Big Ten preview: League will be powerful as always, from top to bottom

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Illinois is led by junior setter Jordyn Poulter

The Big Ten flexed its muscles during the 2017 season with eight teams making the NCAA Tournament and three earning top-16 seeds. Nebraska, of course, won its fifth national title and the Big Ten Conference’s 11th in the last 20 years. Penn State got the national semifinals and a total of six schools won at least two playoff matches.

And 2018 is shaping up to be just as fruitful if not more for the 14-team conference.

Seven Big Ten squads are ranked in the AVCA preseason coaches poll, with four sitting in the top 10.

A Big Ten-record 17 players earned AVCA All-American honors a year ago and 11 of those return, including Wisconsin’s Dana Rettke, the national freshman of the year.

Big Ten Conference Preseason Coaches Poll
1. Nebraska
2. Wisconsin
3. Minnesota
4. Penn State
5. Illinois
6. Michigan
7. Purdue
8. Ohio State
9. Michigan State
10. Iowa
11. Northwestern
12. Indiana
13. Maryland
14. Rutgers
2018 Preseason Team
Ali Bastianelli (Illinois)
Jordyn Poulter (Illinois)*
Taylor Louis (Iowa)
Carly Skjodt (Michigan)*
Alexis Hart (Minnesota)
Stephanie Samedy (Minnesota)*
Samantha Seliger-Swenson (Minnesota)*
Mikaela Foecke (Nebraska)*
Kenzie Maloney (Nebraska)
Taylor Leath (Penn State)
Kendall White (Penn State)
Sherridan Atkinson (Purdue)*
Dana Rettke (Wisconsin)*
Tionna Williams (Wisconsin)
* Unanimous

Illinois
2017 record:
23-11, 12-8
Key losses: Brandi Donnelly, a four-year starter at libero and a 2017 All-American selection.
Who returns: The Fighting Illini aren’t lacking for talent. Back are setter Jordyn Poulter, middle Ali Bastianelli, outside-opposite Megan Cooney, outside Jacqueline Quad and defensive specialist Morgan O’Brien.
Newcomers of note: Setter Diana Brown and DS Taylor Kuper
Analysis: There are good reasons Illinois was so highly regarded by the league coaches. All-American Poulter is among the nation’s best setters. Bastianelli was equally decorated last year, while Cooney and Quade also earned national postseason accolades.
“This group is a coach’s dream,” said Illinois coach Chris Tamas. “They come in and work hard and really understand the game. They improve everyday they are in the gym. We are returning a lot of important pieces and everyone else is filling roles nicely. The overall focus of the team is impressive right now.”

Iowa
2017 record:
18-15, 7-13
Key losses: The Hawkeyes lost six letter winners and three starters. Gone are Jess Janota (274 kills, 108 blocks) Kelsey O’Neill (185 kills, 106 blocks) Annika Olsen (555 digs) and Claire Sheehan (175 kills, 241 digs, transferred to Minnesota).
Who returns: Senior outside Taylor Louis, senior right side Reghan Coyle and sophomore setter Brie Orr give coach Bond Shymansky a strong trio to build around.
Analysis: The Hawkeyes have four starters and eight total letter winners back. Louis led the team last year with 386 kills (3.39 per set), while Coyle had 185 kills. Orr racked up 1,201 assists and 238 digs as a freshman. Iowa has enjoyed back-to-back winning seasons. “Back-to-back winning seasons seep into the way the players think of themselves, how they carry themselves, how they train, the discipline they have, but also just the belief of go out there and expect to win when they play,” said Shymansky. “It takes a while to convince them that that’s what they are capable of and my belief is not nearly as important as theirs and when they believe in themselves and each other then they tend to get things done.”
Shymansky is looking for even more progress this season.
“There’s two things I know at the start of every season. One is that we’re going to be better than the year before and two is that we have a lot of different parts. It’s been an enjoyable preseason for us.”

Indiana
2017 record:
12-20, 1-19
Key losses: Outside hitter Jessica Leish
Who returns: The Hoosiers have six starters and a total of 12 letter winners back, headlined by redshirt junior outside Kendall Beerman, senior right side Elizabeth Asdell, junior middle blocker Deyshia Lofton and junior middle Hayden Huybers. Beerman led the team in kills with 277 last season, while Asdell was second with 261. Lofton had 252 kills and posted the fifth-highest single-season hitting percentage in program history at .332.
Newcomers of note: First off would be coach Steve Aird, lured from Maryland. Indiana brings in a freshman class that includes three players who earned a variety of high-school national honors, including S Abigail Westenhofer, MB Lexi Johnson and OH Breana Edwards.
Analysis: “We have an organized and motivated group,” Aird said. “We will be physical enough to compete and have enough experience to know what we are getting into. We will be an above-average blocking team, dig balls and play hard.”


Maryland
2017 record:
18-14, 7-13
Key losses: The Terrapins lost three starters and seven letter winners and coach Steve Aird to Indiana.
Who returns: Outside hitter Erika Pritchard averaged 2.93 kills per set, while Katie Myers, a 6-2 middle, averaged 1.53 kills per set. Pritchard led the Big Ten in aces.
Newcomers of note: New coach Adam Hughes has two transfers in New Mexico product Hailey Rubino (1.78 kills and 2.16 digs) and sophomore setter Nicole Alford, who played last year at Georgia Tech.
Analysis: Maryland has always had a huge uphill battle since joining the B1G. This year might be even tougher.n“This is an incredibly hard-working group that really cares about each other,” Hughes said. “They have an incredible focus and attention to detail. They have a learner’s mentality and they’re making adjustments very quickly. I’m excited to see how quickly they can take it.”

Michigan
2017 record:
21-12, 11-9
Key losses: The Wolverines graduated middle-blocker stalwart Claire Kieffer-Wright.
Who returns: Seniors Carly Skjodt (OH) and Jenna Lerg (libero), along with juniors Cori Crocker (MB) and MacKenzi Welsh (S) are part of a 12-player contingent that includes six starters from a team that tied for seventh in the league last year.
Newcomers of note: Michigan’s freshman class includes Paige Jones (OH), Erin O’Leary (S), Abbey Malinowski (OH) and Kayla Bair (MB) with O’Leary earning VolleyballMag.com Girls Fab 50 honors.
Analysis: 20th-year coach Mark Rosen has developed a model of consistency in Ann Arbor. Rosen’s teams have made the NCAA tournament times, including the last three. Rosen’s 2018 group features a mix of veteran players with a strong incoming freshman class that earned votes in VolleyballMag.com’s soon-to-be published women’s recruiting rankings. “This is a unique team with a lot of returning players who have played at a high level in the Big Ten bringing what they have to the table,” Rosen said. Skjodt leads the way after earning all-Big Ten first-team honors a year ago. “I think Carly is ready to be an elite player in not only our conference, which is the best in our country, but nationally,” Rosen said. “She is that kind of player. It’s been really cool to see her progress to that. I always knew she had that ability. She’s worked so hard to make her game better.”

Michigan State
2017 record:
24-9, 14-6
Key losses: Michigan State had the largest senior class in the country last year, and took a big graduation hit, losing OH Autumn Bailey, MB Alyssa Garvelink, S Rachel Minarick and OH Holly Toliver, who earned some sort of All-America recognition during their careers.
Who returns: All coach Cathy George has returning in terms of starters is sophomore libero Jamye Cox (3.46 digs per set last year). Also back are sophomore outside Meredith Norris and junior setter Maggie Midgette, who takes over for Minarick. Senior Maddie Haggerty (who previously played at Nebraska and Central Florida) is back after missing last year due to injury.
Newcomers of note: With that large of a graduation loss, the Spartans, who reached the NCAA Tournament round of eight a year ago, did indeed restock with freshmen Naya Gros (OH), Lauryn Gibbs (DS), Elena Shklyar (S), Molly Johnson (OH) and Talia Edmonds (DS). This is Michigan State’s second recruiting class in a row that has earned a top-15 national ranking by at least one media outlet.
Analysis: Michigan State, with only three upperclassmen on the roster, holds the third-longest streak of NCAA appearances in the Big Ten at seven behind only Penn State and Nebraska. The Spartans also are one of only three teams (Penn State and Nebraska again) to finish .500 or better in Big Ten play in each of the last seven seasons. “We graduated a tremendous class of seven athletes, four who were All-Americans last year,” said George. “This year’s team will be young and exciting to watch develop—two top-15 recruiting classes with lots of talent and a great work ethic.”

Minnesota
2017 record:
28-6, 15-5
Key losses: The Golden Gophers lost two starters in Dalianliz Rosado and Molly Lohman
Who returns: Quite the trio with three-time All-American and three-time all-Big Ten selection Samantha Seliger-Swenson at setter, first-team All-American right-side Stephanie Samedy (as a freshman) and All-American and all-Big Ten outside hitter Alexis Hart.
Newcomers of note: Libero CC McGraw and outside hitter Adanna Rollins are highly decorated prep players (VolleyballMag.com Fab 50 selections) with Rollins being named the Texas Gatorade player of the year a year ago and McGraw earning the Ms. Baden Volleyball honor that goes to the top senior player in Minnesota.
Analysis: The Golden Gophers took third in the Big Ten and made it to the NCAA regional semifinal round a year ago and are poised to be a national power once again with  strong core of returning players, headlined by Seliger-Swenson running the show and Samedy and Hart. Seliger-Swenson comes into her senior season with 4,416 career assists, while Samedy had 478 kills and hit .303 a year ago. Hart, a three-rotation player, averaged 3.78 kills per set and hit .278 last season. The Gophers also return starters Regan Pittman and Jasmyn Martin. Pittman hit .341 and had 261 kills last year, while Martin had 170 kills during her freshman season. Freshmen McGraw and Rollins both competed during the Minnesota spring season after joining the program in January. Sophomore Claire Sheehan also is new after transferring from Iowa where she played in 32 matches last season and had 259 kills.

Nebraska
2017 record:
32-4, 19-1
Key losses: Kelly Hunter (S), Annika Albrecht (OH), Briana Holman (MB). Those three players played extremely key roles in Nebraska winning it all in Kansas City last December. Hunter was VolleyballMag.com’s national player of the year.
Who returns: Senior all-everything Mikaela Foecke (OH) and senior libero Kenzie Maloney. Foecke was the most outstanding player in the NCAA finals and Maloney also made the all-tournament team.
Newcomers of note: Freshman setter Nicklin Hames (VolleyballMag.com Fab 50) comes to Lincoln after outstanding prep and club careers, while sophomore Lexi Sun, a former VolleyballMag.com girls high-school player of the year, has transferred from Texas and was an All-Big 12 Conference first-team pick a year ago, thus qualifying as a newcomer of extreme note.
Analysis: While the Huskers lost a ton from last year’s title team, it would be unwise to count John Cook’s program out in any year. Eight of the 15 players on the Nebraska roster are new, including three setters in Hanes, junior transfer Mari Kurkova (Czech Republic) and senior Brooke Smith, who started at Nebraska in 2015 and rejoins the team after a year at Kansas State. Sun, as already chronicled above, brings elite talent to the pins. “We have a young crew, but I’m excited because this is a great teaching opportunity for me and another opportunity to build another great team and build on the tradition of Nebraska volleyball,” Cook said. “I’ve been really encouraged by the leadership of Mikaela and Kenzie. This is probably one of the greatest summers we’ve ever had in ‘Husker Power’ with the results and the improvements our players have had. I have to be patient, but I’m encouraged by the opportunity to develop this team and become a great team. I love this team and they’ve worked really hard.”

Northwestern outside hitter Nia Robinson

Northwestern
2017 record: 14-18, 4-16
Key losses: Symone Abbott (OH), Taylor Tashima (S); Abbott was an all-Big Ten first-team pick last year and Tashima earned AVCA and all-Big Ten honors in 2015.
Who returns: Three key sophomores in OH Nia Robinson, MB Alana Walker and L Lexi Pitsas. Coach Shane Davis has four returning starters and 11 total from last year’s team that took 12
th in the conference.
Newcomers of note: Freshmen Abryanna Cannon (OH) and Hanna Lesiak (OH)
Analysis: While young on paper, Davis is excited about this group’s potential. “We’re a young team, but I think we really have a chance to surprise some people,” he said. “The athleticism in our gym is the most impressive it has been since the day I started here. In terms of strength, I think our ability to limit mistakes will really have a tremendous impact on our performance. Last year we set school records for team hitting percentage and fewest hitting errors committed and I am anticipating that to continue.”

Penn State
2017 record:
33-2, 19-1
Key losses: The Nittany Lions lost all sorts of talent from last year’s final four team. That long list includes Simone Lee (two-time first-team All-American, 2017 Big Ten player of the year), Haleigh Washington (three-time first-team All-American and 2017 Big Ten defensive player of the year), Ali Frantti (three-time All-American), Abby Detering and Heidi Thelen.
Who returns: A tad less than who left, but still impressive. Junior libero Kendall White is back, along with redshirt junior Tori Gorrell in the middle and redshirt Bryanna Weiskricher setting.
Newcomers of note: There are many. Penn State will have the No. 1 recruiting class in the country when VolleyballMag.com releases its annual look at the incoming groups next week. Russ Rose restocked with the likes of  Gabby Blossom (S), Serena Grey (MB), Kaitlyn Hord (MB), Jonni Parker (OH-S), Jenna Hampton (DS), Amanda Phegley (MB) and Allyson Cathey (OH). Grey and Hord are regarded as two of the top five incoming freshmen in the country, while Blossom and Parker won Gatorade state player of the year awards. The Nittany Lions restocked in a hurry here. North Carolina alum Taylor Leath also is on the roster as a graduate player, giving Penn State a key addition on the pins.
Analysis: Ruling out Penn State having a championship-caliber team come December is foolish. Rose recently addressed the progress of his large freshmen group. “The things they don’t know is the part you can only hold out hopes that they are able to adjust to,” he said. “You can identify the challenges out there like how demanding the conference is traditionally and how tough it is to play on the road and how good these teams are. But there is a lot to be said about young players who come from winning traditions and have a good skill set and want to come to Penn State and help to continue the tradition that has been established. They all have made a point that they are here for a reason.”

Ohio State
2017 record: 15-16, 8-12
Key losses: Ohio State said goodbye to Ashley Wenz and Luisa Schirmer
Who returns: Coach Geoff Carlston welcomes back Audra Appold (the only senior), Madison Smeathers, Lauren Witte and Hannah Gruensfelder.
Newcomers of note: Six new faces dot the Buckeyes roster, including a pair of University of Kentucky transfers in senior setter Olivia Dailey and redshirt-sophomore middle blocker Jordan Fry. Freshmen Camryn Moeller (DS), Mia Grunze (6-3, OH), Vanja Bukilic (6-6, RS from Serbia) and Adria Powell (OH) are new to the squad as well. Grunze is a VolleyballMag.com Fab 50 pick.
Analysis: Ohio State, decimated by injuries last season and left out of the NCAA Tournament, has three players in Smeathers, Witte and Gruensfelder who saw significant time last season. In her freshman season Gruensfelder set two Ohio State single-season records for most digs in a four-set match (38) and digs per set for a single season at 4.34. Smeathers ranked 10
th in the Big Ten in hitting percentage at .331, while Witte was 10th in the league in blocks per set (1.01). Smeathers had 212 kills, while Witte had 192 kills. Appold had 80 kills and 76 digs.

Purdue
2017 record:
23-10, 12-8
Key losses: Middle blocker Danielle Cuttino and setter Ashley Evans were AVCA All-American selections,.Defensive specialist Carissa Damler and outside hitter Azariah Stahl also graduated.
Who returns: Senior 6-6 right side Sherridan Atkinson was a third-team All-American pick and a first-team All-Big Ten selection last year. Coach Dave Shondell has a total of three starters back and a libero and 10 total returnees. Other key components back include senior libero Brooke Peters, junior middle Blake Mohler, junior middle Shavona Cuttino, sophomore outside Catilyn Newton, sophomore libero-DS Jena Otec and sophomore DS Julianna Reisinger.
Newcomers of note: Purdue’s 2018 recruiting class earned votes in VolleyballMag.com’s soon-to-be-released look at the top incoming classes this season. Shondell welcomes a class that includes talent all over the court in Joy Chen (S), Grace Cleveland (MB), Marissa Hornung (DS), Jael Johnson (MB), Garrett Joiner (OH) and Emma Terwilliger (DS). Cleveland and Johnson were VolleyballMag.com Girls Fab 50 picks.
Analysis: “We’ve had tremendous athleticism over the last several seasons yet we really didn’t reach the goals we thought we could,” Shondell said. “I love the personalities here. We have a group really willing to make those sacrifices and be selfless and be great teammates. We know we have a long way to go. We are very young but I really like the attitude and the behavior and the spirit. They love to play volleyball. It’s fun to come to the gym with them every day.”

Rutgers outside Sahbria McLetchie

Rutgers
2017 record:
5-27, 0-20
Key losses: Just one, Meme Fletcher
Who returns: Sahbria McLetchie (2.48 kills per set), an outside hitter via James Madison and VCU headlines a list of five players who averaged at least 1.15 kills per set last year. Tennessee native Kamila Cieslik, a 5-11 right side, averaged 2.43 kills and 1.77 digs, while Russia native Yana Kamshilina averaged 1.51 kills and 1.16 digs. Serbia product Stas Miljevic averaged 1.47 kills and Detroit native and middle blocker Jasmine Stackhouse averaged 1.15 kills.
Newcomers of note: In addition to freshman setter Inna Balyko from Russia, 6-2 outside hitter Tali Marmen from Israel also is scheduled to join the team, but she’s finishing up a stint with the Israeli national team.
Analysis: Coach CJ Werneke likes where the Scarlet Knights are headed this season. “Every aspect of our team has improved heading into 2018,” he said. “We bring back five starters plus our libero with Big Ten experience and each of our additions adds depth and significant talent across the court. We have signed two freshmen outside hitters with high-caliber international success, one of the top international setters of the 2018 class and two middles with standout size and quickness. The expectations are to live up to our potential of flipping the script on Rutgers volleyball.”

Wisconsin
2017 record:
22-10, 11-9
Key losses: Kelli Bates and Lauryn Gillis, who combined for about five kills a set last season.
Who returns: The Badgers have a total of 12 letter winners back and four starters (plus a libero). Sophomore Dana Rettke, whom Purdue coach Dave Shondell called the franchise player of the Big Ten, was the national freshman of the year in 2017 and earned All-American first-team honors. Senior middle Tionna Williams and sophomore setter Sydney Hilley both earned All-American honors as well. Also back in the fold is sophomore outside Molly Haggerty, the 2016 Big Ten freshman of the year who missed last season due to injury.
Newcomers of note: Freshman Julia Wohlert (MB-RS) comes up an inch short in the tallest Badger sweepstakes at 6-7, just shy of Rettke’s 6-8 stature. Wohlert is a VolleyballMag.com Fab 50 selection.
Analysis: Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield likes the balance he can put on the court at any given point. “I think we have some different points along the net that we can get the ball to,” he said. “We also have some really nice back-row players (including Tiffany Clark who averaged 3.88 digs per set last season) that do a great job with effort and skill. We feel really good about our backcourt players.” Sheffield likens the Big Ten Conference to the back of a shampoo bottle. “Rinse and repeat,” he said. “Every year it’s a really tough conference from top to bottom and I don’t see anything being different this year.

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