Hope springs eternal.
For volleyball teams, the spring exhibition season serves as a chance to put in the work to build upon the past season, try out new player combinations, integrate newcomers and install offensive systems.
The Big Ten will try to re-establish its status as the nation’s preeminent conference after it failed to send a team to the NCAA national semifinals for the first time since 2006.
Four B1G teams played host to an Athletes Unlimited pro touring team, while others faced regional opponents. Here are highlights and takeaways from each of the team’s spring season:
The Illlinii wrapped the spring semester undefeated by picking up wins over Eastern Illinois, Saint Louis and Notre Dame. The biggest challenge for Illinois during the spring was to find a replacement for four-year starting setter Diana Brown. Redshirt-sophomore Brooke Mosher, an attacker last season, ran the offense most of the spring. While the hitters got used to her style, Mosher settled back in, and Illinois coach Chris Tamas said he was pleased with what he saw.
“The spring was good for her, and she got into a groove,” Tamas said. “She knows she’s gonna be running the show presumably for the next several years.”
Mosher is set to take on a leadership role along with junior libero Caroline Barnes, All-Big Ten outside hitter Raina Terry and fifth-year middle blocker Kennedy Collins.
Defensive-specialist Lily Barry and outside hitter Taylor de Boer joined the Illini as early enrollees and Tamas said both should contribute this fall.
After losing two players from last season — Sophie Gregus medically retired, and Becca Sakoda transferred closer to be closer to her home in Hawai’i — Illinois also added several players this spring to solidify its back-row depth.
Vanessa Pan joined the program after three years as a libero at Columbia, where she averaged 2.97 digs per set. Maya Imoto-Eakin signed a letter of intent and will join the 2023 class. She played setter while leading ‘Iolani School to the Hawaii D-1 Volleyball State Championship as a senior but projects as a defensive specialist at the next level.
Tamas said he learned about having enough depth the hard way last year after the Illini dealt with several health issues and they had to piece together lineups.
“It was one of those years that you couldn’t take injuries and we did,” Normally, I wouldn’t want to be that thin but I also don’t want to compromise my roster by just trying to go out and getting people just for the sake of getting bodies. I felt like we still had the right mix of players last year. We just kind of caught the injury bug at the wrong times.”
Assistant coach Krista Hendrickson was named an assistant coach for the United States team for the U19 NORCECA Pan American Cup this August. She will be joined at the tournament by de Boer, representing Canada.
The Hoosiers bring back the most experienced team under coach Steve Aird, who is entering his sixth year.
Indiana returns a bulk of their roster from a season ago, where it went 16-16 overall, including nine Big Ten wins, which tied for the most since 2003. Aird said they are cautiously optimistic about their prospects this year, but the team is hopeful about the program’s direction.
“Just because you beat people last year doesn’t mean you get to beat them again,” he said. “Everyone’s working hard and everyone’s good. But they’re energized, man. I think they’re excited.”
The bad news for the Hoosiers is injuries limited several players this spring, including Candela Alonso-Corcelles, who is out six to eight weeks with a hand injury, and another player suffered a foot stress fracture. Former libero Paula Cerame stepped in and played outside hitter for a set, allowing IU to move Morgan Geddes to the right pin.
The Hoosiers played mini-tournaments at Ball State and Louisville and hosted Middle Tennessee and Evansville.
“Our volume went down a bunch just to get kids to the finish line and make sure everyone was going to be healthy for the summer,” Aird said.
Indiana sent multiple student-athletes to work with their national team. Four players participated in the USA national team open program in March, with Geddes getting an invite after.
Aird capped off the spring by joining the Canadian National team at the end of April for its training camp serving as a consultant. He was joined by junior outside hitter Mady Saris and libero Haley Armstrong, who wrapped up her career in December. Aird said he thought Alonso-Corcelles could have represented Spain this summer, too, if not for her injury.
Indiana will welcome libero Ramsey Gary, who played in the Under Armour All America game, to the team this summer and they will also add setter Luca Fickell, the daughter of Wisconsin football coach Luke, and Ava Vickers, who along with Gary and Carly Mills, Camryn Haworth and Kenzie Daffinee played for the Munciana club team.
After finishing last season strong with two victories during the final weekend, the Hawkeyes tried to carry their momentum into the spring.
As Jim Barnes enters his second offseason at Iowa, he’s started to build his program culture and establish expectations. The Hawkeyes had a busy spring playing tournaments in Ames, Omaha, Cedar Falls and Iowa City. Official results were difficult to come by, but based on various social media rerports, Iowa went 5-4-3, playing mostly two-set tournament matches.
Barnes said he opted for single-day tournaments to see as many teams and styles as possible. Iowa faced off against the other in-state universities (Iowa State, Drake and Northern Iowa) multiple times this spring, but he was encouraged by the progress against them.
“With a younger team, as you’re developing, I like to play as many matches as we can, which involves the tournaments,” Barnes said. “If I have a veteran team, I want to play single matches and learn through that process and limit some of the swinging. It just depends on where you’re at with your team. We’re a younger team and still developing a good bit, so I wanted to play as much as possible.”
Iowa volleyball’s social media was filled with recruiting trips for the Hawkeye coaches, testimonials from the players and tracking the women’s basketball run to the national championship game. Barnes, who was at Baylor when that school won women’s basketball titles in 2005 and 2012, said he’s tried to feed off the positive energy generated by the basketball team and support women’s athletics.
“If you put a team together that really can compete they’re gonna show up,” Barnes said. “That helps us promote our sport, obviously. Because players want to play where they’re gonna be watched. This is just more evidence of what Iowa can do. We are really just proud of them. They’re just such good, good people. The coaches are just great human beings and there’s fun to root for. You just can’t help but root for them because I think they’re what college athletics is really about.”
Iowa suffered two defections after spring practice as middle blocker Toyosi Onabanjo and outside hitter Nia Washington entered the transfer portal.
The Terrapins had a quiet off-season and a quiet spring, playing just two matches: five sets against West Virginia and four sets versus Tennessee. They had a third match scheduled, but the opponent suffered a few injuries, forcing it to be canceled.
After suffering a knee injury last year, Erin Morrissey returned to action this spring. She was joined by two new transfers as outside hitter Samantha Schnitta from Ole Miss and defensive specialist Lilly Gunter from Mississippi State joined the program this semester.
“It’s nice to have two veteran kids come in and learn the system a little bit,” Maryland coach Adam Hughes said. “I think they’re also a little bit older, a little bit more mature than our kids. But it’s been good to just gain some experience from SEC play and give us a little example of maybe some things that we could try a little bit differently.”
Junior outside hitter Leila Ricks entered the transfer portal in late December but decided to remain at Maryland a few days later. Hughes said the move initially surprised him, but it led to some good conversations between them and the team.
With the returning depth and new additions, Hughes said they scrimmaged six-on-six for most of the spring.
Hughes will hire Ryan Ammerman to complete his staff after losing AJ Bonetti, who took the job as head coach at Georgetown. Ammerman joined the team in early May after working with UC-Irvine men’s team. Hughes said he knew Ammerman from the recruiting trails and got a recommendation from new Minnesota coach Keagan Cook, who is married to Ammerman’s sister, Sarah.
Maryland takes a few weeks off before heading to Europe during the summer, with stops in Slovenia, Croatia and Italy.
USA national-team assistant Erin Virtue was named head coach in January and filled out her staff with former UNLV assistant Dan Pawlikowski and former East Tennessee State head coach Benavia Jenkins.
Virtue had to manage a thin spring roster with just 10 players after the team’s top three scorers (Jess Mruzik, Jess Robinson and May Pertofsky) transferred.
“There’s some really good bones to this team right now,” Virtue said on the Conq’ring Heroes podcast shortly after she was hired. “I think one of the short-term things that we’re gonna have is making sure I can surround myself with an amazing staff and rounding out the athletes.”
Michigan went 6-1-2 this spring, with its only loss coming against Atlantic 10-champion Loyola. The Wolverines won their only home match in four sets against Eastern Michigan and then closed out the spring with a reverse sweep of Michigan State.
The Spartans had a busy spring playing 10 matches over four weekends. The most exciting addition to the team was coach Leah Johnson’s daughter, Rosalind, in early January. Roz was a big hit in the practice gym and the recruiting trail.
While on maternity leave, Johnson relied on upperclassmen and assistant coaches to help build the team.
“I thought Nalani (Iosia) and Julia (Bishop) did a great job taking leadership of the culture of the gym on my behalf,” Johnson said. “Now that I’m back, it has been awesome to see the gains as well as the comfort the team has built with Zheng (new assistant coach Zheng Xiang), which has allowed him to have a voice and an impact on the program from day one.”
MSU had two early enrollees join the team in outside hitter Taylah Holdem and setter Cameron Berger, plus junior middle blocker Kayla Hood, who transferred from Samford. The Spartans were relatively young, featuring five sophomores going through their first set of spring practices.
“Our depth chart is pretty strong, and players who didn’t see as much playing time in the fall made significant gains,” Johnson said. “The parity in our gym during the spring was pretty elite and created some really exciting moments when preparing for our scrimmages.”
In addition to practices, the Spartans worked on physical gains with associate director of athletic performance Casey Akenberger and director of sports science Dr. Bill Burghardt. Also, they met weekly with director of student-athlete wellness Dr. Molly McQueary talking about their mindset.
During the spring, the Spartans played 10 matches over four weekends, taking on regional teams such as Michigan, Indiana, Dayton, Bowling Green and Ball State. One of MSU’s goals for the spring was to run a quicker tempo offense. Johnson said a faster pace would allow the Spartans to control more points and dictate the flow of a match more.
“I think that first weekend at Ball State, there was some hesitancy with trusting it, and as we went through each weekend, we felt more and more confident,” Johnson said. “We felt like it was a competitive advantage we had in the spring, so that was a significant growth area for us.”
In the first spring under Keegan Cook, the Golden Gophers traveled to Hawai’i during spring break, winning a pair of five-set matches against the Rainbow Wahine. Sophomore Mckenna Wucherer led the way with 34 kills in the two matches.
The Gophers topped North Dakota State in straight sets on the mainland. Minnesota was without freshman middle blocker Calissa Minatee against Athletes Unlimited, borrowing a player from AU as former Minnesota All-American Taylor (Morgan) Reid for the second set. After Minnesota won two of the first three sets, the teams scrambled the lineups, with Taylor Landfair and Arica Davis serving as captains for the final set.
Cook liked the opportunity to play AU and challenge his team.
“You can’t become what you don’t see,” Cook said. “So for our athletes to see the professional avenue just gives them one more place they can play when their time at Minnesota is done. I love that.”
The Gophers closed the spring season with a five-set loss to Kansas at Simpson College in Iowa.
After wrapping up her career last year, former Gopher libero CC McGraw jumped into the coaching ranks as a volunteer assistant at Louisville.
The Huskers wrapped up their most successful beach season in March with a 15-5 record. NU played Wichita State on April 29, sweeping them in front of 2,096 fans in Central City, Nebraska.
Don’t fret, Husker fans: We will have more about Nebraska later this week in a separate story on the Huskers.
The Wildcats were another team in transition as they lost three of their top attackers last year to the transfer portal and saw the departure of nine players from last year’s squad. Northwestern usually has a robust roster but only had nine student-athletes available.
“It was awesome to have such a small group,” Northwestern coach Shane Davis said. “One of the things we wanted to do is hit home on the culture piece of the program — what they want out of the program and what they wanted to create. They wanted to create a high level of commitment in the gym and be really good with one another on building relationships with one another, on and off the court, but also building great relationships with the staff off the court.
“So it was really priority one with this group, but I had a lot of fun with them.”
The Wildcats played six matches this spring, which provided opportunities for playing time. The first came against Marquette on March 3, just a week into the practice. Davis said playing a team of that caliber that soon in the season was a shock to the system, but by the time they took on Purdue four weeks later, they had taken a big step forward.
“It was just like a night and day,” Davis said.
Sophomore Kathryn Randorf switched from opposite to outside hitter this spring and partnered with classmate Averie Hernandez to lead the offense. Junior Ellee Stinson emerged as a player at libero and Sophomore Kennedy Hill stepped forward at middle blocker. Senior setter Alexa Rousseau returns to guide the offense.
Northwestern closed the spring season with matches against Green Bay, Loyola Chicago and Milwaukee (twice). Davis said he wanted to test the young group against high-caliber competition.
The Wildcats will be boosted by the arrival of three graduate transfers, including two from the Big Ten: outside hitter Maddy Chinn (Purdue) and middle blocker Ellie Husemann (Minnesota). Julia Sangiacomo, a 6-foot-5 outside hitter, will join Northwestern from Santa Clara.
“It’s like, ‘OK, how can we get old here pretty quick?’” Davis said. “Northwestern is an outstanding academic institution, but the transfer piece is just new territory for us. We’ve had a couple of them, but we don’t like to thrive on transfers. So it was an interesting opportunity.”
The Buckeyes also featured a smaller roster after being hit hard by transfers. Ohio State lost all five seniors from last year’s team with all of them using their extra COVID year of eligibility elsewhere.
As a result, the Buckeyes are left with just three players with extensive playing experience, seniors Emily Londot, Rylee Radar and Sarah Sue Morbitzer. They will be buoyed by a top-five recruiting class, including early enrollees setter Mia Turman and outside hitter Grace Egan, who is out with a knee injury.
“The younger group had so much gratitude for the seniors and just leadership and things they’ve learned from them,” OSU coach Jen Flynn Oldenburg said to the Columbus Dispatch. “Just take a deep breath and go, ‘All right, now it’s our turn. Let’s see what we can do. How can we make our mark following in the footsteps of really great people?’”
It was a rough spring for the Buckeyes as they dropped matches to Dayton (3-2), Pitt (3-1) and Louisville (3-0). OSU also took on Athletes Unlimited for a match on March 25. After splitting the first two sets, the Buckeyes mixed up teams with Londot serving as a captain, picking a squad that won the final two sets.
After playing the past three seasons as one of the best opposites in the nation, Londot spent time on the left side during the spring.
“I have a new opportunity to lead the team in the way that I want to,” Londot the Dispatch. “And I feel like just having that space to create a new environment will really be good for the team.”
The Buckeyes added Michelle Bartsch-Hackley as a volunteer assistant coach in March. She was an outside hitter on the USA team that won gold in Tokyo. Bartsch-Hackley, who had a long and illustrious career as a pro, also won multiple All-American awards at Illinois, where Oldenburg was an assistant to Kevin Hambly. Illinois and Hackley lost to Illinois in the 2011 NCAA title match.
OSU also added an unconventional transfer this spring. Anna Morris left behind her basketball career at Northwestern after two years. Morris scored 83 points and grabbed 43 rebounds across 83 games in three seasons. In volleyball, she was the 2019 Gatorade Volleyball player of the year in New Jersey as she amassed 413 kills with a .432 hitting percentage to go with 195 digs, 91 blocks and 56 service aces.
The Buckeyes took another hit when the spring portal opened up on May 1 and junior Sarah White elected to transfer. Her spot on the roster was quickly filled as Medina, Ohio, product Kamiah Gibson. As a redshirt freshman, the setter started 25 matches and averaged 6.10 assists per set for the Mountaineers.
The Nittany Lions perhaps won the offseason with a busy offseason signing players from the portal.
They added All-American Mac Podraza, the Big Ten’s top setter from a year ago at Ohio State. Penn State is hoping Podraza will have an impact like former PSU setter Gabby Blossom did for San Diego during its magical 2022 season. Ally Van Eekeren was the Big South setter for the year at High Point and adds solid depth at the position. Jess Mruzik is a two-time all-Big Ten performer at Michigan and instantly becomes their best attacker. Camryn Hannah earned All-ACC second-team honors at Clemson and she should slide in at opposite hitter while Zoe Weatherington and Anjelina Starck compete for the other outside hitter spot.
Penn State only had 10 players on its spring roster. The Nittany Lions played one exhibition against Athletes Unlimited, splitting the four sets, and went to West Virginia for a scrimmage.
“I’m really proud of these 10 and what they did, on and off the court,” coach Katie Schumacher-Cawley said to DigNittany Volleyball. “They all made strides and they know that they’re all going to be able to contribute this fall. I’m excited for them.”
Without a true setter on the roster, Quinn Menger took the reins against Athletes Unlimited. In addition, three-time national champion Alisha (Glass) Childress switched sides and donned a Penn State jersey for the final two sets. Two-time champion Deja McClendon joined her old school, too, for the last two sets.
In addition to the transfers, the Nittany Lions added three more prep players to their 2023 recruiting class.
Outside hitter Karis Willow, a VolleyballMag.com Fab 50 prospect from Findlay, Ohio, signed in the fall. Joining her in the class are Catherine Burke, a 6-3 middle blocker from Glenview, Illinois, Kate Lally, a 5-9 setter from State College, and Joce Nathan, a 5-6 defensive specialist from Delaware.
After signing one of the top recruiting classes last fall, the Boilermakers welcomed No. 3 prospect Chloe Chicone to campus this spring. She joins last year’s Big Ten freshman of the year, Eva Hudson, for a dynamic attacking duo. Chicone more than held her own and showed a wicked serve.
“(Chicoine) raised the level of the culture of our program because she’s just an incredible worker and so committed to being great, and Eva is the same way,” Purdue coach Dave Shondell said to The Exponent. “Eva doesn’t want to be second to anybody. Whatever other people are doing that is really good, she’s going to find a way to do better than that.
Four of the six incoming freshmen were on campus for the spring, with Fab 50 players setter Taylor Anderson and outside hitter Grace Heaney joining the team this summer.
Purdue went 2-1-1 during the exhibition season, playing a pre-determined four sets each match. After sweeping Ball State and Northwestern 4-0, the Boilermakers split 2-2 against Kentucky before falling 3-1 to Wisconsin.
The spring ended on a sour note as senior Megan Renner announced she was medically retiring after suffering her second ACL tear. She started 19 matches last season as a redshirt junior, averaging 7.19 assists per set. However, on May 1, Lorrin Poulter announced she would play her final year at Purdue after four years setting at Denver. Poulter, who is coming off an ACL injury suffered in November, is the younger sister of former Illinois All-American Jordyn Poulter, the setter for the USA team that won Olympics gold in Tokyo.
Entering her fourth year on the job, Caitlin Schweihofer is finally progressing on her five-year plan for the Scarlet Knights. Months after she was hired in 2020, the sporting world shut down. Then the fall season was shifted to spring 2021, but finally she’s been able to build a solid recruiting class.
Rutgers played three spring tournaments, all on the road, at Lehigh, Temple and Army. In total, the Scarlet Knights played nine matches. With nine underclassmen and one senior on the roster, Scheihofer said she just wanted to try out many different lineups.
“We were rotating through three different setters,” she said. “We had two early enrollees, and we had two transfers so it was just kind of trying out some things, seeing what worked, what didn’t work for trying people in different positions, that sort of stuff to get us in a good spot for the fall.”
Two of Rutgers’ six signees enrolled early, attacker Krista Dooley, the younger sister of Lauren, who played at Florida and Kansas, and setter Georgia Lee, who is recovering from an ACL injury but participated fully in drills by the middle of the spring.
Schweihofer called the 2023 class her jumping off class, since it was the first she got to watch in person, host on official visits and communicate with consistently since the pandemic. A big sign of progress is 75 percent of the team is now taller than Schweihofer, who was 6-foot-2 middle at St. John’s.
The other sign of progress was the invitation of three players — libero Madyson Chitty, outside hitter Taylor Humphrey, and middle blocker Rikki Williams — to the USA national team open program. She said those invitations were the first time Rutgers athletes were invited to a national team tryout.
“Rutgers had been looked at as an international program that was supported by American players,” she said. “Now it’s really shifted to be an American-dominated program that’s still supported by international players, because Rutgers is a desirable location for a lot of international players. We are still very much open to that, but it was not what my vision was to carry the program forward.”
The three exhibition matches were about experience and experimenting for the Badgers this spring. UW went 2-1 with victories over Marquette and Purdue but fell in four sets to Athletes Unlimited.
Devyn Robinson played in the first match against Marquette, recording 10 kills and five blocks, but sat out the other two outings. In addition, outside hitter Sarah Franklin and middle blocker Caroline Crawford sat out all the matches.
Gabby McCaa, who only appeared in two sets last season, took advantage with eight blocks against Athletes Unlimited, which featured former Wisconsin great Sydney Hilley. Liz Gregorski filled in for the short-handed Badgers, but wore No. 25. As coach Kelly Sheffield explained, “She is graduating this spring and playing her fifth year at K-State. She couldn’t wear her usual number (7) because it was framed for her.”
The biggest star of the spring was new middle blocker Carter Booth, who transferred from Minnesota after an All-Big Ten season as a freshman. The 6-foot-7 middle blocker recorded 26 kills and 20 blocks over the three matches.
“She fits right in; she’s a special competitor,” Sheffield said. “She really wants to be great and you could tell she was having a lot of fun. It doesn’t matter if it’s a spring match or practice or a match in the fall, she just wants to ball out and compete. She just loves competing, so we’re really fortunate to have her.”
The Badgers mixed up the offense for Purdue. After using a 6-2 system last season and the first two spring matches, MJ Hammill and Izzy Ashburn ran a one-setter offense for two sets.
Next up for the Badgers is a European tour from June 2-14. They will play six matches against teams while in Turkey and Italy, including against sophomore libero Gulce Guctekin’s former team Fenerbahce.
Great report. Looks to me, as a B1G outsider that Nebraska is the pre-season conference favorite followed by Penn State. I hope you’ll do one on the PAC-12 teams.
Wisconsin should again challenge for conference championship. Article did not mention all American outside transfer from Northwestern joining team in June.
Yes, no mention of Temi Thomas Ailara transferring from Northwestern, where she led the Big Ten in kills. Also, no mention of Sage Damrow as a incoming freshmen and highly touted libero recruit.
Thanks to you, now they are mentioned.
Also, Nebraska gets its own article. Already starting to hate the Nebraska hype before they even do anything. Just like last year when they came into Madison recently named No. 1 in the nation and not having lost a set in something like ten straight matches only to be swept 3-0 by Wisconsin.
Well, Lincoln does cover Nebraska and has enough for a separate. So good us and volleyball fans. It posts Thursday.
Correction: Olympian, Alisha Glass Childress formerly setter and three-time champion at Penn State.
“Glass has played for the United States women’s national volleyball team in Rio that won a bronze medal and was named Best Setter.”
Surprised we didn’t see mention of Murr coming in for the Gophs!