CHICAGO — The inaugural Big Ten volleyball media days were precedent setting and a big hit.
“There’s so much gratitude for this entire past couple days, looking at a room full of people that are trying to shine a spotlight onto our sport,” Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said.
“It’s been a first-class. It’s been done really, really well. There’s a lot of appreciation, a lot of excitement for what we’re about ready to get into a new season.”
Tuesday at Big Ten Network studios, Wisconsin was joined by by the head coaches and two players each from Rutgers, Maryland, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Penn State.
Monday the other seven teams were on hand, Northwestern, Michigan State, Michigan, Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio State and Purdue.
The season begins Friday, August 26, with a full schedule including a couple of showcase matches when Ohio State plays host to Texas and Minnesota plays Baylor at TCU.
Also, Maryland plays host to Navy and Rhode Island, Purdue plays Bowling Green, Iowa plays Gonzaga, Michigan plays Old Dominion, Rutgers plays Fresno State, Iowa plays Florida International, Indiana plays Indiana State, Michigan State plays Louisiana-Lafayette, Penn State plays Connecticut, Nebraska plays Tulsa, Wisconsin plays TCU, and Michigan plays Northern Arizona.
Highlights, in order of their appearances, follow from Tuesday’s session.
RUTGERS: The Knights finished 8-21 last season, 0-20 (which includes a couple of late-season COVID forfeits) in the B1G, but third-year coach Caitlyn Schweihofer remains positive.
“It definitely is hard, and I look to them because for me I’m their leader. I think the team is reflective of what my attitude towards this process is. And I know what I signed up for, so to speak. And they do, too. They committed to this,” Schweifhofer said.
“And in the recruiting process, I’m very specific about what type of demeanor and outlook and what our vision is, because it does take a very special person to come in and suffer through some of those hard moments. And what was said last night by the speakers was very, very inspiring to me, and I think to them as well because how I look at it is a lot of times you do have some failure before you reach your success.
“Throughout my career, I’ve done this before. So they haven’t but I have. In my first go-around, I used to really think, am I doing this right? Am I making the best decisions? Am I going about the process correctly? But knowing that I have an educational background in change management and understanding some of the curriculum pieces that go into creating organizational change gives me some comfort because I know there is a very specific process that has been documented and categorized by numerous people smarter than I am. So that gives me some faith.
“But I think the girls showing me in little ways that they’re also bought in, and in big ways, just keeps me very hopeful. I know we’re going to get there. I firmly believe it.”
“We wrote about Schweihofer when she left La Salle and took the Rutgers job in 2020.
MARYLAND: The Terps finished 19-13 last season, 7-13 in the B1G, and graduate-student middle Rainelle Jones led the NCAA at with 170 blocks and also at 1.73 blocks per set.
“I started with basketball. I switched to volleyball later on. I have to thank my coaches for helping me with blocking because it’s so technical,” Jones, who is from Oxon Hill, Maryland.
“My volleyball IQ wasn’t the very best when I was a freshman in college and still learning myself but it was the way the coaches are coaching me. So they definitely learned who I am as a player, as a person to help me with that.”
Fifth-year Maryland coach Adam Hughes noticed Jones early in her club volleyball career.
“When she was 15 years old,” Hughes recalled, “she wore a headband that said “Libero,” like a 6-4 kid walking around. Who is that kid? You go to these tournaments and there would be 80 courts and this head would pop up, you could see “Libero.” I want to recruit that kid.”
IOWA: The Hawkeyes and first-year coach Jim Barnes have seven transfers and two freshmen. Barnes takes over a program that finished 6-24, 4-16, last season. He is Iowa’s third coach in five years. Bond Shymansky was fired in 2018 and his replacement, Vicki Brown, was fired before the end of last season, in early November. Barnes was at Tulane the past six seasons.
“I feel at this point I’m an expert,” senior middle Amiya Jones said. “This is my second new coach. Technically it’s my third coach, my second new coach. It’s, like, I’m very flexible as a person.
“I’m really good at just trying to bring people together. I’m always my teammates’ number one fan. I’m just trying to get them used to the culture and the coach and our routine.
“So it’s unique. It’s a very unique experience. I’m like the mom on the team. I’m very much make sure everyone is okay. Make sure everyone gets on the same page.
“I would say it’s been really hard because I feel like a lot of the responsibility has fallen on the older players, but I kind of like it. It’s definitely helping me with my professional development. So I don’t know, it’s a unique one, for sure.”
Barnes previously coached at McNeese, Wyoming and Baylor and certainly is not fazed by change.
“We have seven transfers, two freshmen coming in. More than half the team,” Barnes said. “But it’s the eight returning that really have set up the foundation of what we’ve done over the spring. So really proud of this group. They’ve turned into a team just in that little bit of time.”
ILLINOIS: Illinois senior setter Diana Brown redshirted her freshman season in 2018, but got to train that season under future Olympic gold-medalist setter Jordyn Poulter.
“She’s awesome. Just being in the gym and seeing how much confidence she had in our team. Obviously she’s really good at volleyball. And so whether she knew it or not, I was kind of watching what she does,” Brown said. “And as a freshman I think everyone kind of does that, try to integrate yourself into the program. … I remember our match against Wisconsin at Wisconsin, we ran out of subs. And one of our DS’s had to play front row.
“It was either a train wreck or it was going to work. And Jordan facilitated this amazing defense and offense and we won that set. And it was, like, jaw-dropping.
“And so just from that season she’s a great role model. And whenever she comes back in town she always texts me or we talk. So it’s pretty cool to have her in front of me.”
Brown last season set Illinois to a 22-12 record, 12-8 in the B1G. The Illini beat West Virginia and then knocked off Kentucky before getting swept by Nebraska. Brown averaged 10.31 assists last season, had 28 aces and 75 blocks.
WISCONSIN: Wisconsin has had its share of international players. This season there are two from its 2021 NCAA-championship team, the star of the final match, 6-foot-9 sophomore Canadian middle/right side Anna Smrek, and Polish sophomore outside Julia Orzol, along with freshman DS Gulce Guctekin of Türkye. And last year the roster included Italian DS Giorgia Civita, who was key cog on the title team.
The importance of the Big Ten collaborative with Volley World and the showing of matches worldwide was not lost on Sheffield.
“This is massive, this partnership. I don’t think this can be underestimated of how important this is to not just the Big Ten but to our country,” Sheffield said. “There’s so many great volleyball fans around the world, as you can tell how many people are following you guys on Instagram and Twitter and so forth.
“And the content you guys are putting out is really really good. We’ve got a couple of international kids on our team right now, and it’s really hard for them to follow their daughters. And the fans that are growing up watching them when they were younger and they come here continue to follow their careers closely. You guys are giving access to them.
“I think this will be — it’s hard to articulate, I guess, what this could be five, six, seven, 10 years down the road. I think it’s really exciting. This was really big news for all of us.”
MINNESOTA: The Gophers are certainly one of the teams expected to be in the Big Ten championship hunt, which, accordingly means they’ll be in the national-title discussion. But not all the talk here was about volleyball. Minnesota 6-foot-5 sophomore outside Taylor Landfair, who is from nearby Plainfield, Illinois, was part of a Big Ten group that traveled to Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, two weeks ago for an immersive and educational experience at a key center of the civil rights movement. Maryland’s Rainelle Jones and Iowa’s Amiya Jones were both on the trip.
“I think my experience was really incredible because I understood what happened back then to some extent,” said Landfair, who is Black. “I kind of just knew the surface layer of what actually happened back then. But to be able to understand and actually learn and read about what happened in depth was an amazing experience because I think more people need to understand what happened because I feel like nothing’s really talked about in schools.
“I feel like more people need to actually experience what happened and be able to read every single story and everything that actually happened because it’s — really the amount of emotions that came with it was incredible to me there were so many tears, so much frustration, anger — all the different emotions you could feel were felt.
“And I think it was an amazing experience and I would definitely love to do it again. I would love to take my family down there. Anybody who has the ability to go down there, I think it would be amazing to go there, just see what happened.
“And in terms of being able to play, I think it would be cool just to be able to see the players that were there, just to see them across the net and be, like, hey, I’m with you. We’re in this together. We’re both going through the same thing that all of our ancestors went through. To be able to fight through that has been really important to me.”
PENN STATE: For the first time in 43 years, Penn State has a new head coach. And while Katie Schumacher-Cawley might have played at and been an assistant in Happy Valley, this will be a brand new Penn State team. There are some impact transfers, including Taylor Trammel and Zoe Weatherington. Trammel is a 6-2 junior middle who came from Purdue, while Weatherington is a 6-2 senior who played at Utah and might hit the ball harder that anyone in the college game.
“Everyone knows Penn State has like the best legacy there is when it comes to volleyball. And seeing their team was going to be fresh was something I was looking for, a fresh start,” Trammell said.
“I just felt really welcomed when I got here. Just the overall energy was something that really intrigued me.”
Schumacher-Cawley said when Weatherington went into the transfer portal, “We reached out to her and started those conversations. I think she really took her time.
She visited a couple schools, and we really connected when she came on campus. And I’m excited to see what she’s going to do here. We’ll look for her to be more of a right-side player, but we’ll see.
“Like I said, we haven’t been in the gym at all with these girls this summer. So it will be a lot of new things right away.