After Huskers captured Big Ten title in 2016, Penn State looks to return to top of league
Nebraska joined heady company last year when the Huskers captured the Big Ten volleyball title a year after winning the national championship.
NU coach John Cook became only the second Big Ten coach to put both an NCAA title and Big Ten championship on his résumé, joining fellow Hall of Fame coach Russ Rose from Penn State.
The Huskers and Nittany Lions have been star-crossed volleyball rivals since well before both joined the nation’s top volleyball conference, but last year’s match in the NCAA regional semifinal — the teams’ third meeting in 35 days — showcased how razor-thin the margin was between the Big Ten’s top clubs in 2016, perhaps the best collection of teams in the conference’s history.
Nebraska won its second Big Ten title by one game over Minnesota and Wisconsin, thanks to two regular-season wins over Penn State. Yet on Dec. 9, the Nittany Lions played confident, powerful volleyball in taking the first two sets and led the Huskers 24-22 in the third, one swing away from ending NU’s season in front of a stunned Devaney Center crowd.
But Penn State never landed the killing stroke. Nebraska fought off the two match points, won the third set, and rolled the rest of the way to a five-set win.
In a postgame press conference, Cook expressed as much relief as joy. Nebraska had spent so much energy over 10 weeks to win the league that being matched against its Big Ten rival made the Huskers feel like they had to start pushing the rock up the hill all over again.
“When you’ve got to beat a team that has nothing to lose and that you’ve already beaten twice, it’s like you’ve got to win the Big Ten again to get somewhere,” he said.
Finishing atop the Big Ten standings is never a small task, but NU’s trophy might take on extra shine with a little perspective. The top three teams in the conference each spent time ranked No. 1 in the country in 2016 and six conference teams reached the sweet 16.
Half of the 14 players named first-team All-Americans were from Big Ten schools, including the national player of the year, Minnesota outside hitter Sarah Wilhite.
Two of those players are Nittany Lions. Because both return, and the Huskers graduated three All-Americans of their own, the expectations between the two programs are switched in 2017. Big Ten coaches picked Penn State to win its 17th conference title in a preseason poll.
The Nittany Lions were the clear choice because of their returning firepower, including outside hitters Simone Lee and Ali Frantti, All-America middle blocker Haleigh Washington and experienced setter Abby Detering.
Every other Big Ten challenger lost a signature player from a year ago. So to challenge to be Nebraska’s successor as conference champion, teams will have to develop new talents quickly.
With another batch of high-ranked recruiting classes entering the league, young skill abounds. And if recent years are indications, even falling short of the Big Ten championship can put a team within a couple of swings of postseason greatness in December.
Here’s how I think the Big Ten race shakes out this season.
1. Penn State
2016: 24-10 overall, 14-6 Big Ten
Rose returns as much offensive talent as any team in the country not named Stanford or Texas, the teams that played for last year’s NCAA title. Front-row talents Lee, Washington and Frantti were each preseason All-Big Ten picks, but Penn State’s best teams also have been excellent in the back row. Sophomore libero Kendall White was outstanding as a freshman and will be key to keeping Penn State in system to get the ball to its terminators.
The Gophers outrank Penn State in the national preseason coaches poll as a courtesy for making the final four last season. But it won’t be easy to replace Wilhite or twin middle blockers Hannah and Paige Tapp. Luckily for coach Hugh McCutcheon, he gets to rebuild around the best setter in the conference — and maybe the country — in junior Samantha Seliger-Swenson. Sophomore outside hitter Lexi Hart will be asked to carry more of the load, and the Gophers landed a dynamic talent in freshman opposite Stephanie Samedy, the No. 5 recruit in the country.
Life after Lauren Carlini begins for Wisconsin after the graduation of the Badgers’ four-year starter and first-team All-America setter. Her replacement is likely to be freshman Sydney Hilley, the nation’s No. 3 recruit who graduated from high school early and arrived at Wisconsin this spring. Hilley headlines the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class, which joins preseason All-Big Ten middle Tionna Williams. Much will depend on the health of outside hitter Molly Haggerty, the 2016 Big Ten freshman of the year, who is still recovering from offseason back surgery.
It’s hard to say which departed star Nebraska will miss most. Opposite hitter Kadie Rolfzen was NU’s best all-around player, middle blocker Amber Rolfzen was one of the nation’s most feared net defenders, and Justine Wong-Orantes was often the player for whom opposing coaches saved their highest praise. The battery of setter Kelly Hunter and outside hitter Mikaela Foecke, veterans from NU’s NCAA and Big Ten title teams, should keep Nebraska from free-falling in the Big Ten. Redshirt freshman middle Lauren Stivrins has the talent to be a star. With Wong-Orantes, Nebraska was one of the country’s top passing and defensive teams. The pressure is on her replacement, junior Kenzie Maloney, to keep the Huskers there.
5. Michigan State
Picking the order in the middle of the Big Ten, where all of the following few teams should make the NCAA tournament, is tough. The Spartans get the edge here because even though Michigan State must replace All-Big Ten outside hitter Chloe Reinig, junior setter Rachel Minarick will still have plenty of targets, including 6-foot-6 opposite Brooke Kranda and 6-4 middle Alyssa Garvelink.
The Boilermakers finished well under .500 in the Big Ten, but still made the second round of the NCAA tournament. Many of the players who got them there return, highlighted by preseason All-Big Ten middle Danielle Cuttino, who averaged better than four kills per set last year. Returning starting setter Ashley Evans and pin hitters Azariah Stahl and Sherridan Atkinson give the Boilermakers an experienced unit that only has to face Penn State and Wisconsin once this season.
Former Husker assistant Chris Tamas was the pick to become the new Illinois head coach when Kevin Hambly left for defending national champion Stanford. He’ll have potential All-Big Ten players at a few key spots. Junior middle blocker Ali Bastianelli led the Big Ten in blocks, and senior libero Brandi Donnelly led the Big Ten in digs in 2016. Junior setter Jordyn Poulter is in need of a breakout star on the pins. It could be outside hitter Jacque Quade, who averaged 2.8 kills per set as a freshman last year.
The Wolverines return five starters from last year’s team that reached the sweet 16 before losing to Creighton, but will have to replace 6-5 Abby Cole, one of the league’s top middle blockers throughout her career. Sophomore setter Mackenzi Welsh was Big Ten freshman of the week four times last season. Her primary targets should be middles Claire Kieffer-Wright and Cori Crocker, plus versatile outside hitter Carly Skjodt.
9. Ohio State
2016: 22-13, 10-10
Preseason ranking: 21
Coach Geoff Carlston’s Buckeyes seem to have found some magic against Nebraska, earning a win over the Huskers three years in a row. Repeating last year’s success of reaching the sweet 16 won’t be easy with the graduation of second-team All-America middle Taylor Sandbothe, but the Buckeyes bring back experienced outside hitters Audra Appold and Luisa Schirmer, the latter of whom had 16 kills in Ohio State’s win in Lincoln last year.
Keep an eye on a couple of new additions that signal coach Bond Shymansky’s recruiting prowess. Outside hitter Taylor Louis comes in from Marquette, where she averaged 4.4 kills per set last season. Freshman setter Brie Orr, a product of the powerhouse Northern Lights club program in the Twin Cities, should start immediately. This could be the year Iowa makes a run at its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1994.
Just when Big Ten coaches thought they had enough to worry about, Maryland brings in its first top-10 recruiting class this fall to go with sophomore outside hitter Gia Milana, a breakout star last season. Maryland earned a 3-2 win over ranked Ohio State last season, and seems poised to spoil a few other teams’ weekends this year. The Terrapins play Nebraska twice over the course of 10 days in November.
Further evidence of the Big Ten’s prestige in volleyball is Northwestern landing a top-25 recruiting class despite winning 10 matches last year. Northwestern’s freshmen will have the benefit of hitting off senior setter Taylor Tashima, who should end her career near the top of the school’s all-time assist charts. A full college athletics experience will have to wait, however. With Welsh-Ryan Arena undergoing renovations, Northwestern will play home matches at a local high school this fall.
Indiana did well to get above .500 last year, but now must replace leading attackers Allison Hammond and Jazzmine McDonald. The Hoosiers also are making a move to keep up in the Big Ten facilities race, moving out of University Gym and into a new 3,000-seat volleyball/wrestling venue in 2018.
Rutgers is 1-59 in Big Ten matches since joining the conference. The good news: The Scarlet Knights will play six of their first eight conference matches at home. The bad news: Rutgers ends the regular season playing Penn State, Minnesota and Wisconsin.