills per set in 2013. She was also third on the team in digs with 311. The Scarlet Knights ran a two setter system with Anna Sudbury and Nicole Bayer last year but freshman Talia Holze, out of Illinois’ Sports Performance club, could get a look this fall.

Rutgers was picked to finish last in the conference by coaches in this year’s preseason poll and anything more than one win would be a surprise for the second Big Ten newcomer.

No. 6 Wisconsin

After last season, you would think the doubters would have learned their lesson when it comes to projecting outcomes for the Badgers. The Big Ten preseason poll illustrates otherwise as Wisconsin was selected to finish third in the league behind Penn State and Nebraska, two teams that have several more questions about their lineups than the Badgers. Granted, most of the top talent belongs to the Nittany Lions and Huskers, but every starter with the exception of libero Annemarie Hickey is back for Kelly Sheffield’s team that fell in last year’s title match.

Hickey is not a loss to be overlooked as her tremendous passing and leadership was an integral part of Wisconsin’s run to the championship match. The bright side is that Taylor Morey, who saw significant playing time, is back to take over the Badgers key back row spot.

Reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year and second team All-America selection Lauren Carlini returns for her second year as the Badgers’ setter. After surpassing already high expectations, Carlini will once again help Wisconsin make noise in the league race. It’s hard to imagine Carlini improving the placement of her sets over last season, but Sheffield has seen the sophomore continue to work on getting better.

“She’s as coachable an athlete as I’ve ever been around and is competitive with every rep in the practice gym as any player,” Sheffield said. “That’s why she’s the player that she is.”

The Badgers will make a strong push for the Big Ten conference crown this season, especially when you factor in that Wisconsin will play both Penn State and Nebraska once this season, at home in the UW Field House.

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