Pac-12 preview: Deep league is “as good as I’ve seen it in a while”

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Libero Morgan Hentz is just one of many players back from Stanford's NCAA title team/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

The coaches picked Washington to win the conference.

And why not? The Huskies, who won the Pac-12 regular-season title in 2015 and 2016, have everyone back and add two players who will likely start.

“Washington is absolutely the team to beat,” Utah coach Beth Launiere said.

Launiere, the coach in the league who has been at her school the longest as she starts her 28th year, has a team that’s right up there. The league coaches picked defending-NCAA-champion Stanford to finish second, Oregon third, and then Utah.

And while the Pac-12 might be top heavy, it’s pretty middle and lower-end heavy, too, despite as much turnover as could be imagined in such a league.

There are new coaches at four schools — Kevin Hambly at Stanford, Matt McShane at Cal, Matt Ulmer at Oregon and Sanja Tomasevic at Arizona State — a year after Oregon State and Colorado made changes. That’s half the league.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Launiere said.

Dave Rubio starts his 26th year at Arizona and was in the league long before Utah joined in 2011, so he’s the longest-tenured Pac-12 coach. And his team is getting respect, too.

“It’s as good as I’ve seen it in a while,” Cook said. “A lot of teams that people aren’t talking about that I think are going to be awfully good.”

They’re talking about a lot of them. since six — No. 2 Stanford, No. 3 Washington, No. 13 UCLA, No. 18 Oregon, No. 23 Utah and No. 24 Arizona — are in the AVCA preseason poll. And the first team was out USC.

“The Pac-12 is so deep,” Oregon’s Ulmer said. “I think we could get 10 in (to the NCAA Tournament) like we did a couple of years ago.”

Said UCLA coach Michael Sealy, “Who knows. You have the defending national champion back after losing one player and you have the defending Pac-12 champion losing no players and adding more talent.

“USC is off the charts physical and has added ball control. Utah was real good last year and added in spots through their recruiting class. Every team is better than last year, for sure.”

Arizona
2016 record: 20-15 overall, 10-10 Pac-12
Key losses: Arizona lost five starters, none more significant than do-everything setter Penina Snuka, who led the team in aces (35), was second in digs (401) and had 55 blocks, 10 solo. Also gone is leading attacker Kalei Mau, who averaged 4.07 kills per set and libero Laura Larson, who averaged .380 digs per set.
Newcomers of note: Six freshmen and all have a shot to see action.
Who returns: Not a lot of experience, but sophomore middle Devyn Cross, who led the Wildcats in blocking, and junior outside Kendra Dahlke, who led in total kills with 496, 3.97 per set.
Analysis: The Wildcats got hot when it mattered in 2016 and got to the third round of the NCAA Tournament before losing to Washington. And despite all the losses, Rubio offered this: “We’re very talented. Deep and talented. This is the most talented team I’ve ever had,” Rubio said. “Ever. Ever.“But that doesn’t mean that’s going to translate into wins. It just means that we look pretty good standing there. If it was a combine we’d be in the upper 10 percent. But it’s still not a combine and you’ve still gotta play volleyball and right now that’s a struggle for us.”
The middles will be sophomore Cross, who had 114 blocks, 18 solo, and one of either freshman Candice Denny, redshirt-freshman Shardonee Hayes, 6-7 senior McKenzie Jacobson or senior Jade Turner.
The opposites will likely be freshman Katie Smoot and redshirt-freshman Elizabeth Shelton.
The libero battle includes senior Kimberly Gutierrez, sophomore Sara Watanabe and sophomore Makenna Martin.

Arizona State
2016 record: 12-20, 5-15 Pac-12
Key losses: The Sun Devils lost outside hitters Maya McClendon and Cassidy Pickrell along with libero Mia Mazon to graduation. Arizona State also lost six players to transfer, including setter Kylie Pickrell, middle blocker Mmachi Nwoke, middle blocker Jasmine Koonts and outside hitter Lexi MacLean.
Newcomers of note: The Sun Devils welcome a talented mixture of transfers and incoming prospects for the upcoming 2017 season. Long Beach State transfer Peyton Grahovac joins the fold this season after two exceptional seasons with the 49ers that saw her accumulate 321 kills and 85 blocks, while appearing in 165 sets and making 44 starts. Incoming outside hitter Isabell Miller adds another element to the attack, bringing athleticism and power to the lineup. The San Diego Mesa-College transfer averaged 4.89 kills per set overall and 5.49 in conference while holding a .228 hitting percentage last season for the Olympians. Freshman setter Shelbie Dobmeier has made a quick impact so far in practice, working her way into more playing time as the season approaches. Dobmeier earned several accolades at Lakewood High School, including First-Team All-CIF honors (2014-16), 2016 Moore League MVP honors, and Moore League First-Team All-League honors (2013-16).
Who returns: The Sun Devils return several veterans that will provide necessary experience and leadership. Senior libero Halle Harker has been a mainstay in the Sun Devil lineup in all three of her seasons at Arizona State. Harker has led the Sun Devils in digs in each of her previous three seasons and appeared in all 120 sets for Arizona State in 2016. Her career tally of 1,403 digs sits at No. 6 in the all-time ASU record book. Senior middle blocker Oluoma Okaro made an immediate impact last season after transferring to the program from San Francisco, ultimately earning All-Pac-12 honorable mention honors. Posting a team-best 336 kills, Okaro also notched 128 blocks and 39 service aces to highlight a strong junior campaign. Sophomore libero Courtney Leffel appeared in 116 of 120 total sets for the Sun Devils in 2016, notching 196 digs, accounting for the second most in that category on the season. Sophomore outside hitter Ivana Jeremic heads into 2017 coming off a strong freshman campaign in 2016, that saw her post 246 kills, an average of 2.4 per set, while adding 127 digs.
Analysis:  Sanja Tomasevic was named the eighth coach of the Arizona State volleyball program on Dec. 21, 2016. She moves into the role after serving the program as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for ASU’s indoor program in 2016, where the Sun Devils capped the year with three straight home wins, including a five-set thriller over Pac-12 rival Arizona. The Sun Devils look to incorporate a talented class of newcomers with a core group of experienced returners. Arizona State boasts a young, versatile roster with a system that highlights the athleticism and skill of the student-athletes.

California
2016 record: 9-21, 3-17 Pac-12
Key losses: The Bears must replace a ton of experience at two key positions, as four-year starting libero Maddy Kerr and three-year starting setter Alyssa Jensen have graduated. Kerr played in every set of every match during her career and left Cal ranked second on the program’s career digs list (1,775). Jensen finished her career at No. 6 on the Bears’ all-time assists list with 3,342. Also departed is three-year starting middle blocker Jenelle Jordan, who led the team in blocks in each of the past two seasons.
Newcomers of note: Cal has added three high school All-Americans, each of whom is expected to make an immediate impact. Outside hitter Mima Mirkovic, who will also play on the Bears’ beach volleyball team and won the bronze medal at the 2017 FIVB U21 World Championships, should compete for playing time right away. The Bears also feature a tandem of highly regarded middle blockers from Arizona, 6-foot-3 Lauren Forte and 6-2 Preslie Anderson. Hawaii transfer Emma Smith is in the mix to replace Kerr at libero.
Who returns: Senior Christine Alftin has led the Bears in kills in each of the past two seasons, and also provides stability in the back row as a six-rotation player. Right side hitter Bailee Huizenga is back after a promising freshman season in which, among other things, she recorded 19 kills in a match against No. 11 Stanford – the most kills in a match by a Cal freshman since 2008. Senior Jessica Gaffney played in every match last season as a defensive specialist, while junior Mackenzie Albrecht is in line to see more playing time at setter with the departure of Jensen.
Analysis: It’s the beginning of a new chapter at Cal after the departure of head coach Rich Feller, who retired at the end of last season as the program’s all-time winningest coach. Matt McShane took over the program after one season as associate head coach and a previous five-year stint on the staff as an assistant. Cal has a couple of proven pin hitters in Alftin and Huizenga, and Mirkovic is loaded with potential as another six-rotation outside hitter. With the addition of the two heralded middle blockers, the potential for marked and rapid improvement is there.

Colorado
2016 record: 14-16 overall, 6-14 Pac-12
Key losses: Three starters, setter Kiara McKibben, libero Cierra Simpson, and opposite/setter Gabby Simpson, who transferred to Kansas.
Newcomers of note: Four freshmen, including two vying for the starting setter job, Brynna Deluzio and Jaden Newsome, and 6-4 Canadian middle Danielle Price. The Buffs also get senior libero Branen Berta, a transfer from Iowa State.
Who returns: Both middles in junior Naghede Abu and senior Anna Pfefferle, senior outside Stephanie Shadley and junior outside Alexa Smith, who led the team in kills (3.17 per set) and aces and was second in digs.
Analysis: The Buffs were picked ninth in the league by the coaches.
“We really only lost a few players from last year, but they were definitely key players,” second-year coach Jesse Mahoney said. “We lost a libero and two setters, so half of our first contact and all of our second contact. A lot of this training camp has been about finding answers in those positions. We feel like we are certainly very skilled and athletic. We return a lot of our point scoring and attacking so I’m excited about that. It’s a little bit of a new look team with some new faces out there in key positions.
“I think our team goal would be to be more consistent,” Abu said. “I thought last year we had a lot of highs and a lot of lows but we never went into a match knowing what we can expect specifically. So we can focus on being more consistent in our production all across the board.”

Oregon
2016 record: 21-10 overall, 13-7 Pac-12
Key losses: Libero Amanda Benson and middle Kacey Nady, “leaving a big void for us,” Ulmer admitted.
Newcomers of note: How deep and young is your roster when you add just one player, freshman DS Kyra Hanawahine?
Who returns: Pretty much everyone, including the middles in sophomore Ronika Stone and junior Lauren Page, senior setter Maggie Scott, senior right side Taylor Agost and sophomore right side Willow Johnson, and sophomore outside Jolie Rasmussen and junior outside Lindsey Vander Weide.
Analysis: Ulmer knows what he’s got.
“A great team, really dynamic, really deep, ton of talent,” he said.
Oregon will likely run a 6-2 with Scott and junior August Raskie and they’ll be covered on the front row by Agost and Johnson: “They’re both a load,” Ulmer said. “We’re really strong behind the setters.”
Stone and Page are in the middle with junior Sumeet Gill, while Vander Weide will be one outside hitter and sophomore Brooke Van Sickle the other until Rasmussen is injury free, something she hasn’t been since the middle of last season as she deals with an ankle and her back.
“That’s a bummer because she’s possibly our best player,” Ulmer said. “She should be back by Pac-12, maybe sooner.”
Oregon opens with Nebraska and Texas, a tough start for sure.
“Once we get fully healthy I’ll be really excited,” Ulmer said.

Oregon State
2017 record: 12-19, 5-15
Key losses: The Beavers lost six letter-winners from 2016, but only one starter, Lila Toner. Toner started 29 out of 31 matches in 2016 as OSU’s opposite hitter and finished third on the team in kills. Middle blockers Katelyn Driscoll and Jessi Seumalo both missed a chunk of their final season due to injury. Depth in the middle is a key.
Newcomers of note: The OSU recruiting class was ranked 19th by one service. Setter Kylee McLaughlin, the 2016 Texas Gatorade Player of the Year, and outside hitter Madison Goings headlines a class of five freshmen that are expected to make an immediate impact. Oklahoma City University transfer Shekinah Clarke brings a full array of tools.
Who returns: Senior Mary-Kate Marshall, who earned All-American honorable mention in 2016, enters the season fifth in career kills in Oregon State history. Fellow senior Lanesha Reagan, who along with Marshall forms a strong outside duo, finished last season second on the squad in kills and digs and will look to build on last year’s breakout campaign.
Analysis: In Mark Barnard’s first season directing the Oregon State program, the Beavers doubled their win total from 2015. Heading into year two, Barnard has created a balanced roster with depth and experience at all positions, and the recruiting class adds to each area as well. The Beavers have their sights on a run at the postseason for the first time since 2014.

Stanford
2016 record: 27-7 overall, 15-5 Pac-12
Key losses: It starts with the VolleyballMag.com national player of the year, middle blocker Inky Ajanaku (2.88 kills per set, 1.54 blocks). Her presence was immeasurable, both on and off the court. Stanford lost DS/setter Kelsey Humphreys, who made the bump set that led to the NCAA title-clinching kill, and 6-4 outside Ivana Vanjak, who averaged two kills per set, returned to her native Germany to turn pro and further research in chemical engineering. Outside hitter Hayley Hodson, a star as a freshman who got hurt early last season and withdrew from school and has given up volleyball.
Newcomers of note: Stanford brings in four freshmen to an already loaded roster, including DS Kate Formico, a cousin of not only former Cardinal great Kerri Walsh, but new Stanford volunteer assistant coach Taylor Formico, a VBM All-American libero last year at UCLA. She will see time on the floor, since she’s one of the better passers on the roster. Outside hitter Meghan McClure will get her chance to start at outside hitter.
Who returns: Who doesn’t? Stanford won it all last year with four freshman stars, 6-6 OH Kathryn Plummer, who made a mid-season switch from the right side, 6-6 MB Audriana Fitzmorris, setter Jenna Gray and libero Morgan Hentz. Also back is 6-8 right side Merete Lutz, the team’s only senior.
Analysis: Stanford is loaded even with the loss of Ajanaku.
“We haven’t screwed it up yet,” Hambly joked, “and we’re trying our best not to.”
You could have made the argument that Plummer and Hentz were as good as anyone in the nation at their positions. The wall of Plummer, Fitzmorris and Lutz is unparalleled in college volleyball. Gray runs the offense as well as anyone. Junior Tami Alade, who touches 10-9, will get her shot at middle, the position played by Hambly at BYU.
“They’re constantly trying to solve the problems on the floor and that’s pretty atypical of teams that I’ve coached on the college level,” Hambly said. “There’s a discussion constantly about how to be more efficient, how to be better amongst the players. They’re asking us, but they’re searching for answers as a group more than any group I’ve been around, they get along great, they communicate at a high level on and off the court and they’ve bought into each other. There’s a really good camaraderie amongst this group.”
The only argument you could make against Stanford is the Cardinal lacks depth.
“They can make a run again,” Ulmer said.

UCLA junior Reily Beuchler gets ready to unload against Baylor/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

UCLA Bruins
2016 record: 27-7, 15-5 Pac-12
Key losses: The Bruins said goodbye to Pac-12 libero of the year Taylor Formico (a VolleyballMag.com first-team all-American), outside hitter Jordan Anderson, middle blocker Jennie Frager and all-Pac-12 first-team right-side Torrey Van Winden, who transferred to Cal Poly. All four racked up numerous postseason accolades.
Top returning players: The roster includes senior outside hitter Reily Buechler, sophomore setter Kylie Miller, sophomore defensive specialist-libero Savvy Simo and junior setter Zana Muno. Buechler is the only returning starter back for the Bruins.
Top newcomers: UCLA welcomes senior transfer Sarah Sponcil (5-10, setter), who moved over from Loyola Marymount, freshman outside hitter Jenny Mosser (5-11), freshman outside hitter Mac May (6-3) and freshman middle blocker Emily Ryan (6-4).
Analysis: While UCLA lost plenty to graduation, coach Michael Sealy has a good mix of returning talent and key newcomers in the Westwood gym.
“It’s a pretty well-connected team. They are good teammates to each other,” Sealy said. “It’s a pretty fun working environment. We have eight new bodies in the gym. You have to get tactics and our systems in place so it’s a good teaching environment. There’s a lot of growth going on. That’s fun to be around.”
Sealy said UCLA will need contributions from its band of newcomers.
“We will be relying on new players, for sure,” he said. “I didn’t hear Stanford complaining about it too much last year.”
Sponcil has taken over the starting setter position.
“She’s setting and that’s exciting for her,” Sealy said. “She had a lot of experience at Loyola Marymount. She was a setter in club and we learned from other coaches how good she is at setting. The original plan for her was libero, but she set a few balls and we realized she’s elite in a lot of ways. We want to get the ball in her hands as much as possible.”
Sealy admitted he’s not sure about his team yet.
“We’re either really good, not very good or somewhere between. We don’t know yet. I think we will be a good team at the beginning with the opportunity to get much better a few months down the road.”

USC
2016 record: 18-14 overall, 10-10 Pac-12
Key losses: Elise Ruddins, a middle who led in blocks (133) and hitting percentage (.426).
Newcomers of note: There are a whopping 19 players total, nine transfers on the USC roster and many of them have a shot to play, including sophomore setter Cindy Marina, a transfer from Duke. Freshman Brooke Botkin is also battling to play setter and get on the first row. Brittany Welsh, a 6-4 junior transfer from LSU might get into the middle. Danielle Geiger is a senior middle transfer from UC Irvine.
“Everybody’s a transfer,” veteran coach Mick Haley cracked.
That also includes junior middle Madison Murtagh, who came from San Francisco; senior opposite Niki Weathers, who was at Fullerton; senior setter Reni Meyer-Whalley, who came from Washington; Nikki Leonard, a senior DS from Gonzaga. Jenna Adams, a sophomore DS, is a transfer from Ohio State.
“I never have transfers. I don’t like transfers,” Haley said. “But that just tells you where our sport’s going.”
Who returns: The key is sophomore outside hitter Khalia Lanier, whose 491 kills were more than 200 more than her closest teammate last year. And that was Alyse Ford, the high-jumping junior who had 272. They’ll be the outside hitters.
Seniors Brittany Abercrombie and senior Niki Withers will likely be the opposites as Haley employs a 6-2.
“Absolutely,” Haley said. “I want to score from both pins all six rotations.”
Daley Krage, a 6-4 sophomore who signed with Northwestern and came to USC, was injured much of last year, is also in the right-side mix, Haley said.
Jordan Dunn, a 6-4 senior, is a middle bothered by a bad back, but she’ll probably start from the get-go. Welsh and Geiger will battle for time.
Analysis: Last year USC’s record belied its strength of schedule, which is how the it got into the NCAA Tournament, where it lost to Hawai’i in five in the first round.
Haley said his is a team that should improve as the season goes along.
“We took a trip to Europe, we did a lot of special things, we did a zip-lining course in the preseason, and we’ve done well with having 19 people,” Haley said.
‘USC is a team that no one’s talking about and that blows my mind,” Cook said. “Khalia Lanier is a special talent and Mick’s brought in some good transfers and I think they’re going to surprise some people.”

Utah
2016 record: 20-12 overall, 11-9 Pac-12
Key losses: Tess Sutton, a four-year player who played libero, and libero Megan Shugrhou who went to medical school. Also gone is outside Eliza Katoa, who was fifth in kills.
Newcomers of note: There are seven freshmen and a few are going to be in the mix right away, including 6-3 Kenzie Koerber on the right side. Setter Camryn, if she comes around, will move into a 6-2, Launiere said. And 6-2 outside Shannon Scully has been so impressive on defense the coach said she might get some back-row action.
“She’s a baller,” Launiere said.
Who returns: Almost the entire offense, led by senior outside Adora Anae, who hits about as hard a ball as anyone, senior outside Carly Trueman, senior middle Tawnee Luafalemana, junior middle Berkeley Oblad, senior setter Bailey Choy, who took over as the setter in the spring and on Utah’s Europe trip.
“She’s really got a good command of the offense right now,” Launiere said.
Sophomores Brianna Doehrmann and Torre Glasker are in a libero competition.
Analysis: “We have a nice mix of experience, newcomers and depth,” said Launiere, whose Utes lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to UNLV. “We were a little nervous because Berkeley Oblad, our starting middle blocker, had a heart issue and originally they said they didn’t think she was going to be able to play. They put her on some beta blockers and she’s doing OK. She got cleared and that’s a big sigh of relief from me.”
She said the other middle, Luafalemana, “is just playing unbelievably right now.”
That, combined with a highly touted recruiting class, is why people like Washington’s Cook are high on the Utes.
“I think Utah is going to be tremendous,” Cook said. “I think they have a nice roster, added some pieces they needed and they’re always well-coached by Beth.”

Courtney Schwann of Washington hits against UCLA.

Washington
2016 record: 29-5 overall, 16-4 Pac-12
Key losses: The only senior on last year’s team, Kameron McLain, played in just 16 sets.
Newcomers of note: Two who will play, 6-4 freshman middle Lauren Sanders, and 6-3 middle Marion Hazelwood, who transferred from Oklahoma.
Who returns: Start with the Pac-12 player of the year, senior outside Courtney Schwan. The rest of the senior class is a group the league knows all too well, in outside Tia Scambray, outside Crissy Jones, setters Bailey Tanner and Jade Finau, and opposite Carly DeHoog. The junior class includes outside Destiny Julye and the sophomore group has libero Shayne McPherson.
The past two years, Tanner ran a 5-1 but Cook said a 6-2 is likely.
“We have two of the top setters in the Pac-12,” Cook said.
Analysis: “Washington returns everyone and adds two great pieces and are two-time defending champs, so how could you not go with them?” Ulmer asked.
It would be hard.
Cook said he expects Hazelwood to make a big early impact and that the two middles would be either her, Sanders or sophomore Avie Niece.
DeHoog is finally healthy and playing well, Cook said, and Jones will also be an opposite.
The outside hitters will be Schwan and Scambray, Cook said Julye and redshirt-freshman Russan Maria Bogomolova will be in the mix.
“It’s the most depth we’ve had in my time here at Washington,” said Cook, who enters his third year as head coach after two years as an assistant to Jim McLaughlin. “We’ve always been always been able to put together a good team but not always a tremendously deep one. So this year we’ve got seven seniors — a number of fifth-year seniors — and we’re in this unique position to be able to have great practices and great competition in the gym. And some more options of what we’re going to try to do, which is a good problem to have.”

Washington State
2016 record: 22-12 overall, 11-9 Pac-12
Key losses: The biggest hit was Kyra Holt, who is back as a student coach after playing
pro last year in Puerto Rico. She was a VolleyballMag.com All-America Honorable Mention. WSU ran a 6-2 and Haley MacDonald was half of that combo. Also gone are outside hitter Hailey Bethune and DS Tani Stephens, who graduated and transferred in the spring to play beach at Portland.
Newcomers of note: The roster includes four freshman, none of whom will likely start early. Ashley Brown, a transfer from Oklahoma, will probably move into the 6-2. Abby Phillips, a transfer from Iowa State, is a DS who will see some time.
Who returns: Start with Taylor Mims, a 6-3 junior middle who averaged 1.89 kills and hit .303, but she’s moved to outside hitter. The other outside will be 6-4 McKenna Woodford, who averaged 2.41 kills. Casey Schoenlein, a 6-5 senior, is moving from outside to opposite. One of the middles will be 6-4 junior Claire Martin and other middle will probably Ella Lajos. Jocelyn Urias, a product of Mexico who redshirted last year, will fight for middle time. The other setter is Nicole Rigoni, a 2016 transfer from Eastern Washington.
Analysis: 2016 was a banner year for the Cougars and coach Jen Greeny, who made the school’s first trip since 2009. WSU beat Marquette in the first round before getting knocked out by Wisconsin.
Obviously the coaches are not standing pat as evidenced by all the position changes.