By Jim Dietz for VolleyballMag.com
(Editor’s note: Dietz, who is a contributor to VolleybalMag.com, is the coach of Lincoln Land, and in this article he analyzes his own team, too)
National Junior College Athletic Association volleyball is under way.
The two-year schools get a head start on their four-year counterparts and matches began this weekend.
The 2019 polls are out and offer few surprises. This is true most years, but there will be surprises over the next few months: Just two D-II teams have qualified for the National Tournament in four or more consecutive years!
Teams are listed in order of their finish at the 2018 National Tournament. Their rank in the pre-season poll is in parentheses along with their 2018 win-loss record.
NJCAA DIVISION 1
National champion — Southern Idaho (1, 31-2): Southern Idaho’s title was its 12th and the Golden Eagles return five starters from last year’s squad, although Aire Miyabe’s gone (along with her 4.28/kps and status as national player of the year). The big key may be the effectiveness of Marianne Dos Santos in the middle for the Golden Eagles.
2 — Miami-Dade (2, 32-2): You know you’re a top program when a title-game loss is a disappointment. Miami-Dade will seek title number 11 this year behind the offense of pin-hitters Scherine Dahoue (3.07/kps, .341) and Yaniris Miller-Green (2.28/kps). The challenge for Miami-Dade will be the back row, where most of the defense graduated.
3 — Iowa Western (3, 38-4): Three of the Reivers’ four losses were to Seward County and Miami-Dade, fellow national semifinalists. Iowa Western is set at another deep post-season run as it returns three big guns: MH Genesis Sheridan (340 kills, .470) and pin-hitters Kelsey Havel (286 kills, 277 digs) and Kortlyn Henderson (384 kills, 3.52/kps, .233).
4 — Seward County (4, 32-7): Coach Tony Trifonov showed little struggle with his move from Florida A&M to the Jayhawk Conference in 2018. Luz Sierra hit .458 to lead Seward to a dominating KJCCC performance. The key for ’19 is the return of Brazilian Djuly Schmorantz, an outside hitter who hammered 478 kills at a .340 clip, chipping in with 344 digs to boot. The key issue could be the reliance on international players. Will communication be a problem on a schedule that sees Miami-Dade on it before the Jayhawk schedule goes into full gear?
5 — Trinity Valley (5, 27-8): On the heels of the team’s first appearance at nationals, former Columbia College assistant Aleah Hayes takes over from the only coach TVCC had ever had, Tosha Spain. Hayes is used to winning, having been an assistant on Columbia’s 2015 title team and 2018 national Runner-Up. The cupboard isn’t bare, but the Valley will miss Juliana Vaz and her 501 kills and 376 digs. The matchup with Iowa Western on August 31 will tell a lot about Trinity Valley’s 2019 chances.
6 — Tyler (6, 28-8): The Apaches graduated a lot of talent this past year. They’ll need big performances from returning DS/S Abby Olsen and OH Breeana Gamueda (2.89/kps, .226, 172 digs) if they want to make it back to the big dance. The roster question marks are going to be the two entering Brazilians, setter Luana Tiemann and Shara da Silva.
7 — Polk State (7, 23-8): Polk underperformed at the national tournament in 2018. In term of continuity, Polk will only have four sophomores on the roster, so predicting their performance will be like flipping a coin. Coach Del Valle has seven years under his belt though, so he understands the two-year-coach (TYC) struggle. At least he returns his outsides, Mariane Cassiano (3.76/kps, .272, 2.63/dpg) and Aixa Vigil (3.06/kps, 2.44/dpg).
8 — Navarro (8, 38-7): The Dawgs finished a disappointing eighth after being seeded No. 4 at the national tournament and now has a new coach, Andy Cavins comes from the NAIA ranks, where he led Lindsay Wilson College to eight straight Nationals Appearances (and a 2017 title). The key returners are the two Kansans 6-foot setter Emily Witt (84 blocks, 1,574 assists) and middle Deja Arnold (263 kills, .344).
Two teams did not get into the top eight last season, Laramie County and Mineral Area.
— Laramie County (9, 32-9): Laramie was a fun team, having the best run of a 15-seed in NJCAA D1 history. Unfortunately, the roster suffered some turnover and the team has a new coach, so 2019 is an impossible year to predict. A key point though for now and the future—new coach Keri Coats knows what it takes to win, having been an assistant previously at the College of Southern Idaho.
— Mineral Area (10, 29-5): Tim Copeland’s squad had another successful year led by freshman middle hitter (and returner) Cindy Garcia Peñaloza (3.31/kps, .412, 108 blocks) and returning setter Laura Danezzi (1,153 assists, 10.2/apg). The entering international players are all over 6 feet and will be expected to contribute immediately. October 23 is the big match, the showdown in Park Hills with Missouri-West Plains.
NJCAA DIVISION 2
National champion — Coffeyville (1, 40-3): Coffeyville dispatched a second straight title game opponent with ease in 2018, but graduate the kids who fueled the title runs, including Adianez Reyes Rivera (5.75/kps, .384, 436 digs). The question will be whether returning libero Danielle Dodge (3.34/dpg) and middle Erianna Murray (175 kills, .359) can withstand what’s become a top-heavy Jayhawk Conference and rivals Johnson, Cowley, and Highland. Still, it’s a light early schedule with only two ranked teams on the docket for the first month, Highland and Lincoln Land.
2 — Parkland (2, 56-3): Parkland plays more matches than anyone in the country and it raises the question of whether that tired it out by the post-season. For almost any other team, a second-place finish would be a success, but Parkland annually aims to be No. 1. Expect newcomer Brittany Litton to challenge returning starters Ryleigh Wuerfel (3.38/kps, .283, 540 digs) and Gabby Wessels (2.52/kps, .272, 411 digs) immediately for playing time. The big Region XXIV showdown is early this year. Parkland hosts Lincoln Land on August 28, a match that has determined the Region’s 1-seed for five of the last seven years.
3 — Johnson County (3, 30-8): The Cavaliers won with a scrappy, relentless team in 2018 that may have overachieved by upsetting better-seeded Highland in the region championship, but it’s all about when you get hot. Johnson should be better this year as Rylie Barnum is back to anchor the passing (5.31/dps) with pin-hitters Kayla Neigenfind and Shannon Riley (581 kills combined) return as well. The question mark for Johnson is who runs the offense after Jade Askren’s graduation.
4 — Kirkwood (4, 34-10): Jill Williams had a great group of sophomores in ’18 who accounted for 90 percent of the team’s stats. The question is whether the returning players can step up or whether the five local athletes (all from the Cedar Rapids area) take their spots. That competition for playing time will determine the Eagles’ success given their road to Nationals has to go through DMACC, Iowa Central, and Northeast. The bright spot is that the tough Iowa teams come late in the schedule. A big date for Kirkwood is September 6, when it plays Parkland and Sauk Valley back to back.
5 — South Mountain (6, 28-9): As always, it’s tough to judge Arizona schools who rarely play non-Arizona area NJCAA programs. Instead, they beat up on one another in hopes of winning the region’s one bid to nationals. South Mountain had a great ’18 behind MH Erica Ronda (565 kills, .312), but she’s gone, so the hitting will fall on OH Kaley Hosler (264 kills, 269 digs).
6 — Grand Rapids (9, 31-8): 2018 is hard to judge for the Raiders, mostly because of coach Chip Will’s late-October health concern which sidelined him for a spell (though thankfully he has now recovered). The players to watch will be Lauren Jonker (MH, 124 kills, 95 blocks) and pin-hitter Danielle Johnston (322 kills, 247 digs). Expect entering setters Kailey Carmean and Tori Wolcott to press for playing time immediately. GRCC will face Kirkwood in their third match of the year and Parkland a week later, which should give a good indicator of whether the Raiders return to nationals this season.
7 — Northeast (11, 21-15): The Hawks are looking for a fourth consecutive trip to West Virginia and the national tournament. Setter Savannah Nelson has graduated, but the lineup still has Hannah Heppner (328 kills) and the all-around talent of hitter Elley Beaver (225 kills, 330 digs, 44 blocks). Hopes are high that Elizabeth Christensen will contribute as a pin-hitter immediately. Northeast comes out of the gate with two D-1 matches and top-10 Highland. The Hawks will have their hands full on October 18-19 as they face three top teams: Moraine Valley, Parkland, and Lincoln Land.
8 — Lincoln Land (12, 29-14): Injuries hurt the Loggers, leaving them without any subs to use on the bench after the first round of nationals, and they limped to an 8th place finish. Only three sophomores return, so the Loggers are young featuring 11 freshmen on the roster, though those include two area players of the year (OH/S Kennedy Bauer, L Natalie Bates) and two four-year all-conference performers. The Logger schedule is tough front to back, including two matches against Parkland, contests with Northeast, Coffeyville, Cowley, Johnson County, Kirkwood, and D-1 Iowa Western, to boot, so there’s no time to worry about youth.
Two teams did not get into the top eight last season, Catawba Valley and Cowley.
— Catawba Valley (5, 36-10): The Valley offense was freshman heavy in 2018. Their four best hitters — MH Emma Clark (2.56/kps, .337), MH Sage Harrington (293 kills, .356), Siena Naotala (238 kills, 154 blocks), and Rachel Delcamp (263 kills, 280 digs) — all return. That’s a lot of firepower. And setter Macy Pope is back, too? Catawba is well-coached, deep, and has ramped up the competitive schedule, intent on making a run at a first title in school history.
— Cowley (8, 33-7): Woulda, coulda. Steve Gream’s team was up on Coffeyville in the region title game and just couldn’t pull it out, a gut-punch loss in one of the Jayhawk’s best rivalries. The players to watch in 2019 are middle-hitter Hannah Vanriette (272 kills, .342, 104 blocks) and OPP Elina Zlateva (383 kills, .346). Watch for two new faces to have an impact. Kadie Smith returns to playing ball after spending her freshman year doing basketball only and Stephanie Bray who transferred from Northwest Oklahoma State and can hit anywhere along the net. The Tigers start light, working their way up to the KCKCC tourney in late September where they’ll face off with Northeast, Lincoln Land, and Des Moines Area. That’s cool, but Cowley’s got to break past two of Highland, Coffeyville, and Johnson County, if the team’s going back to nationals in 2019.
NJCAA DIVISION 3
National champion — Owens (1, 41-6): The Express eked out a 15-13 fifth-set win over Eastfield in Owens’ first year at the D-3 level after competing in the D-2 final fours in 2016 and 2017. Owens returns key offensive players for 2019 including OPP Kara Evers (374 kills, .311, 102 blocks) and MH Shylah Wheeler (150 kills, 92 blocks) while Kiah Wendel returns to anchor the passing (547 digs). Owens will be playing most of the pre-season ranked D3 teams along with D2 powers Catawba, Parkland, Lincoln Land, and the potentially surprising Glen Oaks (Michigan).
2 — Eastfield (2, 26-11): Eastfield graduated most of its starting lineup, but has a 20+ woman roster for 2019, so there’s depth and competition for playing time and like Owens, Eastfield seeks out challenging opponents. Coach Brandon Crisp will be in his sixth year at Eastfield and the team’s become a dominant D3 force, with a national title (2017) as well as second (2018) and third place (2016). If OH Catherine Mudd can dominate opponents once again offensively and defensively (209 kills, 370 digs), expect to see the Harvesters as front-runners in the hunt for a national championship.
3 — Rochester (3, 24-9): The Yellowjackets will be led by 5-8 OH Carrie Rutledge (470 kills, 4.27/kps, 267 digs) while setter Brekkin McCready (1,235 assists) returns to run the offense. So there are experienced hands on offense and defense at crunch time and it isn’t like coach Amber Zitzow doesn’t know how to win. The ‘Jackets won the 2015 title and have the talent (watch out for the potential of Hayley Dessner) to sting the competition in 2019 and win another.
4 — Central Lakes (4, 27-6): The Raiders return their two big guns from 2018, Maggie Fellerman (347 kills, .303) and Sydney Berg (291 kills, .292) along with libero Halley Tihlarik (606 digs, 36 aces). Coach Jane Peterson’s also won national titles (three, actually) and is an NJCAA Hall of Famer. That means you should expect to see Central Lakes in the thick of the chase again.
5 — Lorain County (5, 26-12): Ted Whitsel enters his sixth year as the all-time winningest coach in school history. The Commodores had great balance between freshmen and sophomores last year and though OPP Makayla Tuck and L Angela Dunn graduated, key freshmen from last year included Addysen Kerr (261 kills, 73 blocks) and S Kara Sullinger (220 kills, 718 assists). Lorain County’s roster was not available when this article was submitted to know who was on/off the 2019 roster).
Jim Dietz has been the head coach at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, Ill., since 2006. Dietz has also written two coaching books — The Human Side of Coaching and Like Heck She Isn’t a Volleyball Player — and several novels. And he’s the executive director of the Dietz Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping create a generation of new coaches and educators.