ACC preview: Pittsburgh again the team to beat in competitive conference

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Pitt celebrates winning the 2017 ACC title/Pittsburgh photo

Six teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference — where the regular-season race went down to the last weekend — made the NCAA tournament last season, marking a new league best, and three advanced to the second round. Heading into 2018, many ACC teams are dealing with the graduation or transfer of top players, while some of the nation’s top incoming freshmen are helping to replenish the ranks.
Enjoy this in-depth preview of the ever-improving ACC, the power-five conference with the most teams. 

Six teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference — where the regular-season race went down to the last weekend — made the NCAA tournament last season, marking a new league best, and three advanced to the second round. Heading into 2018, many ACC teams are dealing with the graduation or transfer of top players, while some of the nation’s top incoming freshmen are helping to replenish the ranks.

Reigning co-champions Pittsburgh and Louisville ranked first and second, respectively, in the conference preseason coaches poll. Pittsburgh, returning its entire starting lineup, earned first-place votes from every coach except Dan Fisher, who wasn’t allowed to vote for his own team.

ACC Preseason Coaches Poll
1. Pittsburgh
2. Louisville
3. Florida State
4. Notre Dame
5. Duke
6. North Carolina
T7. Miami
T7. NC State
9. Syracuse
10. Georgia Tech
11. Virginia Tech
12. Clemson
13. Wake Forest
14. Virginia
15. Boston College

Boston College
2017 Record: 7-23 (4-16)
Key losses: The team’s 2017 kills leader Lynn Braakhuis only played one season at BC, but the German grad student made a big impact, putting away 2.93 kills per set (299 total) and ranking third on the team with 18 aces. Outside hitter Sol Calvete is also lost to graduation.
Who returns: With setter Jane DeJarld and libero Jill Strockis back, BC should benefit from consistency in its first and second contacts. Also back are opposite Cat Balido, outside McKenna Gross, and middles Sophia West and Amaka Chukwujekwu.
Newcomers of note: The first is coach Jason Kennedy. Not only is it his first year in Boston, but also his rookie year at the helm of a program.
The former USC associate head coach welcomes four freshmen to campus: Megan Wall (OH), Mackenzie Fuhrmann (OH), Derry Costigan (S), and Jewel Strawberry (OH). Costigan, a product of Florida’s Saint Thomas Aquinas, won three state championships in high school as the starting setter and could challenge returning setters Jane DeJarld and Camille Oemcke for playing time.
Six-foot-three Lafayette College transfer middle blocker Carly Kutschke also joins the 2018 roster.
Analysis: In his first season, with a group of newbies he didn’t recruit, Kennedy will likely not be able to manufacture BC’s first winning season since 2004. However, expect to see some changes in this program as Kennedy brings the mentality of someone who has worked with elite West Coast programs to Chestnut Hill.

Clemson
2017 Record: 7-25, 2-18
Key losses: Setter Keeley Hayes, one half of Clemson’s 6-2 in 2017, and defensive specialist Kennedy Wilson-Talma have graduated, but the biggest losses for Clemson come in the loss of three of its top-four offensive producers, outside hitter Kailey Harvell and middles Megan McGinley and Jaden Light, all of whom have chosen to leave the team in order to dedicate themselves full-time to academic pursuits.
Who returns: Go-to outside hitter Kaylin Korte was named to the Preseason All-ACC team. Last season, she tallied a team-high 349 kills, receiving a whopping 1006 sets–almost twice as many as her fellow starting outside Harvell.
Setter Carolina Pearson (the other half of the 6-2) led the team with 475 assists last year. Madi Howell earned the libero jersey last year as a freshman and ranked second all-time for digs in a season by a freshman with 373. Outside/opposite Alyssa Deloney also returns.
Newcomers of note: Coach Michaela Franklin add eight freshmen to the squad this year: Crystal Childs (OH/DS), Kateyln DeGuzman (DS/L), Gabby Easton (S), Torie Frederick (DS/L), Ava Pritchard (MB), Solei Thomas (OH), Adria Oliver (MB), and Ashtynne Alberts (OH).
Also making her debut in orange and purple is former Ohio State outside hitter Brooke Bailey. Standing 6-2, Bailey adds much needed height and high-level competition experience to the Clemson lineup.
Analysis: Adding Bailey to the mix could make a big difference for Clemson, helping to spread out the offense and take some of the pressure off Korte. Losing both starting middles, an outside, and a starting setter certainly smarts and will require some hard work on the part of the incoming freshmen and former bench players to step up and fill those holes.

Duke
2017 Record: 19-12 (11-9)
Key losses: All four seniors who graduated after the 2017 season played significant roles for Duke. The Blue Devils will sorely miss the talents of kills leader Cadie Bates, libero Nicole Elattrache, top blocker Anna Kropf, and setter Emma Paradiso.
Who returns: Preseason All-ACC middle blocker Leah Meyer only played six matches in 2017, missing most of the season due to injury and was granted a medical redshirt. With her back, Duke gets much deeper at the middle blocker position, with 6-5 sophomore Summer Brown joining a pair of elite freshmen middles (more about them below).
The No. 2 kills contributor from last season, Payton Schwantz, also returns, as does No. 3 offensive weapon opposite Samantha Amos, outside hitter Jessi Bartholomew, and setter Sarah Nelson. Defensive specialist Kelli Kalinoski returns to shore up the first contact and compete for the starting libero position (though like Brown, she’ll have competition from a rookie).
Newcomers of note: A nationally ranked recruiting class should make an impact in Durham right away, adding height, ball control, and elite experience to the lineup. First Team Under Armour All-American middle Ade Owokoniran and 6-5 middle Lily Cooper will be competing with each other and returner Brown for a starting spot opposite Meyer.
New York Gatorade Player of the Year and First Team Under Armour All-American Mackenzie Cole could earn the libero jersey, or even take some swings on the outside, while former TAV setter Alex Springate could fill Paradiso’s absence in the 6-2. Outside hitter Alex Amos, sister of Samantha, comes to Duke after earning Third Team Under Armour All-America honors.
Grad-student transfer Andie Shelton adds to the team’s depth after setting and playing outside hitter at Pacific.
Analysis: Missing Meyer last year hurt Duke a lot, but the Blue Devils still managed to string together a winning season and finish tied for eighth in the conference. The returners will have to do a good job of leading their talented rookies and getting them ready for competition in the ACC. Opening weekend back-to-back matches versus BYU will be a good test for this team.

Florida State
2017 Record: 18-11 (12-8)
Key losses: At the end of 2017, Florida State had to say goodbye to honorable mention All-American opposite Milica Kubura, outside hitter Natasha Calkins, and libero Cecilie Woie.
Dependable defensive specialist and occasional hitter Bozena Culo transferred to Loyola Marymount, and deadly server Logan Holanchock who led the team with 25 aces and only 15 errors last fall is no longer on the team for unknown reasons.
Who returns: Middle Taryn Knuth had a fantastic freshmen season, ranking third on the team in kills with 224, hitting .319, and adding 15 aces. Deja Williams returns to claim her spot opposite Knuth in the lineup after ranking third on the team with 91 blocks last fall.
Strong senior leadership returns in the form of outside hitter Christina Ambrose and setter Brianne Burkert.
Newcomers of note: The addition of West Virginia transfer Payton Caffrey will help fill the void left by the graduation of top offensive producers Kubura and Calkins. The Preseason All-ACC honoree led West Virginia in kills in both her freshman and sophomore seasons, ranking top-two in the Big 12.
Kelsey Wicinski, a Maryland transfer, seems the most likely candidate to claim Woie’s libero jersey, while Long Beach State transfer Ashley Murray will add depth and experience in the middle.
Coach Chris Poole also brings in four freshmen: Morgan Chacon, a Third Team Under Armour All-American six-rotation outside hitter; 6-3 setter Lily Tessier; and defensive specialists Alyssa Collins and Taylor Roberts. Redshirt freshmen Adrian Ell and Mariah Brim will also be making their collegiate debuts this fall.
Analysis: Florida State is experiencing a lot of turnover in its starting lineup, but with the last two members of top-10 ranked 2017 recruiting class finally making their collegiate debuts and the addition of four elite freshmen and three experienced transfers, expect to the Seminoles challenge for the conference title this fall.

Georgia Tech
2017 Record: 13-18 (8-12)
Key losses: Georgia Tech lost a lot to graduation. Gone is kills leader Gabriela Stavnetchei, along with No. 2 and No. 3 offensive producers Ashley Askin and Sydney Wilson and setter Gabby Benda.
Who returns: Sam Knapp earned the libero jersey as a freshman, tallying a team-high 345 digs. Middle blocker Kody Combey also returns to shore up the defensive effort, while opposite Cori Clifton is the top returning offensive contributor.
Newcomers of note: The large freshmen class includes outside hitter Mariana Brambilla who collected high-level international experience in her home country of Brazil and will contend for a starting position. Matti McKissock (S), Kayla Kaiser (OH/MB), Breland Morrissette (MB), Mikaila Dowd (OH), Gabi Dolan (OH), and Maddie Tippett (L) round out the class.
Transfer setter Lexi Dorn comes to Atlanta from Purdue and could fill graduated setter Benda’s role.
Analysis: This Georgia Tech team is very young, with just one senior and 12 underclassmen. In particular, some of the rookies and sophomores will need to step up to contribute offensively if GT has hopes of competing in the ACC and recording a winning season.

Louisville made great strides in 2017 in coach Dani Busboom Kelly’s first season/Louisville photo

Louisville
2017 Record: 24-7 (18-2)
Key losses: The 2017 ACC co-champion lost middles Tess Clark and Maddie DeJong, its No. 2 and No. 5 offensive contributors, respectively, as well as defensive specialist Gabby Wiley.
Who returns: Kills leader Melanie McHenry will lead the charge for the Cardinals this season. She’s joined by returning outside hitter Amanda Green, middle Jasmine Bennett, setter Wilma Rivera, libero Molly Sauer, and defensive specialist Alexis Hamilton. Bennett, McHenry, Rivera, and Sauer all earned preseason All-ACC honors.
Newcomers of note: Illinois transfer Marijke Van Dyke was one of the top recruits in the Class of 2017 and after barely playing for the Illini, she’s coming to Louisville looking for a second chance. Standing 6-2 Van Dyke adds some height to the roster and could add to Louisville’s legacy of being a place where transfers shine.
Also adding to the roster this year are six freshmen: Claire Chaussee (OH), Aiko Jones (OPP), Anaya Martin (S), Maggie Mullen (DS), Emily Scott (MB), and Mia Stander (DS).
Analysis: In Dani Busboom-Kelly’s first season at Louisville, she led the squad to a share of the ACC title and an appearance in the NCAA tournament. This year, with some added depth from the newcomers and some solid returners, look for Louisville to be competitive once again.

Miami
2017 Record: 22-6 (15-5)
Key losses: Kills leader Olga Strantzali made a huge impact in her three years at Miami, transferring from UCLA after just one season. As a senior she garnered Honorable Mention All-American honors and was named ACC Player of the Year after tallying 499 kills, 4.54 kills/set, in addition to ranking second on the team in digs. Libero Sylvia Hernandez also graduated.
Former starting middle Madison Dill is no longer on the roster. According her posts on Instagram, she and boyfriend KC McDermott welcome a baby boy earlier this month.
Who returns: The second- and third-highest kills contributors, Kolby Bird and Elizaveta Lukianova are among Miami’s list of returners, along with top blocker Lucia Pampana, defensive specialist Sara Duque, and setter/serving sub Hannah Sorensen.
Setter Haley Templeton earned preseason All-ACC honors heading into her redshirt senior season.
Newcomers of note: Reigning Oregon Gatorade Player of the Year outside hitter Chloe Brown headlines the list of rookie Canes, which also includes Maddie Naumann (DS), Sophie Walls (S), Priscilla Hernandez (DS), Taylor Burrell (OH), Maya Sullivan (MB), and Emily Damon (DS)
Six-foot-2 middle blocker Bridget Wallenberger adds some depth to the squad after transferring from Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Analysis: Miami made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament last year; however, Strantzali played a huge role in that success.
“Olga obviously was a special player so initially we want to fill that role with a team effort,” coach Keno Gandara said. “We feel like there are several players capable of helping out offensively.”
Others in the volleyball world must also have confidence in Miami’s depth and new talent–the team received votes in the AVCA preseason poll.

NC State
2017 Record: 21-12 (15-5)
Key losses: The graduation of outside hitters Julia Brown and Bree Bailey and middle Kaitlyn Kearney strips NC of more than 60 percent of its offensive production. Starting libero Emily Harris will also have to be replaced. And
Who returns: Setter Kylie Pickrell and opposite Melissa Evans earned Preseason All-ACC honors and are joined by fellow returning starters middle blockers Teni Sopitan and Lauryn Terry. A trio of defensive specialists who accrued significant playing time last season–Grace Irvin, Makenzie Kuchmaner, and Kassie Kasper–will compete for the libero spot and help keep the first contact consistent.
Newcomers of note: Setter Nina Sharpton is the most decorated memory of NC State’s small incoming class; however, she will likely spend the season riding the bench and preparing to take over after Pickrell graduates. The 2018 class also includes 5-10 outsides Savannah Bryant and Jade Parchment, as well as 6-2 middle Pam Chukwujekwu.
Gardner-Webb grad transfer Keira Moore, a 6-2 middle blocker, also makes her NC State debut this fall.
Analysis: NC State had one of its best seasons ever last fall, but the question is whether the Wolfpack can keep things rolling despite the loss of its top-three hitters and its libero. Luckily, coach Linda Hampton-Keith’s roster of 20 athletes includes seven outside hitters, so the competition in the gym for those two starting spots is undoubtedly fierce.

North Carolina
2017 Record: 14-14 (11-9)
Key losses: UNC kills leader Taylor Leath finished her undergraduate degree and transferred to Penn State (in her hometown of State College) where the outside hitter will pursue her graduate degree and finish her eligibility. Starting middles Taylor Fricano and Beth Nordhorn also graduated.
Julia Scoles, the 2016 ACC Freshman of the Year, barely played last year as she struggled with concussions and has since transferred to Hawaii to play beach.
The UNC team, which struggled so mightily with injuries last season, will also be without setter/hitter Holly Carlton, outside Taylor Borup, and middle Sydnye Fields, who transferred to Florida, Oregon, and Texas A&M, respectively.
Defensive specialist Sehrena Hull is no longer listed on the roster.
Who returns: Thanks to the inexplicable number of injuries UNC suffered last season, Joe Sagula had to utilize a different lineup almost every match, so although many of his top contributors aren’t returning, those that do all got some playing time and valuable competition experience.
Those returners include middle Katharine Esterley, opposite Madison Laufenberg, setter Kendra Koetter, and defensive specialists Casey Jacobs, Greer Moseman, Mia Fradenburg, and Maddie Grace Hough.
Newcomers of note: To help replenish his depleted roster, Sagula brought in Nebraska transfer setter Hunter Atherton, 6-4 former Coastal Carolina middle/opposite Aristea Tontai, and six-rotation outside Skylar Wine from Pacific.
The Heels benefit from a great recruiting class that includes First Team Under Armour All-American Lauren Harrison, junior national teamer Destiny Cox, 6-1 versatile front-row player Ava Bell, 6-3 opposite Hadden LaGarde, and scrappy setter Annabelle Archer.
Raleigh Clark, a 6-4 middle, will also be making her collegiate debut after redshirting last season.
Analysis: The 2018 Tar Heels won’t look anything like last year’s squad, but that might just be a good thing. After a frustrating year, an influx of new players is just what UNC needs to get back on track. This recruiting class might just be one of UNC’s best to date, especially when you take into account the three transfers. Atherton is a special setter and should help bring stability to this squad.

Notre Dame
2017 Record: 22-10 (12-8)
Key losses: Start with head coach Jim McLaughlin, who retired in June three seasons after taking the job after a great run at Washington. Four major contributors graduated after the 2017 season: middle Sam Fry, the team’s No. 2 kills contributor and top blocker; starting outside hitter Sydney Kuhn; setter Caroline Holt; and defensive specialist and top server Natalie Johnson.
Who returns: Undersized kills leader Jemma Yeadon is back for her junior season, and she’s joined by the 2017 team’s No. 3 hitter Rebecca Nunge, libero Ryann DeJarld, middle Meg Morningstar, and defensive specialist Madison Cruzado.
Last year, DeJarld set a new program record for single-season digs (747) and broke the career digs record with a year of eligibility left. Her 6.12 digs per set ranked fourth in the NCAA.
Newcomers of note: Notre Dame’s class of four incoming freshmen are all good enough to contend for playing time right away. In particular, First Team All-American Charley Niego could snag a spot on the pin, and setter Zoe Nunez will be making her case to replace Holt.
Athletic lefty Sydney Bent, a third-team Under Armour All-American and big-time blocker Lauren Wenzel round out the group of newcomers.
Analysis: Notre Dame had a great 2017, recording its first back-to-back 20-plus win season since 2004-2005 and making it to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012.
However, the resignation of McLaughlin, whose bad back made it impossible for him to continue, could throw a wrench in things. Associate head coach Mike Johnson has taken over, so at least the players will have some consistency and familiarity with their new leader heading into the new season.
Success will also require strong leadership from Notre Dame’s Preseason All-ACC honorees and top returners DeJarld and Yeadon as they try to help the rookie players quickly adjust to college play.

Pittsburgh
2017 Record: 26-7 (18-2)
Key losses: Pitt loses outside hitter Mariah Bell and middle Alex Rosignol, both solid contributors off the bench, but not starters.
Who returns: The Panthers return all six of their starters and their libero. The Panthers return five All-ACC honorees: opposite Nika Markovic, setter Kamalani Akeo, outside hitters Stephanie Williams and Kayla Lund, and middle Chinaza Ndee. Akeo, Markovic, and Williams were also named preseason All-ACC.
Layne Van Buskirk, the team’s other starting middle and 2017 top blocker, and libero Angela Seman round out the elite group of returners.
Newcomers of note: Four freshmen join the team this fall: middles Chandlar Gorman and Sabrina Starks, outside Natalie Steibel, and setter/opposite Maddie Soboleski. Although all talented, with all starters returning, it could be tough for any of the freshmen to score significant playing time this year.
Analysis: With most teams in the conference graduating one or two star players, Pitt is in a unique position returning all starters. There’s no question that the Panthers, ranked 20th in the AVCA poll, will contend for another ACC title, the real test will be to see if they can topple out of conference foes, like Washington the third week of preseason, and go further in the NCAA tournament.

Syracuse
2017 Record: 22-14 (12-8)
Key losses: In her senior season, libero Belle Sand led the team with 540 digs. She’s the only player who does not return.
Who returns: Middle blocker Sanita Ebangwese led the team in kills last year with 331, hitting .374, and enters her senior year as a preseason All-ACC pick. Her fellow starters setter Jalissa Trotter, middle Amber Witherspoon, and pin hitters Christina Oyawale, Ella Saada, Anastasiya Gorelina, and Kendra Lukacs are also back.
Newcomers of note: The incoming class for ’Cuse includes two international players, setter Elena Karakasi of Greece and outside hitter Polina Shemanova of Russia, as well as two-time South Carolina state champ Keeghan Andrews, a 6-0 pin hitter, and 6-1 setter Ashley Vanderpan out of Sacramento.
Analysis: 2017’s winning record overall and in conference matches marked a huge turnaround from Syracuse’s 7-23 finish in 2016. A strong preseason schedule that includes matches against BYU, USC, and Iowa State, should help prepare the Orange for a challenging ACC slate.

Virginia
2017 Record: 7-24 (3-17)
Key losses: Middle Haley Fauntleroy, who played only sparingly in 2017, graduated, and defensive specialist Jane Horner and middle Harley Sebastian are no longer listed on the roster.
Who returns: The bulk of Virginia’s starting lineup returns, including kills leader and opposite Jelena Novakovic, outside hitter Alex Spencer, middles Chino Anukwuem and Kat Young, setter Megan Wilson, and libero Kelsey Miller.
Sophomore outside Sarah Billiard ranked third on the team in kills as a freshman, despite missing a month of the season with a knee injury.
Newcomers of note: Although Virginia’s 2018 class is comprised of only three freshmen and a transfer, all newcomers have the skills to contribute. Middle Milla Ciprian has been a long-time member of the USA Volleyball High Performance program and set records at her high school for total blocks, solo blocks, block assists, and hitting percentage.
Six-foot-three outside Grace Turner earned Third Team Under Armour All-America honors as a high school senior, and Kristen Leland is a ferocious defensive player out of Texas.
Transfer Christine Jarmon played in all 32 matches as an outside hitter for Alabama last season and will look to make an immediate impact at Virginia as a sophomore.
Analysis: Last year’s Virginia squad was young, but with most of the starters returning, along with some talented new players coming in as transfers and freshmen, coach Aaron Smith’s second season at the helm should be better than his first.

Virginia Tech
2017 Record: 10-21 (4-16)
Key losses: Both starting middle blockers from 2017, Stacey Christy and Cara Cunningham, have graduated, but all other major contributors return.
Who returns: The Hokies’ top three offensive producers–Jaila Tolbert, Kaity Smith, and Ester Talamazzi–are back, and they’ll continue to hit off of setter Rhegan Mitchell. Libero Carol Raffety returns after collecting 440 digs in 2017, but she faces tough competition from defensive specialist Kylie Thomas who wore the libero jersey in VT’s exhibition match versus Radford on August 16.
Newcomers of note: Six freshmen join the VT squad this season: middles Peyton Yelich, Angel Robinson, outsides Jennifer Williams and Tessa Wyner, and setters Talyn Jackson and Sarah Jane Lynch.
Analysis: With a lot of firepower back in action for another season, along with starting setter Mitchell quarterbacking the offense, VT has a chance to generate some momentum as coach Jill Lytle Wilson enters her second season.

Wake Forest
2017 Record: 13-19 (5-15)
Key losses: The graduation of two players leaves major holes in Wake Forest’s starting lineup. Kills leader Kylie Long recorded 446 kills in her senior season and ranked second on the team in digs with 227. Libero Caroline Wolf broke the school’s career digs record, tallying 2,091 total digs in four years as the starting libero.
Who returns: With the graduation of top hitter Long and defensive leader Wolf, the return of starting setter Madeline Holt is huge for Wake. Caroline Rassenfoss is the team’s top returning hitter, and she will be joined on offense by Caroline Kuhn, Katie Moore, and Caitlyn Della.
Defensive specialists Hailey McFadden and Caitlin Clarke will compete for Wolf’s libero jersey.
Newcomers of note: Third-year coach Bill Ferguson’s incoming class features three hitters standing over 6-2, adding some more size to his already statuesque squad. Kate Haeffner and Abby Krueger are both 6-3 outside hitters, while Michelle Polechonski is a 6-2 middle from Carlsbad, California. Madison McMahon, a 5-11 pin hitter from Marymount High School in Los Angeles, and defensive specialist Peyton Washington round out the five-person class.
Analysis: The last time Wake Forest had a winning record was 2010. In fact, in the 48-year history of the program, only 18 have been winning seasons. In Fergie’s first year, the Demon Deacons went 9-22 and were 13-19 last year. They should continue to improve.

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Megan Kaplon is a writer and editor living in Austin, Texas.

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