When Russ Rose, who has directed Penn State to seven NCAA women’s college volleyball championships, speaks, it’s best to perk up the ears.
So exactly how tough is the Big Ten Conference going to be this season?
“There are probably six to eight teams who on any given day can win,” Rose said. “You hope you are one of those six or eight. Last year was a great outlier in effect. The top three teams in the country throughout the season were from the Big Ten until the last poll and that’s the one that matters.
“We were preseason nine last year and finished 10th. We went 1-6 in five-set matches and three came against the top teams in the country. It’s a really competitive group of teams in the Big Ten. If you do not play well you are in trouble on the road even if you are the superior team.”
Rose, 1,213-196 as he begins his 39th season in Happy Valley, expanded his point about home-court advantage in the conference.
“It’s gotten to the point where winning on the road in this conference is a real challenge and defending your home court against the top teams in the conference is a daunting task.”
The hard numbers back up Rose’s thoughts. In the final 2016 American Volleyball Coaches Association poll, the Big Ten had seven squads in the top 25. The final RPI numbers from a year ago (ultimately depicting strength of schedule) show eight Big Ten teams in the top 30.
Fast forward to this year’s AVCA preseason poll (voted on by AVCA member Division I coaches) and there again is the Big Ten walking proud with eight teams in the Top 25.
“You take the top 10-12 teams in the Big Ten and you flip a coin every night,” said Nebraska coach John Cook, taking Rose’s assertion of the level of conference play one step further. “The conference is so deep and so talented. You better bring it every night. There are no off nights in the Big Ten.”
Cook sees a deep field when it comes to conference contenders.
“I probably would take six or maybe seven teams that could win it,” he said. “The challenge in the conference is you have to do it over 10 weeks. The challenge is the schedule and who you play and when you play. It all depends on how it shakes out. That’s another variable thrown in there.”
Ohio State coach Geoff Carlston has watched the conference explode in the talent department since his arrival in Columbus.
“When I first got here there were five (contenders) and then it went up to seven and then it was nine or 10 last year,” he said. “Now it feels like with all the players coming back that nobody got worse. Everybody in the conference got better and has caught up. The depth is as good as it has ever been. I don’t think anybody has taken a step back. It will be as tight of a league as it has ever been.”
So how does first-year University of Illinois coach Chris Tamas see things?
“The Big Ten is as tough as it has ever been,” Tamas said. “You have eight teams in the top 25 preseason, all that top returning talent and some top recruiting classes.”
When talking about top recruiting classes, Nine Big Ten teams show up in this year’s 2017 VolleyballMag.com women’s top recruiting class rankings (voted on by a panel of NCAA Division I coaches) with Wisconsin (No. 2), Minnesota (No. 4), Nebraska (No. 6), Illinois (No. 7) and Maryland (No. 9) all making the top 10 and Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State earning honorable-mention nods.
Carlston made a bold prediction about how the conference will shake out.
“I think someone who has never won will win it this year,” the Ohio State coach said. “That’s my bold prediction. Look at the influential talent. There are a lot of good teams. Teams such as Michigan State and Purdue didn’t lose much. It’s an experience-driven league. It’s a little more wide open in the sense of who could win it. That being said, the talent pool is deeper than it has ever been. Teams such as Northwestern, Iowa and Maryland are going to be so much better and will be at a whole different level.”
2016 record: 17-14, 10-10 Big Ten
Key losses: The Fighting Illini lost eight letter-winners from last year’s team, including Katie Stadick, who was the team’s Big Ten Sportsmanship Award recipient.
Top returning players: Tamas’ Illinois squad features 2017 preseason all-Big Ten selections Ali Bastianelli (MB, Jr.) and Jordyn Poulter (S, Jr.). Tamas also cites strong development from senior libero Brandi Donnelly.
Top newcomers: Tamas has nine freshmen on the roster, including VolleyballMag.com Fab 50 selections Marijke Van Dyke, Tyanna Omazic and Kylie Kuyava-Deberg. Illinois has the No. 7-ranked recruiting class according to VolleyballMag.com. Middle Blayke Hranicka is a transfer from North Carolina State.
Outlook: “Everything is new,” said Tamas, who was an assistant at Nebraska before replacing Kevin Hambly in Champaign this offseason after Hambly was hired at defending NCAA champion Stanford. “We have a new staff. It’s a new team. There’s a lot of excitement. We inherited a big recruiting class. The team didn’t have quite the year it wanted to last year. Everybody is working their hardest to improve. We have to do the fundamentals well and play as a team and pull together. We know it’s going to be tough in this conference.”
2016 record: 17-16, 6-14 Big Ten
Key Losses: All-Big Ten honorable-mention middle blocker Jazzmine McDonald, program assists record-holder (rally-scoring area) Megan Tallman, and Indiana aces record-holder (rally-scoring era) Taylor Lebo, who also had more than 1,100 career digs.
Top returners: Indiana returns redshirt sophomore outside Kendal Beerman, sophomore middle Deyshia Lofton, sophomore middle Hayden Huybers, junior right side Elizabeth Asdell, junior defensive specialist Samantha Fogg and senior outside Jessica Leish.
Top newcomers: Freshmen Kamryn Malloy (6-0, OH), Kristen Ostach (6-0, MB), Bayli Lebo (5-7, DS), Alexis Parker (5-11, OH), Julia Gauthier (5-10, S) and Nora Meehan (5-6, DS)
Analysis: Coach Sherry Dunbar-Kruzan’s Hoosiers graduated more than 450 combined kills between Hammond and McDonald from last year, as well as 413 digs from Lebo. However, Beerman returns after logging 245 kills a year ago, while Asdell had 207 kills and sophomore middle blocker Deyshia Lofton had 138 kills and 69 total blocks in her freshman season.
2016 record: 19-13, 9-11 Big Ten
Key losses: All-Big Ten setter Loxley Keala, team MVP Ashley Mariani (OH-MB) and outside hitter Lauren Brobst.
Top returning players: Coach Bond Shymansky’s Iowa Hawkeyes return senior middle Jessica Janota, redshirt sophomore outside-right side Meghan Buzzerio, senior defensive specialist Annika Olsen and redshirt junior right side Reghan Coyle.
Key newcomers: Junior outside Taylor Louis and freshman setter Gabrielle Orr. Louis is a transfer from Marquette.
Analysis: Iowa’s 19-win season occurred in Shymansky’s fourth season at the helm and it was the program’s best showing in a quarter of a century.
2016 record: 12-20, 4-16 Big Ten
Top returning players: Junior right side Angel Gaskin and redshirt freshman middle Katie Myers were named captains of Steve Aird’s Terrapins’ team.
Top newcomers: Freshmen Samantha Drechsel (6-4, OH-RS), Erika Pritchard (6-2, OH), Jada Garner (6-1, MB), Chloe Prejean (5-9, S), Sam Burgio (5-10, DS-Libero) and Lexi Alden (6-2, OH).
Analysis: Maryland continues to better itself in the tough Big Ten. The Terrapins’ freshman class was ranked No. 9 by VolleyballMag.com. Dreschel, Pritchard and Gardner are 2017 VolleyballMag.com Fab 50 picks, while Alden, Burgio and Dreschel enrolled in January and trained with the team during the spring season.
2016 record: 29-5, 17-3 Big Ten
Key losses: AVCA and Big Ten player of the Year Sara Wilhite (OH), two-time All-Americans Hannah Tapp (MB) and Paige Tapp (MB).
Top returning players: Minnesota, a national semifinalist a year ago, has plenty of frontline firepower returning as well with junior Samantha Seliger-Swenson, the reigning Big Ten setter of the year, sophomore outside Alexis Hart and senior 6-3 middle Molly Lohman leading the way. But like Nebraska, Minnesota also was hit in the graduation department with the losses of Wilhite, Hannah and Paige Tapp.
Key newcomers: Regan Pittman (6-5, MB, redshirt freshman), Stephanie Samedy (6-2, RS, Fresh.), Sara Nielsen (5-11, S, Fresh.), Sydney Kleinman (6-2, OH, Fresh.), Jasmyn Martin (6-3, OH, Fresh.)
Analysis: “We lost a lot of people who did a lot of things,” Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “The wonderful thing about college athletics is every year you have to come back and put the same puzzle together with different pieces and we have a lot of different pieces. We’ll see how we do with it.
“It will be a different-looking team, but so far it’s been a really good preseason. I like the work rate and the commitment to learning and change has been significant. Most importantly, there is a lot of talent in the gym. We’ll look different, but hopefully we’ll be able to get production from different people in different ways.”
McCutcheon added to his contemporaries’ feelings on the strength of the Big Ten.
“The margins between winning and losing, especially in our league are small,” he said.
2016 record: 24-11, 11-9 Big Ten
Key losses: All-American middle-outside Abby Cole, outside hitter Kelly Murphy.
Top returning players: All-American honorable-mention sophomore setter MacKenzi Walsh, senior middle Claire Kieffer-Wright, redshirt sophomore middle Cori Crocker and libero Jenna Berg.
Top newcomers: Freshmen Kiara Shannon (6-2, MB), Natalie Smith (5-7, libero), Jacqueline DiSanto (5-5, Libero).
Analysis: Michigan made it to the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament last year and has five starters and 11 letter-winners back from that group including sophomore setter Welsh and senior middle Kieffer-Wright, the Big Ten high-jump champion who is a preseason all-Big Ten pick. Coach Mark Rosen’s teams are always ready for the postseason.
2016 record: 25-9, 13-7 Big Ten
Key losses: Outside hitter-middle Allyssah Fitterer, right side Chloe Reinig.
Top returning players: Michigan State, under the direction of 13th-year coach Cathy George, is picked to finish fourth in the league (fifth-place showing last year). The Spartans return senior 6-4 All-American middle Alyssa Garvelink, redshirt senior outside Autumn Bailey, 6-2 senior setter Rachel Minarick, 6-6 redshirt senior right side Brooke Kranda and senior libero Abby Monson. The Spartans have 11 letter-winners back from last year’s 25-9 squad.
Key newcomers: Freshmen Alyssa Chronowski (OH), Jamye Cox (DS-Libero), Julia Hatcher (MB), Meredith Norris (OH)
Analysis: Experience is on the side of the Spartans this season.
“We’re going to be a veteran team for sure. We have seven seniors and there are a lot of players who have been exposed to a lot over their careers,” veteran coach Cathy George said. “We’re also bringing in some more talented athletes who had the benefit of being on campus in the spring semester after they enrolled early, so they already have a good foundation of how to juggle college life, academics and volleyball.”
George is well aware of what sits ahead of her team in terms of the Big Ten schedule. “We’re taking nothing for granted,” she said. “The Big Ten is filled with veteran players who are looking for a strong season and some of the excitement is we feel we have the tools and the experience to make a strong run. Most people feel good about their teams in the preseason, but we know the proof is in your performance. We’ve come into camp this fall with a great energy.”
2016 record: 31-3, 18-2 Big Ten Champions
Key losses: All-Americans Justine Wong-Orantes (libero), Amber Rolfzen (middle blocker) and Kadie Rofzen (right side).
Top returning players: Cook returns four starters, including senior setter Kelly Hunter, senior middle Briana Holman and junior 6-3 outside Mikaela Foecke.
Key newcomers: Jazz Sweat (6-3, OH, Fresh.), Chesney McClellan (6-4, MB, Fresh.)
Analysis: Nebraska won the Big Ten title last year with an 18-2 mark, outlasting both Minnesota and Wisconsin, who both finished 17-3.
“We have a lot of unknowns,” Cook said. “We have some new coaches (former Long Beach State men’s standout Tyler Hildebrand, the 2016 AVCA assistant coach of the year award winner, and former Nebraska star and Olympic libero Kayla Banwarth), new players and players coming off redshirts. As we like to call it, we are reinventing the 2017 team. That’s what is exciting.”
Cook, whose 2016 team reached the national semifinals, said a major key to the season will be how soon his No. 6-rated freshman class (by VolleyballMag.com) gets up to major Division I women’s college volleyball speed and the constant grind of the Big Ten schedule.
“We have to have a freshman or two help us out, that’s the biggest thing,” said Cook, who will enter the AVCA Hall of Fame in December. “If we can get one or two freshmen to come through right away and we can pass, those are things that will be keys.”
When asked if he feels the freshman part of the equation will shake out, Cook said, “They have looked good in practice, but in games you never know until the lights are on.”
Cook also is encouraged by the play of middles Holman and 6-4 Lauren Stivrins, a redshirt out of Arizona. “Those are two elite middles in the country,” he said. “They give us a powerful and athletic middle.”
Suburban Chicago native Annika Albrecht (6-0, OH, Sr.) and junior libero Kenzie Maloney are coming into their own as well for the Huskers.
“(Albrecht) is a great six-rotation volleyball player,” said Cook. “I’m also impressed with Kenzie at libero. She’s done a nice job stepping into Justine’s position. Those are big shoes to fill.”
2016 record: 10-22, 3-17 Big Ten
Key losses: Maddie Slater, who had the second-highest career hitting percentage at Northwestern, and Kayla Morin, who topped the 1,000 career kill mark at the school.
Top returners: The Wildcats have 11 letter-winners back, including all-conference honorable-mention selection Symone Abbott (6-1, OH, Jr.) and senior setter and local area product Taylor Tashima.
Key newcomers: Freshmen Nia Robinson (6-2 OH), Ivey Whalen (6-3, OH), Lexi Pitsas (5-6, Libero), Britt Bommer (6-1, S), Danyelle Williams (6-1, RS) and Alana Walker (6-3, MB)
Analysis: The Wildcats figure to continue to improve under second-year head coach Shane Davis, who won two NCAA men’s titles up the road at Loyola University in Chicago. Davis welcomes a large incoming recruiting class to Evanston.
2016 record: 22-13, 10-10 Big Ten
Key losses: All-time Ohio State digs leader Valeria Leon and all-time career blocks leader Taylor Sandbothe.
Top returning players: All-American honorable-mention pick Taylor Hughes (S-OH), Audra Appold (6-1, OH, Jr.) and Luisa Schirmer (6-1, OH, Sr.)
Key newcomers: Junior Arizona State transfer Jasmine Koonts (6-2, MB), freshmen Becca Mauer (5-9, S), Lauren Witte (6-2, MB), Hannah Gruensfelder (5-6, DS) and Megan Carr (5-8, DS)
Analysis: Ohio State, seventh in the league last year, has plenty to build around in Hughes, a winner of numerous postseason honors in 2016, junior outside Appold and senior outside Schirmer. They are part of nine returning letter-winners. Koonts bolsters the front line after transferring from Arizona State.
“I like our leadership core and the vibe on this team,” said Carlston. “I like our returners, who have upped their game a little bit and we have some talented new players coming in. We have more depth this year overall. We have to stay healthy and our new kids have to figure out what Big Ten volleyball is all about and not freak out.”
2016 record: 24-10, 14-6 Big Ten
Key losses: Laura Broerman (DS), Taylor Krause (DS), Carly Muller (DS)
Key returning players: Back are senior All-Americans and 2016 unanimous all-Big Ten first-team picks Simone Lee (6-1, OH) and Haleigh Washington (6-3, MB).
“I wouldn’t mind being Simone Lee and Haleigh Washington’s agent for their next level of play,” Rose deadpanned.
Also back for the Nittany Lions are senior outside Ali Frantti, redshirt sophomore middle Tori Gorrell and sophomore libero Kendall White.
Key newcomers: Junior right side Kathryn Carter, freshman right side Cami May, freshman outside Michaela Putnicki.
Analysis: Penn State is picked as the team to win the conference according to the Big Ten Conference preseason coaches poll. Rose returns six starters plus the team’s libero and a total of 14 letter-winners from a 24-10 team that finished fourth a year ago.
“These seniors were part of the No. 1 recruiting class in the country when they were freshmen and they were part of the national-championship team when they were freshmen,” said Rose. “The last couple years we’ve lost in the regionals. We didn’t play great and if you are not playing well and you are playing good teams you have a chance to get licked.
“We had a swing to beat Nebraska 3-0 last year (in the regional semifinals at Nebraska). That’s the nature of how things go. For us, we have to stay healthy. The last couple years we had kids dinged up. When you are dinged up you are not at your best. We didn’t have one practice in the preseason where everybody was there. But I like our team. I like the kids a lot. They have good energy and good spirit. I’m working hard this year. I care about these girls and I want them to have success.”
2016 record: 19-14, 8-12 Big Ten
Key losses: Faye Adelaja (MB), who led or was at the top of the nation in hitting percentage throughout her career.
Top returning players: Danielle Cuttino (6-4, OH, Sr.), Ashley Evans (6-1, S, redshirt Sr.), Azari Stahl (6-0, OH, Sr.), Sherridan Atkinson (6-5, OH, redshirt Jr.), Blake Mohler (6-2, MB, redshirt Soph.)
Top newcomers: Junior middle Erin Williams, freshman outside Caitlyn Newton, freshman defensive specialist Jena Otec
Analysis: Purdue, which won 19 matches and finished 10th in the league in 2016, also is loaded in the experience department. Cuttino was an all-American selection last season and is on the preseason all-Big Ten Conference team. Tuesday, coach Dave Shondell was given a six-year contract extension. He and his staff have been together 15 years.
2016 record: 4-29, 0-20 Big Ten
Key losses: Middle blocker Mikaela Matthews
Top returning players: Senior outside hitter Meme Fletcher, sophomore middle blocker Jasmine Stackhouse
Analysis: Rutgers returns five starters and two liberos from last year’s squad that did not win any conference matches. The Scarlet Knights did add four foreign players in 6-0 right side Beka Kojadinovic (Serbia), 5-9 setter Adriana Alejandro (Puerto Rico), 6-0 OH Yana Kamshilina (Russia) and 6-2 middle blocker Stasa Miljevic (Sebria), a transfer from Florida State. Sabria McLetchie is a transfer from Virginia Commonwealth.
2016 record: 28-5, 17-3 Big Ten
Key losses: All-American setter Lauren Carlini, second-team All-American Haleigh Nelson, right side Romana Kriskova
Top returning players: Wisconsin, which made it to the NCAA Tournament round of eight last year, has three starters and its libero back. That includes junior middle blocker Tionna Williams, sophomore outside Molly Haggerty, senior outside Lauryn Gillis and senior outside-libero Kelli Bates. Haggerty, who had offseason back surgery but is expected to be ready for the season, was the Big Ten freshman of the year last season, while Williams was the team’s leading blocker.
Top newcomers: Freshmen Sydney Hilley (6-0, S), Dana Rettke (6-8, MB), Danielle Hart (6-4, MB), Grace Loberg (6-3, OH), Mariah Whalen (6-1, OH)
Analysis: The biggest change for the Badgers will be at the setter position where All-American standout Lauren Carlini has graduated. Freshman Hilley out of Champlin Park High School in Minnesota and the MN Select club had 40 assists in the team’s intrasquad match. Hilley was ranked the No. 3 recruit in the country in VolleyballMag.com’s 2017 Fab 50 presentation.
“We are expecting quite a few freshmen to play and they are going to need to,” Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said. “We have players who are talented enough to play right away. I’ve been impressed with the freshmen class. We’ve not had to slow things down a lot for them. I like the future of this team and our freshmen are ready to compete now.”
Sheffield noted he’s been impressed with the development of senior outside-hitter libero Kelli Bates and sophomore libero M.E. Dodge, as well as the play of freshmen Grace Loberg (6-3, OH) and Maria Whalen (6-1, OH) in last week’s scrimmage.
Big Ten Conference Preseason Coaches Poll
1) Penn State, 2) Nebraska, 3) Minnesota, 4) Michigan State, 5) Wisconsin, 6) Purdue, 7) Michigan, 8) Ohio State, 9) Illinois, 10) Iowa, 11) Maryland, 12) Northwestern, 13) Indiana, 14) Rutgers
2017 Preseason All-Big Ten Conference
Alli Bastianelli (Illinois), Jordyn Poulter (Illinois), Claire Kieffer-Wright (Michigan), Alyssa Garvelink (Michigan State), Alexis Hart (Minnesota), Molly Lohman (Minnesota), Samantha Seliger-Swenson (Minnesota), Mikaela Foecke (Nebraska), Kelly Hunter (Nebraska), Ali Frantti (Penn State), Simone Lee (Penn State), Haleigh Washington (Penn State), Danielle Cuttino (Purdue), Molly Haggerty (Wisconsin), Tionna Williams (Wisconsin)
Unanimous picks: Seliger-Swenson (Minnesota), Foecke (Nebraska)
Top of the Poll
Big Ten teams have enjoyed positions in the top 10 of the AVCA coaches poll since it was established in 1982.
Team All-Time Top 10 Finishes
Penn State 26
Ohio State 3
Michigan State 2