By Greg Echlin for VolleyballMag.com
As competitive as they have become with one another the last two years, you might never figure that the two head coaches, Jerritt Elliott of Texas and Ray Bechard of Kansas, to be the close friends they are.
After all, Bechard’s Jayhawks unseated Texas as the Big 12 champions last year largely because of key players he has imported from the Lone Star State.
But, lo and behold, they remain close. Mainly because each is most interested in promoting the game and elevating its visibility to another level. Now they find themselves projected to be competing for another conference title while working themselves toward Kansas City where the NCAA Championship will take place in December.
Bechard was reminded of that during KU’s recent media day.
“I think everybody on our team knows that, boy, if we had a great regular season we could maybe host and stay pretty local,” Bechard said. “But I think if you get one eye on that and one eye on the journey you’ll probably going to trip up somewhere.”
Texas not only enters the season with a No. 1 ranking, Elliott has brought in the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class.
“It’s a good thing to be a part of and it’s every coach’s dream to have the players that we have in our program,” Elliott said. “I’ve realized that. I stated that from the very first meeting that we had. Here’s what I am going to be faced with as a head coach.”
Kansas is ranked eighth in the AVCA poll. Look out for two unranked teams, Baylor and Iowa State, who certainly have a chance to make an impact on the conference standings.
2016 record: 22-12, 9-7 Big 12
Key losses: The biggest void is at setter, where Morgan Reed controlled the offense last year. She averaged 10.23 assists per set to rank fifth in the Big 12.
Newcomers of note: Freshmen Yossiana Pressley and Hannah Lockin appear to be poised to make the biggest impact. Pressley of Cypress, Texas, was ranked in Volleyballmag.com’s Fab 50. Lockin is a setter from Des Moines.
Who returns: It starts with senior Katie Staiger, who finished fourth in the nation in kills with a Baylor single-season-record 698. Jaelyn Jackson is back for her sophomore season after suffering a knee injury in the Big 12 opener against Kansas State that caused her to miss the second half of the season. Before that, Jackson was dealing with shoulder issues.
Shelly Fanning took a redshirt last year after a preseason foot injury sidelined her, so she’ll be back in the middle for her sophomore season with hopes of returning to the second team All-Big 12 form she had as a freshman. She was healthy enough last March to participate in the USA women’s national team tryouts in Colorado Springs as an outside hitter. Tola Itiola was also injured in the preseason and took a medical redshirt, so she’s back in the middle for her senior season.
Analysis: Baylor’s potential success in coach Ryan McGuyre’s third season depends on its health. Despite a rash of injuries last season, the Lady Bears were still able to muster an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament and knocked off the University of San Diego in the opening round before falling to UCLA. With most of the team returning, the Lady Bears hope to live up to or exceed the coaches’ prediction of a third-place finish in the conference.
2016 record: 18-11, 10-6 Big 12
Key losses: Outside hitter Morgan Kuhrt, who had 12 kills in an upset win over then-No. 5 Texas in Ames, was second on the team in kills (230) and one of three Cyclones who played in all 29 matches. Suzanne Horner started the season as the setter in a 5-1 offense, then made the transition with returning senior Monique Harris in a 6-2 when the Cyclones made the change in the match at Texas. Outside hitter Ciara Capezio, who had three aces against the Horns, rounds out the three departed seniors.
Newcomers of note: Freshman setter Piper Mauck of Des Moines enrolled at ISU last spring and participated in the Cyclones’ spring drills to get an early jump on the adjustment to college life. So she’s in the mix for the 6-2 if Johnson-Lynch stays with it throughout this season. Mauck is a 6-foot-1 setter while Harris, in contrast, stands 5-9. Freshmen Meegan Hart and Avery Rhodes add to the depth in the middle for the Cyclones.
Who returns: Junior outside hitter Jess Schaben leads the way. Despite a tender shoulder, she was a first-team All-Big 12 and honorable-mention AVCA All-American last year. Coming off surgery for a torn labrum last December, her progress will be closely monitored.
Middle blocker Alexis Conaway, a first-team All-Big 12 performer the last two seasons, is a smart player who knows when to keep the ball in play or when to go for the kill, indicated by being one of the best in Cyclone history in hitting percentage. Last season she hit .323. Grace Lazard, a junior from London, gives ISU more strength in the middle.
Senior Samara West of Omaha was asked to switch in the middle of the season from middle blocker to outside hitter in the change to the 6-1 and made a smooth transition. In the opening round loss, 3-0, against Purdue in the NCAA tournament, West paced the Cyclones with ten kills.
After redshirting in her first year at Iowa State, libero Hali Hillegas took command mid-way through last year and started the final 16 matches for the Cyclones. As a member of the the Big 12 All-Freshmen team, Hillegas will try to meet Johnson-Lynch’s higher expectations this season.
Analysis: The Cyclones will try to pick up their momentum from winning 10 of their last 12 Big 12 matches. It started with a five-set push against the Horns in ISU’s loss at Gregory Gym when Johnson-Lynch adjusted to the 6-2. On the Horns return trip to Ames, the Cyclones notched their biggest upset win of the season. But the Cyclones, who have made eleven consecutive NCAA tournaments, had higher hopes than the first-round loss against Purdue, a more physical team. This year, the Cyclones are more physical and athletic. The key will be passing and ball control.
With most of last year’s team returning, the more experienced Cyclones hope to keep another streak going: Finishing in at least among the top three of the Big 12 for eight straight seasons.
2016 record: 27-3, 15-1 Big 12
Key losses: The biggest loss for the Jayhawks is at libero, where three-year starter Cassie Wait worked to become one of the best at her position in all of Division I volleyball. She was the glue at that spot last season for the Big 12 champion while also managing her studies as a graduate student in the KU School of Law. Wait managed the team as an on-the-floor communicator and kept everything in check. “She took pressure off the other players, she took ownership,” said Bechard, who is entering his 20th season.
The other two seniors, Taylor Soucie and Maggie Anderson, were also significant factors in the Jayhawks’ meteoric rise the last two seasons. As sophomores, they helped KU reach its first national semifinal match in program history, then played an integral role in KU’s march to the Big 12 regular-season title last year before the stinging season-ending loss at home against Creighton in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Soucie was a four-year starter at middle blocker and Anderson, playing in five straight NCAA tournaments at KU, embraced her role as a serving specialist and backed up Ainise Havili at setter.
In the second week of this season’s practice, KU’s depth took a blow when outside hitter Patricia Montero suffered a season-ending knee injury. She saw some playing time last season after redshirting her freshman year, also with a torn ACL. “There was nobody who was playing as well as she was during our two-a-days, but we know that she’ll get great care her,” Bechard said. “We know that she’ll have an opportunity to be supported at a high level by all of us. A year from now, we’ll be talking about Montero and how well she’s going to help us.”
Newcomers of note: Most notably about the Jayhawks is the addition of three seasoned transfer players from power-five conferences. Mmache Nwok is a middle blocker who transferred from Arizona State after he freshman season.
Gabby Simpson, a three-year starter at Colorado and an All-Pac 12 selection the last two years, finishes her collegiate career at KU. The 6-foot-3 left-hander backs up Havili at setter and can also attack as a right-side hitter. “It adds a whole other element to our gym,” said Bechard.
Taylor Alexander is a middle blocker who started all 31 matches last year at Ole Miss and will play her final season of eligibility as a graduate transfer. At 6-foot-4, she fills the void left by Soucie.
“All three of them are hungry, two of them (Simpson and Alexander) in their last year, so I think that creates more of an urgency,” Bechard said.
Who returns: The pillars are the three Texas natives: Havili of Fort Worth, pre-season Big 12 Player of the Year selection Kelsie Payne of Austin, and Madison Rigdon of neighboring Pflugerville, who led the Big 12 in service aces per set (0.47). As Lone Star State imports, they were focused on unseating the Longhorns from the Big 12 perch, which they did, and ending a 25-match losing streak against the Horns. That was accomplished in Lawrence late October.
“Ainise is going to run the show for us,” Bechard said. “She’s poised to have a great senior season. She’s as determined as she’s ever been.”
Payne and Rigdon each have had a taste of international competition the last two summers. And much is expected from last year’s freshmen to accelerate the caliber of their play as sophomores and most prominent in that mix are outside hitters Jada Burse, another Texan, and Ashley Smith of Las Vegas.
Analysis: Opposing defenses will center their game around stopping Payne with double-teams, so Bechard is looking for a way to find a more balanced offense. Apart from the three returning pillars, expect Bechard to do some shuffling with his lineup this season to find the right combination. The biggest question mark is: Who will step forward and take over at the libero spot? Allie Nelson as a freshman saw limited time there last year.
Despite winning the Big 12 title, Bechard believes the Jayhawks lost the opportunity to land one of the four top seeds because of the lack of punch in KU’s non-conference schedule. Before the Big 12 season, KU’s only loss was at Purdue, No. 14 at the time, but victories over teams like Eastern Washington, Lamar and Chicago State aren’t going to grab the NCAA selection committee’s attention when they’re looking at the 64-team bracket. Even if the Jayhawks would have gotten through the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, they would have faced a likely rematch against the Horns in the regional on the road at Gregory Gym. Based on projections this season, KU is playing more opponents who could give them trouble, especially as KU searches for answers in some positions.
2016 record: 21-10, 9-7 Big 12
Key losses: From a season in which the Wildcats not only made the NCAA tournament but earned an opportunity to host the first weekend, 17th-year head coach Suzie Fritz finds herself in a retooling mode. Her biggest challenge is replacing setter Katie Brand. The AVCA third-team All-American averaged 11.27 assists per set, only a tad behind Oklahoma’s Audrey Alford for third place in the Big 12. The departure of Brand’s libero teammate, Kerston Kober, can’t be minimized either. They were the first four-year letterwinners who combined to guide the Wildcats to at least 17 victories in each of their four years since 2005.
Newcomers of note: The most notable are a couple of transfers from Arizona. Sarah Dixon begins her sophomore season and appears to the best candidate to take over for Brand at setter. Reilly Killeen, a Honolulu native who played two seasons with the Wildcats, may end up as the libero. Brynn Carlson from the Twin Cities area in Minnesota, headlines a freshmen class of six. She enrolled at K-State last spring.
Who returns: Senior Bryna Vogel, a pre-season All-Big 12 selection, finished her junior season in the finale against Ohio State in style with a career-high 11 blocks. Elle Sandbothe, a member of the Big 12 all-freshman team, was on the disappointing end of the Battle of the Sandbothe sisters (Taylor for Ohio State) in the season-ending match against the Buckeyes. Elle looks to start out her sophomore campaign on a more positive note.
Analysis: K-State defeated Lipscomb in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, but then lost to Ohio State. No matter the rebuilding stage, K-State is looked upon as a blue-collar team that will somehow work itself into contention in the upper tier of the conference standings. As one Big 12 coach said about K-State, “They’re always there.” The positive trend under Fritz is coaching up at the setter spot where the last four starters have been part of a team that has made the NCAA Tournament.
2016 record: 14-15, 5-11 Big 12
Key losses: Middle Marion Hazelwood, a graduate senior and AVCA HM All-American the last two years, transferred to Washington. She led the Sooners with 1.22 blocks/set and had 2.63 kills/set, hitting .308. Outside hitter Madison Ward, a senior from Lawton, had her season curtailed last year by a hip injury. The Sooners then went 2-8 down the stretch. Outside hitter Kimmy Gardiner, after transferring from Mississippi State, compiled more than 1,000 kills at MSU and OU. Last season, she was also big in the back row as the team leader in digs per set.
Newcomers of note: Freshmen middle blocker Paige Anderson of McKinney, Texas, Sara Maras of Tulsa and Kira Morikawa of Honolulu are expected to be the main contributors.
Who returns: Junior outside hitter Madison Drescher of Southlake, Texas, is one of four returning starters and a pre-season pick for All-Big 12. Twice last season, she had 15 kills in a match.
Analysis: The Sooners haven’t beaten a ranked opponent since winning at Texas in Oct., 2014. Since then, OU has lost 14 straight matches against ranked teams. For OU to rebound from its slide the last two years, the Sooners need to step up better against the better teams in the Big 12.
2016 record: 27-5 overall, 14-2 Big 12
Key losses: Starting with setter Nicole Dalton, a member of UT’s 2012 NCAA championship team, the Longhorns lost three seniors who experienced nothing but leading the Horns to the women’s volleyball final four each season. Starting setter and second team AVCA All-American Chloe Collins finished with 3,678 assists, fourth all-time in Horns history. Outside hitter Paulina Prieto-Cerame had the distinction of playing for an NCAA championship team at Penn State before transferring and playing in three final fours with the Horns. A first team All-Big 12 performer and honorable-mention All-American, Prieto-Cerame played pro in Puerto Rico and garnered rookie-of-the-year honors.
Newcomers of note: With the No. 1-ranked recruiting class, it’s hard to ignore any of the Texas freshmen as significant contributors right out of the gate. Middle blocker Brionne Butler, 6-foot-4, from Boling HS in Kendleton, Texas, might win a starting job. Butler picked up valuable international experience last July as a member of the USA junior national team that played in the Junior World Championship in Mexico. Six-foot-2 outside hitter Lexi Sun of Solana Beach, Cal., the VBM national player of the year, is potentially a six-rotation player.
Ashley Shook, a 6-1 setter from Plainfield, Ill., will try to fill the void left by the 5-7 Collins. Shook was part of two national championships with the Sports Performance 18 Elite club team at the AAU championships.
Libero Olivia Zelon, of Santa Monica, Calif., will challenge Cat McCoy, a second-team All-Big 12 performer who started every match last season.
Who returns: In addition to the heralded freshmen class, the return of two-time All-American senior middle blocker Chiaka Ogbogu, who missed last season for academic reasons, is huge for the Horns. But in Ogbogu’s absence, Morgan Johnson stepped up in the middle last year.
Elliott admits that he put as much pressure on Johnson as any player in the last four years. “I was on her a lot to get her to buy into the work ethic that it took and determination,” Elliott said. “About halfway or three-quarters through the year, she started getting it.”
With Ogbogu back, Yaazie Bedart-Ghani moves back to the right side where she’s been engaged in the pre-season’s most spirited battle with senior Ebony Nwanebu, the Big 12 leader in hitting percentage (.379) last year. “She’s (Bedart-Ghani) got herself in the best shape of her career and she’s going after it,” Elliott said.
Not to be left out of the notable returnees is last year’s Volleyballmag.com Freshman of the Year and AVCA first-team All-American Micaya White of Frisco. She paid immediate dividends after taking a redshirt in her true freshman year at UT.
Analysis: To achieve their goal of fulfilling unfinished business after the title-match loss against Stanford, the Longhorns must improve defensively on the percentage (.204) hit against them last year which Elliott labeled “astronomically high.” With the addition of Shook and Ogbogu’s return, the Horns’ curve on blocking potential is already on the way up. Plus, you throw in Sun and White on the left side and the Horns will give opponents fits.
The Horns have four seniors and they welcome the push from the newcomers and returning underclassmen. Orie Agboji was thrust into the lineup as the middle blocker in the absence of Ogbogu, but it was too much for a raw true freshman from Kansas City. As a returning sophomore, she’s one of the younger players coming back improved and ready to earn more time on the frontline than she ended up playing at the end of last year.
With so much talent, the question is: How will Elliott manage the rotations and keep everyone content?
“It’s impossible to make everyone happy,” said Elliott. “We’ve got to be selfless and give to the team. Maybe learn like the Golden State Warriors where the goal is more important than the role.”
On the opening weekend last year, the Horns got waxed by Nebraska while trying to adjust to the absence of Ogbogu. Though the Horns yielded the Big 12 title to Kansas with a loss in Lawrence and a hiccup at Iowa State, they rebounded to stun Nebraska in the national semifinals. Though Texas will be tested early again in the non-conference season with the likes of Florida, Oregon and Minnesota, the coaches will sell the players on the long-term process and seem likely to carve a path back to Kansas City where the Longhorns reached the national semis in 2010.
2016 record: 15-13, 7-9 Big 12
Key losses: Middle blocker Natalie Gower, a native of St. Louis, was huge for the Frogs both offensively and defensively en route to becoming a first-teamer in the Big 12. Also gone are outside hitter Ashley Smith, opposite Sarita Mikels, who played three years at TCU after transferring from Houston, and Jillian Bergeson, who played her last two seasons at TCU after transferring from Pepperdine. And assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Sara Mathews left to become head coach at Delaware.
Newcomers of note: Berklie Baker leads a group of five freshmen that includes Allye Beth Deaton, Dani Dennison, Tori Dilfer, and Sarah Swanson. Outside hitter Lexi MacLean transferred after two years at Arizona State and libero Mykah Wilson enters her first year at TCU after two seasons at Long Beach State.
Who returns: Middle blocker Anna Walsh started 22 matches and finished third on the Frogs in kills last year. It was her first year at TCU after the Grapevine, Texas, native transferred from Virginia She’s pre-season All-Big 12 selection for her junior year this season.
Analysis: The Horned Frogs advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for only the second time in program history after opening with a win over Wichita State. But theys had the unenviable position of trying to knock off Nebraska on its home court. Though TCU’s overall record in the regular season was 14-12, the Frogs were No. 1 in strength of schedule in the nation. The preseason schedule is not as demanding this year.
2016 record: 10-21, 0-16 Big 12
Key losses: Middle blocker Lauren Douglass was one of the best in school history. She set a single-season hitting percentage (.377) as a junior. Setter Marguerite Grubb broke into the school’s top 10 in assists.
Newcomers of note: In his second season as the Red Raiders head coach, Tony Graystone has brough in four transfers and five freshmen in his rebuilding process. Graystone has only one senior, libero Kate Klepetka who transferred from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
Who returns: Juniors Reyn Akiu, Katy Keenan and Sarah Redding will lead the transition.
Analysis: After a successful run at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Graystone discovered in his first year in the Big12 that it’s a whole different ballgame. For the Red Raiders to shake up what’s predicted of them, it begins with talent. Graystone hopes that this year’s group takes a big step forward.
2016 record: 12-18, 3-13 Big 12
Key losses: Setter Haley Roe became a starter in her junior season. Middle blocker Hannah Shreve lettered for four years and is ranked sixth all-time in block assists at WVU. And she was there last spring after sitting out 2016, but USC transfer Baylee Johnson, a setter who could have made quite an impact, is no longer with the team.
Newcomers of note: Freshman Katie DeMeo, an outside hitter, is a versatile player from Troy, Ohio. Another freshman from Ohio, Chloe Klusman, is a true middle. Emma Anderson transferred from South Alabama and will complete her final year of eligibility and poses stiff competition against setter Erin Slinde, who took over as starter midway through her freshman year last year.
Who returns: Mia Swanegan, after transferring from TCU, has settled in to become a key player in the middle for the Mountaineers and is expected to be a frontline leader. She ranked first in the Big 12 leaders in blocks per set (1.34). Veteran libero Gianna Gotterba surpassed 1,000 career digs at WVU. She’s the anchor of the serve receive and defense. Outside hitter Payton Caffrey set a freshmen record at WVU record in kills and earned first-team All-Big 12 honors.
Analysis: In his third season as coach of the Mountaineers, Reed Sunahara hopes to continue their uphill climb in the Big 12. Sunahara is looking for better ball control this year.