Big Ten preview: “Harder to win than a national championship”

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Kadie Rolfzen digs as Nebraska teammate Justine Wong-Orantes looks on in the 2015 NCAA title match/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

This is the third in a series of college conference previews since the NCAA season begins on Friday, August 26. Previously, the ACC and Big 12. Today, the Big Ten. Still to come, the Pac-12 and SEC.

You want to win the NCAA volleyball championship? The odds are you will have to beat someone from the Big Ten.

Never was that more apparent than last December when half the national semifinals were made up of eventual-champion Nebraska and Minnesota. What’s more, Wisconsin, Penn State, Ohio State and Illinois — which lost to Minnesota — all made it to the round of 16.

This year should be no different.

Consider the AVCA preseason poll that ranked Nebraska No. 1, Minnesota 3, Wisconsin 4, Illinois 14, Ohio State 15, Purdue 20, and you get the picture.

“The Big Ten is probably harder to win than a national championship because it’s over 10 weeks,” Nebraska coach John Cook said.

It all starts with Nebraska, which returns not only its roster from last year’s title team, but adds a first-team All-American transfer in middle Briana Holman. And as if the Huskers didn’t need any more of a push, they have an Olympic buzz going after watching former NU players Jordan Larson, Kelly Robinson and Kayla Banwarth get the bronze and Canadian Sarah Pavan compete on the beach.

So the expectations, as they always are in Lincoln, are high.

“I think with this group that’s what going to inspire and motivate them and has all summer,” said Cook, back for his 17th season.

“We had to set that out there so we didn’t rest on ‘OK, we won a national championship in Omaha, so great. Let’s go on cruise control.’ We’ve got to set the bar higher for them to go after something and motivate them so that’s how we roll.”

Where to begin with Nebraska? The 6-foot-3 senior Rolfzen twins, Kadie and Amber? They alone can carry a team at times. Senior libero Justine Wong-Orantes, as good as anyone in the college game? Big sophomore outside Mikaela Foecke who was unstoppable in the NCAA title match as the Huskers made short work of Texas? And throw in Holman, who watched that match from the bench in street clothes knowing she was as good or better than anyone on the floor.

“Going up against her in practice in kind of scary sometimes. She’s obviously very physical,” Amber Rolfzen said.

Her sister didn’t shy away from the Huskers’ drive toward another title.

“Just like last year, in January, we had that goal, destination Omaha and we put that out there and this year we’re doing the same exact thing,” Kadie Rolfzen said. “We know what we want to do, we know where we want to be.”

Cook was asked if Nebraska doesn’t win it all would this season be considered a failure.

“That’s one way that you can look at it and I think in the past – our 2006 team – I think that’s how we looked at it and it got us in the end,” Cook said. “Again, my job is going to be lead this team down a path that we don’t put all the results on coming down to one match at the end of the season.

“This team has got to enjoy the journey and the process and playing together, because that’s what they’re going to take out of it at the end anyways. The relationships, trying to leave their legacy here – and it’s not always about wins or losses.”

Perhaps, but Cook is the highest-paid coach in the college game, Nebraska fans expect a title, and no one has a roster more experienced and loaded.

“One of the things we could accomplish is back-to-back,” said Cook, who won a title at Nebraska his first year in 2000 and again in 2006. “So we’ve got to make sure we keep a healthy perspective on that, but if you don’t set it out there, you’re never going to get it. It doesn’t magically just all of sudden happen, but I’m not going to let that happen where it’s all or nothing for that and we’ve got so many challenges with the Big Ten and our non-conference season and there’s so much.

“It’s a long season with a lot of big matches.”

Minnesota sophomore setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson/Ed Chan, VBshots.com
Minnesota sophomore setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Minnesota won the Big Ten regular-season title last season and while it lost its hitting star, Puerto Rican Olympian and conference player of the year Daly Santana, the roster is pretty stout. Start with sophomore setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson, the league’s freshman of the year, add in the senior Tapp sisters, first-team All-American middle/right side Hannah Tapp and middle Paige, and that’s a pretty good start. Junior libero Dalianliz Rosado led the team in digs, senior Sarah Wilhite was fantastic in the NCAA Tournament, and, well, fifth-year coach Hugh McCutcheon has a experienced team that has as much talent as anyone.

“Our 2016 roster has experience, talent and depth. The team continues to build on the great foundation laid by our 2015 squad and is developing an impressive capacity for work. Our incoming freshman have made a seamless transition and our seniors are providing great leadership,” said McCutcheon, who coached the USA men to the 2008 Olympic gold medal and the 2012 women to the silver.

“It will be another epic year in the Big Ten. The quality and parity of the teams in this league is amazing. Every night will be a battle.”

Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield, who enters his fourth season in Madison, has the luxury of coaching senior Lauren Carlini, regarded as not only the best setter but perhaps the best player in the country. As a freshman, also Sheffield’s first year, she led the Badgers to the national title match. As a sophomore she got hurt in the NCAA Tournament and last year Wisconsin was so close before losing to Florida in the round of 16 in five, 15-12 in the fifth after being up 12-11.

Two other seniors join Carlini in middle Haleigh Nelson and outside Roman Kriskova. Junior outsides Lauryn Gilis and Kelli Bates round out a very talented and experienced lineup.

Penn State won six of eight national titles before being swept by Hawaii in the round of eight last year. Replacing key players is nothing new to 38th-year coach Russ Rose, but outside Megan Courtney was the Nittany Lions’ do-everything player, who led them in hitting and defense.

But a team that starts with junior outside Ali Franti and junior middle Haleigh Washington will compete with anyone. Junior setter Abby Detering, who transferred from Florida, and freshman libero Kendall White will make a big difference, Rose said.

“We’ll have matches where we’ll be pretty competitive and look like have a feel what’s going and we’ll also have matches where teams that are a little more experienced with a little pop are going to cause us some challenges,” Rose said. “But that’s part of the game in a conference where seven or eight teams qualify for the final four.”

The next three, Illinois, Ohio State and Purdue could be as good as anyone.

Michigan State and Michigan are always knocking on the door.

You can bet that one of those five teams will shake things up and end up surprisingly high in the standings and make a mess of the NCAA bracket. It happens every year.

Illinois, for one, might have been overrated last year, but coach Kevin Hambly has a strong group back led by sophomore setter Jordyn Poulter and senior outside Michelle Strizak.

Ohio State coach Geoff Carlston wouldn’t mind following the lead of Nebraska and playing for the title at home. The NCAA championships and AVCA Convention are in Columbus. Senior middle Taylor Sandbothe and two sophomores lead the way, outside Audra Appold and setter Taylor Hughes on a team that beat Nebraska last year.

Purdue is always an X factor, always in the hunt and had the misfortune of running into Texas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Coach Dave Shondell gets back one of the most accurate, powerful hitters in the nation in senior middle Faye Adelaja. The Boilermakers roster includes experience and depth with a freshman class expected to make an impact.

Indiana is optimistic and Maryland and second-year coach Steve Aird have made big strides on the recruiting trail.

Northwestern, Iowa and Rutgers have a lot of ground to make up. Shane Davis, who led Loyola to back-to-back men’s titles at Chicago, switched genders to go across town to take the job at Northwestern and that’s a transaction worth watching.

“There’s going to be no easy night,” Cook warned. “That’s another thing our players understand. There’s no easy night in this conference.”

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