PITTSBURGH — The top NCAA Division I volleyball programs recruit as far as five years out.

There’s a plan.

Who are the best prospects, what positions need to be filled, who’s really interested, what is the player’s ceiling, and what kind of fit will they be?

The master plan, however, is often de-railed because of the free agency in college volleyball.

But sometimes, as in the case of this year’s NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship, those transfers are the key pieces to getting here.

So, when top-seeded Baylor (29-1) faces fourth-seeded Wisconsin (26-6) at 7 p.m. Eastern Thursday and third-seeded Stanford (28-4) plays No. 7 Minnesota (27-5), transfers will be key.

Before that, later in this story we have the AVCA All-Americans, Georgia Tech winning the NIVC, and another school has a coaching opening.

Back to the transfers, including Baylor’s Gia Milana, Wisconsin’s Tiffany Clark and Lauren Barnes, Stanford’s Madeleine Gates — the first transfer in program history who might have gone to Michigan had she not been rejected — and Minnesota’s Kylie Miller.

Gia Milana-Baylor volleyball
Baylor’s Gia Milana winds up for a jump serve during practice Wednesday/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Baylor’s Milana, the 6-foot-2 senior from Romeo, Michigan, played the first two years of her career at Maryland. Milano is third on the team with an average of 2.39 kills/set. Baylor has three other transfers who don’t factor into this final four. Milana decided to leave Maryland when coach Steve Aird left for Indiana.

“It’s totally a God thing, because Baylor’s not somewhere that I would have ever thought of going, honestly. I had never heard of Baylor, (being) from Michigan. It’s a really amazing school, big school. I had never heard of it,” Milana said.

She credited her mother urging her to at least listen to a pitch from Baylor coach Ryan McGuyre.

“I got on the phone with Coach Mac, and he was quoting scripture and scripture that I had read the day before, just about how pain produces hope, hope produces character, just like these small things that were so huge to me.

“And I just — I needed to visit. I needed to see what his team was all about. And honestly the girls sold me completely, spending time with them. And Coach gave me to the girls all day, and just being around them, seeing how genuine they were with each other and how they loved each other so well.”

And she was sold.

“I knew Gia was a good fit,” McGuyre said, “because when she called to commit, she tried to set it up to let me down softly and played it off like: ‘I had a horrible time. Wasn’t good. Thanks, but no thanks.’ And I love that boldness and her ability to tease that way. It’s pretty special there.”

Wisconsin’s Tiffany Clark warms up before practice Wednesday/Ed Chan. VBShots.com

Wisconsin has two key defenders who started elsewhere.

Senior Tiffany Clark, the 5-11 libero from Naperville, Illinois, came to the Badgers after her freshman season at Michigan. This season she’s averaging 3.88 digs/set and is playing as well as any back-row player in the country. Lauren Barnes, a 5-6 junior DS also from Naperville, played her first two years at Minnesota, where she was second on the team in digs per set (2.56).

Wisconsin senior outside Molly Haggerty, her old club teammate, talked to Clark and recalled that “She asked about the program, and she knew we pride ourselves in being gritty and we always are — our main goal is to be right where we are now. I think she wanted to be a part of that.”

To which Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said simply, “At what point does she stop becoming the transfer from Michigan? That was three years ago. She’s Tiffany Clark, Wisconsin Badger.”

Stanford inherited graduate-student Gates, a 6-3 middle from San Diego, who not only played three seasons at UCLA, but in 2017 was an AVCA second-team and VolleyballMag.com honorable-mention All-American. In 2018 she was third on UCLA’s team in kills (2.34/set), led in blocks (107, 20 solo), graduated in three years with a degree in economics, and then went about the process of applying for grad school.

She got accepted at UCLA but was rejected by Michigan. She was pretty nervous waiting on Stanford.

“I was really excited when I got the acceptance in my email,” Gates said. “When you’re recruited for college, you really don’t have to apply to the school as a college athlete. This was an actual application and I really didn’t know if I was going to get in. And I’d already been rejected from Michigan and didn’t expect to get in.

“But I did and it was really special.”

At that point, she got Stanford coach Kevin Hambly’s number. 

“I got on the phone with her eventually a couple weeks later and she said she got into the statistics program and was interested in coming” Hambly recalled. “I told her we don’t have any money. She said that’s OK, I want to try to pull it off.

“So it was just kind of just that simple, and she came on a visit, and we talked a lot about what it would be like to integrate with this senior class and her being a senior here and missing on that and UCLA and how hard it would be to leave because they were getting better and all that, and she decided this is what she wanted to do.”

One of those seniors, setter Jenna Gray, said it’s worked out pretty well. Stanford also had an opening at middle after Tami Alade graduated from the team that won it all last year.

“We said from the start we were so thankful to have her just because we didn’t have to play against her anymore at UCLA, and it’s even better to have her with us,” Gray said. “But she works so hard every single day, and she was such a seamless integration into our team, just from her personality to she’s the nicest, the sweetest, very soft-spoken, very intellectually curious, which we really appreciate.”

Hambly said it was “a very odd and different recruiting process, but it was really cool” and that Gates had a good perspective.

“I think (volleyball) was absolutely secondary for her. It was much more about what she wanted to get out of it academically and career-wise moving forward. Stanford is a pretty good place to kick-start your career.”

This season, Gates is third on the Stanford kills list with 252 (2.21/set), is hitting .332, and leads the team in blocks with 162, 10 solo.

“It’s been a really special journey,” Gates said. “I’m really excited to be here.”

Kylie Miller digs a touch off the block during practice Wednesday/Ed Chan, VBShots.com

And Minnesota has Miller, a 5-11 senior setter from Rancho Cucamonga, California, who played her first three seasons at UCLA where last year she led the Bruins in assists. She was such a homebody that she often left L.A. for weekends and made the 60-mile drive just to be with her family.

So moving all the way to Minnesota?

“I just needed a change. I wasn’t happy,” Miller said. “Minnesota reached out, Hugh [McCutcheon] reached out and he was the national-team coach for I don’t know how many years and winning medals.”

For clarification, he coached the USA men to 2008 Olympic gold and the USA women to 2012 Olympic silver.

“I like being home and close to family,” Miller said. “That was one of the scariest things, being away from. And coming into a whole new team and not really knowing anybody and having to form new relationships was kind of nerve-wracking but everyone was really cool.”

There was an opening for Miller as well because after four years of running the show, Samantha Seliger-Swenson graduated. This season, Miller got the Gophers off to a great start, but then missed a substantial amount of time — 13 matches in all — with a really bad concussion.

“It was a long recovery,” Miller said. “I was out of school for like three weeks.”

Since returning, Minnesota’s hitting on all cylinders, and Miller — averaging 10.18 assists and 2.4 digs per set — is a big reason why.

“Throughout the whole injury my coaches teammates were super supportive and I was just doing everything I could to get back on the court,” Miller said.

Minnesota has two other transfers. Japanese junior outside Airi Miyabe has played in almost half the team’s sets, while junior outside Claire Sheehan plays sparingly.

Last meetings: Baylor won at Wisconsin in four on September 6 and in that match Yossiana Pressley had 31 kills, hitting .270 after taking 63 swings. Shelly Stafford and Milana had eight each and Hannah Lockin had five kills, hit .300, and had 50 assists, an ace, three blocks, and 11 digs.

Haggerty led Wisconsin with 16 kills in that match, Grace Loberg had 14, and Dana Rettke had 11 kills, hit .348, and had eight blocks. Setter Sydney Hilley had a kill, 40 assists, seven blocks, and 13 digs.

“I don’t know. It’s kind of hard to base this game off of that one just because it was so long ago and it’s two different teams now,” Wisconsin’s Hilley said. “Our lineup is different. Watching the film, it’s like two different teams. It’s not even us and Baylor anymore.”

Minnesota beat Stanford in four at Penn State on September 14 as Stephanie Samedy had 21 kills, an assist, 11 digs, and six blocks, one solo. Alexis Hart had 15 kills and eight digs, and Regan Pittman had 12 kills, hit .417, and had seven blocks. Miller had two kills in three errorless attempts, 50 assists, an ace, 17 digs, and four blocks, one solo.

Stanford got 20 kills from Kathryn Plummer, who had three blocks and eight digs. Audriana Fitzmorris had 13 kills and four blocks, one solo, and Gates had 10 kills, two digs, and six blocks, one solo. Gray had three kills, 51 assists, an ace, two blocks, and one dig.

“Minnesota is a really good team. Both of our teams have grown in different ways. We’ve both gotten a lot better, definitely,” Plummer said. “But, yeah, we’re just excited to be here. Excited for a good semifinal match. Excited to play a different team. We’re used to Pac-12 teams, so it’s good to play Big Ten teams and have fun with that. We’re just looking forward to it, and it should be a great match.”

AVCA All-Americans: The AVCA announced its three All-American teams and honorable mentions. Those players will be honored Friday at the AVCA’s annual All-American luncheon.

The 14 first-teamers were Kara Bajema of Washington, Dani Drews of Utah, Leah Edmond of Kentucky, Jenna Gray of Stanford, Morgan Hentz of Stanford, Sydney Hilley of Wisconsin, Kaitlyn Hord of Penn State, Hannah Lockin of Baylor, Regan Pittman of Minnesota, Yossiana Pressley of Baylor, Dana Rettke of Wisconsin, Shelly Stafford of Baylor, Jordan Thompson of Cincinnati, and Micaya White of Texas.

Click here for the complete AVCA list. The VolleyballMag.com All-American team will be announced on December 24.

Georgia Tech wins NIVC: The Yellow Jackets of the ACC finished their season 26-8 with a 25-23, 25-23, 25-17 victory Tuesday at South Dakota to win the NIVC title. Georgia Tech got 16 kills from Mariana Brambilla, who had two blocks and 12 digs. Julia Bergmann had 10 kills, an ace, 12 digs, and three blocks, one solo. Mikaila Dowd had nine kills and Kayla Kaiser had six kills in 10 errorless attacks, an ace, three digs, and six blocks.

South Dakota of the Summit League, which ended its season 31-3, got 15 kills from Elizabeth Juhnke.

Coaching carousel: San Diego State fired Deitre Collins-Parker, who had a 171-162 record in 11 seasons. This past year, the Aztecs finished 15-14 and placed fifth in the Mountain West at 8-10.

Among the openings are two in the SEC at Ole Miss and Auburn, and two in the Big Ten at Ohio State and Rutgers.

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