Pac-12 preview: Utah picked No. 1, Stanford in limbo, plenty of standouts to replace

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pac-12 volleyball preview 1/21/2021-Dani Drews-Utah volleyball
Utah's Dani Drews, hitting against BYU in 2019, and her team are picked No. 1 in the Pac12/Steve C. Wilson, University of Utah photo

This will be a different Pac-12 season, that’s for sure.

For starters, two-time defending NCAA champion Stanford, which has won it all three of the last four titles, won’t even play the first two weekends.

Already, the Cardinal canceled this weekend’s matches at USC and next weekend’s at home against Colorado. We wrote about the Cardinal’s woes earlier this week.

The good news for the Pac-12 is that as best as can be determined, the rest of the first-weekend schedule is intact, and that includes Arizona at Utah, Arizona State at Washington, Cal at UCLA, Oregon at Washington State, and Oregon State at Colorado.
The league’s preseason poll came out Wednesday and coaches picked Utah No. 1, followed by Washington, Stanford, and UCLA.

Every conference loses players every year, but the Pac-12 lost some tremendous seniors to graduation (among them, Washington’s Kara Bajema, USC’s Khalia Lanier, UCLA’s Savvy Simo and Oregon’s Ronika Stone, and the five from Stanford, the first four of whom won three titles, Kathryn Plummer, Jenna Gray, Morgan Hentz, Audrianna Fitzmorris, and UCLA transfer Madeleine Gates).

And at least one all-conference player won’t be back because this fall 2020 season is in the spring, so Cal star Mima Mirkovic will be playing beach for the Bears.

The Pac-12 is always a tough league from top to bottom, both within the conference and against other leagues, but since UCLA won it all in 2011, Stanford has won the NCAA title three times and the only other leage team to make it to the championship final was Oregon in 2012.

Arizona (15-17, 5-15) — The good news for Dave Rubio, who enters his 29th season in Tucson, is that his leading attacker returns in senior outside Paige Whipple, who had 457 kills (3.94/set). He’s also got an experienced setter, in Akia Warrior, a senior transfer from Belmont.

After that?

“We’re too young,” Rubio said.

Indeed. Seven of his players are freshmen, two more are redshirt-freshmen, and two more are sophomores.

Whipple will start at one outside and three others will vie for time, Turkish sophomore Dilara Gedikoglu, Mexican freshman Sofia Maldonado Diaz, and Jaelyn Hodge.

The middles will be 6-foot-6 freshman China Rai Crouch and 6-4 junior Zyonna Fellows.
Warrior, a 6-footer, will set and so, too, will 6-1 freshman Emery Herman, and the libero will be Kamille Hiapo who led Arizona in digs last year at 3.52/set.

Megan Beedie

Arizona State (17-14, 9-11) — The Sun Devils surprised a lot of people last year, but even with that were picked by the coaches to finish ninth this spring and placed no one on the all-conference preseason team.

And that’s because there is just one senior, Canadian middle Megan Beedie (team-best 71 blocks 14 solo, and 140 kills), who will be joined by a lot of youngsters as coach Sanja Tomasevic enters her fourth season.

The other middle will be sophomore Kennedi Boyd (68 kills and 63 blocks, 15 solo). One outside will be Bosnian sophomore Iman Isanovic (216 kills), while three others are vying for the other job, including Latvian freshman Marta Levinska.

Sophomore Annika Larson will be the libero and junior Noa Miller (who had 297 assists and 167 digs last season), sophomore Shannon Shields, and freshman Ella Snyder are all competing at setter.

Cal (20-10, 10-10) — Coach Sam Crosson enters his second season not fully sure of his starting lineup, but knows his setter will be senior Isabel Potter and middles sophomore Bella Bergmark and freshman Lydia Grote.

Potter averaged 8.19 assists last season, had 16 aces, 30 kills, averaged 2.23 digs and had 21 blocks. Bergmark played in eight matches as a freshman and redshirted last season. Grote’s sister Marin is a junior middle at Washington.

Cal took some big hits. Leading attacker Mima Mirkovic (325 kills, 20 aces, 289 digs, 42 blocks), a senior outside, is going to play beach for the Bears this spring. Maddie Haynes and Bailee Huizenga were seniors, so Cal lost its top three hitters.

Crosson also lost two middles — the leading blockers — when Preslie Anderson transferred to Baylor and Lauren Forte went to Florida. Between them they averaged four kills and 1.7 blocks. Also gone is Savannah Rennie, who graduated and transferred to Marquette, where she will likely move back to her original position, middle, but can also play right side. She had 115 kills and 47 blocks for Cal last year. Rennie’s is a remarkable story after going through a liver transplant, cancer, and making a comeback each time.

Junior Makana Meyer, sophomore Sydney Lilomaiava, and freshmen Katarina Pantovic and Sam Taumoepeau are all in the mix to play outside hitter and/or right side. Crosson said he may play libero by committee, with five defensive specialists on the roster.

Jenna Ewert

Colorado (13-17, 5-15) — Coach Jesse Mahoney has a team strong at setter with junior Jenna Ewert (9.53 assists/set, 2.57 digs), the only Buff on the Pac-12 preseason team. Junior Brynna DeLuzio, who was a setter in 2017 and 2018 for CU, got hurt in 2018 and sat out last season. This year she’ll be the libero.

Junior Meegan Hart, who started every match last year after transferring from Iowa State, will be one middle. She led the team with 95 blocks and had 206 kills and hit .317. Graduate-student Rachael Fara, who played last season at Dayton after three at Northwestern, will be the other middle.

The outsides will be sophomores Jill Schneggenburger (120 kills, 1.78 digs/set) and Elissa Alcantara (153 kills). Sophomore Sterling Parker (second in both kills with 253 and blocks with 87) will be the right side.

Colorado’s roster has at least three players in every class and Mahoney said plenty more of them will have a chance to get in the mix.

Brooke Nuneviller, playing libero in 2018, is at outside for Oregon/Stephen Burns photo

Oregon (9-20, 5-15) — If only Oregon can stay healthy. There were a lot of wounded Ducks last year.

Now a junior, Brooke Nuneviller had a fabulous freshman year as a libero. Last year, she was pressed into duty as an outside hitter and persevered despite being undersized at 5-11 and dealing with a badly sprained ankle early in the season. She was second in kills with 331 behind graduated middle Ronika Stone (364 kills), led with 29 aces, had a team-high 417 digs (3.69/set) and 36 blocks.

The other outside will be Taylor Borup, the 6-4 transfer from North Carolina who played two seasons for the Tar Heels and then in 2018 got in just 20 matches for Oregon. Last year she took a redshirt.

One middle will be 6-4 sophomore Karson Bacon, who had 175 kills and was second on the team with 107 blocks, 20 solo. The other middle will likely be 6-5 sophomore Abby Hansen, who played in 13 matches last season and had 43 blocks and 64 kills.

Gloria Mutiri played two seasons at Kansas State, averaging 2.52 kills last year to go with 70 blocks. Now she will be Oregon’s junior right side.

The setter is sophomore Kyle Robinson, who averaged 7.93 assists last year, had 32 kills and 23 aces, and averaged 1.63 digs to go with 22 blocks.

The libero is Georgia Murphy, who was second in digs last year with 368 (3.26/set).

Oregon State (9-22, 3-17) — The Beavers, who finished in last place by two full games in 2019, have just five returning players.

Key among them are senior outside Maddie Goings, who was second in kills last season (302, 2.88/set) and digs (262) to go with 33 blocks, and senior libero Grace Massey (4.30 digs/set). Massey was the only player to play in all 122 sets last season.

Also returning is junior Nya Buckner, a junior right side who redshirted as a freshman and then got hurt and didn’t play last season; junior middle Lindsey Schell, who had 103 kills and 80 blocks, 20 solo; and sophomore setter Mary Kate Lopez, who won the job for the first weekend.

While Goings and Massey are the only seniors, Buckner and Schell the only juniors, and Lopez the lone sophomore, fifth-year coach Mark Barnard brings in seven freshmen. Among them, Ukrainian outside Kateryna Tkachenko and Belarusian middle Anastastija Svetnik will start, and so, too, would have outside Mychael Vernon, the New York player of the year, had she not gotten injured.

“The biggest complaint as coaches is we don’t have enough time when they combine the fall,” Barnard said. “They turn up and they have to play immediately and we don’t get to develop them. This is actually in some ways the perfect preparation for a season.”

Stanford (30-4, 18-2) — The fearsome foursome of Kathryn Plummer, Morgan Hentz, Audrianna Fitzmorris and Jenna Gray won three NCAA titles in four years, including the last two. Also gone is Madeleine Gates, who had huge role as a graduate transfer when Stanford won last year.

But even with them graduated this is no rebuidling project for fifth-year coach Kevin Hambly, whose lineup includes senior leader Meghan McClure.

Her younger teammates — the roster includes three sophomores, two redshirt-freshmen, and five freshmen — may not have college experience yet, but make a highly recruited and talented bunch that, if given some playing time, could be right in the mix at season’s end.

That, however, is a big problem.

Stanford has canceled its first two weekends of play, likely to cancel more, and may never get in the mix. We wrote about the No. 3 Cardinal on Tuesday. Click here in case you missed it.

UCLA volleyball 2019-Mac May
UCLA’s Mac May was the 2019 Pac-12 player of the year

UCLA (19-12, 13-7) — Mac May had a breakout season in 2019 when the 6-3 senior was named the Pac-12 player of the year. She led the Bruins in kills (493, 4.83/set), aces (36), and had 263 digs and 45 blocks.

That’s one bit of firepower, and now 11th-year coach Mike Sealy gets TCU transfer élan McCall. When healthy, McCall is an offensive power. She averaged 4.74 kills as a freshman, but last year was often injured. She can also play on the right side. Freshman Allison Jacobs hopes to get in the outside mix.

UCLA will run a 6-2 with junior Devon Chang and freshman Kate Lane. Chang averaged 5.24 assists last year and had 14 aces and 170 digs.

The middles will be junior Emily Ryan (158 kills, 98 blocks, 20 solo) and senior Sabrina Smith (52 kills, 70 blocks, 16 solo).

The libero is junior Zoe Fleck, who transferred from UC Santa Barbara.

UCLA graduated two stalwarths Savvy Simo and Jenny Mosser. But the Bruins tied for No. 8 in our VolleyballMag.com recruiting rankings.

USC (18-14, 11-9) — Brad Keller, who previously had worked at USC as a men’s assistant and whose resume includes being a UCLA men’s assistant and most recently an assistant on the women’s team — talk about crossing party lines — is USC’s third head coach in four years. We wrote about Keller last April.

Keller inherits a handful of players with either starting or playing experience, mostly notably senior outside Brooke Botkin and junior setter Raquel Lázaro.

Gone, however, is one of the better players in school history, graduated outside Khalia Lanier, who led in kills (566, 4.92/set), and had 35 aces, averaged 1.95 digs, and had 43 blocks.

Botkin, hampered by injuries throughout 2019, was a VolleyballMag.com third-team All-American in 2018 when she averaged 4.39 kills. Last year she still averaged 3.07 kills and when healthy can carry the Trojans for stretches.

The Spanish Lázaro joined Botkin on the Pac-12 all-preseason team. She averaged 10.77 assists, 2.67 digs, and the 6-footer had 111 blocks.

Junior Brooklyn Schirmer, sophomore Kalen Owes, sophomore Emilia Weske, and Polish sophomore Aleksandra Gryka will all be in the mix, Keller said.

“We’ve had huge improvements in all areas of our team,” Keller said. “Total buy in and effort. I’m supremely impressed with these young women and they always show up the next day. I have changed a ton of things and there has been no excuses.”

Dani Drews-Kenzie Koerber
Dani Drews, left, and Kenzi Koerber

Utah (24-10, 14-6) — Beth Launiere, the dean of coaches in the league (Arizona’s Dave Rubio has been a Pac-12 coach longer, but Launiere enters her 31st season at Utah), has a roster that’s loaded with talent and almost everyone back from a team that went to the NCAA Tournament round of 16 in 2019.

Utah was picked No. 1 in the Pac-12 coaches poll with nine of the 12 first-place votes and her team is embracing that.

“They get what it’s about and I think they’re really in it to win it,” said Launiere, the 2019 Pac-12 coach of the year.

Start with the two left-handers, Dani Drews and Kenzie Koerber (we wrote about them last season). Drews is a lefty outside who was a first-team VolleyballMag.com All-American; Koerber plays right side and made our fourth team.

Drews led in kills with 643, while Koerber was second with 400. Drews led with 35 aces and Koerber was right behind with 34. Koerber was third in digs with 323, while Drews had 137. And Koerber had 109 blocks and Drews 72.

The leading blocker (159) and No. 3 in kills (338) was middle Berkeley Oblad, and her graduation was a big loss. Accordingly, the middles will come from sophomore Kennedi Evans, junior Phoebe Grace, and freshman Allie Olsen. Evans redshirted last season, while Grace played in every match and had 105 kills and was second with 158 blocks, 13 solo.

One outside returns in 6-2 blaster Zoe Weatherington (298 kills) and there’s a new face on the roster in Madelyn Robinson, who transferred from BYU. Robinson played in all 112 of BYU’s sets last season and had 279 kills, 170 digs, and 43 blocks.

Also back is junior setter Saige Ka’aha’aina-Torres, who averaged 11.33 assists, had 57 kills, 17 aces, 85 blocks, and 304 digs.

The libero will be freshman Vanessa Ramirez.

NCAA volleyball 11/2/2019-Lauren Sanders-Washington Husky volleyball
Washington’s Ella May Powell dives for a ball against USC/Stephen Burns, Pacific Northwest photography

Washington (27-7, 15-5) — Washington was picked No. 2 in the league and got one of the first-place votes. Coach Keegan Cook enters his sixth season with an experienced roster and plenty of talent from a team that lost at Baylor in the NCAA Tournament round of eight.

That starts with junior setter Ella May Powell (10.49 assists/set, 72 kills, team-high 42 aces, second with 318 digs and 79 blocks).

Washington lost some valuable cogs, including do-everything Kara Bajema and middle Avie Niece, but there are four senior Huskies, including middle Lauren Sanders (200 kills, 140 blocks, 22 solo), and outside Samantha Drechsel, who was second to Bajema with 371 kills to go with 31 aces, 104 digs, and 99 blocks. The other seniors are libero Emma Calle and outside Maria Bogomolova.

Cook said that junior outsides Claire Hoffman and Shannon Crenshaw are probable starters, and added that sophomore outside Dani Cole, junior middle Marin Grote, freshman middle Sophie Summers, and freshman outside Madi Endlsey are in the mix.

The libero is battle between Calle and sophomore Sianna Houghton, and noted the Crenshaw could fill that role, too.

Pia Timmer

Washington State (23-10, 12-8) — Tenth-year coach Jen Greeny joked that the Cougars are “really good at quarantine.”

With just a week’s worth of practices before the first match, she admitted that nothing is set in stone. But you can figure that the Cougars, as they are every year, will be ready.

WSU has been to the NCAA Tournament for four years in a row. Last year the Cougars were picked to finish eighth and turned it on and finished fifth, notching upsets of Washington (twice) and Utah along the way.

WSU has a super sophomore class.

Pia Timmer had a tremendous freshman season as the German outside led with 346 kills (2.86/set), had 20 aces, 38 blocks, and averaged 1.78 digs. Her setter, sophomore Hannah Pukis, also is back after having 99 kills, averaging 9.77 assists, and getting 18 aces, 276 digs, and 66 blocks. Also back is the other outside, senior Penny Tusa (148 kills, team-best 35 aces, and 297 digs.

One middle will be Magda Jehlárová, a product of the Czech Republic who made the VolleyballMag.com freshman All-American team and was the AVCA freshman of the year after getting 268 kills and leading with a whopping 180 blocks, 29 solo. And she hit a team-high .357.

Also in the mix will be sophomore right side Alexcis Lusby (who had 235 kills last year and 108 blocks), and sophomore outside Kalyah Williams and freshman outside Julianna Dalton will see time on the court.

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