NCAA volleyball practice begins: “Round up the usual suspects”

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Nebraska celebrates during their 2017 finals run.Ed Chan, VBshots.com

NCAA teams begin practice Wednesday and, as Captain Renault famously said in Casablanca (really, if you haven’t seen it, find it and watch it, one of the greatest movies ever made), “Round up the usual suspects.”

When last we watched NCAA Division I volleyball, Nebraska was celebrating its second national championship in three years, frolicking under the falling confetti in Kansas City last December 17, before another sold-out title-match crowd.

Fast forward to now, when this Nebraska team won’t look anything like last season’s, but would you not put the Huskers in the favorites column?

For that matter, would you bet against any of last year’s final four, Florida, Stanford and Penn State to get back?

Nebraska lost the VolleyballMag.com national player of the year, setter Kelly Hunter, but returns Mikaela Foecke, Jazz Sweet, Lauren Stivrins and Kenzie Maloney and gets Lexi Sun from Texas. Not a bad start.

Florida, which took the Huskers to four in the final, lost a great middle in Rhamat Alhassan and do-everything outside in Carli Snyder, but gets a freshman outside who might just be the next great player in Thayer Hall, who was the MVP of the Pan Games in 2017 — before entering her senior year of high school.

Stanford won it all two years ago when Kathryn Plummer, Morgan Hentz, Jenna Gray and Audriana Fitzmorris were freshmen.

And Penn State? Coach Russ Rose, who has seven NCAA titles to his credit, starts his 40th season at the helm — yes, 40th season — with eight freshmen and a talented transfer and, well, would you bet against Rose and Penn State?

Talk about the usual suspects, but expect that Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State will be in the B1G hunt. Illinois had a big finish to last season under first-year coach Chris Tamas.

The Big Ten, pretty much the benchmark of college volleyball, has two new coaches, because Steve Aird left Maryland for Indiana and assistant Adam Hughes took over. One thing about the Big Ten, the coaching carousel spins slowly.

You can’t say the same about the Pac-12, where change has been the norm the past few years. This offseason, Brent Crouch took over at USC and Jennifer Dorr, who was Cal’s acting head coach at the end of last season and through the spring, was named head coach.

Who’s the team to beat in the Pac-12? Start with Oregon, which has been knocking on the door the past two years with youngsters, finally mature enough to make it to Minneapolis in December, the site of this year’s NCAA Championship. The Ducks and second-year coach Matt Ulmer are loaded, from a junior class that includes Ronika Stone, Willow Johnson, Jolie Rasmussen and North Carolina transfer Taylor Borup and Brooke Van Sickle, technically a sophomore because she took a medical redshirt last season, to a senior class led by Lindsey Vander Weide to a five-freshman incoming group.

The Pac-12 has star power, like USC’s Khalia Lanier to Alexa Smith of Colorado to Washington State’s Taylor Mims. But teams? There was a lot of turnover.

The SEC will be top heavy again, with Kentucky and Florida leading the way. Kentucky has two players as good as anyone at their position, outside Leah Edmond and setter Madison Lilley and coach Craig Skinner always has the Wildcats ready. Look for LSU and 6-foot-5 Taylor Bannister to make a leap and don’t sleep on Georgia, a young talent-laded group led by high-jumping T’ara Ceasar that made a lot of progress in coach Tom Black’s first season in Athens.

The SEC is also a league with four new coaches. Laura Kuhn took over at Texas A&M, Eve Rackham at Tennessee, Julie Darty at Mississippi State and Tom Mendoza at South Carolina, not surprisingly three of the bottom five finishers last season.

In the Big 12, there’s Texas and the rest. The Longhorns, always in the national-title hunt, lost some big-time talent but return Micaya White, Yaasmeen Bedart-Ghani and Morgan Johnson and bring in 6-4 redshirt-freshman Brionne Butler, the best player who didn’t play in the nation last season.

Baylor — with one of the best young hitters anywhere in Yossiana Pressley — established itself as a national power, but the rest of the league, as it does every year, has to prove it’s ready for prime time. Iowa State should lead the pack, perennial power Kansas has to rebuild, and TCU, Texas Tech and West Virginia are hoping for breakthroughs.

There is one new coach in the league, where Lindsey Gray-Walton took over at Oklahoma.

Rounding out the power-five conferences is the ACC, there the race went down to the wire last season.

Pitt and coach Dan Fisher are the team to beat. They tied with Louisville last season for the regular-season title.

The biggest question in the ACC is if North Carolina can bounce back. The Tar Heels — normally the team to beat — set some kind of world record for injuries in 2017 and then were hit by transfers. This will be a completely new-look team for veteran coach Joe Sagula.

Florida State was better than coach Chris Poole thought they would be last season. There are not a lot of household names, but the Seminoles are always in the chase. NC State had a break-out year in 2017 but is really young.

There were two coaching changes in the ACC, none more surprising than the summertime retirement of Jim McLaughlin because of back problems. He was replaced by assistant Mike Johnson. Jason Kennedy took over at Boston College.

There are a handful of teams outside the power-five conferences that are always demand attention.

Wichita State, for one, produced last season’s VolleyballMag.com national coach of the year in Chris Lamb. His team left the Missouri Valley and then dominated the American Athletic.

BYU and San Diego beat each other up in the West Coast Conference very year, but BYU got some bad news this week when Sara Hamson was lost to a knee injury. Opposite  Hamson also plays basketball at BYU.

Northern Iowa is always the team to beat in the Missouri Valley, Colorado State owns the Mountain West and last year Cal Poly, led by transfer Torrey Van Winden — who had a great summer on the beach — won the Big West.

That’s a brief primer for the start of practice. Before the season begins August 24, we’ll have in-depth previews of the power-five conferences.

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