SEC preview: Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, Texas A&M remain teams to beat

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Kentucky's Leah Edmond was the 2016 SEC freshman of the year/Elliott Hess, photo, UK Athletics

The Southeastern Conference remains a top-heavy league.

The coaches picked Florida to win, followed by Kentucky, Missouri and Texas A&M, with Auburn seemingly poised to make a move.

But after that the SEC as a whole has a lot of ground to make up on its power-five counterparts.

In last year’s NCAA Tournament, those top four were the only ones in. A&M lost in the first round, Florida and Kentucky in the second, and Missouri got through to the round of 16 before losing to Minnesota.

“Until someone proves differently, the top four teams seem to be the ones ready to be in the top four again,” Kentucky coach Craig Skinner said.

There was only one coaching change, where Tom Black left Loyola Marymount for Georgia with a major rebuiding project ahead.

By all accounts, recruiting went well in the SEC and there is a lot of young talent, but when it’s all said and done, don’t be surprised if the league has just four teams into the NCAA once again.

“UK easily could have been picked No. 1,” Wise said. “it’s going to be a great battle.”

Alabama
2016 record: 20-11, 9-9 SEC
Key losses: Alabama lost three players to graduation, including All-American Krystal Rivers who ended her career as the Crimson Tide’s all-time leader in kills (2,148) and points (2,506).
Newcomers of note: The Tide welcomes a sizeable group of eight newcomers, including six freshmen and sophomore transfers Ashley Homan (SMU) and Ginger Perinar (Southern Illinois). Freshman Meghan Neelon from Clarence Center, N.Y., was a 2016 AVCA Under Armour All-American team member and was the top-ranked setter in each of the last three years at the USA Volleyball High Performance Women’s Continental Team.
Who returns: SEC All-Freshman middle blocker Hayley McSparin returns for her sophomore season after leading the team with a .325 hitting percentage last season. Senior Natalie Murison and junior Quincey Gary each saw regular time in the back row last season, with the former as the team’s primary libero over her Crimson Tide career. Senior Leah Lawrence led the team with 122 blocks last season and is 112 away from tying the all-time school record.
Analysis: Seventh-year head coach Ed Allen will look to return to the NCAA Tournament after a two-year absence and challenge in the top half of the Southeastern Conference. The Tide will face an early test with an opening weekend tilt at No. 25 Purdue
“We have a lot of new faces, eight newcomers and 20 on the roster which is as big of a roster as we’ve had here. We’re excited that we have depth in multiple positions.”

Arkansas
2016 record: 9-21, 7-11 SEC
Key losses: Arkansas graduated six seniors from last year’s team including the team’s top five attackers (k/s). Danielle Harbin ranked third in the SEC with 4.22 kills per set while Breana Jones hit .318 with 2.25 kills per set during conference play.
Newcomers of note: The Razorbacks’ roster features nine freshmen, the highest total in program history. Hailey Dirrigl (Phoenix, Ariz.) ranked as the No. 62 recruit in PrepVolleyball’s Senior Aces list while Elizabeth Pamphile (Orlando, Fla.) and Kiley Tiller (Carthage, Mo.) will be in competition for playing time in the middle. Local standout Klaire Trainor (Springdale, Ark.) was an Under Armour All-American Honorable Mention performer at Har-Ber HS. Arkansas’ incoming class earned Highest Honorable Mention accolades from PrepVolleyball.com.
Who returns: Redshirt senior Pilar Victoria returns to the lineup after missing the 2016 season with an injury. She led the SEC and was 10th in the NCAA with 4.61 kills per set in 2015 which established the program’s single-season record. Junior libero Okiana Valle and sophomore setter Rachel Rippee played in each of the Razorbacks’ 110 sets last season. Valle averaged 4.21 digs per set in SEC play while Rippee directed the offense with 10.52 assists per set against conference opponents.
Analysis: Picked to finish eighth in the preseason SEC poll, Arkansas will get an offensive boost from Victoria on the outside but will need to replace the arms lost to graduation. During its non-conference slate, the team will face four teams—Kansas State, Wisconsin, USC and SMU—that played in last year’s NCAA Tournament.
“We like that we’re a year older at certain positions,” coach Jason Watson said. “We like that Pilar is back, that Rachel Rippee is a year older and that Okiana has a lot more experience. One of the things we’re really enthused about is the excitement from the incoming class. They’ve blended well with our returners so there’s an enormous amount of optimism about our program.”

Auburn
2016 record: 15-16, 9-9
Key losses: Breanna Barksdale had 267 kills and 97 blocks.
Newcomers of note: There are four freshman and two transfers. Anna Stevenson, a freshman middle, will likely start. Sophomore middle Shaina White, who came from Northeastern, will be in the mix.
Who returns: Most importantly Brenna McIlroy, who led Auburn in kills with 351 (3.13 per set)/ The junior outside, who had 36 aces last year, will be the key to the offense but also had 257 digs last season. Also back are sophomore middle blocker Gwyn Jones, who had 321 kills, and senior setter Alexa Filley, who set almost every ball for the Tigers and had 153 kills and 62 blocks. Senior Jesse Earl is back at libero after setting the Auburn record with 612 digs.
Analysis: The Tigers were picked fifth and seem to be ready to make a move into NCAA contention.

Florida senior Rhamat Alhassan is a force in the middle.

Florida
2016 record: 27-4, 16-2 SEC
Key losses: A huge one in last year’s only senior Alex Holston, the hard-hitting lefty opposite who was Florida’s go-to the past four years. “We’re not going to replace Alex,” Wise admitted. “It’s by committee for our team to make up for her point production, our leading points producer last year.”
Newcomers of note: One of the top recruits in the country in 6-1 outside Paige Hammons, who has been so impressive on defense Wise says she’ll probably play some DS.
Who returns: Maybe the best middle in the country in 6-4 senior Rhamat Alhassan, whose national-team resume continues to grow. “She’s as driven as she’s always been and her blocking is at a whole ‘nother level and she’s expanded her offense,” Wise said.
Fellow senior Carli Snyder is an outside who might not be Florida’s best player but is certainly its most valuable, especially on defense. The other outside will be 6-4 redshirt-freshman Mia Sokolowski.
The other middle is 6-8 sophomore Rachel Kramer.
Shainah Joseph, a senior Canadian, will move to the right side into Holston’s spot. Junior Allie Monserez ran a 5-1 last year, but Wise said that sophomore Cheyenne Huskey will get in the mix.
Analysis: Florida has all the tools in place to be in the mix in Kansas City at season’s end.
“Our team is one that has a chance to be playing some pretty good volleyball in December,” Wise said. “That’s gonna be the goal. There are a lot of big pieces, but our goal is to try to continue to improve over the season.”

Georgia
2016 record: 13-18, 1-17
Key losses: Maddie Lobenstein led with 335 kills.
Newcomers of note: Black brought in seven freshmen.
Who returns: 10 players are big, including senior libero Cassidy Anderson, who led with 40 aces and 408 digs, senior right side Kendall Kazor, who had 191 kills, and senior outside Amanda Dachs, who had 141 kills. Sophomore Meghan Donovan set almost every ball last year and averaged a kill per set and had 69 blocks.
Analysis: The program hit a homer on all accounts with the hiring of Black, but he has a tough rebuilding job ahead of him.

Kentucky
2016 record: 23-8, 15-3
Key losses: None
Newcomers of note: Four incoming freshmen join an already loaded roster. Three of them,  setter Madison Lilley, outside hitter Avery Skinner and libero Gabby Curry “are all competing to start.” It’s the strongest class Skinner has brought in in his 13 years at UK. “On paper, yes,” he said.
Who returns: A core group led by senior middle Kaz Brown and sophomore Leah Edmond, who had a remarkable freshman season and might have been the most underrated player in the country last year. “She’s gotten better,” Skinner said. Junior setter Olivia Dailey, senior outside Darian Mack and senior libero Ashley Dusek are formidable players. Dusek is dealing with knee surgery and is out at the start.
Analysis: The middle combo of Brown and senior Emily Franklin is pretty stout. Skinner will likely start at one outside hitter spot and Edmond is as good as any pin hitter in the country. The competition in the gym can only make the Wildcats better and this could be UK’s best team ever.
“From one through 17 every player has said this is the most enjoyable team, most fun team and most competitive team they’ve been on at Kentucky,” Skinner said.
“I am having a blast coaching them. You don’t even have to motivate in practdice. You just say here is the drill, here is what the situation is, here is what the expectations, start the drill and they take it from there.”

LSU
2016 record: 9-20, 4-14
Key losses: Middle Tiara Gibson, second on the team in kills with 240 and the leading blocker with 80.
Newcomers of note: Coach Fran Flory brings in three freshmen with all eyes on 6-5 outside/right side Taylor Bannister.
Who returns: A core group led by sixth-year senior Khourtni Fears, a talented but injury-plagued middle who was granted an extra year after two knee constructions. Senior outside Gina Tillis led the Tigers in kills with 333 and when she’s on is as good as anyone offensively. Also back are sophomore outside Sydney Mukes (186 kills), junior outside Toni Rodriguez (114 kills), junior middle Olivia Beyer (110 kills, 53 blocks) and sophomore outside/right side Jariel Turead.
Analysis: No team, it seems, has dealt with more injuries and bad luck than LSU the past few years. If the Tigers can stay healthy and Bannister progresses quickly, the Tigers could get back on track.

Mississippi State
2016 record: 14-18, 6-12 SEC
Key losses: Evie Grace Singleton, who had 499 kills and 3.96 kills per set, and Emily Hill, 382 kills and 3.03 kills per set, are no longer on the team. The roster is home to 10 new players and three returners.
Newcomers of note: There are seven freshmen plus two transfers, setter Morgan Kath, who came from Stony Brook, and Tori Passerelli, a libero/defensive specialist from Laramie County CC.
Who returns: The Bulldogs are led by senior Payton Harris, 5-5 libero/defensive specialist, who had 348 digs on the season. Also back is senior Jelena Vujcin, 6-3 middle blocker, who had 318 kills and 2.61 kills per set.
Analysis: Third-year coach David McFatrich hired two new assistant coaches, Garrett Bitter from IPFW and Diego Castaneda from Georgia.
“I feel like it has taken two years to get to year one,” McFatrich said. “We have new staff, we have nine new players. We know we have a plan and we know the players we are recruiting and the direction we want to head.”

Ole Miss
2016 record: 17-14, 6-12
Key losses: Setter Aubrey Edie, middle Taylor Alexander and right side Kathryn Cather.
Newcomers of note: Coach Steven McRoberts brings in three freshmen and two transfers, middle Delaney Gallagher, a junior who led Middle State in blocking and aces, and junior outside Caitlin Wenerntin, who started at UNLV.
Who returns: Nine letter-winners, including leading offensive player Lexi Thompson, a senior outside who had an Ole Miss record-best 437 kills (3.50 per set), 25 aces and 374 digs, second only to libero Caroline Adams. Adams, a junior, set a single-season Ole Miss record with 1,905 digs. Kate Gibson, a senior outside, had 427 kills (3.42 per set), 27 aces and 336 digs.
Analysis: Ole Miss is strong on the pins and at libero. A young player, freshman Lauren Bars or sophomore Jordan Fate, will have to set. Replacing Alexander is a key, too.

Missouri is led by outside hitter Melanie Crow

Missouri
2016 record: 27-6, 16-2
Key losses: Carly Kan, the 5-9 outside-hitting wizard who, when the fall semester ended, transferred to Hawai’i and played beach volleyball last spring. Kan was second on the team in kills with 385, second in digs with 370 and even had 51 blocks. Mizzou also lost middle Emily Thater, who had 212 kills and 109 blocks.
Newcomers of note: Mizzou brings in three freshmen
Who returns: Melanie Crow, a 6-1 outside, led the team in kills (445), had 239 digs, a team-best 48 aces and 57 blocks in a breakout season after transferring from Ole Miss. She is one of nine returning letter-winners, including senior Courtney Eckenrode, who set almost every ball for the Tigers last year. Kira Larson is an opposite who had 257 kills, 30 aces and 88 blocks. Junior middle Alyssa Munlyn had 232 kills and a team-high 117 blocks, 38 solo.
Analysis: The core group is intact for the Tigers to again challenge for the SEC title. Losing Kan is no small thing for coach Wayne Kreklow, but his team is balanced and talented.

South Carolina
2016 record: 18-12, 6-12 SEC
Key losses: The team graduated five from 2016: starters Dessaa Legros (262 kills), Koko Atoa-Williams (197 kills, 265 digs), Jacqy Angermiller (137 kills, 75 blocks), Joely Cabrera (72 sets played) and starting libero Megan Kirkland (349 digs)
Newcomers of note: The Gamecocks brought in another valuable recruiting class, with three freshmen (Brooke Gostomski, Jess Vastine, Mikayla Robinson) all expected to compete for starting positions immediately. All three were also high school All-Americans, and Robinson was widely regarded as a top-20 recruit nationally.
Who returns: South Carolina is led by sophomore right side Mikayla Shields, who finished the season with team highs in kills (341) and hitting percentage (.308). She is the first Gamecock since Shonda Cole in 2006 to lead the team in both categories, and is the first since Belita Salters in 2008 to have over 300 kills while also hitting above .300. She is one of three key sophomores for the team this season; along with her there’s starting setter Courtney Koehler and MB/LS Alicia Starr. Starr set the program’s freshman rally-scoring record for blocks per set last season, averaging 1.13. Another key returner is junior Aubrey Ezell, who moves out of the starting setter role and begins her tenure as the team’s starting libero. Senior pin Abreia Epps rounds out the top returners. She averaged 1.92 kills per set in 2016.
Analysis: Scott Swanson begins his seventh season leading the program, and is excited about the depth and talent that his young team has shown in the preseason. With a much more favorable conference schedule in store for the Gamecocks, Swanson has high hopes that his team can surprise in 2017.
“I think people are going to be very impressed with the amount of talent we have on our team,” Swanson said. “A lot of our freshmen are already really good … a lot of our sophomores have improved so much and are becoming leaders on the court, and then we have juniors and seniors who are really experienced and are anchoring us and keeping us stable. It’s a really good mix, and I love that feeling.”

Tennessee
2016 record: 17-14, 7-11 SEC
Key Losses: The Vols lost middle blocker Raina Membry who finished last season with 217 kills averaging 2.15 kills per set and 95 total blocks. Outside hitter Bri Holmes also graduated of last year’s team and she was second on the team in ills with 269 averaging 2.96.
Newcomers of note: Tennessee welcomes five freshmen to the fold this season: defensive specialist Keyton Kinley, outside hitter Madison Coulter, setter Callie Williams, middle hitter Gabrielle Peitsch and middle hitter Olivia Schwamberger. They also welcome transfer Stephanie Spencer who come to the Vols from Georgia Southern.
Who returns: Tennessee has five starters back plus its libero in junior middle Erica Treiber, sophomore setter Sedona Hansen, junior DS/L Brooke Schumacher, senior outside/right side Kanisha Jiminez and sophomore middle Alyssa Andreno. Treiber started 30 matches for the Vols in 2016, ranking eighth in the SEC in hitting percentage (.348) and ranking third on the team with 2.58 kills per set. She also led Tennessee with 107 blocks, averaging 1.06 per set to rank ninth in the SEC.
Analysis: In his 21st year at the helm, coach Rob Patrick — who has 397 career wins — hopes to have the Volunteers primed to be a major contender in SEC play this year.
“We are very excited about this season … we have a team that is in transition a little bit and the freshman are doing really well and that is because of the upperclassmen. They did a fantastic job this summer in getting them involved in the offense and defense.”

Texas A&M middle Kaitlyn Blake/Texas A&M photo

Texas A&M
2016 record: 21-9, 15-3
Key losses: Setter Stephanie Aiple retired because of back issues, and Jazzmin Babers, a middle who led in hitting percentage (.363) and had 273 kills and 128 blocks.
Newcomers of note: Freshman setter Camille Conner will likely run the offense. Makena Patterson, a 6-3 freshman, looks poised to move into Babers’ spot.
Who returns: Middle Kaitlyn Blake, a junior who had 260 kills, hit .361 and a team-best 164 blocks, 19 solo. Kira McGee, a senior outside, led the team in kills with 334 (3.15 per set). Hollann Hans, a sophomore outside, had 280 kills (3.08 per set) and a team-high 24 aces. And senior opposite Ashlie Reasor and senior libero Amy Nettles are both back.
Analysis: The Aggies are in the hunt every year but while going to the NCAA Tournament every year since 2011, they’ve never gotten past the second round.
After playing TCU five sets in a scrimmage last weekend and losing the first four, veteran coach Laurie Corbelli talked about her team.
“Our blocking is a key area that we have to fix,” Corbelli said. “Every year we do get better at it as the season goes on, so I am not concerned about it. It just is very clear we need a lot of work.
“I thought our passing could have been a lot better today. When it was good, our offense was clicking and things looked really good. I love that our serving is more aggressive than it’s ever been. We are just missing a little bit long right now, but we kind of expected that to happen. I don’t really have a whole lot of other concerns.”

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