Big Ten preview: “No room for error” as powerful league set for Friday’s first 2021 serves

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Kaitlyn Hord leads Penn State's powerful junior class/Penn State photo

Finally, all eyes in NCAA women’s volleyball can turn to the Big Ten.

The league begins spring 2021 play on Friday and you can expect that one of the 14 teams in the B1G will be there at the end when an NCAA champion is crowned in late April in Omaha.

The Stanford stranglehold not withstanding, NCAA women’s volleyball at the top since 2000 has been all about the Big Ten. 

In the past 20 years, Big Ten teams have won 10 titles, six by Penn State and four by Nebraska. (and then there’s the Pac-12’s Stanford, which has won five in that time). Also in that span, a B1G team has lost in the final seven times, including Wisconsin last year, and it’s no coincidence that the Badgers are atop the AVCA preseason poll. 

Speaking of which, Big Ten teams take up four spots in the top 10, including No. 1 Wisconsin (see our interview with coach Kelly Sheffield below), No. 5 Nebraska, No. 7 Minnesota (whose recruiting class was No. 1 in the VolleyballMag.com rankings), and No. 9 Penn State. Also in the top 25 are No. 13 Purdue, and No. 25 Michigan. 

(The Big Ten announced its coaches poll Wednesday — Wisconsin is No. 1 in that one, too — and all-league preseason team. Click here for the full story).

While the schedule has yet to be posted on the Big Ten website (the league did announce the Big Ten Network schedule), the individual schools have theirs listed.

The teams are playing in-conference only, 22 matches total. In most cases, teams play back-to-back nights with some notable exceptions, including Wisconsin home for Minnesota on March 17 before going to Minnesota on March 20; and Nebraska playing at Minnesota on Friday, February 19, taking Saturday off, and then again at Minnesota on February 21.  

This Friday’s action includes Purdue at Wisconsin, Illinois at Iowa, Indiana at Nebraska, Maryland at Ohio State, Northwestern at Rutgers, and Penn State at Michigan State. Michigan State is at Minnesota on Saturday.

“There is no room for error or playing into the season,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “This schedule is like riding a horse in the Kentucky Derby. Get out of the gate and hang on for a wild ride.” 

This alphabetical preview includes last year’s records.

Illinois (16-14, 11-9) — For the first time in a while, there are no household names on the Illinois roster. The closest to it is senior right side Megan Cooney, second on the team last year with 374 kills (2.94/set) and 55 blocks, nine solo. Leading attacker and B1G first-teamer Jacqueline Quade graduated and joined the UCLA beach team last spring. Next up was Ashlyn Fleming, and she, too, graduated.

Middle Kennedy Collins returns after a strong freshman year in which she was fourth on the team in kills (129) and second to Fleming in blocks with 80. Sophomore setter Diana Brown averaged 10.97 assists, had 275 digs, and 59 blocks. 

Illinois brings in three freshmen, two early signees in 6-4 Maddie Whittington and 6-1 Raina Terry, and a late addition in 6-1 Sophie Gregus. 

“We are just excited to compete, period,” Illinois coach Chris Tamas said when the schedule was announced. “In 2020, we have come together and grown stronger through everything the year has thrown at us. We are very thankful for the leaders at the NCAA, Big Ten Conference, and the University of Illinois for going above and beyond to give us the opportunity to step on the court and to do what we love to do.”

After opening at Iowa, the Illini will have a good idea of where they stand, since they are home for Wisconsin and then go to Penn State. 

Indiana (14-19, 3-17) — The building in Bloomington continues as Steve Aird enters his third year as coach. There is just one senior on the roster — transfer setter Brooke Westbeld — and a whopping eight freshmen and four sophomores.

For that matter, there are three juniors and one of them is the go-to for Indiana in 6-3 outside hitter Breana Edwards. She led with 361 kills (3.47/set) but hit .190, and had 137 digs and 52 blocks, 24 solo. The next four leading attackers are gone, so there will be plenty of opportunities for youth to be served.

Sophomore setter Emily Fitzner returns after averaging 5.86 assists in a 6-2 in 2019, and so does sophomore libero Haley Armstrong. But the setter will likely be Westbeld, who came from Dayton where she was a 2018 AVCA honorable-mention All-American. 

“I really feel this is the start of an Olympic type quad for this group,” Aird said. “We will start four to five freshman and hope they get every ounce of experience they can this spring.  I believe in them and the future of this program.”

Among those first-year players who should make an impact is 6-4 middle Leyla Blackwell, about whom Aird said when she signed, “Leyla is one of the top prep volleyball players in the country.  I believe she will be a difference maker for our program. Her development over the last year has been incredible to watch.” Also look for Tommi Stockham, a 6-2 outside, to be in the mix. Said Aird when she signed, “Tommi is one of the elite outside hitters in the country.  She possesses a tremendous arm, great volleyball IQ and the ability to play six rotations well.”

Iowa (10-21, 4-16) — Coach Vicki Brown’s team has no seniors and brings in five freshmen. Iowa, which had no players garner B1G postseason honors, lost nine matches in a row before beating Maryland to end the 2019 season. What’s more, leading attacker Griere Hughes has decided to take the season off because of COVID and so has junior setter Brie Orr and junior DS Halle Johnston.

Yet, Brown said at her media day this week, “I definitely feel we have depth at just about every position.”

The next two leading hitters return in 6-5 junior right side Courtney Buzzerio (305 kills, 2.65/set, 52 blocks) and junior middle Amiya Jones (188 kills, 2.0/set, 60 blocks). Also in the mix will be sophomore outside Kyndra Hansen, and the setter will likely be Bailey Ortega. 

“She’s stepped in in a role to be running our offense and we’re excited for what she’s going to do and the strides that she’s made with the team thus far,” Brown said.

Maryland (13-19, 5-15) — It all starts with local product Erika Pritchard, the senior outside who has been a warrior for the Terps. Pritchard had 417 kills last season, 3.28/set, 144 more than her next closest teammate, middle Katie Meyers, who had 273 (Myers is ending her career as a graduate student at Minnesota). Pritchard was second in digs with 248 and had 74 blocks. But so tough is the Big Ten that she didn’t even make the all-league second team. 

The bad news is Myers, who led in blocks, graduated and transferred to Minnesota. Next up is sophomore outside Rebekah Rath, who had 266 kills as a freshman. Also back is middle Rainelle Jones, a junior who had 185 kills and was second to Myers with 136 blocks, and junior middle Jada Gardner, who had 166 kills and 87 blocks. 

Senior Nicole Alford returns as the most experienced setter.

“I’m excited about this group. We have a really good balance between players with years of Big Ten experience and some youngsters who are helping us out in the gym right now,” Maryland coach Adam Hughes said. “Nobody really knows what the season will be with the current landscape of COVID, but I’m looking forward to watching this group work towards its potential.”

Paige Jones attacks for Michigan/Michigan photo

Michigan (21-11, 13-7) — Michigan’s only senior, middle Kiara Shannon, who played sparingly in 2019, is the lone Wolverine who has chosen to not play this season. So like so many other in the league, the Wolverines are young, with five freshmen, five sophomores, and five juniors.

“It is clearly unprecedented for us to be playing January through April, but we are thankful to have a season and can’t wait to get going,” coach Mark Rosen said. “We have a very young team, and this schedule will present a great opportunity for them to grow and develop against some of the best teams in the country. It’s been over a year since we have had the opportunity to compete, so we are all excited for January 22nd to get started with the Big Ten season.”

It will be baptism by fire for Michigan, which opens with Penn State.

That’s nothing for do-everything outside Paige Jones, the junior who led in kills (463, 3.92/set) and aces (39), and was second in digs (262) and fifth in blocks (41). Also back are sophomores Jess Robinson (226 kills, 75 blocks) and May Pertofsky (244 kills, 39 aces, 81 blocks). 

The graduated Mackenzi Welsh set nearly ever ball in 2019, so untested sophomores Jenni Liu (a JC transfer) and Maddie Dowd and freshman Scottee Johnson will vie for the job.

Look for Jess Mruzik, a 6-1 freshman outside from Livonia, Michigan, to be a factor. She was the 2019 VolleyballMag.com girls club player of the year and MVP of the U19 World Championships. She’s a big reason Michigan ranked No. 6 in our NCAA recruiting rankings.

“I’m very excited about the mix of experience and youth in our program right now,” Rosen said. “The veterans are very dialed into what we need to do to be great, and the newcomers have very high expectations for themselves and are working hard to reach their full potential. 

“The level of athleticism and volleyball skill in the gym is very high, and as a coach it’s been really fun to work with this group. We all feel like our potential is limitless, but now we need to put in the sustained work to be the best we are capable of being.”

Michigan State (15-15, 6-14) — As coach Cathy George enters her 16th season, the bad news is the Spartans missed out on the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons after an NCAA round-of-8 appearance in 2017. What’s more, Michigan State lost 11 of 12 before ending the 2019 season with a win over Indiana and had no players on the B1G postseason team.

The good news is Michigan State is one of the more experienced teams in the conference. 

The top seven attackers return and so does one of the setters. 

Senior outside Meredith Norris led in kills with 267 (2.7/set), led with 22 aces, and had 43 blocks. Junior middle Naya Gros led in blocks with 130 — 19 solo — and was second in kills with 187. Senior outside Alyssa Chronowski was next in kills with 178 and had 45 blocks, 13 solo. Sophomore outside Biamba Kabengele had 164 kills, junior outside Molly Johnson had 161, junior middle Rebecka Poljan 12, and graduate-student outside Lauren Swartz 130. Clearly Michigan State will have firepower.

Junior Elena Shklyar shared the setting duties last season. Celia Cullen is a highly touted freshman. 

Also back is senior libero Jamye Cox, who had 199 more digs than her closest teammate in 2019. This senior class was ranked No. 9 in the country by PrepVolleyball.com when it was announced in 2016.

Michigan State will know where it stands early. The Spartans start at Minnesota and then play a home-and-home with Michigan the first two weekends.

Regan Pittman and her Minnesota teammates celebrate a point against Stanford in the 2019 NCAA semifinals/Michael Gomez photography

Minnesota (27-6, 17-3) — Minnesota, which tied with Penn State and Nebraska for second place in the B1G in 2019, is loaded. While the Gophers lost middle Taylor Morgan and outside Alexis Hart (between them five kills and almost two blocks per set) and setter Kylie Miller to graduation after advancing to the NCAA national semifinals, coach Hugh McCutcheon brings in what VolleyballMag.com deemed the top recruiting class in the nation.

But begin with the returners, including perhaps the most underrated player in the nation in 6-5 middle Regan Pittman. Yes, she was a VBM and AVCA first-team All-American, but even with that her ability to make big plays at key times can’t be overstated. She led Minnesota in blocks (166, 27 solo) and averaged 2.17 kills per set and tied for the team lead with 27 aces. Pittman earned her undergraduate degree a year ago.

Also back up front are senior right side Stephanie Samedy (who led in kills with 353, 3.07/set, 23 aces, and 107 blocks) and junior Adanna Rollins (306 kills,2.68/set, 61 blocks).

Not only does junior setter Bayley McMenimen return — who proved especially valuable when Miller was out after sustaining a concussion — but graduate student Hunter Atherton, who spent two seasons at Nebraska and two more at North Carolina, transferred in. 

Also back is junior libero CC McGraw, one of the best in the country who led in digs (4.09/set) and aces (27) and averaged nearly an assist per set. McGraw, like Pittman, made the all-B1G first team.

There are three freshmen on the roster, outside Jenna Wenaas, setter Melanie Shaffmaster, and 6-5 outside Taylor Landfair. Landfair was PrepVolleyball.com’s top recruit in the nation. Throw in transfer Katie Myers, a middle who is listed on the roster as a redshirt-junior but is a graduate student who played four years at Maryland and was second in kills last year for the Terps, and, well, Minnesota is loaded.

NCAA volleyball 9/29/2019-Lexi Sun-Nebraska volleyball
Lexi Sun, swinging against Northwestern last season, is part of Nebraska’s strong senior class/Michael Gomez photo

Nebraska (28-5, 17-3) — Amost everyone is back from a team that not only tied for second in the B1G but advanced to the NCAA round of eight. There were no seniors.

But consider that this group of Huskers seniors includes Lexi Sun, Jazz Sweet, and Lauren Stivrins, household names in Nebraska. Of course, almost any Husker is a household name in volleyball-mad Nebraska.

Sun led the team in kills last season with 425 (3.57/set) and was second with 25 aces and added 2.45 digs a set and had 74 blocks, 10 solo. Sweet had 327 kills (2.77/set) and 78 blocks, and Stivrins had 127 blocks, 17 solo, and had 304 kills while hitting .374.

Madi Kubik had a big freshman season, as the 6-3 outside had 325 kills (2.73/set), 14 aces, 300 digs and 41 blocks.

Three other key players return in junior setter Nicklin Hames, sophomore libero Kenzie Knuckles, and junior middle Callie Schwarzenbach. Hames not only had 66 kills, she averaged 10.89 assists, had a team-best 26 aces, was second only to Knuckles with 341 digs, and had 49 blocks. Knuckles had 444 digs (3.83/set) and averaged better than an assist per set. Schwarzenbach had 143 kills and led with 128 blocks, 11 solo.

Nebraska also stood No. 10 in our VBM NCAA recruiting rankings, and middle Kalynn Meyer and DS Keonilei Akana will make their mark when their times come. So could Missouri transfer Kayla Caffey, a middle who hit .408 for the Tigers last year and is listed as a junior, but she has already graduated.

“I’m excited because this team is a year older, a year wiser, the leadership, the seniors have set a great tone of working to improve every day,” Cook said. “So they come in wanting to get better, wanting to work on things, not leave the gym till they get it. We’ve had a lot of time to watch more video, so there’s been a lot of great learning going on. At times we’re showing things at a very high level.” 

Also, backup setter Nicole Drewnick will not play this season. In a story in the Omaha World-Herald, it was reported that she’s still in school and plans to return in the fall. That leaves walk-on freshman Anni Evans as the only other setter on the roster.

Northwestern (14-18, 5-15) — Shane Davis enters his fifth year hoping to make a breakthrough after B1G win totals of 3, 4, 6, and 5.

Outside Temi Thomas-Ailara made the all-B1G second team after an outstanding freshman season in which she led the Wildcats with 398 kills (3.94/set), had a team-high 30 aces, 137 digs, and 57 blocks, 19 solo. For that matter, the next three in kills also return in senior outside Nia Robinson (369, 3.39/set), senior middle Alana Walker (237, 2.10/set, team-leading 109 blocks, 32 solo), and sophomore middle Desiree Becker (132, 1.45/set, 74 blocks, 15 solo).

The setter will likely be either junior Kiara McNulty or freshman Alexa Rousseau. McNulty played behind the graduated Payton Chang last year but averaged 8.71 assists per set when she was in. Rousseau is 6-3.

The right side should be either senior Danyelle Williams, who has been a pretty steady fill-in throughout her time in Evanston, or sophomore Abryanna Cannon, who sat out last season after having hip surgery. 

The Wildcats open at home against Rutgers with two matches that could go a long in determining in who does or doesn’t finish in the B1G cellar.

Gabby Gonzales

Ohio State (15-17, 8-12) — First-year coach Jen Flynn Oldenburg, who played at Ohio State, takes over a program that was beset by an inordinate number of injuries the past couple of years, and, from the outside looking in, appears ready to start the climb to get back into the top half of the B1G as it begins playing in a new facilty.

Gabby Gonzales, a sophomore outside, led the Buckeyes with 282 kills (3.20/set), and another sophmore, 6-foot Jenaisya Moore, was second with 269 kills (3.45/set). Moore made the B1G all-freshman team. Also back is 6-3 junior outside Mia Grunze, who had 153 kills.

Senior Lauren Witte, a 6-4 middle, had 131 kills and tied for the team lead in blocks with 82, nine solo.
Sophomore  setter Mac Podraza, who had 53 blocks, four solo, returns, and will run a 5-1, but Dayton transfer Jose Vondran may get in the mix.

Ohio State tied for eighth in our NCAA recruiting rankings. 

This was in our story last February about Oldenburg and Ohio State:

By all accounts, Ohio State has a stellar freshman class coming in. The group includes Rylee Rader, a 6-foot-3 middle blocker from Assumption High School and KIVA in Louisville who was VolleyballMag.com third-team All-American; 6-3 right side Emily Landot from Utica, Ohio, and a product of the Mintonette club; and Groveport, Ohio, defensive specialist Sarah Sue Morbitzer.

Click here to read more from that article last year.

Penn State (27-6, 17-3) — The next time Penn State wins, it will mark Russ Rose’s 1,300th victory as he begins his 43rd season. The odds are the first win will come early because the Nittany Lions are loaded with experienced talent that includes an unparalleled junior class. 

The top three in kills return in Jonni Parker, Serena Gray and Kaitlyn Hord (a VolleyballMag.com first-team All-American), and so does setter Gabby Blossom (VBM third-team). 

Parker, a junior right side, led with 413 kills (3.53/set), had a team-best 42 aces, and averaged 1.67 digs and had 73 blocks. Gray, a junior middle, had 317 kills (2.71/set), 34 aces, and 92 blocks, 17 solo. Hord, also a junior middle, led in blocks with 149 — 22 solo — and had 310 kills (2.65/set). Blossom not only averaged 2.33 digs, second only to graduated libero Kendall White, but had 54 kills, 25 aces, and averaged 11.38 assists. Speaking of libero, that job should go to junior Jenna Hampton.

New faces could make a difference. They include Hannah Flowers, a 6-3 graduate-student right-side transfer from Memphis who was a first-team All-American Athletic Conference selection; Anastasiya Kudryashova is a 6-4 Russian sophomore who transferred from Rutgers; and Keatan Broughton, a junior DS who played her first two years at West Virginia.

Lauren Clark, a sophomore outside who got playing time last year, hopes to get in the mix. Penn State has five freshmen, including Anne Catherine Fitzpatrick, an outside who was the Florida player of the year, and Macy Van Den Elzen, an outside/middle who was the Pennsylvania player of the year.

Penn State lost Tori Gorrell (278 kills) to graduation, and outside Allyson Cathey (186 kills), who went to Butler.

“Obviously, we are excited to get out on the court and compete,” Rose said. “As always the Big Ten is going to be very competitive this season with a lot of tough teams. We have a very strong junior class and will look to them to be the leaders of the team.”

Caitlyn Newton

Purdue (24-8, 14-6) — When we caught up with veteran Purdue coach Dave Shondell last October, he was excited to get off the golf course and into the gym. 

As we noted then, gone from the 2019 team are both middles, including Blake Mohler, now playing professionally in Germany, and Shavona Cuttino. Together they combined for 3.58 kills per set, while Mohler had 139 blocks and Cuttino 119. 

Junior outside Grace Cleveland was a B1G first-teamer who last season had 394 kills, 3.23/set, and 132 blocks. And there are three freshman middles, including Taylor Trammell, Lourdes Myers, and Molly Brown.

Purdue has only two seniors again, VolleyballMag.com honorable-mention All-American outside Caitlyn Newton and defensive specialist Jena Otec. 

Newton, who had 19 kills in that NCAA match at Baylor, led the team in kills last season with 445 (3.9/set), had 41 aces, averaged 1.45 digs, and had 72 blocks, 15 solo. Otec had a team-high 50 aces and averaged 3.48 digs. 

There are five juniors, including setter Hayley Bush and libero Marissa Hornung. Bush averaged 10.75 assists and 2.06 digs and Hornung led in digs with 475 (3.89/set) and had 22 aces.

One thing you can count on is Purdue being there at the end. Since Shondell took over in 2003 when Purdue did not make the NCAA Tournament, the Boilermakers have been in the postseason every year but twice and in every one of those 14 NCAA appearances at the least they’ve won their first-round match. 

For more about the Boilermakers, read our article with Shondell where we talked not only about his team, but the Big Ten, dealing with COVID, and more.

Rutgers (8-23, 2-18) — Since leaving the American Athletic Conference in 2013 for the Big Ten, Rutgers has simply been overwhelmed. Former coach CJ Werneke tried everything but in six seasons the Scarlet Knights have a combined Big Ten record of 3-117, and that includes going 0-20 four times. Rutgers won a B1G match in 2015 and in 2019 the Scarlet Knights beat Northwestern in five and then swept at Iowa.

New coach Cailtin Schweihofer is young, full of optimism, and, perhaps most important, getting some backing from the New Jersey school’s athletic department. We talked to her last month and she told us:

“We all know what the challenges are in taking over this program,” Schweihofer said. “It’s definitely a leap. The reason I wanted to take over the program was there’s been a major financial investment from the institution to bettering the volleyball team and I’m really excited about that. 

“Obviously you can see the success the other programs in the Rutgers family have had.”

Indeed, but Rutgers could be 10 times better and still end up in 12th place in the 14-team league.

Rutgers has just 12 players on its roster, five seniors, two juniors, and five freshmen. The leading attacker, Israeli Tali Marmen, transferred to UCF. From our story last month:

The current list of Scarlet Knights includes five seniors, Serbian right side Beka Kojadinovic; Kamila Cieslik from Knoxville, Tennessee, and who is moving to the outside; Russian outside Yana Kamshilina; middle Shealyn McNamara, who is from Georgia, the one in the U.S., not the country near Russia, and is a transfer from Auburn; and Mary Kate Painter, a libero from Philadelphia, who transferred from UCF.

The two juniors are Russian setter Inna Balyko, who has run a 5-1 the past two years, and Russian outside Anastasiia Maskimova.

Click here to read our story about Rutgers with Schweihofer.

Wisconsin (27-7, 18-2) — The Badgers lost in the NCAA title match to Stanford and just two players, right side Madison Duello and libero Tiffany Clark. But don’t fret for the Badgers. Senior Lauren Barnes, who was a de facto libero last year, will move into that role and either a freshman or a transfer will take Duello’s spot.

And the rest? A lineup that includes Big Ten player of the year Dana Rettke, setter of the year Sydney Hilley, first-team outside Grace Loberg, and second-team outside Molly Haggerty. 

Indeed, this Wisconsin team is ranked No. 1 in the preseason for good reason.

Few players can carry a team like Rettke did last year at times. The 6-8 senior senior led with 413 kills (3.79/set) while hitting .399, had 38 aces, and led with 159 blocks, 19 solo. Rettke is certainly one of the favorites to be the national player of the year, an award she nearly got last year from VolleyballMag.com.

Haggerty, also a senior, was only two kills behind with 411 (3.57/set) and had 18 aces, more than a dig a set, and 47 blocks. The other outside, Loberg, is also a senior and had 355 kills and 41 blocks. The second middle is Danielle Hart, a junior who had 131 blocks and 206 kills.

The other pin hitter will be either freshman Jade Demps or freshman Devyn Robinson (Wisconsin ranked fourth in our recruiting rankings), or Deahna Kraft, senior who transferred from Pepperdine where she did the reverse of what most do: Kraft played beach volleyball where she was a second-team All-American on the sand. 

Another who will certainly be a factor is Izzy Ashburn, who as a freshman became one of the best designated servers in the country and led with 47 aces while averaging 2.17 digs, third on the team.

Wisconsin ranked fourth in our NCAA recruiting rankings. Earlier this week, Emily Ehman interviewed eighth-year coach Kelly Sheffield, who took the Badgers to the NCAA final in his first year, 2013, and last season:

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