Big 12 preview: Handful of teams hope to move up, but Texas, Baylor at the top

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Texas, favored to win the Big 12 again, almost always place in front a full house in Gregory Gym

Texas rules Big 12 volleyball, but Baylor continues to aim high after a historic 2017, and some key transfers and big-time freshmen recruits bring new talent into the conference. Things will look different in the Big 12 this season — with a handful of teams ready to make a move — but Texas remains the constant at the top. This is an in-depth preview of the league:

Texas rules Big 12 volleyball, but Baylor continues to aim high after a historic 2017, and some key transfers and big-time freshmen recruits bring new talent into the conference. Things will look different in the Big 12 this season — with a handful of teams ready to make a move — but Texas remains the constant at the top.

Big 12 Preseason Coaches Poll
1. Texas
2. Baylor
3. Iowa State
4. Kansas
5. Kansas State
6. TCU
7. Texas Tech
8. Oklahoma
9. West Virginia
Texas, Baylor, and Iowa State were also included in the AVCA’s preseason poll, ranking No. 3, No. 16, and No. 21, respectively.

Baylor’s Yossianna Pressley is one of the offensive players in the Big 12/Baylor photo

Baylor
2017 Record: 24-7 (13-3)
Key losses: Outside hitter Katie Staiger was an absolute workhorse for Baylor, leaving at the end of the 2017 season as the school’s all-time kills leader in the rally scoring era.
The Bears also lost libero Jana Brusek, middle Camryn Freiberg, and middle/opposite Tola Itiola.
“Physically, what we lost has been replaced and maybe to-be-determined if it’s upgraded in that,” coach Ryan McGuyre said. “We’re longer, we’ll be a little more physical … Those seniors understood the balance of trust and kindness with competitive grit, and we’ve got to relearn that, I think.”
Who returns: A lot of the hype that surrounds Baylor this year has to do with Yossiana Pressley. As a freshman, the outside hitter led the conference in points and kills per set and was named Big 12 freshman of the tear.
Setter Hannah Lockin and middle Shelly Fanning joined Pressley on the preseason All-Big 12 list. Lockin earned honorable mention All-American honors last season, tallying 11.23 assists per set. Junior Fanning, also an honorable mention All-American, posted the best single-season hitting percentage in Baylor history (.376), in addition to leading the team in blocks.
Despite standing only 5-foot-8, six-rotation outside hitter Aniah Philoh ranked fourth on the team in kills last season, first in aces (25), and second in digs per set (3.74), and is the top candidate to start opposite Pressley on the left.
Newcomers of note: Middle blocker Sydney Sacra headlines Baylor’s group of five newcomers, not least because an immediate replacement is needed to fill Freiberg’s spot in the middle. McGuyre said the 6-4 Needville, Texas, product will make an impact right away.
The new starting libero may also come from the 2018 class — freshmen and Texas products Emily Van Slate and Shanel Bramschreiber will be in competition with two upperclassmen defensive specialists\.
Talented transfer Gia Milana makes her way to Waco from Maryland, where she was the go-to outside hitter. However, with two outside hitters returning, as well as freshman OH/OPP Bri Coleman, Milana might have a tough road ahead of her to earn a spot on the floor.
Analysis: Baylor begins the 2018 season with some momentum after earning a top-16 seed in the 2017 tournament and celebrating the program’s only back-to-back NCAA appearances. The Bears ranked No. 16 in the AVCA Preseason Poll, and a strong preseason includes matches against UCLA (preseason No. 11), San Diego (preseason No. 14), and Wisconsin (preseason No. 9). Last year, only Texas stood between Baylor and a Big 12 title.

Iowa State
2017 Record: 22-7 (11-5)
Key losses: The graduation of setter Monique Harris will likely prove the most significant for ISU; last season Harris briefly ran a 6-2 with then-freshman Piper Mauck, but shouldered the setter duties in a 5-1 starting with conference play.
Opposite/middle Samara West, who ranked second on the team in kills last year and first in hitting percentage, will also be sorely missed, as will outside hitter Alexis Conaway, who started for three seasons as a middle before moving to the left.
Who returns: Now for some good news: Jess Schaben, Grace Lazard, and Hali Hillegas — Iowa State’s top hitter, top blocker, and top digger, respectively — all return, and all three were named to the preseason All-Big 12 list. Opposite Hannah Bailey is also back to claim her spot on the right pin.
Newcomers of note: Brooke Anderson, a 5-10 outside hitter and the reigning Wisconsin Gatorade Player of the Year, headlines Iowa State’s No. 24-ranked recruiting class. She’s joined by setter Jenna Brandt, who will compete with Mauck for the starting setter position; versatile six-rotation hitter Eleanor Holthaus; and defensive specialist Taylor Baranski. Hillegas is the reigning Big 12 Libero of the Year, while Baranski is her likely successor.
Analysis: The first season with a new setter is never easy, but Mauck had the whole spring slate to get into rhythm with her hitters, and the addition of Brandt to practice should only motivate her and challenge her to continue to improve.
If the setter-hitter connection is on, expect this Iowa State team that took down Creighton and Kansas last fall to be sneaky dangerous once again behind the senior leadership of Schaben, Lazard, and Bailey.

Kansas
2017 Record: 22-8 (11-5)
Key losses: Kansas graduated seven seniors who comprised the most successful class in program history. The biggest losses will be setter Ainise Havili, opposite Kelsie Payne, and outside hitter Madison Rigdon.
Who returns: Preseason All-Big 12 outside hitter Jada Burse is Kansas’ top returning offensive producer, recording 258 kills in 2017. Other returners include outsides Ashley Smith and Patricia Montero, middles Zoe Hill and Mmachi Nwoke; and libero Allie Nelson.
Newcomers of note: Gabby Simpson transferred to Kansas before the 2017 season after three years at Colorado but redshirted last fall. The 6-3 setter was named preseason All-Big 12 and could set or play opposite, or do both in a 6-2. If coach Ray Bechard goes with the 6-2, freshman Camryn Ennis, another setter/hitter, would be the top candidate to play opposite Simpson.
The 2018 Jayhawk class also includes two middles: Kailea Carrier, who as 6-5 is the tallest player ever recruited by Bechard, and 6-3 Rachel Langs.
Analysis: Ranked fourth in the Big 12 preseason poll and merely “receiving votes” in the AVCA, it doesn’t look like people expect much from Kansas this year; however, with two super athletic setter/hitters making their debuts, backed up by some solid returning hitters and defensive players, and added height in the middle, completely discounting Kansas seems unwise.
Ever since making the Final Four in 2015, Kansas couldn’t seem to live up the hype, falling short of expectations in 2016 and 2017. Perhaps this year with all of that stripped away, the Jayhawks can start fresh.

Kansas State
2017 Record: 10-19 (3-13)
Key losses: Opposite Bryna Vogel is the only player not returning, but she played a big role on the team, ranking second on the team in both kills and digs last season. Setter Brooke Smith transferred back to Nebraska, where she played her first two seasons.
Who returns: Kills leader Kylee Zumach will be looking to turn things around for the team in her redshirt-senior season after being named to the preseason All-Big 12 list. Setter Sarah Dixon ran a 6-2 last season with the departed Smith. Reilly Killeen earned the starting libero spot in 2017 after transferring to K State, tallying 412 digs.
Newcomers of note: Gloria Mutiri headlines the K-State recruiting class ranked No. 26 in the country. Mutiri originally committed to Ohio State, but midway through her senior year the Oklahoma native decided she’d rather go somewhere close to home, ultimately choosing Kansas State. A 6-2 opposite, Mutiri is a second team Under Armour High School All-American and a top-20 recruit in the class of 2018.
This incoming class also includes Abigail Archibong, Holly Bonde, and Kayley Hollywood. Middle Hollywood, standing 6-5, is the tallest player in the gym, and could challenge returning middles Macy Flowers, Peyton Williams, and Elle Sandbothe. Canadian middle Megan Vernon also makes her collegiate debut this fall after redshirting in 2017.
Analysis: The 2017 season wasn’t pretty for the Wildcats. Perhaps an influx of fresh blood in the form of four freshmen combined with some solid veterans who have had time to bond and grow together will be a winning formula.

Oklahoma
2017 Record: 7-22 (4-12)
Key losses: Defensive specialist Emma Kelly is the only member of the 2017 team not back for 2018. Kelly played in all but one set for the team last year, tallying 205 digs and 20 aces.
Who returns: Alyssa Enneking, now a senior outside hitter, led the 2017 team in kills and digs. Top blocker Paige Anderson and top server Morgan Miller, a versatile setter/hitter, also return, as do outside hitters Madison Drescher and Sarah Maras and setter Audrey Alford.
Newcomers of note: First-year coach Lindsey Gray-Walton welcomes three freshmen in defensive specialist Aysia Harty and outsides Sabrina Simms and Olga Zampati. But the key addition is Oregon State transfer setter Kylee McLaughlin, the 2016 Texas Gatorade Player of the Year and reigning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year.
Brianna Kadiku, a 6-2 middle blocker, transferred from Memphis where she was a two-year starter.
Analysis: Gray-Walton faces a tall task in turning around this Oklahoma program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2014. Adding McLaughlin could be huge.
“We have great energy, good passion, excitement to be in the gym again,” Gray-Walton said on the first day of practice. “We have a lot of young kids, some veterans, so taking the time to be patient with them is really important.”

Texas
2017 Record: 27-3 (16-0)
Key losses: The end of the 2017 season saw four Longhorns complete their collegiate eligibility (Chiaka Ogbogu, Cat McCoy, Ebony Nwanebu and Mirta Baselovic); one No. 1-ranked recruit, Lexi Sun, transfer after her freshman season; and another freshman, Olivia Zelon, quit the team.
Of course, the graduation of seniors is anticipated and Zelon didn’t play a single point last season, so the loss of Sun, who was the second-highest offensive contributor, hits Texas the hardest. Not only that, but she transferred to Texas’ former Big 12 rival and reigning national champion Nebraska. Ouch.
Who returns: Headlining the list of returning Longhorns is junior Micaya White, the hard hitting and serving outside hitter who led the team in kills and aces last season. The Big 12 coaches named White the conference preseason player of the year.
Yaasmeen Bedart-Ghani is one of two seniors on the Texas squad and came up big toward the end of the 2017 season, subbing in for Sun in the regional semifinal versus Utah and ultimately scoring the winning kill at 16-14 in the fifth set. Bedhart-Ghani has proven to be a dependable contributor all across the front row.
Morgan Johnson has established herself as one of the top middles in the country and setter Ashley Shook was an AVCA honorable mention All-American, with 10.84 assists/set as well as 2.28 digs.
Newcomers of note: Coach Jerritt Elliott, always a strong recruiter, brings in four true freshmen this fall, and will also finally celebrate the collegiate debut of Brionne Butler, a high-flying, long limbed 6-4 middle blocker who redshirted last year.
Among the list of true freshman are Asjia O’Neal, PrepVolleyball’s No. 2-ranked player in the Class of 2018, and Logan Eggleston. Eggleston, originally a member of the 2019 class, graduated a year early from high school and spent a busy summer traveling with the Texas team in Europe and serving as the team captain for the USA Women’s Junior National Team at the NORCECA U20 Continental Championship where she was named tournament MVP.
Rounding out the class are libero/setter Jhenna Gabriel and libero Sydney Petersen. Petersen, the daughter of Northern Iowa coach Bobbi Petersen, was a second team Under Armour High School All-American and passed up offers from UNI and Iowa State.
A last-minute transfer announcement also adds Katarina Luketić, a 6-2 right side and Croatian national team member, to the mix.
Analysis: The 2018 Longhorns are going to look a lot different this year. But they’ll still be deadly. When you consider the core group of White, Bedart-Ghani, Johnson, and Shook and add Butler and Eggleston, that’s a team that will be in the national-title hunt.

Texas Christian
2017 Record: 15-17 (4-12)
Key losses: Ashleigh Martin, last year’s second-highest kills contributor, would have been a key member of the 2018 TCU squad; however, she chose to medically retire and will not play this year.
Setters Lamprini Konstantinidou and Kaylee Smith and defensive specialist Kayla Scheevel graduated.
Who returns: Anna Walsh, a middle blocker who transferred from Virginia in 2016, is back for her senior season after leading the team in kills last fall. A group of nine returning sophomores, split between members of last year’s incoming class and redshirts from the season before, includes setter Tori Dilfer, starting libero Dani Dennison, outside hitters Allye Beth Deaton and Abigail Buckingham, middle blocker Sarah Swanson, and defensive specialist Berklie Baker.
Newcomers of note: Katie Clark and élan McCall, two local Texas products touching over 10 feet, bring high-caliber experience from playing for some of the best club teams in the state. McCall is a 6-0, bouncy outside, while Clark stands 6-3 and can play anywhere across the front row.
Defensive specialist Ashley Wehrstein rounds out the small, but talented 2018 class, and Loyola Marymount transfer Ashley Kozer will compete with Dilfer for the setter position.
Analysis: TCU struggled in the regular season and in the Big 12 last year, but a postseason run to the semifinals of the NIVC and a productive spring season means the Horned Frogs enter 2018 with a bit of momentum.
Coach Jill Kramer has been slowly building up her squad with nationally-ranked recruiting classes since returning to her alma mater in 2015. Last year, TCU had five true freshmen, four redshirt freshmen making their collegiate debuts, and no returning six-rotation starters. With a little more experience under its belt, expect TCU to be a much grittier team this fall.

Texas Tech
2017 Record: 19-15 (4-12)
Key losses: Sarah Redding ranked fourth on the team in kills last season despite struggling with knee injuries. Earlier this year, the Texas native made the decision to medically retire and transition into a student-assistant coach role. Coach Tony Graystone will also need to decide on a replacement for libero Katie Klepetka, who finished her redshirt senior season with 481 digs in 2017.
Who returns: Top hitter Emily Hill is a junior entering her second season in Lubbock after starting at Mississippi State. In fact, all of Tech’s starting offensive contributors, with the exception of Redding, return for 2018, including outside Chandler Atwood, middles Katy Keenan and Allison White, and setter Missy Owens (a preseason All-Big 12 honoree).
Newcomers of note: Graystone added eight freshmen. Alex Kirby and Haley Killinger joined the team in January, benefitting from extra touches during the spring season, while the remaining six arrived on campus this summer. Outside hitter Killinger earned honorable mention Under Armour All-American honors as a high school senior and will immediately compete for playing time.
Analysis: Last year, in only his second season as head coach, Graystone led the Raiders to their most wins in a season since 2000, first winning season since 2001, and an appearance in the NIVC championship match. This group of freshmen represents Graystone’s first full recruiting class and hints at his big dreams and goals for this program.

West Virginia
2017 Record: 21-13 (6-10)
Key losses: Top kills contributor Payton Caffrey transferred to Florida State after two seasons at WVU and middle Mia Swanegan, the team’s best blocker and second-best hitter, graduated. Additional losses include outside hitter Morgan Montgomery, setter Emma Anderson, and defensive specialists Gianna Gotterba and Taylor Cross.
Who returns: Opposite Natania Levak ranked third in kills and will be the top returning offensive contributor. Starting libero Alexa Hastings and middles Briana Lynch and Katie Demeo are back as well, with Erin Slinde returning after leading the 2017 team with 941 assists.
Newcomers of note: Ten freshmen bring an influx of fresh blood to Morgantown: middles Ashleigh Barton, Rhyenne-Gabriella Filisi, and Kristina Jordan; outsides Abigail Cherin, Kristin Lux, and Macy McElhaney; defensive specialists Keatan Broughton, Abigail Gibbons, and Marielena Somoza; and setter Lacey Zerwas.
Analysis: Like TCU and Texas Tech, West Virginia struggled in the regular season, but did well in the NIVC tournament, advancing to the semifinals. The Mountaineers’ 21 wins last year marked the most since 1991; however, Caffrey played a major role in that success.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Kansas State: Brooke Smith, a transfer from Nebraska, has transferred back to Nebraska and will be a Cornhusker, not a Wildcat, for her final season of college volleyball.

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