SEC preview: Kentucky, Florida figure to be on top, plenty of stars to replace

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SEC volleyball preview 10/16/2020-Missouri volleyball-Kylie Deberg
Kylie Deberg of Missouri led the SEC in kills last season/Zach Bland, Mizzou Athletics

The SEC finally begins play on Friday, an eight-match schedule for its 13 teams that starts a month after the ACC got going and three weeks after the Big 12 started its fall season.

The favorites, Kentucky and Florida, don’t play each other. 

And already Saturday’s five-match schedule — yes, the SEC is playing volleyball on a football Saturday — is already altered, since Missouri had positive COVID-19 tests and won’t be going to Alabama. 

There are two new head coaches in the SEC this season, Olympic libero Kayla Banwarth at Ole Miss, and Brent Crouch, who left USC for Auburn.

The SEC has some stars, but lost some incredibly talented go-to seniors, not the least of which were the 2019 league player of the year in Kentucky outside Leah Edmond, 6-foot-8 Florida middle Rachael Kramer, South Carolina right side Mikayla Shields, Tennessee’s Tessa Grubbs, and outside Hollann Hans of Texas A&M. 

In the SEC preseason coaches poll, Kentucky was picked to win and got 11 of the 13 first-place votes. Florida was second with the other two votes. Click here for the SEC poll and preseason team.

Here is our look at all the SEC teams in alphabetical order with their 2019 records:

Alabama (12-17 overall, 4-14 SEC) — Second-year coach Lindsey Devine has every reason to think that an influx of transfers will make the Crimson Tide better from the get-go. 

Start with Abby Marjama, a 6-foot junior outside who was the Big West 2018 freshman of the year at UC Irvine, and then led the Anteaters in kills last season with 277. Alabama also picked up libero Madelyn St. Germain from Texas-Arlington, a graduate-student transfer who was the 2019 Sun Belt Conference defensive player last year. Then came Texas graduate-student setter Riley Fisbeck, who rarely saw the court in her four years in Austin but is 6-1 and probably chomping at the bit to lead a team. And then Alabama got Kennedy Muckelroy, a 6-1 sophomore outside who came from Florida Atlantic. 

This is from our story about Alabama in April: 

She joins a couple of strong returning players in outside Doris Carter and middle Alyiah Wells. Carter, a senior from Lexington, Kentucky, led Alabama in kills last season with 260 (2.68/set) and had 27 blocks, 17 solo. Wells, a sophomore from Memphis named to the All-SEC freshman team, had 223 kills (2.17/set), hit .316, and led Alabama with 109 blocks, 11 solo.

Libero Kaylee Thomas also returns. The senior from Ocala, Florida, averaged 4.04 digs, but St. Germain is certainly poised to take that job. Alabama signed four players in December, Chaise Campbell, Kendyl Reaugh, Victoria Schmer, and Alexandria Trame. Reaugh, a 6-3 product of Highland Park, Texas, is likely to get in the mix from the start.

Arkansas (11-19, 5-13) — Watson starts his fifth year after back-to-back 5-13 finishes in the league and only once, in 2017, with an overall record over .500. 

Sophomore outside Jillian Gillen, just 5-10, led Arkansas in kills with 423 (3.74/set) and not only had 177 more kills than her closest teammate, took 435 more swings. And Gillen also led the team with 29 aces and 240 digs. And she had 45 blocks, eight solo.

The good news for Watson is that No. 2 in kills in also a sophomore, 6-0 outside Maggie Cartwright, who had 246 (2.39/set), 26 aces, 1.62 digs/set, and 37 blocks, 10 solo. Also back are the senior middles, Devyn Wheeler (205 kills, 64 blocks) and Elizabeth Pamphile (179 kills, 92 blocks, nine solo), and junior outside Hailey Dirrigl, who had a strong sophomore year in 2018 but took a medical redshirt last fall. 

Auburn (7-22, 1-17) — West Coast coaches continue to join the SEC. First, Jason Watson left Arizona State for Arkansas, and then Tom Black got everyone’s attention when he left LMU for Georgia. Last year, Brent Crouch stunned the college volleyball world when he left USC for Auburn, taking on a rebuilding operation in a place where his real-estate dollars will go way, way farther than they did in Southern California. 

While the Tigers obviously struggled last year, they return the top two leading attackers in Tatum Shipes, a 6-4 junior outside who had 269 kills (2.61 set) and a team-high 23 aces, and 6-4 senior middle Chesney McClellan, who who 175 kills (1.75/set), and 70 blocks, 11 solo. Also back are senior libero Payton White, junior middle Jaeden Brown (1.35 kills/set), and one of two setters in junior Marissa Hines.

Crouch announced just last week that he’d added two middles, freshman Lily Sumner and transfer Elif Su Yavuz. Sumner is a 6-footer from Indianapolis, while the 6-3 Yavuz is from Turkey and played her first two seasons at Gazi University in Ankara, Turkey, and has a strong chance to crack the starting lineup.

Thayer Hall Florida 4/13/2020-Thayer Hall--Florida volleyball-Gators
Thayer Hall, who led Florida with 15 kills, unloads against Florida State last September/Tim Britt photo

Florida (27-5, 16-2) — The Gators have the possible national player of the year in junior outside Thayer Hall and get a huge boost from T’ara Ceasar, a junior outside who left Georgia during the 2018 season, transferred to Florida, and then sat out last season.

The 6-3 Hall, when healthy, is as good a player in the country as there is. She had 415 kills in 2019, 138 more than the next closest Gator, which was Kramer. She also took 1,076 swings, 329 more than Paige Hammons, a versatile senior outside. Hall, who averaged 3.74 kills/set, had a team-high 34 aces, 57 blocks, and tied setter Marlie Monserez for second on the team with 271 digs.

Ceasar, 6-1, is a high-jumper with a wicked arm. She was second on Georgia’s team in kills in 2018 and third in digs.

Having two pin hitters like that will be something else for senior setter Monserez, who averaged 10.29 assists last season to go with 54 blocks. 

Kramer, who hit .410 to lead the league, is a big loss, but 6-6 junior middle Lauren Dooley returns. She led in blocks with 105, eight solo, and had 134 kills. Also back is 6-7 right side Holly Carlton, who had 80 blocks and was fourth on the team with 269 kills. And Hammons, an outside who plays exceptional defense — she averaged 2.17 digs/set and had 50 blocks — had 273 kills and a team-high 41 aces, will be on the court.

Look for freshman libero Elli McKissock to make an immediate impact. For that matter, Florida had the No. 7 spot in the VolleyballMag.com ranking of NCAA recruiting classes. Coach Mary Wise enters her 30th season in Gainesville with a team that has no sophomores. The Gators lost in the third round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament in five to Minnesota.

Georgia (20-10, 12-6) — The Bulldogs were probably the surprise of the league last season and a big reason why was the play of Kacie Evans, who had a tremendous freshman season and made the coaches all-SEC team.

The 5-11 Evans led with 396 kills (3.63/set), had 31 aces, was third in digs with 2.17/set, and added 41 blocks. Right behind her was 5-10 senior Rachel Ritchie, who had 324 kills, and senior middle Kianna Young (269 kills, 63 blocks). Another outside joins them in transfer Amber Stivrins, who was on the Louisville team that upset Texas in the third round of the NCAA Tournament and made the all-ACC freshman team. 

Georgia will have a new setter and a new libero. Black, entering his fourth year in Athens, took the Bulldogs to the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time since 2013. They lost in five to Cal Poly in the first round. 

Kentucky (25-7, 16-2) — Edmond is gone, but coach Craig Skinner still has a loaded roster as he heads into his 16th season. The core is three players who are as good as anyone at their positions, senior setter Madison Lilley, junior outside Alli Stumler, and senior libero Gabby Curry.

Lilley averaged 11.44 assists last season, had 30 aces, 89 kills, was second to Curry with 273 digs, and had 79 blocks, 10 solo. Curry had 511 digs (4.48/set) and averaged more than a set per set. And Stumler (interviewed here by Emily Ehman recently) was second to Edmond with 383 kills (3.36/set), she had a team-high 34 aces, and was third in digs with 2.36/set. She also had 48 blocks. 

Also back are senior outside Avery Skinner and senior middle Kendyl Paris (169 kills, 94 blocks). 

Kentucky, which lost in the third round of the NCAA Tournament to Washington, was No. 2 in the VolleyballMag.com ranking of recruiting classes. Look for 6-5 Sophie Fisher, Skinner’s sister Madison, and Reagan Rutherford to be in the mix.

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LSU’s Taylor Bannister on a back-row attack against Auburn in 2019/LSU photo

LSU (15-13, 9-9) — LSU was picked fifth in the coaches poll, which would be a nice step up for the Tigers as coach Fran Flory enters her 23rd year. 

As LSU tries to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017, it will do so with one of the best players most of the nation has never heard of in 6-5 senior right side Taylor Bannister. 

Bannister led LSU with 438 kills (4.29/set), had a team-high 21 aces, and not only had 79 blocks, but averaged 1.44 digs. What’s more, most of the lineup returns, but the other outside hitter will likely be freshman Paige Flickinger, just 5-9 but an outstanding ballhandler, excellent defender and capable attacker. Samarah Hill, a sophomore outside who was second in kills last season (262, 2.59/set) and was second in digs (2.41/set) gives Flory plenty of options. 

Sophomore Karli Rose, at 5-6, is undersized for a setter in a 5-1, but she has big-time hops and averaged not only 9.52 assists, but 2.34 digs and she had 59 blocks, seven solo. Also back is senior libero Raigen Cianciulli. One to watch is sophomore middle Anita Anwusi, a 6-3 super leaper ready to get into the lineup to stay.

Missouri (22-8, 13-5) — The first-year husband-wife coaching combination of Joshua and Molly (Kreklow) Taylor got the Tigers into the NCAA Tournament, where they lost to Nebraska in the second round. The leader of that team returns is do-it-all 6-4 senior outside Kylie Deberg. Deberg led the SEC in kills (524, 4.72/set), aces (49), was third in digs (1.95/set) and had 58 blocks, a whopping 21 solo.

Mizzou has all the pieces, including the other outside, 5-8 high-jumping senior Leketor Member-Meneh (340 kills, 1.44 digs, 43 blocks). Senior middle Tyanna Omazic (283 kills, team-high 88 blocks) also returns, and so does junior setter Andrea Fuentes, who averaged an SEC-best 11.7 assists, had 53 kills, 1.77 digs, and 42 blocks. Gone is middle Kayla Caffey, who transferred to Nebraska after two seasons. She hit .408 last season and averaged 1.77 kills/set.

The roster lists just one freshman, and a transfer in junior middle Anna D’Cruz, who figures to get in the mix after leaving UAB. The coaches picked Mizzou to finish third.

Mississippi State (13-17, 2-16) — The honeymoon is over on the volleyball side for coach Julie Darty Dennis, who got married in May, In Darty’s first year, in 2018, the Bulldogs finished 5-26, 1-17 in the SEC. Last year they lost their last seven matches.

The good news is there are transfers and returning players.

Junior middle/right side Gabby Waden led State in kills with 343 (3.04/set) and had 59 blocks. Sophomore outside Callie Minshew had a big freshman season with 255 kills, a team-high 29 aces, 2.35 digs/set, and 30 blocks. 

Among the transfers, Jessica Kemp is a 6-3 middle/right side graduate student from NC State, Margaret Dean is a graduate-student setter from Stephen F. Austin, and Lauren Myrick is a sophomore outside from Lipscomb, and Francesca McBride is a right side from Troy. 

Ole Miss (14-15, 6-12) — Banwarth, who was an assistant at Nebraska, takes over a program that limped into the finish line and lost its best player to graduation. Ole Miss, which lost its last 12 matches, all in the SEC, left a lot up to Emily Stroup, who led in kills by far and was second in digs.

Three starters return, including Anna Bair, a sophomore outside hitter who had 271 kills (2.56/set) last season to go with 51 blocks. Junior middle Aubrey Sultemeier had 176 kills and 108 blocks, 20 solo. And senior setter Lauren Bars not only had 98 kills, but averaged 9.27 assists, had 21 aces, and 65 blocks.

Ole Miss, which has seven freshmen, has been the NCAA Tournament three times, the last in 2010.

Mikayla Robinson

South Carolina (20-12, 11-7) — Tom Mendoza just gets it done. He did at High Point in his previous job and at South Carolina he’s put together back-to-back NCAA appearances.

While we mentioned that Mikayla Shields, moved on, South Carolina has another in 6-2 senior middle Mikayla Robinson. She was second to the other Mikayla (who put up some gaudy numbers) in kills with 277 (2.45/set) and led in blocks with 132, 26 solo. Also back is senior outside Jess Vastine, who quietly had 208 kills, 24 aces, 2.0 digs/set, and 46 blocks. 

Setter Courtney Koehler graduated, but the job could go to Wisconsin graduate-transfer Mallory Dixon. South Carolina, picked seventh by the coaches, will also have a new outside, a new libero and a new middle. Mendoza has six freshmen — including Shields’ cousin Kiune Fletcher — some of whom will obviously get into the lineup. Outside Kyla Manning is a transfer from Coastal Carolina. 

Tennessee (15-13, 9-9) — The Vols were so good in 2018 under then first-year coach Eve Rackham. Last year, not so much. Through it all Tessa Grubbs carried the load, leading in kills with 438, but she was a senior. 

Junior outside Danielle Mahaffey, second in kills with 230 and third in blocks with 70, returns, and so does senior libero Madison Coulter (3.97 digs/set). 

The lineup will have quite a different look and newcomers will play a big part. Middle Nicoletta Capizzi, a 6-3 sophomore transfer from Eastern Washington, and 6-2 sophomore outside Carissa Bradford, a transfer from Pacific, could get in the mix. And the setter could be Natalie Hayward, a junior transfer from DePaul. Her mother, Laurie Wetzel Hayward, was an All-American at Washington.

Texas A&M (23-8, 13-5) — As good as Hollann Hans was — and she was very good — the rest of the college volleyball world might not have realized it. All she did last season was get 534 kills (second in the SEC with 4.49/set), help out with two assists per match, lead with an SEC-best 59 aces, average 2.3 digs, and get 59 blocks. Also gone is middle Makena Patterson who not only had 197 kills and hit .310, but led the SEC with 152 blocks. Accordingly, A&M went to the third round of the NCAA Tournament before losing to Wisconsin.

Third-year coach Laura “Bird” Kuhn starts with senior setter Camille Conner, the only Aggie on the SEC preseason team. Conner averaged 10.01 assists, had 198 kills, 26 aces, averaged 1.85 digs, and had 52 blocks. She’ll go to 6-4 sophomore Lauren Davis and 6-3 junior Mallory Talbert. Davis was second to Hans with 257 kills and had 54 blocks. Also back is 6-3 junior Mallory Talbert had 205 kills and 91 blocks. Also back is Treyaunna Rush, a sophomore right side who had 173 kills and 82 blocks. 

Morgan Christon, a sophomore outside, and Camryn Ennis, a junior outside/setter, transferred from Kansas, where Kuhn was a longtime assistant.

A&M’s roster has five freshmen and six sophomores, which gives Kuhn, a former player at Georgia Tech, both plenty of options and a lot of youth.

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