ACC volleyball: As fall season begins, a look at each of the league’s 15 teams

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ACC volleyball 9/15/2020
Paulina Shemanova of Syracuse led the ACC in kills in 2019/Syracuse photo

The ACC was scheduled to begin volleyball play this week with two matches:

On Thursday, Virginia Tech opens with a visit from The Citadel of the Southern Conference.

Then Friday, Clemson was set to home for The Citadel, but Clemson canceled that match. Nonetheless, the ACC gets going a week before the last two holdouts, the Big 12 and the SEC.

This is a preview of the ACC fall season, one that looks very different than ever before.

The ACC has allowed for eight league matches over five weeks, starting September 24. The 15 teams will be split among three regions:

— Boston College, Syracuse, Louisville, Notre Dame, Pitt

— Duke, North Carolina, NC State, Virginia, Virginia Tech

— Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami, Wake Forest

Each team will play its four region opponents twice. Teams, obviously, can plan non-conference matches.

If you’re not familiar with the ACC, well, these pods are broken up by geography, mostly, because Wake Forest is the odd school out.

And competitive balance?

This might be a good time to show you the coaches preseason poll:

1. Pitt (192 points, 11 first-place votes)
2. Louisville (175 points, 2 first-place votes)
3. Georgia Tech (172 points, 2 first-place votes)
4. Notre Dame (158 points)
5. Florida State (145 points)
6. Syracuse (126 points)
7. North Carolina (121 points)
T8. Boston College (89 points)
T8. Miami (89 points)
10. Duke (82 points)
11. NC State (70 points)
12. Clemson (68 points)
13. Virginia (42 points)
14. Wake Forest (28 points)
15. Virginia Tech (18 points)

As you can see, the northern pod includes teams predicted to finish first, second, fourth, sixth and eighth. 

The central pod has the teams picked to finish seventh, 10th, 11th, 13th, and 15th.

And the south pod has the teams predicted to finish third, fifth, eighth, 12th, and 14th.

So, except for Wake Forest, which has the toughest travel in a situation that was set up for bus trips, the competitive balance is skewed.

The ACC has two new coaches this season. Luka Slabe left the USA national-team program to take over at NC State, while Marci Byers left Radford to coach at Virginia Tech.

On the opposite end of the longevity scale, a couple coaches have been in the ACC a long time. Joe Sagula enters his 40th year as a college coach, his 31st at North Carolina, while Jolene Nagel starts her 34th year as a head coach, 22nd at Duke.

The league has had its share of turnover the past few years. 

The next longest-tenured coaches in the ACC are Chris Poole, who starts his 13th season at Florida State, and Leonid Yelin, who begins his ninth year at Syracuse. Jose “Keno” Gandara starts his seventh year at Miami, while Michelle Collier begins her sixth at Georgia Tech.

The only time an ACC school made it to the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship was in 2011 when Florida State lost to eventual-champion UCLA in the national semifinals. Accordingly, no ACC team has ever won it all since the conference began fielding the sport in 1980, but a few times teams have advanced to NCAA regional finals. North Carolina got to a regional semifinal in 2016. 

No ACC team cracked the VolleyballMag.com NCAA recruiting top 10, but Notre Dame, Louisville, and North Carolina got honorable mention.

The ACC in alphabetical order with 2019 records in parentheses:

Boston College (20-12, 11-7) — The Eagles made some strong progress in coach Jason Kennedy’s second season in 2019. Senior middle Amaka Chukwujekwu and junior outside Jewel Strawberry lead a team that tied BC’s best overall record (also 20-12 in 2004) and had its first winning conference record ever after 14 years in the Big East and 15 years in the ACC. Also back is senior outside Clare Naughton, who is joined by nine freshmen.

Clemson (11-18, 5-13) — Michaela Franklin enters her fourth season and has to hope the Tigers took a step backward in 2019 to move forward. Her first season Clemson won seven matches, then won 19 in 2018 before last year’s rough finish in which the Tigers went 1-8 to finish the season. The good news is Clemson is experienced. The four leading attackers return in senior outside Kaylin Korte, junior right side Solei Thomas, senior middle Alyssa Deloney, and junior outside Ashtynne Roberts, and so does sophomore setter Mckenna Slavik.

Duke coach Jolene Nagel

Duke (12-19, 5-13) — The Blue Devils could never get any early season traction in 2019. They stood 5-6 after pre-conference play and then started ACC play 1-7. Duke’s top three attackers, junior Ade Owokoniran, senior Payton Schwantz, and sophomore outside Gracie Johnson all return, and so does the leading blocker in junior Lily Cooper, and all three setters in sophomore Camille Nazor, and juniors Mackenzie Cole and Alex Springate.

Florida State (19-10, 12-6) — Coach Chris Poole thinks this could be one of his best teams despite losing leading attacker Payton Caffrey and has made no secret of hoping that the Seminoles get to compete for an NCAA championship in the spring. Middle Taryn Knuth (who led the ACC in blocks) leads a strong senior class that includes two redshirt seniors (including Ohio State transfer setter Olivia Dailey) and four seniors, including outside hitter Jasmyn Martin. Junior libero Taylor Roberts, sophomore middle Emma Clothier, and sophomore outside Morgan Chacon bolster the core of a talented group.

GT coach Michelle Collier

Georgia Tech (26-8, 14-4) — The Yellow Jackets surprised a lot of people in 2019, largely because of Brazilian freshman outside Julia Bergmann, who was second in the league in kills (427) and first in aces (64). The next two leading hitters return in junior outsides Mikaila Dowd and Mariana Brambilla, and so do junior setter Matti McKissock and junior libero Maddie Tippett.

Louisville (22-10, 12-6) — The Cardinals stunned the college volleyball world in the NCAA Tournament for more reasons than upsetting Texas at home. Midway through the season Louisville lost its best player in senior outside hitter Melanie McHenry. The Cardinals went 4-4 to end the regular season. But then they knocked off Samford and Western Kentucky, and then beat Texas in five sets in as exciting a match as you could imagine before getting swept by Minnesota. The star of that postseason run, Jamaican Aiko Jones, who exploded in postseason play, returns for sophomore season. So does senior setter Tori Dilfer, senior middle Anna Stevenson, and junior outside Claire Chaussee. Fourth-year coach Dani Busboom Kelly also brings in five freshmen.

Miami (10-16, 6-12) — The main focus for Miami will be on senior outside Elizaveta Lukianova, and sophomore outside Kennedy Prince, who were tied for second on the team last year with 302 kills each. Prince was third in digs, while Lukianova was second in blocks. Also back are sophomore setter Savannah Vach and sophomore libero Amanda Falck.

North Carolina (15-13, 12-6) — Sagula, the dean of ACC coaches, returns junior outside Destiny Cox, sophomore outside Carly Peck, and the team’s only senior, middle/right side Aristea Tontai, who led in blocks. Also back is junior setter Annabelle Archer, while the other setter, Hunter Atherton, who spent two seasons at Nebraska and came to UNC for two more, transferred to Minnesota. UNC will have five freshmen on a team that failed to get an NCAA bid in 2019 but won eight of nine — including five in a row — before ending the season with two losses, both in five sets, to the two last-place teams in the ACC.  

NC State (11-19, 6-12) — Slabe takes over with no NCAA head-coaching experience, although he’s been with the USA women’s national team. The former BYU player was an assistant at his alma mater and was also the head coach of the Slovenian men’s national team. Slabe inherits a team that finished 12th in the ACC in hitting percentage and last in opponent hitting percentage. The Wolfpack is led by senior outside Melissa Evans, who had 408 kills last season, third in the league. Also returning is junior libero Kaylee Frazier and sophomore setter Nina Sharpton.

Notre Dame (19-10, 12-6) — The Fighting Irish got to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years in 2019 as third-year coach Mike Johnson has slowly built Notre Dame into one of the better teams in the league. A big reasons why is the development of a strong junior class that includes outside Charley Niego, setter Zoe Nunez, middle Lauren Wentzel, and right side Sydney Bent. ND brings in four freshmen, a class for which got it honorable mention from us and a No. 10 ranking from PrepVolleyball.com.

Pittsburgh (30-2, 18-0) — The last two seasons have ended in bitter disappointments for the Panthers. In 2018, Pitt was seeded 12th in the NCAA Tournament and was upset at home in the second round by Michigan in five sets. And then last year, the sixth-seeded Panthers entered the second round at 30-1, riding a 20-match winning streak, and were knocked off in five by Cincinnati in the second round. The good news for eighth-year coach Dan Fisher — who signed a seven-year contract extension in January — is that while Layne Van Buskirk graduated, the threesome of senior right Chinaza Ndee, senior outside Kayla Lund, and sophomore setter Lexis Akeo return. Also back is junior middle Sabrina Starks. Pitt should get a big boost from a couple of transfers, Jordan Lockwood from Navarro College and Marija Popovic, a senior libero who came from ETSU.

Syracuse coach Leonid Yelin

Syracuse (12-13, 9-9) — Yelin, who is from Uzbekistan, often has a multi-national roster and, not surprisingly, his best player is Russian junior outside hitter Polina Shemanova. She led the ACC in kills in 2019 with 485, a whopping 5.16/set. Also returning are Ella Saada, an Israeli senior outside who was second in kills, and Russian sophomore Marina Markova, who was third. Setter Elena Karakasi, a junior from Greece, was fourth in kills, third in blocks and fourth in digs. Also returning is Ukrainian senior middle Yulila Yastrub, who was fifth in kills and second in blocks. Clearly the core is there to build on last year.

Virginia (13-18, 5-13) — Aaron Smith took over in 2017 and since being promoted hasn’t been able to get things going at a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2015. In 2016, UVA was 7-25, 4-16 in the ACC. In Smith’s first year, the team finished 7-24, 3-17. In 2018, it went 9-20, 4-14. Smith is counting on experience with four seniors and two juniors. UVA has a six sophomores and five freshmen. Among them, senior outside Sarah Billiard, who was second in kills; junior middle Milla Ciprian, who led in kills; and sophomore middle Mattison Matthews hit .382, best ever by a UVA freshman. 

Virginia Tech (11-20, 4-14) — Byers, who played at Virginia Union, had a fabulous run at Radford, located just 24 miles from Blacksburg. But she takes over a program that has had four losing seasons in a row and hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2010. The Hokies have age and experience. The roster includes two grad students, three seniors and four juniors. The team includes the top four leading attackers in Marisa Cerchio, a senior middle; sophomore outside Cera Powell; Kaity Smith, a grad-student outside; and sophomore middle Anabel Zier, who led in blocks. Also returning are junior setter Talyn Jackson, and the two leaders in digs, sophomore Logan Mosley and senior Kylie Thomas.

Wake Forest coach Randi Smart

Wake Forest (14-15, 4-14) — Considering what the Demon Deacons went through before last season, they might have exceeded expectations. Former coach Bill Ferguson formally resigned in October, but assistant Randi Smart had already taken over seven months prior, so her promotion was basically a formality. Wake Forest won its first seven matches, lost a five-setter, and then won three more to stand 10-1. But then ACC play overwhelmed Smart’s team, although the Deacons knocked off North Carolina to end the season. Among her players returning are Peyton Suess, who led in kills as a freshman; senior Carolina Kuhn, who was third in kills; and both setters, senior Madeline Holt and sophomore Parker Kwiatkowski. 

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