Pac-12 preview: League has many new faces, but Stanford still team to beat

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Khalia Lanier-USC-Women of Troy-Trojans-Galen Center-NCAA tournament-first round
Powerful Khalia Lanier, hitting in last year's NCAA Tournament, leads USC/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

The Pac-12 had nine NCAA Tournament teams and Stanford, this year’s AVCA preseason No. 1, made it to the national semifinals.Despite consistent coaching turnover, the league annually goes neck and neck with the Big Ten as the top two conferences in the sport.This year will be no exception, although once again the Pac-12 will look quite a bit different from the year before.

The Pac-12 had nine NCAA Tournament teams and Stanford, this year’s AVCA preseason No. 1, made it to the national semifinals.

Despite consistent coaching turnover, the league annually goes neck and neck with the Big Ten as the top two conferences in the sport.

This year will be no exception, although once again the Pac-12 will look quite a bit different from the year before.

Pac-12 Preseason Coaches Poll
1. Stanford
2. USC
3. Oregon
4. UCLA
5. Colorado
6. Washington
7. Washington State
8, Utah
9. Arizona
10. Oregon State
11. Arizona State
12. Cal

Arizona
2017 Record: 11-18, 5-5
Key losses: Tyler Spriggs, who was second on the team in kills per set (2.32)
Who returns: Pretty much everyone, including six starters and 11 overall, starting with kills leader senior OH Kendra Dahlke (306 kills, 3.26/set) and blocks leaders junior MB Devyn Cross (78, 14 solo) and sophomore OH Elizabeth Shelton (61, five solo), who averaged 2.10 kps. That includes sophomore OH Paige Whipple (2.15 kps). Junior setter Julia Patterson (10.14 assists per set) should run a much better offensive team.
Newcomers of note: Freshman middle Zyonna Fellows, a 6-4 product of Tacoma, Washington, part of a eight-player incoming class, seven freshman and a JC transfer. Freshman OH Whittnee Hihpali was the Nevada prep player of the year.
Analysis: Dave Rubio starts his 27th year in Tucson and is the dean of Pac-12 coaches. He knew last year would be one in which the Wildcats would take their lumps, but this year the pre-conference schedule is manageable and Arizona could get into the middle of the Pac-12 pack.

Arizona State
2017 Record: 10-22, 0-20
Key losses: MB Oluoma Okaro, who led in kills (489, 4.33/set) and aces (27), and Griere Hughes, second in kills (325, 3.01/set.).
Who returns: Ivana Jeremic, a 6-foot junior OH from Serbia (264 kills, 2.54/set), senior OH Peyton Grahovac (176 kills, 59 blocks, 14 solo)
Newcomers of note: USC transfer Alyse Ford, a 5-10 OH who fell out of the mix in L.A. last year. She’s only 5-10, but is a superior leaper with a lot of power. Also new is 6-0 OH Claire Kovensky, the 2017 Western Athletic Conference freshman of the year for Grand Canyon. Four freshmen join the team.
Analysis: Coach Sanja Tomasevic starts her second season facing a long, uphill battle.

Cal
2017 Record: 13-18, 4-16
Key losses: Antzela Dempi led in kills (319, 2.98.set)
Who returns: Everyone is thrilled that Savannah Rennie is back. The 6-2 junior MB has gone through so much, from her liver transplant to battle non-Hodgkin Post-Transplant Lymphoma. She was one of the most highly sought-after recruits in the nation, sat out as a freshman, played in 12 matches as s sophomore, sat out last season, but then participated in spring practice. There are just two seniors on the roster, OH Carmen Annevelink and setter Mackenzie Albrecht. Sophomore OH Mima Mirkovic (264 kills, 2.47/set) will be the main focus of the offense. Leading blocker, sophomore MB Preslie Anderson, is also back.
Newcomers of note: Seven freshman and on JC transfer. Freshman Jade Blevins will be the starting setter and OH Darian Clark could get into the mix early.
Analysis: Jennifer Dorr, who finished the end of 2017 as the interim head coach, also has a long, uphill battle ahead of her.

Colorado
2017 Record: 24-10, 12-8
Key losses: Three starters, including OH Joslyn Hayes, MB Anna Pfefferle and, most significantly, OH Frankie Shebby, who was second in kills and third in blocks.
Who returns: One of the best players in the country in senior OH Alexa Smith (team-leading 484 kills, 3.97/set). She also had 20 aces and averaged 2.83 digs. Also, junior MB Naghede Abu (2.09 kps, team leading 1.20 bps, hit .344), sophomore setter Brynna Deluzio, one of best young setters in the country, and senior L Gabby Carta-Samuels.
Newcomers of note: There are four freshmen, including 6-3 MB Allie Moger.
Analysis: Jesse Mahoney starts his third year in Boulder and figures to build on last year’s NCAA appearance when the Buffs beat James Madison in the first round and then knocked off Baylor on its home floor before losing to eventual national champion Nebraska.

Lindsey Vander Weide is part of an experienced and talented Oregon team/Stephen Burns photo

Oregon
2017 Record: 18-12, 10-10
Key losses: Taylor Agost, who led the team in kills (348, 3.08/set), and setter Maggie Scott.
Who returns: Everyone but Agost who played, including as much talent as nearly any roster in the country. That includes Lindsey Vander Weide (280 kills, 17 aces, 60 blocks and a team-leading 305 digs), Jolie Rasmussen (168 kills), Willow Johnson (248 kills, 73 digs), junior MB Ronika Stone (242 kills, .366 hitting percentage, 129 blocks) and senior MB Sumeet Gill. And senior setter August Raskie is primed for a big year.
Newcomers of note: The biggest addition is North Carolina transfer Taylor Borup, a 6-4 junior who plays on both pins. Brooke Nuneviller, who leads a class of five freshmen, will find her way on the floor, most likely on defense.
Analysis: This is the year for Oregon to break through after a disappointing 2017 at the end of which it beat Kennesaw State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament but got swept by BYU in the second. The Ducks and second-year coach Matt Ulmer have the talent and the depth and if they stay healthy should battle for the top of the Pac-12. If nothing else they’ll be tested, playing Texas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Penn State and Hawai’i in the preseason.

Oregon State
2017 Record: 21-12, 11-9
Key losses: A huge one when Kylee McLaughlin, the Pac-12 freshman of the year, transferred to Oklahoma. Mary-Kate Marshall, who led the Beavers offensively (525 kills, 4.34/set, 42 aces), graduated.
Who returns: Senior MB Kory Cheshire (253 kills, 100 blocks), sophomore OH/RS Maddie Goings (321 kills, 17 aces, 2.78 dps) and sophomore OH/RS Haylie Bennett (254 kills, 96 blocks).
Newcomers of note: Freshman RS Nya Buckner, and three setters who are vying for the job, sophomore transfer from SMU Allison Hughes, freshman Maddie Sheehan and junior-college transfer Montanna Gubrud.
Analysis: Mark Barnard was the Pac-12 coach of the year. As he enters his third season the biggest concerns are replaying Marshall’s offense and McLaughlin, who ran the show as well as anyone.

Stanford
2017 Record: 30-4, 19-1
Key losses: Just one, but the tallest one. Merete Lutz (307 kills, 100 blocks), the 6-foot-8 middle/right side, was not only the most improved player in the NCAA the past four years, but a huge part of Stanford’s 2016 championship and last year’s final-four run.
Who returns: The core four of juniors Morgan Hentz (4.08 digs per set), the best libero in the country, OH Kathryn Plummer (555 kills, 4.66/set, 41 aces), who was the AVCA player of the year, setter Jenna Gray (44 aces) and RS Audriana Fitzmorris (263 kills, 152 blocks) make up one of the strongest classes ever. Senior Tami Alade proved herself a top-level middle last year and sophomore Michaela Keefe is vying to get into the OH mix.
Newcomers of note: There are two freshmen, 6-4 MB Holly Campbell, who is a strong candidate for a starting job, and OH Mackenzie Fidelak.
Analysis: There’s a reason the Cardinal and second-year coach Kevin Hambly are No. 1 in the AVCA preseason poll. They’ve pretty much been, done that. The core four — Plummer, Gray, Hentz and Fitzmorris — are on the all-Pac-12 preseason team and they and their teammates are the squad to beat this season, not only in the league but in the nation.

UCLA
2017 Record: 21-11, 12-8
Key losses: S Sarah Sponcil, who had a tremendous season after transferring from Loyola Marymount and then was a big part of UCLA’s national-championship beach team. OH Reily Buechler was UCLA’s go-to gamer who led the Bruins in kills with 417, had 30 aces, 313 digs, and 51 blocks.
Who returns: Mac May and Madeleine Gates lead the way. May, a sophomore OH, had 282 kills and 46 blocks. Gates, a 6-3 junior MB, had 310 kills, hit .338 and led with 131 blocks, 29 solo. Throw in sophomore outside Jenny Mosser (338 kills, 169 digs and 45 blocks) and that’s a strong core. MB Kyra Rogers is ready for a big senior year. Kylie Miller hopes to win the setter job. Junior Savvy Simo is a versatile DS and senior Zana Muno is one of the league’s better liberos.
Newcomers of note: Freshmen Devon Chang and Hawley Harrer both hope to win the setter job.
Analysis: UCLA was picked fourth by the coaches and ranked 11th in the AVCA preseason poll. Michael Sealy, now in his ninth season, stands only behind Arizona’s Dave Rubio and Utah’s Beth Launiere as the longest-tenured coach in the conference. A handful of players on this team experienced winning the national title on the beach and that has to carry over.

USC
2017 Record: 25-10, 14-6
Key losses: Nine players are gone from the team that was three points from the national semifinals, including six seniors and one-time starter Alyse Ford, who transferred. Gone are opposites Niki Withers and Brittany Abercrombie, and middle Jordan Dunn.
Who returns: Junior outside All-American Khalia Lanier (team-leading 511 kills, 4.29/set, 282 digs, 43 blocks, 42 aces) is the team’s only pick to the coaches all-Pac-12 team. But she’s got all the tools and carried the Trojans at times. Libero Reni Meyer-Whalley, MB Brittany Welsh and libero Victoria Garrick are the only seniors. Junior Cindy Marina returns at setter. Junior pin hitter Brooke Botkin will be in the mix.
Newcomers of note: USC has four freshmen, including 6-4 MB Abby Hanson and 6-1 OH Brooklyn Schirmer. 6-foot Spanish setter Raquel Lazaro will compete for the starting job. Jasmine Gross is a 6-3 transfer from Pepperdine who made the all-WCC first team and OH Emily Baptista came from Pacific, where she, too, was all-WCC first-teamer. Abby Hansen, a 6-4 freshman, will be in the MB mix.
Analysis: Despite all the losses and the firing of longtime coach Mick Haley, first-year coach Brent Crouch has a team ranked 10th in the AVCA preseason poll and picked second in the Pac-12 by the league coaches. A big reason is Lanier, who you could argue is as good as any player in the country.

Utah
2017 Record: 24-10, 13-7
Key losses: None bigger than Adora Anae, the bomber from the outside who led the Utes in kills with 547 and had 395 digs. MB Tawnee Luafalemana (260 kills, 152 blocks), and OH Carly Trueman (310 kills, 63 digs) also graduated. Three others transferred, including setter Camryn Machado.
Who returns: Junior S Bailey Choy and senior MB Berkeley Oblad (300 kills, 142 blocks), Utah’s only presason all-league pick. Also back are sophomore OHs Kenzie Koerber and Dani Barton.
Newcomers of note: Three freshmen and two junior transfers, Kinga Windisch, a Hungarian by way of Coastal Carolina, and Taylor Laugero, who came from Santa Clara.
Analysis: Utah and veteran coach Beth Launiere lost a lot of firepower from a team that lost to Texas 3-2 — 16-14 in the fifth set — in the NCAA Tournament round of 16. They’re picked to finish eighth and that seems fair.

Washington
2017 Record: 25-8, 14-6
Key losses: Few teams lost more to graduation, including OH Courtney Schwan, S Bailey Tanner, RS Carly DeHoog, MB Marion Hazelwood, OH Crissy Jones and L/OH Tia Scambray.
Who returns: The good news is quite a bit. Lauren Sanders, a 6-4 MB, had a big freshman season (183 kills, team-high 162 blocks), and junior OH Kara Bajema (207 kills, 1.22 dps) is ready to move into the spotlight. She was the only Husky picked to the all-league preseason team. So, too, should be OH Destiny Julye, the team’s only senior. Junior MB Avie Niece is a strong blocker and averaged 1.02/set.
Newcomers of note: Coach Keegan Cook brings in five freshmen and Maryland transfer Samantha Drechsel, a 6-4 OH who is from nearby Woodinville and figures to get into the mix.
Analysis: The coaches picked Washington to finish sixth. After losing seven seniors and having so many new faces, that seems like a fair assessment. Cook will get a handle on things pretty early, with a non-conference schedule that includes playing San Diego twice, Iowa, Colorado, Illinois, Dayton, Pittsburgh and Kennesaw State.

Washington State
2017 Record: 18-16, 6-14
Key losses: WSU had just two seniors, including Casey Schoenlein (184 kills, 47 blocks).
Who returns: Standout MB Taylor Mims (4.17 kps, 23 aces, 2.17 dps), senior OH McKenna Woodford (2.18 kps, 1.79 dps), junior MB Jocelyn Urias (1.33 blocks per set), senior MB Claire Martin, junior libero Alexis Dirige and junior S Ashley Brown.
Newcomers of note: WSU has four freshmen.
Analysis: WSU was so highly regarded last year it made the NCAA Tournament despite its league record. The Cougars beat Florida State in the first round and then lost to eventual-champion Nebraska. Any team with Mims and Woodford is going to be in the mix. Coach Jen Greeny goes into her eighth season at her alma mater with an eye on being in the top half of the league.

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