The NCAA volleyball season begins Friday and VolleyballMag.com is all over it..
This is the first of our previews of the power-five conferences, starting with the ACC. The rest of the week has the Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and the SEC. On Friday, we’ll have an overview of the nation, including the top teams not in the power five. What’s more, the first VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major Poll presented by Triple Crown Sports comes out Tuesday, August 29 after the first weekend of play.
There are three prevailing themes heading into the ACC season.
First, North Carolina is clearly the team to beat, with nearly everyone back from a fabulous 2016 team, which is why the Tar Heels got all 14 first-place votes in the ACC preseason coaches poll.
Second, the battle for second place through sixth in the league appears to be wide open as perennial power Florida State has an almost entirely new roster.
And third, there have been so many coaching changes the past two seasons that it seems the entire league is in flux. For 2017, Clemson, Louisville, Virginia and Virginia Tech all have new head coaches. That comes a year after NC State and Wake Forest got new coaches.
All that aside, start with North Carolina, which is simply loaded under 28th-year coach Joe Sagula, who not only has most of his team returning, also has a new left knee. His right knee is hurting and Sagula said he’ll likely get that one replaced, too, after the season.
Luckily his players have no such problems.
“North Carolina will clearly be the best team in the conference,” veteran Florida State coach Chris Poole said. “They’ve got so much returning and they’re very physical and they have the ball control they need.
“They have all the pieces to make a really nice run, not just in the ACC but a really nice run nationally. I’m very proud of what they’re doing.”
Sagula said all the changes have made it hard to predict the league.
“I see Pittsburgh as a rising, strong program,” Sagula said. “I see Notre Dame, which had a run until they had an injury. They’re gonna be good. Florida State is always solid and they’re going to be in the mix, although Chris Poole probably thinks this is one of his biggest rebuilding years.’
He does, of course.
“He’s got one of his best recruiting classes ever,” Sagula said. And like many, he had high praise for NC State.
“After the top five, it’s hard to know what’s going to happen,” Sagula said.
2016 record: 8-22, 3-17 ACC
Key losses: Julia Topor, who led the team in kills with 248
Newcomers of note: There are six incoming freshmen from three states and two countries and a new German grad student and you would have to expect all would get a shot.
Who returns: Sophomore outside Jill Strockis, who was second in kills with 241 and second in aces with 27, is moving to libero. Also back are middles McKenna Goss and Sophie West. Goss, a junior, had 208 kills and 30 blocks in 2016, two solo, while sophomore West had a team-high 72 blocks and led in hitting percentage (.244). And junior setter Camille Oemcke is back to run the show.
Analysis: Coach Chris Campbell enters his eighth season in Chestnut Hill and has just one senior on the roster. With the core group back, perhaps the Eagles can make a move.
2016 record: 6-26, 1-19 ACC
Key losses: Leah Perri led in kills with 418, 146 more than her nearest teammate.
Newcomers of note: There are five freshmen.
Who returns: Junior outside Kailey Harvell had 272 kills and was third on the team with 146 digs. Junior middle Megan McGinley had 194 kills, led the team in hitting at .224, and led with 104 blocks, 17 solo.
Analysis: First-year coach Michaela Franklin will have to show a lot of patience.
2016 record: 21-9, 15-5 ACC
Key losses: Jordan Tucker, who led in kills with 387 while hitting .358. She also had 87 digs and 101 blocks, 13 solo. Setter Cindy Marina set almost every ball for Duke in 2016.
Newcomers of note: The Blue Devils have three freshman, including 6-5 middle Summer Brown.
Who returns: Start with junior middle Leah Meyer, who had 316 kills, hit .333, led in blocks with 139 including 16 solo. Junior outside Jessi Bartholomew had 219 kills and sophomore outside Samantha Amos had 205 kills and 93 blocks. There will be a new, untested setter.
Analysis: Last year the Blue Devils seemed on their way to the NCAA Tournament, especially after winning 12 of 13 matches in the ACC, but they lost three of their last four. Jolene Nagel, who enters her 19th season, has put together an early schedule that should allow Duke to get off to a good start and build a good RPI but the Blue Devils will have to finish stronger.
2016 record: 26-6, 17-3
Key losses: See last year’s roster basically minus Milica Kubura. FSU lost four starters.
Newcomers of note: Five freshmen and two of them are middles who will start, likely 6-3 Taryn Knuth and 6-2 Deja Williams, while 6-2 Tiana Jackson will also be in the mix once she’s healthy. Mariah Brim, a 6-6 right side, will certainly get her shot.
Who returns: Senior Serbian outside hitter Milica Kubura led the Seminoles with 376 kills, hit .327 and added 56 digs and 84 blocks. She’ll be the go-to again this season. Junior Brianne Burkert will get her chance to run the offense.
Analysis: The coaches in the league put just one Seminole, Kabura, on the preseason team, yet picked FSU to finish second. Poole knows his team can be good but is taken aback that for the first time in his 35-year career he will start two freshmen middles.
“We look young,” Poole said. “But I’m very encouraged by our potential. I think we can have a very good team by midseason, but it’s difficult to know how good we’ll be early.”
2016 record: 24-8, 15-5 ACC
Key losses: Five seniors, including Teegan Van Gunst, who led with 507 kills, 75 more than her nearest teammate. She hit .250, was second in digs with 386, had 62 blocks, 13 solo, and 27 aces. Gone, too, is sister Annika Van Gunst, who had 265 kills, 76 blocks and 18 aces. Also gone is setter Rebecca Martin.
Newcomers of note: GT has seven freshmen, five of whom are 6-foot or taller.
Who returns: Senior Brazilian outside Gabriela Stavnetchei, who had 332 kills, 240 digs, 55 blocks and 20 aces. Senior setter Gabby Benda should get her shot to run the offense and senior middle Sydney Wilson had 171 kills, hit .251 and led with 105 blocks, 17 solo. And Kodie Comby, a sophomore middle, had 111 kills last year and 44 blocks.
Analysis: Tech simply couldn’t get its RPI to where it needed to be to get into the postseason in 2016. The Jackets went on a 10-match winning streak but at season’s end lost in five at North Carolina, won three in a row, and then finished the regular season with another five-set loss at Florida State. Michelle Collier starts her fourth year and the early schedule will give the Jackets plenty of chances to bolster that RPI that was missing last year as they play, among others, Michigan State, San Diego, Texas and Kansas State.
2016 record: 12-18, 7-13 ACC
Key losses: The good news for Louisville is that its top three hitters are back. Gone is Janelle Jenkins, who had 205 kills and 61 kills. Most of the rest of the roster returns.
Newcomers of note: There are four freshmen plus a redshirt-freshman and two transfers, setter Wilma Rivera, who came from Penn State, and outside hitter Amanda Green, who was at Marquette.
Who returns: The Cards are led by Tess Clark, a 6-3 senior middle who had 265 kills, hit .345, and 105 blocks, nine solo. Senior outside Melanie McHenry led with 350 kills, was second in digs with 252. Also back is junior libero Molly Sauer, who 501 digs.
Analysis: First-year coach Dani Busboom Kelly, a former assistant at her alma mater, Nebraska, and former Louisville assistant, takes over a program that simply had a tough 2016 under her old boss, Anne Kordes.
“We are humble and hungry and we all have something to prove,” Kelly said. “The staff and the players all have something to prove and we will make sure our fans are proud of us.”
2016 record: 15-17, 9-11 ACC
Key losses: Anna Haak had 395 kills, 21 aces, and 52 blocks, nine solo. Most of the Canes’ roster returns.
Newcomers of note: The roster includes just one freshman, 6-2 outside hitter Cameron Dobbs.
Who returns: Kills leader Olga Stantzali, a senior Greek outside who had 586 kills, 48 aces and 50 blocks. She and teammate Haley Templeton, a junior setter, are on the ACC preseason team. Templeton had two big seasons for Miami before getting hurt last year and redshirting after playing in just nine sets. Junior outside hitter Kolby Bird had 192 kills, 21 aces and 71 blocks.
Analysis: Coach Jose “Keno” Gandara took the program to the NCAA Tournament his first three seasons before a rough 2016. The Canes should build confidence in the preseason but will have to step up in the ACC to get back to the postseason.
2016 record: 29-4, 19-1 ACC
Key losses: One of the four Taylors, Taylor Treacey, who had 259 kills, hit .254 and was second with 110 blocks. Hayley McCorkle, who was fifth in kills on the team, setter Abigail Curry and libero Sheila Doyle.
Newcomers of note: Three freshmen are on the roster, including setter Holly Carlton. Kendra Koetter, a junior transfer from Georgia Southern, will also be in the mix.
Who returns: Start with ACC player of the year Taylor Leath, a junior outside hitter, who had 374 kills, hit .252, had 19 aces, was second on the team with 299 digs and 70 blocks. Sophomore outside Julia Scoles had 305 kills, hit .276, a team-high 32 aces and 54 blocks. And senior middle Taylor Fricano had 173 kills, hit .327 and led with 158 blocks, 16 solo. The other Taylor, sophomore outside Taylor Borup, had 164 kills, hit .247, and had 45 blocks. Sophomore setter Mariah Evans also returns.
Analysis: The Tar Heels lost in the third round of the NCAA Tournament to UCLA. As Poole said, UNC appears ready to go farther.
“I think offensively we can match up with a lot of teams in the country,” Sagula said. “Our block is good. But if you ask what’s Carolina got to do to be a top team? We’ve got to be really good at serving, passing and defending at a high level. I think we’re good at it, but for us to be successful we have to do those things very well.”
2016 record: 20-12, 13-7 ACC
Key losses: Setter Maggie Speaks, who had almost every set for the Wolfpack and libero Rachel Eppley.
Newcomers of note: Most significantly Arizona State transfer Kylie Pickrell, who will be a junior setter and should move into Speaks’ role. There are also seven freshmen and another transfer from ASU, 6-4 outside Bree Bailey, whom the ACC coaches voted to the league’s preseason team. Second-year NC State coach Linda Hampton-Keith was an assistant at Arizona State before getting her job.
Who returns: The Wolfpack’s top five kills leaders are back. Julia Brown, a senior outside, led with 489 kills, junior Teni Sopitan added 342, senior middle Kaitlyn Kearney had 263, Perry Ramsey 141 and senior Erin Chatman 131. Kearney averaged better than a block per set.
Analysis: Most ACC observers are expecting a big season from NC State.
“They were better last year than most people thought,” Pitt’s Fisher said.
The coaches picked the Wolfpack fifth. The 13 wins in the ACC was a program best and there are plenty of chances to boost the RPI early, with a preseason schedule that includes Kansas (twice), Missouri State, Florida and Michigan. In the league, NC State plays UNC twice, but goes to Pitt and Florida State in their only meetings.
2016 record: 22-10, 13-7 ACC
Key losses: Middle Katie Higgins, who averaged better than two kills and a block per set and outside Haley Bonneval.
Newcomers of note: Four freshmen are on the roster, including middle Emma Cottrill.
Who returns: Most of the offense and senior setter Caroline Holt, who played her first two years at Loyola in Chicago and then last year was having a great season before injuring her foot 22 matches into the season. Sophomore outside Jemma Yeadon led with 318 kills and had 23 aces and 65 blocks. Senior middle Sam Fry added 255 kills, 37 aces and 102 blocks. Senior outside Sydney Kuhn had 237 kills and 58 blocks, while junior outside Rebecca Nunge had 227 kills and 90 blocks.
Analysis: Everything changed last year for Notre Dame when setter Holt got hurt. The Irish lost six of eight and couldn’t recover. There isn’t anyone in volleyball who doesn’t think third-year coach Jim McLaughlin, who has had success everywhere he’s been, won’t get the Irish into the national picture. Most of the pieces are in place for that to happen this season.
2016 record: 25-9, 15-5 ACC
Key losses: Pitt lost just one starter, but Jenna Potts and her 1.72 kills per set and .353 hitting percentage will be missed. Also gone is middle Kelsey O’Neill, who averaged 1.75 kills and .74 blocks.
Newcomers of note: Two freshmen, middle Chinaze Ndee and outside Kayla Lund, but Southern Illinois transfer Alex Rosignol, a 5-11 senior middle, will be in the mix from the start.
Who returns: Junior setter Kamalani Akeo and sophomore outside Stephanie Williams made the ACC preseason team, but Layne Van Buskirk could have been on there, too. Van Buskirk, who spent the summer with the Canadian national team, is a 6-3 sophomore middle who had 247 kills last year and hit .345 to go with 76 blocks. Williams, a sophomore outside, led with 467 kills, hit .243, had 30 aces, was second on the team with 308 digs and had 48 blocks. Also back is senior outside Mariah Bell, who had 402 kills, 43 aces and 53 blocks, and sophomore right side Mika Markovic, who had 233 kills and 39 aces.
Analysis: There’s a good reason Pitt is third in the ACC preseason coaches poll.
“I think player for player this is the best team we’ve had,” said fifth-year coach Dan Fisher, who has slowly turned the Panthers into a team that gets national attention.
Last year, Pitt — making its first postseason appearance in 121 years — beat Dayton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before losing to Penn State.
2016 record: 7-23, 6-14 ACC
Key losses: Leah Levert, who led the Orange with 146 blocks, and Mackenzie Weaver, who had 230 kills.
Newcomers of note: Just two freshman are on the roster, Israeli outside Ella Saada and 6-3 middle Dana Gardner.
Who returns: The Orange gets back 11 letterwinners and five starters, including offensive leader Anastasiya Gorelina, a junior outside/right side from Uzbekistan who had 281 kills. Junior middle Santita Ebangwese, who had 173 and 112 blocks, joins Canadian outside Kendra Lukacs, who had 154 kills, 191 digs and 52 blocks. Also back is junior setter Jalissa Trotter.
Analysis: “With every new season there is a new hope,” coach Leonid Yelin said. “I’m very happy to have so many returning players and am also excited to see what impact the three incoming players can have on the team.”
2016 record: 7-25, 4-16 ACC
Key losses: Kills leader Haley Kole, who not only had 418 kills but also 181 digs and 57 blocks. Next on the kills list was Jasmine Burton, who had 341, and also gone is Alex Thorson, who had 167 kills, so clearly Virginia has a lot of offense to replace.
Newcomers of note: There are four incoming freshmen plus Penn State transfer Jelena Novakovic, a 6-3 right side.
Who returns: Sophomore libero Kelsey Miller and sophomore setter Jennifer Wineholt have the most experience.
Analysis: Virginia hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1999. First-year coach Aaron Smith, who has been a UVa assistant the past five years, knows what he’s getting into.
2016 record: 13-18, 8-12 ACC
Key losses: Two outside hitters, offensive leaders Lindsey Owens, who had 403 kills, and Amanda McKinzie, who had 351 kills.
Newcomers of note: There are four freshmen, including 6-3 middle Marisa Cerchio.
Who returns: Four starters are back, led by Jaila Tolbert, who had 223 kills last season and hit .301 to go with 83 blocks. Senior middle Cara Cunningham led with 106 blocks and junior setter Rhegan Mitchell returns.
Analysis: First-year head coach Jill Wilson was a longtime assistant at her alma mater, LSU, but has previously was an assistant at both North Carolina and Wake Forest, so the ACC is not new to her.
2016 record: 9-22, 5-15 ACC
Key losses: Just two players are gone from the 2016 roster, most notably Hanna Lee, who had 223 kills and 86 blocks.
Newcomers of note: Coach Bill Ferguson brought in nine freshmen for his season season, including two setters and three 6-2 front liners.
Who returns: The top three kills leaders in Kylie Long (447 kills), Carolina Rassenfoss (420 kills, 26 aces) and Caitlyn Della (228 kills, team-best 112 blocks). Senior libero Caroline Wolf has led the team in digs the past three years.
Analysis: Ferguson has used his California roots to bolster recruiting but it’s not likely the young Deacons will make a quantum leap this season. However, the schedule is such that Wake can win early and build a lot of confidence heading into the ACC season.