Pac-12 preview: Stanford, UCLA teams to beat in powerful league

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Inky Ajanaku, who missed all of last year, is back for Stanford/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

This is the fourth in a series of college conference previews since the NCAA season begins on Friday, August 26. Previously, the ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten. Today, the Pac-12. Next up, the SEC.

The Pac-12 is always a powerhouse in women’s college volleyball. Last year it sent seven teams to the NCAA Tournament, but in the end it was a distant second to the Big Ten.

What’s more, this year there is a lot of flux at the top, as perennial powers Stanford, USC, and Washington replace key personnel with an influx of outstanding freshman talent.

“I’m excited for our conference,” second-year Washington head coach Keegan Cook said. “I wasn’t as excited about it six or eight months ago when they started signing all these kids. I think you’re going to see the conference in general taking a big jump.

“The players that Oregon, UCLA, and Stanford have added, they’ve added some significant talent, and I expect those programs to really make a jump from last year.”

Stanford head coach John Dunning agrees.

“We have a chance to have a really good high-level conference again,” Dunning said. “We have good players and solid programs.”

Speaking of Stanford, the Cardinal is No. 1 in the Pac-12 coaches poll, despite losing its starting outsides and setter for the past four years (Brittany Howard and Jordan Burgess on the outside, and setter Madi Bugg), so its first two touches will be largely new.

Before you feel too sad for the Cardinal, remember that they will return two of the strongest middles in the country, redshirt senior and 2014 first-team All-American Inky Ajanaku, and second-team All-American Merete Lutz, the 6-foot-8 junior who played last year with a broken finger. Couple that with 2015 Volleyball magazine freshman of the year Hayley Hodson, and you can bet that Stanford will be bouncing its share of balls.

“Last year we pushed middle a lot,” Dunning said, “and Hayley carried a big load for a freshman. This year we can be different. We have some depth, and we have several quality hitters, so we can spread things out and make it difficult to defend.”

Dunning has to decide on a setter. Senior Kelsey Humphreys has been waiting for her chance. Ajanaku missed all of last season with an injury sustained playing for a USA national team. And Stanford, already a tall team, adds two 6-6 freshmen in Audrianna Fitzmorris and Kathryn Plummer.

“Stanford has some amazing talent,” UCLA coach Mike Sealy said. “They have probably the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, kids that should be able to step in and do some amazing things right away.”

UCLA, ranked No. 2 in the Pac-12 preseason, made the third round of the championship last year. This year Sealy has a full cupboard, with seven of nine starters returning, losing only defensive specialists roster Rachel Inouye and Karly Drolson.

Claire Felix of UCLA/Ed Chan, VBshots.com
Claire Felix of UCLA/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

All-Pac-12 libero Taylor Formico is one of the most athletic in the country, and setter Ryann Chandler returns after missing much of last year with a concussion. Senior middle blockers Jennie Frager and Claire Felix led the team in hitting percentage last year. Senior Jordan Anderson and Junior Reily Buechler had excellent numbers last year, but underclassmen Kyra Rogers and Savvy Simo are pushing them in practice. Incoming 6-3 freshman opposite Torrey Van Winden could be an impact player this year.

“We have a really nice blend of five seniors that have been through the trenches,” Sealy said. “We have five really talented freshmen, it’s a nice mix of the old and the young.  We have a pretty good balance. We have two middles that can score, I think we’ll have a pretty even distribution.”

Coaches around the conference are concerned about UCLA’s weaponry.

“UCLA is the most dangerous team,” Dunning said. “They have the most returning players.”

No. 3 Washington, a traditional national powerhouse, was in the hunt in Cook’s first year. The Huskies, who lost to Nebraska in the NCAA round of eight, return pre-season Pac-12 outside hitters Crissy Jones and Tia Scambray, setter Bailey Tanner, and Courtney Schwann.

“There’s a good core of players that have played every minute since they got here,” Cook said. “This core group of players are really experienced at this point of their careers.

“We look a little different than last year. Our offense last year was pretty balanced, but focused a little bit on having a good middle attack. From an offensive standpoint, we’re a little more centered around the experienced outside hitters that we have.”

Washington has plenty of options: Middle blocker Kameron McLain is a senior transfer from Boston college. Avie Nice and Kara Bajema have yet to hit their ceiling.

“Washington can count on their pin hitters, Jones and Scambray, and their setter, Tanner,” Dunning said. “They’re all good, and that matters a lot.”

Preseason No. 4 Oregon finished 16-13 last season behind the strong play of sophomore Lindsey Vander Weide and senior libero Amanda Benson.

“Vander Weide passed half the court and was just fantastic last year as a freshman,” Sealy said. “She’ll be a franchise kid.”

Throw in a recruiting class ranked second by prepvolleyball.com, and you can see that Oregon is on a quest to return towards the national championship match that the Ducks reached in 2012.

“The new recruits all have great credentials, and they’re all capable of contributing right away,” Oregon coach Jim Moore said. “But they’re going to have to step into a place they’ve never played, with people they’ve never played with. We have to put it on the floor and be good.”

Alyse Ford of USC/Ed Chan, VBshots.com
Alyse Ford of USC/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

USC is used to being ranked fifth. In 2015 the Women of Troy were ranked fifth in the pre-season, but finished with a share of the Pac-12 title and was one set from the final four behind the play of Volleyball magazine player of the year Samantha Bricio. Her graduation will leave a void on offense, where she was a tremendous server and hit out of the back row as well anyone in the women’s game. And USC sustained another tough loss when six-rotation setter/right side Baylee Johnson was declared academically ineligible this summer.

Coach Mick Haley, starting his 40th year of coaching and 16th at USC, hopes that freshman Khalia Lanier, the Gatorade player of the year, will fill some of the void left by Bricio.

Khalia Lanier will obviously make a big impact at USC.” Cook said. “They lose one great player and slide another into her place.”

USC has plenty of offensive firepower, with pre-season all-conference Brittany Abercrombie as opposite, as well as high-flying Alyse Ford on the outside, and Elise Ruddins in the middle.

No. 6 Arizona features an experienced senior class coupled with an incoming freshman class rated 10th best this year. Arizona returns seniors Penina Snuka at setter, libero Laura Larson, and all-Pac-12 outside Kalei Mau.

“I like our freshman class,” said Arizona coach Dave Rubio,  entering his 25th year in Tucson. “They’re athletic. They’re willing to learn. They’re coachable. I like the returning group as well. We’ve got a good group of seniors. We’ve got a lot of players who have worked hard in the summer and have been committed to become better. Our seniors are really good role models and leaders for the rest of the team.”

No. 7 Colorado is under the leadership of new head coach in Jesse Mahoney, a former CU assistant who had a good run at nearby Denver.

Utah coach Beth Launiere is starting her 27th year at Utah, which has been in the league since 2011. Her Utes are led by junior outside Adora Anae.

Washington State boasts one of the best hitters in the league in senior outside Kyra Holt.

Arizona State, which was in the national-title hunt last year until an injury cost the Sun Devils their best player, has some rebuilding to do under new coach Stevie Mussie. Oregon State has a new coach, too, since Terry Liskevych retired and was replaced by former assistant Mark Marnard. And Cal, a program decimated by injuries and has won only five Pac-12 matches the past two years, lost four seniors but had a strong recruiting class.

Last year USC, UCLA, Stanford, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, and Arizona State all made the NCAA Tournament. The coaches think this year will be better.

Enjoy the show,” Cook said. “For everybody watching the Pac-12, this is going to be one of the stronger years. There will be some late nights on TV across this conference this year.”

Dunning agreed.

I can’t wait,” he said. “We’re ready.”

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