CHICAGO — Who stole the show Monday at the inaugural Big Ten volleyball media days?
“It’s the Spartan baby,” pregnant first-year Michigan State coach Leah Johnson said. “We call it Noodle, Spartan Noodle. And eventually Noodle will have a name.”
The effervescent Johnson was one of seven B1G head coaches who took the podium Monday with two of their players inside the Big Ten Network offices. It was the first Olympic sports event of its kind.
“Excited for this event,” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said. “It’s great to have Big Ten support for something like this and for our sport and for all the programs for the Big Ten.”
“Purdue is thrilled to be here today at what I consider a major milestone in the sport of volleyball,” Boilermakers coach Dave Shondell said. “And to be part of that is big.”
Nebraska coach John Cook took it a step further.
“Thank you to Big Ten for doing this,” Cook said. “Incredible experience for the student-athletes. It’s a great statement for our sport. One of my hopes and wishes from all this is this is now going to spread to other conferences and continue to validate the growth of volleyball in this country and how big it is and the Big Ten is certainly leading the way in setting the example.”
Later, Cook talked about Kayla Caffey, the issue du jour for the Nebraska faithful.
And then there was Ohio State senior setter Mac Podraza, who repeatedly referred to her coach, Jen Flynn Oldenburg, as “J-FO.”
It was a historic day in which the Big Ten announced that its matches will appear on international icon Volleyball World. Northwestern, Michigan State, Michigan, Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio State and Purdue all had their time at the podium and stops at, among others, ESPN and SiriusXM.
A note from each of those teams follow. Tuesday, seven more teams will be on hand, in order, Rutgers, Maryland, Iowa, Illinois, NCAA-champion Wisconsin, Minnesota and Penn State.
NORTHWESTERN: The Wildcats have slowly been improving under seventh-year coach Shane Davis. They were picked to finish ninth in the preseason Big Ten coaches poll. Northwestern, 12-19 overall and 7-13, finished 10th last year. But the incoming freshman class is considered Davis’ best yet at the Evanston, Illinois, school.
“As far as the recruiting piece, I mean, it’s many years of going through and building those relationships,” Davis said, “and continuing to get better every single year and telling our story.
“And Northwestern’s been through a lot of changes in the last few years, ever since really I’ve been there just in terms of facility-wise and support and we have an athletic director change. And there’s a lot of moving pieces to that. But our story has always been the same in terms of what we’re trying to build as a program.”
“With those recruits we obviously understood our needs, understood those recruits and what their wants are and there would be a perfect fit. But we take our time through that recruiting process as well.
“And we allowed them to make the decision on their own and they chose Northwestern. We chose them. And it was a perfect marriage with those four individuals with our program.
“We’re excited. They’ve made immediate impact in the gym this summer with the strength and conditioning coach as well as open gyms.”
MICHIGAN STATE — If you’ve watched her on the VolleyballMag.com video sessions we’ve done with Johnson, you know she’s as good a quote and as fun a coach as there is. Her time here Monday did nothing to diminish that.
She had great success at Illinois State and got the job at Michigan State after Cathy George retired. The Spartans finished 11-18 last season, 4-16 in the B1G, and Johnson inherited a mostly empty cupboard.
“We had seven athletes in the gym. So I had to build an entire Big Ten roster around those seven to be able to compete this year. And I don’t think anyone in this room thinks you can build a Big Ten roster in ten weeks,” Johnson said.
“So those who are winning national championships on the Big Ten may have new players in and out, but they have a core of returners. So that’s something that I think has been most challenging. The flip-side is I’ve really found kind of a fearlessness in this process because this is it. This is the biggest stage that we can get on, that highest accomplishment outside, within collegiate athletics.
“And so at this point, why would I hold anything back? Why would I worry? What would I ask for? Why would I worry how I coach? Like, it’s me. And I think that’s been really rewarding, versus throughout your career you’re like, I want to be perfect or I want to be this or I need to emulate this person because that’s what they do at name your Big Ten school.”
By the way, Johnson is due with her third child — the aforementioned Spartan Noodle — in January and it’s going to be a girl.
“It’s the team’s,” graduate-student middle Rebecka Poljan said.
MICHIGAN: The Wolverines finished 18-12 last season, 11-9 in the B1G. Michigan got knocked out by Ball State in the first round, 25-17, 22-25, 25-18, 25-27, 15-8.
Junior outside hitter Jess Mruzik has had quite an interesting time as a Wolverine. She was among the most highly touted freshmen in the nation, battled through mono, then dealt with COVID, and in 2021 tied with since-graduated Paige Jones for the team lead in kills with 389.
“It was a challenge coming in. I felt like I was pretty prepared coming in. So I think it was easy at first, and then you find out really quickly and I found out really quickly that teams in the Big Ten learn how to learn you quickly,” Murk said.
“So they figured me out pretty quickly. I struggled with that. I had never really dealt with any teams trying to target me or come after me. And the Big Ten is pretty ruthless. They did that to me.
“But I like to think I’m figuring it out every day. Teams are still trying to come after me and figure me out. But just gotta stay one step ahead of them.”
INDIANA: The Hoosiers went 10-22, 4-16 last year and tied with Michigan State and Iowa, ahead of winless Rutgers. They took a much-needed international trip in late May to the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia and Italy.
“I think it just allowed us to gel,” sophomore setter Camryn Haworth said. “We spent a lot of time together traveling on the bus, exploring cities. We got to branch out and hang out with different people that we wouldn’t normally hang out with. I think it brought us a lot closer.”
” … also volleyball-wise we had two weeks that a lot of programs do not have. We were able to train with the coaches,” senior defensive specialist Paula Cerame said.
“And I think that was a lot of eye opening for a lot of us. And we just grew so much as a program and individually, getting to work for the individual skills that we don’t really get to do that a lot during the summer.”
Being a tourist in one of the most scenic areas of Italy didn’t hurt.
“The last thing we got to go to Lake Como, explore for the day,” Haworth said. “And then almost the whole team we rented a boat, got to hang out and enjoy the time there without worrying about practices or games or anything that day. We just got to enjoy our time there.”
NEBRASKA: Cook, whose team lost a tough five-set battle in the NCAA-championship match to Wisconsin, dealt with the elephant in the room from the start.
Middle Kayla Caffey last week went into the transfer portal, forsaking what would have been a seventh year at Nebraska.
“I think I should probably just clarify how all this went because this is a very unusual situation,” Cook said. “I’ve read some of the things that have been written. Everybody thinks they know what’s going on. I’ll just elaborate a little bit on what unfolded.
“In November I asked Kayla do you want to come back for your super senior year? And she said yes. And I want to get a second master’s. She finished the season. Started in the spring. And our compliance people went through months and weeks of work to get her a seventh year. It was not a done deal. It was very complicated. They worked very hard to get that passed.
“They also hit us with a year penalty if she was going to play at Nebraska that we could take this year or next year. So we continued to have discussions. I double checked with Kayla — are you sure you want to do this because it cost us a lot. And we were fully committed to two scholarships to her over two years for her to play her super senior year.
“And I only asked two things from her on that. One is to be a super senior, meaning to set an example, be a role model. And two, I asked her why she wanted to come back and she said I want to help us win a national championship; we were so close.
“Well, so things continued to unfold. We made a couple of appeals. Some things changed. But by May it was all worked out and the ball was in her court. As far as I knew she was coming back. I was awaiting for her to do her announcements, which all these transfers do, because I think — it’s like going through recruiting again. We were waiting for that. It never happened.
“Last week she said she was done. That’s about all I know.”
OHIO STATE: The Buckeyes, who finished behind Wisconsin and Nebraska in the league standing in 2021, tied with Minnesota and Purdue, should be one of the teams to beat for the national title.
“I would think so. I think with the returning corps that we have and the experience we have in really key positions, the expectations are high. But this team’s hungry and have really worked hard since that last ball dropped against Georgia Tech (in the third round of the NCAA Tournament) to put us back in the mix,” J-FO said.
“And our goals are lofty. But I think the work they’ve put in the offseason should speak volumes. And hopefully it does because our schedule is not light.”
Podraza and senior libero Kylie Murr agreed.
“We’re returning most of our girls,” Podraza said. “I think our core is there and we’re ready to get going. We’ve been ready to get going. I think J-FO scheduled us well and we’re really excited to compete against some of the top teams in the nation and some really historic programs. So I’m excited.”
Murr: “Talking about experience I think that’s going to be our strength this year. When you get to the end everyone is good and everyone has talent. I think it’s going to be about who has the best chemistry and who is willing to fight for one another.
“So I think that’s really something that we have going for us considering a lot of us are returners and three or four-year starters. Yeah, we may have not got all five, six transfers, but we have each other and we’ve built like a big community.”
PURDUE: Shondell’s team lost its starting setter, Hayley Bush, and libero Jena Otec, and they touched seemingly every ball for the Boilermakers last year. Also gone are the top two in kills in Caitlyn Newton and Grace Cleveland. And that doesn’t make Purdue unique in a league that graduated a ton of talent.
“I don’t think anything will change as far as how tough every match will be. And the key to winning is going to be how tough is your team. There will be a lot of close matches and close games, and the teams that can persevere will certainly be successful.
“I don’t know that the teams will be as talented player per player as they were a year ago. There were so many great individual players in this league a year ago. A lot of them were fifth-year players. And some of them are playing on the national team right now. So it was a great league a year ago.
“I think the competition will be as fierce, balanced top to bottom, at least 1 to 10. I don’t know that there will be as much talent on the floor as there was a year ago.”