By Jim Dietz for VolleyballMag.com
(Editor’s note: Dietz is the coach of Lincoln Land, and in this article he analyzes his own team, too)
Practice opened on August 1 for the NJCAA, kicking off the fall women’s volleyball season across the country.
While many schools will be just starting practices and moving in to campus, two-year colleges will begin competition next week with everyone under way by the weekend of August 24-25. The 2018 polls are out and filled with “the usual suspects,” but as is true in every other season, there will be surprise teams that don’t make this list of teams and players to look out for.
Teams are listed in order of their finish at last year’s national tournament. Their rank in the preseason poll is in parentheses along with their 2017 win-loss record.
NJCAA DIVISION 1
NC — Miami Dade (1, 34-0): Two-time national player of the Year Massiel Matos is gone and Sun Wenting signed with Missouri. No matter, after winning their 10th national title, they’ve got MH Fiorella Murillo and S Tiziana Baumrukova back. Baumrukova captained both the Czech 17U and 19U teams, so the Sharks’ offense is in great hands.
2 — S. Idaho (2, 30-4): All-American Airi Miyabi returns (3.32 k/s, .289) to lead the Region 18 champs. 6-2 Opposite Jovana Vukcevic had a good freshman campaign but will need to step up to get CSI back to the postseason. Marianne dos Santos could potentially dominate the middle, standing 4-5 inches taller than many opponents.
3 — NM Military (5, 31-12): NMMI could be frisky in 2018, returning four players who played 150-plus sets including their two primary passers: Kim Trauboth and Karime Raygoza. If there’s a question mark for the Broncos, it’s experience at setting and they’ll need a quality offense if they hope to make it to nationals in November.
4 — Tyler (6, 21-11): Tyler returns a good part of their offense for 2018, including setter Isabela Dobra and Rowlett, Texas, product Taya Mitchell (2.14 k/s, .309; 1.23 b/s). 6-2 Vanessa Silva returns as well with her 1.13 blocks/set and .317 hitting. The question is whether Tyler can survive a tough Region 14 schedule with only four 6-footers on the roster.
5 — Polk State (7, 20-9): The Eagles bring back only two freshmen who played more than 90 of the team’s sets, libero Diana Carranza (4.14 d/s) and outside hitter Chiara Bosetti (2.17 k/s, .231). Region 8 is a dogfight for the second national bid (since Miami Dade currently has a lock on the first one). Without returning height, Polk State may come back to the pack. Then again, they have three 6-foot freshmen coming in and if they can play, you’ll see them from the start.
6 — Mineral Area (8, 36-2): Tim Copeland’s built a gritty, scrappy squad run by setter Pam Zuluaga (now at Little Rock) that kicked a lot of butt in ’17. He’ll bring back his middles, Raylyn Dodd (1.75 k/s, .376) and Melissa Avendano-Toro (2.27 k/s, .308), but to get past West Plains again, he’ll need entering players to step up and figure out how to come close to replacing Zuluaga on the court. Are Danezzi and Grey up to the challenge?
7 — Iowa Western (3, 39-3): Six Reivers moved on from the 2017 squad that hoped to dethrone Miami Dade last year, but finished 7th, four to NCAA D-1 schools including Arizona and Kentucky. They’re hoping to reload behind McNeese State transfer Alyssa Oswald and lefty right-side Isabella Sarty. National championship contenders? Maybe. A 40-win season? That’s almost the same certainty as death and taxes with Iowa Western.
8 — Hill (10, 27-4): The Rebels graduated every hitter with 100-plus kills, so it’ll be a completely new offense on the floor. What could be a saving grace is that 2017’s primary setter, Morgan Burns, returns, so that while the hitters on the court are new, the floor general isn’t. Their hopes may lie on staying ahead of rivals Ranger and Odessa, given the experience New Mexico Military returns competing for Region 5’s other bid.
DNP — W. Nebraska (4, 33-8): A 30+ win season and still a potential disappointment. Not likely to happen the same way in ’18. The Cougars return two big guns, Sarena Bartley (2.62 k/s, .240) and Kaile Tuisamatatele (1.71 k/s, .328) along with both setters, Syenna Masaki and Jayme Commins, who combined for 260 kills, 1,542 assists, 62 aces, and 447 digs. With those four on the floor, there’s symmetry in their starting poll position of #4.
DNP — Seward County (9, 33-2): The looming question is the development of 6-6 Brazilian Luz Sierra and where she’ll fit into the Saints’ scheme. Will she play in the middle or as a shutdown blocker on the right? It may depend on whether Tony Trifonov runs a 5-1 or 6-2, a good question with opposite Giovanna Tapigliani returning. She had 435 kills (.339) and 88 blocks in 2017. They’ll have some time to figure things out before hitting the Jayhawk Conference trail on September 1 with Garden City and September 5 versus Hutch.
NJCAA DIVISION 2
NC — Coffeyville (1, 44-2): The Ravens won the national title and are the team in 2018. They’ll be tough as they return two key athletes: Dekyra Dennis, the setter (10.71 ast/s, 301 digs, 56 blocks) and Adianez Rivera hitting on the pin (4.01 k/s, .335, 605 kills total). The problem for Coffeyville is the balance at the top of the Jayhawk — Neosho took them to five in the region championship, and you have the usual KJ suspects as well—Cowley, Johnson, and potentially KCKCC who will be sophomore-heavy in ’18.
2 — Owens: Was D2 but dropped down to D3. See below.
3 — Lincoln Land (3, 37-7): Triple-double machine Kiersten Anderson and co-all-American, Addie Patton are gone along with a core that went 77-16 over two seasons. Still, the Loggers return a group built around MWAC freshman of the year Lainey Jackson (5.1 ast/s, 58 aces)and libero Bobana Marusic (4.02 d/s, 44 aces) while adding all-Region 4 hitter Erika Miller as a transfer student, so they’ll be in the traditional three-way fight for two spots along with Parkland and Illinois Central (starting ’18 ranked 16th).
4 — Parkland (2, 50-3): It’s hard to separate Parkland and LLCC. The two rivals share the same strip of interstate in central Illinois and they’ve met three consecutive years in the title game or final four. Parkland graduates national player of the year Fia Willis, who had 797 kills. Parkland will be tough in any event — its only losses in 2017 were to the other three D-2 final-four squads. Much like the D-1 Reivers of Iowa Western, a title is uncertain, but 40 wins are as regular as rain. Big things come early, since Parkland visits Lincoln Land on September 5.
5 — Cowley County (4, 40-7): They’ll be dangerous this fall, returning their cannons on the outside, Hannah Nicolaisen (609 kills, .286) and Milica Kusmuk (524 kills, .384, along with 324 digs. Three of those seven losses came to Coffeyville and Lincoln Land and the Tigers will see both of those teams Opening Weekend in what ought to give juco fans a good hint at how the race will shape up in the Jayhawk.
6 — Mesa (5, 24-11): Judging Arizona teams is tough. They don’t travel outside the southwest and few teams from the rest of the country venture down there. The competition there is good, though, and you don’t see Arizona teams get manhandled too often come national tournament-time. Mesa’s got a hole to fill with the graduation of all-American Leah Crist and four other sophomores, but they return Katie Shoenwetter to run the offense (6.58 asst/s) and Cambria Whiting at the pin (214 kills, 239 digs). The problem is you have a HOF coach at Glendale, Scottsdale, and South Mountain who is on the rise for this fall … and only one bid to the dance.
7 — Pasco-Hernando (6, 25-9): Pasco-Hernando has a new coach. Kim Whitney stepped down, replaced by her assistant, Deann Newton. She won’t start with a bare cupboard as seven of a 10-person regular lineup return, highlighted by setter Sarah Asbury (7.32 ast/s) and middle Abby Epstein (1.92 k/s, .293). Pasco would’ve-could’ve-should’ve against Coffeyville in the round of eight, but if it’s true you have to suffer to succeed, Pasco’s ready to make a return trip to Charleston to contend for a title.
8 — Sauk Valley (10, 33-11): Once again, Sauk outplayed its seed at nationals, even with the loss of all-American Bailey O’Brien in the first round to a torn ACL. The question for the Skyhawks is whether setter Paige Conner (630 assists) is ready to run the offense on her own or if coach Jay Howell will plug a freshman into a 6-2 alignment. With McHenry, Carl Sandburg, and Moraine Valley in the mix, it could be tough for Sauk to make a fourth consecutive trip to nationals. Don’t bet against Sauk, though, they’re scrappy.
9 — Central Nebraska (7, 36-11): The Raiders started ’17 hot with wins over Coffeyville and Lincoln Land before hitting a rut midseason (that included having to play top-five teams Cowley and Parkland). Central couldn’t solve Cowley at nationals either, losing that first match before winning the consolation bracket. The returners with experience are Opposite Jordee Korte (176 kills, 100 blocks) and pin-hitter Jacie Laetsch 435 kills, 545 digs). Central plays a tough schedule, but most likely has an easy road to nationals.
10 — Iowa Central (9, 32-11): Iowa Central wasn’t supposed to make nationals. A week after losing to DMACC 3-1, Central upset the favorite 15-12 in the deciding set to make it through. Though they lose their gun, Gabby Sullivan (682 kills, .249), they return their setter (Abby Lohrmann), libero (Kryssie Okinaka), and outside hitter (Hannah Murray) who combined for 1,454 digs and 121 aces. Expect DMACC to come back for revenge — and look out for Northeast and Kirkwood as well.
DNP — Grand Rapids (8, 27-3): Region 12 changed their playoff format in 2017 and Grand Rapids paid the price. Ranked in the top 5, it meant they had to face down No. 1 to go to Nationals (rather than be in separate pools for the Region’s two bids), losing twice in a double-elimination format to the #1 team. Still, when your only losses are the top-ranked team and the defending national champs, you’re doing something right. Grand Rapids has an easier road in ’18 with Owens moving to NJCAA D-3, especially with Kendra DeJonge returning on the left (4.14 k/s, .249, 314 digs).
DNP — South Mountain (11, 17-16): Ignore that record. The Cougars play a nasty schedule. ’18 will start with a D-1 tournament playing Seward County and New Mexico Military. That’s a wake-up for any D-2 team. They return a bevy of freshmen, including Thalia Korecky at libero (44 aces, 311 digs) and Miranda Bacon on the right-side (205 kills, 81 blocks). It’s a tough road for the Cougars. They start with the D-1s, then walk into Glendale and Scottsdale for a chance at nationals. They can do it. They can also lose it.
NJCAA DIVISION 3
NC — Eastfield (1, 28-7): Eastfield knocked off defending national champs, Harper, to earn the crown. Expect Eastfield to contend again as they return four of their starters, setter Kalli Caddell (8.2 ast/s), outside Keishla Reyes (3.27 k/s, 3.65 d/s), middle Alex McPherson (2.4 k/s, .398) and libero Maura Munoz (3.82 d/s). It’s most of the squad’s offense, serve-receive, and floor general, so no wonder they start ’18 at No. 1.
2 — Harper College (2, 37-6): It shows how far Bob Vilsoet’s taken the squad that losing the national title counts as disappointment, though consecutive title game appearances is impressive, nonetheless. The Eagles will be reloading in 2018, returning only libero Karoline Sas from last year’s starting core. It’s a good place to start though as Harper’s defense and passing gets it where it wants to go. The question is whether they can get past Madison for the sole Region 4 bid to D-3 nationals.
3 — Central Lakes (3, 27-9): They haven’t posted a roster for 2018 yet. The question in Minnesota is like in many regions, “Which of the big guns can win in November?” Will it be Central Lakes or Rochester? Pick up a key recruit in NJCAA D-3 and a team can go far.
4 — Columbus State (4, 19-12): A Final Four in their third year in D-3 was a big step for CSU. They lose five key players including their setter. Expect returning Georgia Payne to contribute again. CSU’s problem? The drop from D-2 to D-3 of the Owens Express who made the D-2 title game in 2017. D-3 life in Region 12 just got a lot rougher.
* — Owens CC (NR, 40-1 at D-2): Speaking of Owens, they start the year unranked with no D-3 track record. Still, given two consecutive D-2 Final Four appearances, a veteran coach, and a tradition of putting a top-notch program on the court, Owens should be in the polls soon enough and depending on their first year recruiting with D-3 restrictions, it’ll be a dogfight between Sonny Lewis’ Express and Columbus State for the trip to nationals. The question: Can the Express’ 10 freshman play at a championship level out of the gate?
Jim Dietz has been the head coach at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, Ill., since 2006. The Loggers have been to the last three NJCAA national semifinals and Dietz, who is also the technical director for the Capital Area Volleyball Club in Springfield, Ill., is the winningest coach in school history. Dietz has also written two coaching books — The Human Side of Coaching and Like Heck She Isn’t a Volleyball Player — and several novels.