A primer?

So to speak, but if you’re a VolleyballMag.com reader, you probably don’t need one. You’re likely a fan who follows college volleyball pretty closely and has a team and league you root for.

The NCAA season begins Friday and Saturday with the busiest days of the year, really, because nearly every team plays twice one of those days. It’s a long weekend that begins a long season. It ends in December in Pittsburgh.

I can also tell you the one thing you already know:

Stanford is the team to beat. 

Talk about loaded. The Cardinal has won two of the last three NCAA titles, graduated just one player who started, and brings in the top-ranked freshman class along with the first transfer in program history. You could make the argument that the five frosh — a couple of whom will start and/or get significant playing time — plus UCLA transfer Madeleine Gates might finish in the top 25 on their own.

So let’s start with a little bit about Stanford. It has the two best players in the college game at their respective positions, senior outside Kathryn Plummer and libero Morgan Hentz. Is there a team in the country who wouldn’t take senior setter Jenna Gray or senior right side Audriana Fitzmorris? Or those freshmen outside hitters, Kendall Kipp, Natalie Berty and Caitie Baird? Heck, Gates, who graduated in three years from UCLA, was an All-American two years ago. 

Stanford opens with an East Coast swing, playing College of Charleston on Friday, Duke on Saturday, and then at Florida on Wednesday before heading to Texas on September 8. All good prep for the trip September 13-14 to Penn State when the Cardinal play Penn State and Minnesota.

Which brings me to a note about scheduling. Some of our counterparts have targeted the biggest matches of the season. You want to check out the biggest matches of the season?

Here’s the Big Ten schedule.

And here’s the Pac-12 schedule.

Seriously, barring Kentucky vs. Florida in the SEC, Pitt vs. Florida State or Louisville in the ACC, and maybe Texas vs. Baylor in the Big 12, it’s all about the B1G and Pac-12.

And that’s not with any disrespect, but a reality. BYU broke through last year, making the national semifinals, but while the Cougars will be strong again, getting back to the final four is a stretch.

By the way, if it’s a big match, it’s probably being broadcast or streamed, and you can go to the VolleyballMag.com daily TV listings to find out when and where.

And with that, some news, notes and observations about some of the conferences, including the power fives and some of the leagues that sent more than one team to the NCAA Tournament:

Pac-12 — The league has six teams — Stanford, Oregon, Washington, USC, Washington State and Arizona — in the AVCA preseason top 25. For as good as a conference as it is, the Pac-12 has had an inordinate number of coaching changes the past few years. And this season is no exception as Sam Crosson takes over at Cal, its fourth head coach in four years. Beth Launiere starts year No. 30 at Utah, but the dean of league coaches (because Utah only joined the Pac-12 in 2011) is Arizona’s Dave Rubio, who begins his 28th year in Tucson. Who’s No. 3 in longevity? UCLA’s Mike Sealy, who is in year 10.

Speaking of UCLA, which missed the NCAA Tournament last year, the Bruins will get some first-weekend clarity as they open against No. 20 Baylor at Nebraska and then the No. 2 Huskers. 

USC goes to Texas State, an NCAA tourney team last year, on Friday and then I’ll see the Trojans Sunday at Texas. A thought about No. 11 Oregon: The Ducks are underrated — three of them, Ronika Stone, right side Willow Johnson, and libero Brooke Nuneviller are on the league’s presason team — and don’t be surprised to see them in Pittsburgh a second time this season. They open at home this weekend and then actually go to play at Pittsburgh before heading to Penn State to face Minnesota and Penn State.

By the way, in last year’s NCAA Tournament, the Pac-12 had eight teams and the Big Ten seven.

Big Ten — This league is so tough. Up-and-coming teams like Maryland (the surprise of 2018), Indiana, and Northwestern can be three times better and still be fighting for ninth place.

It has four teams in the AVCA preseason top six — No. 2 Nebraska, No. 3 Minnesota, No. 5 Wisconsin, and No. 6 Illinois — plus No. 8 Penn State, No. 15 Michigan, and No. 17 Purdue. 

The B1G lost some great players, not the least of which was Illinois setter Jordyn Poulter, who, just a couple of months out of college, made the USA national team as it clinched a bid to the 2020 Olympics. And while Illinois, which went to the national semifinals last season, returns the preseason player of the year in senior outside Jacqueline Quade, the team was picked to finish fifth in the league by the coaches. 

Wisconsin — which has just one player on the B1G coaches preseason team in junior middle Dana Rettke, who joined Poulter on Team USA — was tabbed No. 1, followed by Nebraska, Minnesota and Penn State. Nebraska, of course, lost to Stanford in the NCAA title match and lost two of the greatest players in program history in outside Mikaela Foecke and libero Kenzie Maloney. But don’t cry for the Huskers, who are loaded. And so is experienced Minnesota, with three players on the preseason team, senior outside Alexis Hart, senior middle Taylor Morgan and junior right side Stephanie Samedy.

There was one change in the league when Iowa’s Bond Shymansky was fired and replaced by assistant Vicki Brown, who was named interim head coach. Brown was the head coach at San Francisco in the 2016 season and was 4-27, 0-18 in the West Coast Conference.

Big 12 — Definitely be surprised — no, shocked — if Texas doesn’t win the league. But don’t be surprised if Texas wins it all in December with a roster that is deep, talented, and huge. We had an outstanding article on the Longhorns earlier this week, but suffice it to say the pieces are in place.

Baylor, which led the nation in Blue Cross/Blue Shield last season, has one of the most dynamic players in the country in junior outside Yossiana Pressley, and a fabulous middle in Shelly Stafford (who was Fanning but got married) when she’s healthy.

By the way, Texas — which lost in the regional final to BYU — and Baylor were the league’s only NCAA participants, and Iowa State won the NIVC.

ACC — The league has two teams in the AVCA rankings, No. 12 Pittsburgh and No. 25 Louisville, but somehow, some way Florida State is in the thick of things every season.

Pittsburgh, which was upset in the second round by Michigan, lost its setter two weeks ago. Kylee Levers tore her ACL and will be replaced by freshman Lexis Akeo. The good news is that Pitt has some outstanding experienced players returning — all on the ACC preseason team — in junior outside Kayla Lund, senior right side Nika Markovic, senior outside Stephanie Williams, and senior middle Layne Van Buskirk, who has been with the Canadian national team. 

Coach Chris Poole always makes it happen with Florida State, which could get its comeuppance from the get-go as the Seminoles go to North Carolina and open with Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Louisville, Notre Dame, a revitalized North Carolina, and Syracuse should all make strides this season. Louisville opens Friday against visiting No. 10 Florida.

SEC — So speaking of Florida, Kentucky is the team to beat in the SEC. We did a video interview with UK libero Gabby Curry which will fill you in about the Wildcats, who have three of the best players in the country at their respective positions, Curry, outside Leah Edmond and setter Madison Lilley.

Two years ago, Florida made it to the NCAA title match. Last year the Gators beat two Florida schools — FSU and Florida Gulf Coast — before losing to BYU in the NCAA round of 16. Florida has one of the best young players in the game in sophomore outside Thayer Hall, and 6-foot-8 middle Rachael Kramer hopes for a big senior season. 

The league got a boost when LSU was ranked No. 10 in the VolleyballMag.com national recruiting listing. The Tigers could make strides this year with one of the most dynamic players in the league in 6-5 junior right side Taylor Bannister and 6-3 middle freshman Anita Anwusi, a big reason that class is so highly regarded.

Tennessee had a huge leap last year under first-year coach Eve Rackham, and the Vols, led by Tessa Grubbs, are legit. The league had one coaching change when Missouri’s Wayne and Susan Kreklow suddenly retired in mid-July. In turn, assistant Josh Taylor, whose top remaining assistant happens to be his wife, former Missouri star Molly Kreklow. She’s also Wayne’s niece.

Worth noting is that two former head coaches left Division I jobs to move to the SEC. Kris Grunwald was the head coach at UConn but is now back at Auburn, and Russ Friedland left Louisiana-Monroe to join the staff at Ole Miss.

NCAA women's college volleyball preview 2019-Mary Lake
Mary Lake returns to BYU after gaining valuable experience in the USA gym/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

West Coast Conference — This league had five teams in the NCAA tourney, led by BYU. The ninth-ranked Cougars will be good again, but you just don’t lose a player like Roni Perry-Jones and not drop a bit. However a roster with Mary Lake — the senior libero who on the USA national team all summer — senior outside McKenna Miller, junior middle Kennedy Eschenberg and sophomore Heather Gneiting is going to be pretty good. Get to the national semifinals good? That’s a stretch.

San Diego, previewed earlier this week here at VolleyballMag.com, is deservedly ranked No. 21, and Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine will be in the chase.

Big West — It starts with Cal Poly, which lost Crosson to Cal, replaced by assistant Carolina Walters. The key is Torrey Van Winden, who missed the Mustangs’ last NCAA game when she sustained a concussion. The Big West player of the year, who missed the entire spring beach season, is still battling through that injury. 

Hawai’i made a big leap last year and the Rainbow Wahine have a roster that includes some strong transfers. And Santa Barbara has one of the best players most people have never heard of in senior Lindsey Ruddins, an outside hitter who is among the nation’s best.

Big East — Year in and year out Creighton has been the torch bearer. And the Bluejays — who have won the league the last five years — are the real deal and come in at No. 18 in the AVCA poll. But Marquette, at No. 16, was picked to win the league. The two outsides, preseason player of the year senior Allie Barber and junior Hope Werch, and junior libero Martha Konovodoff give the Warriors a tough core.

American Athletic — The AAC promotes itself as a “power six,” and if volleyball were all that mattered it might have a shot. Central Florida, which calls itself UCF, is the team to beat, but Cincinnati, which joins the Knights in the East Division, has perhaps the most explosive player in the country in Jordan Thompson, the right side who, along with Wisconsin’s Rettke and BYU’s Lake, was one of the three returning-to-college players on the USA national team this season. Thompson led the nation in kills last season and we talked about earlier this month in this video interview.

Wichita State is the team to catch in the West Division and Tulane is much improved. The AAC is full of talent, but one player to watch is outside McKenna Melville of UCF, who had a big-time freshman season.

Is that all of it? Of course not, and if you are regular reader on this site you know we will give the mid-majors and all the great teams and players around the country their due as the season unfolds. In the meantime, it all starts Friday and we can’t wait.

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