The usual suspects: Five top teams as NCAA volleyball season begins, plus news, notes and thoughts



NCAA volleyball preview 8/26/2021-Wisconsin volleyballWisconsin celebrates beating Florida to gain a spot in the spring 2021 NCAA Tournament national semifinals. Will the Badgers get that far for the third season in a row?/NCAA Photos

“Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects.”
— Claude Rains as Captain Renault in Casablanca

That quote never gets old when talking about NCAA women’s volleyball.

And as we head into the 2021 fall season, a season that promises to be like no other since the NCAA started conducting women’s volleyball in 1981, round up the usual suspects.

The season begins Friday, a season in the fall after a year like no other.

It says here that five teams stand above the field and three of them have the advantage of having played in last spring’s national semifinals, one went the season before, and Nebraska, well, Nebraska is just loaded.

Kentucky, not one of the usual suspects, won the NCAA championship last year, the first SEC team to do so and only the second to ever get to a final. The last time a so-called newcomer won an NCAA title? When Pacific went back-to-back in 1985 and ’86.

My Five

Kentucky is ranked No. 3 in the AVCA preseason poll. The thought here is that is generous for a team that lost the national player of the year in setter Madison Lilley, a spectacular libero in Gabby Curry, and outside Avery Skinner. Yes, Kentucky has the experience of winning, it has Alli Stumler, but the Wildcats are not in that group of five.

So who is?

Wisconsin lost in the 2019 national-championship match to Stanford and last spring lost to Texas in the semifinals. The entire starting lineup is back except for super outside Molly Haggerty, but sophomore Jade Demps can be so good and Polish freshman Julia Orzoł comes so highly regarded, don’t expect the Badgers to miss a beat. They have the best middle — and perhaps the best player — in the country in Dana Rettke, probably the best second middle in the country in Danielle Hart, the best — if not the best — setter in Sydney Hilley, as good a libero as there is in Lauren Barnes, and a whole bunch of others who can flat-out play at the highest level.

Wisconsin is No. 2 in the AVCA poll and was a unanimous choice by the league coaches to win the Big Ten. 

Speaking of a bunch of players who can flat-out play, Nebraska, too, has everyone back and a group of freshmen who can, too. That’s why the Huskers had the top team this summer in the VolleyballMag.com recruiting-class rankings. Not only do middles Lauren Stivrins and Callie Schwarzenbach, outsides Lexi Sun and Madi Kubik, libero Kenzie Knuckles, and setter Nicklin Hames (currently nursing a sprained ankle) return from a team that lost in the NCAA quarterfinals last season, three of the freshmen were ranked in our top five nationally, outside Lindsay Krause, setter Kennedi Orr and outside Ally Batenhorst. And the others all were in our Fab 50. 

Nebraska lost to Texas in the NCAA Tournament, so speaking of those Longhorns, who went on to fall to Kentucky in four, they’re ranked No. 1 in the AVCA poll. They’re all back, outsides Logan Eggleston and Skylar Fields, middles Brionne Butler and Asjia O’Neal, and setter Jhenna Gabriel. One-year transfer Morgan O’Brien did not return, but Nalani Iosia is more than ready to take over at libero. Texas has zero freshmen on the roster.

The other team in last spring’s final four was Washington, No. 4 in the AVCA poll and also boasting everyone back except for one serving specialist. Washington, which lost in four to Kentucky, has a workhorse group that simply wins, including pin hitters Samantha Drechsel, Madi Endsley, and Claire Hoffman, middles Lauren Sanders and Marin Grote, undervalued setter Ella May Powell, and libero Emma Calle. 

Rounding out our group of five is Baylor

Baylor advanced to the 2019 national semifinals. Last season, the Bears got swept in the second round — in the case of last year, the round of 16 — by Nebraska. Baylor, a team loaded with transfers, has, because of the NCAA free-season rule, 11 seniors/graduate students on an overflowing roster of 23. That includes the dynamic Yossiana Pressley, as much a one-woman wrecking crew as anyone in the country. It also includes setter Hannah Sedwick, right side Marieke van der Mark, outside Lauren Harrison, middle Preslie Anderson, and a key new transfer in outside Avery Skinner. Skinner, a VolleyballMag.com first-team All-American, was second in kills to Stumler last year at Kentucky. 

Baylor was picked 10th in the AVCA poll. The undervalued Bears are better than that.

Stayin’ alive

So who’s next?

You have to look to the Big Ten.

Let’s start with the Tokyo Olympics, where eight of the 12 players on the gold-medal-wnning roster came from the Big Ten, from Nebraska’s Jordan Larson to Illinois’ Jordyn Poulter, who set her for the championship-clinching kill. And before you ask, the team also had Penn State’s Micha Hancock and Haleigh Washington, Nebraska’s Kelsey Robinson and Justine Wong-Orantes, Purdue’s Annie Drews, and Illinois’ Michelle Bartsch-Hackley.

From 2006 through 2017, the Big Ten won nine NCAA championships and in 2018 and 2019, B1G teams lost in the final. For that matter, since 2004, there have only been three years when a conference team wasn’t in the championship match.

And now the Big Ten might be stronger than ever, thanks to the pandemic, with so much talent returning.

We already talked about Wisconsin and Nebraska, but consider that Minnesota came in as the AVCA No. 7, Purdue at No. 8, Ohio State at 11, and Penn State at 12.

No wonder the Big Ten announced its most comprehensive volleyball TV schedule ever. It includes a record-setting 53 televised matches with at least 47 broadcast on Big Ten Network and six on ESPN.

The regular season begins Friday with a full slate of non-conference matches, including Minnesota vs. Baylor, Penn State vs. Georgia Tech, and Michigan vs. LSU. Saturday is rockin’, too, with Ohio State playing Washington, Wisconsin playing Baylor, and Penn State playing UCF.

If the moon and stars are aligned right, any one of those four teams could win it all. The thought here is that Purdue is the one with the best shot, a team that returns its setter in Hayley Bush, best hitters in Caitlyn Newton and Grace Cleveland, maybe the best libero in the country in Jena Otec, and plenty more. For that matter, coach Dave Shondell is due. The man from Muncie has his best team ever.

There’s nothing not to like about Minnesota, or last year’s surprise, Ohio State, and Penn State could be scary good if all the new pieces come together.

Not so B1G

There are a handful of teams not in the Big Ten who should get more respect. Two of them are Pitt of the ACC and Stanford of the Pac-12. Pitt is stacked and we featured the Panthers here last week. 

And Stanford? Remember Stanford? The fab four graduated and last spring the Cardinal was decimated by COVID, injuries, and, well, you name it. Stanford is young but has all the pieces. Remember that you heard it here, do not sleep on Stanford.

Other teams are intriguing. Florida has Thayer Hall and you could make a case for her being the best player in the nation. The Gators have plenty of firepower, all the pieces, but AVCA No. 6? Too high. 

Two other undervalued teams are Georgia Tech and USC. Neither will win the national championship, but they can screw up the NCAA bracket like nobody’s business. For that matter, nobody wants to see BYU or Oregon in their bracket.

There are a few other teams we should consider capable of making a run. And everything said here is always contingent on two things: Health (and in today’s world, that includes testing COVID negative) and winning the serve-and-pass game. Seriously, it doesn’t make any difference if it’s a 12-year-old club team or the national team, the coach always talks about winning the serve-and-pass game. 

Which is a question mark for one of the most intriguing teams in the country, LSU. LSU’s gonna win warmup. Can the Tigers control the ball?

Western Kentucky always controls the ball and can bring it on offense. Last year the loveable Toppers were so close, losing to Kentucky in the round of 16. Never bet against WKU and coach Travis Hudson.

Volleyball potpourri

Coaching carousel: Usually it spins so fast in the offseason. Maybe it was the pandemic, but this  marked the fewest Power 5 changes ever. The ACC had two new head coaches, with Jackie Simpson Kerr taking over at Clemson and Shannon Wells going to Virginia.

There were no firings or hirings in the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, or SEC, but big changes are obviously coming to the Big 12. With Texas and Oklahoma going to the SEC, and the Pac-12, ACC, and Big Ten aligning, the Big 12 is not long for this world. Who gets Baylor? No small thing in volleyball … 

Transfers. There were so many transfers. It’s one reason we decided not to do conference-by-conference previews. Who could keep up? Very few schools were not affected this offseason by transfers, either coming or going. 

We wrote about it last spring, previewing the NCAA Tournament round of 16 when only three of the remaining teams, Kentucky, BYU, and Purdue had no transfers …

COVID, COVID, COVID: It’s not over, by any means and we all know that matches will be canceled and plans disrupted. But in the meantime, welcome back Big West and Ivy League. We missed you … 

Because of COVID, coaches couldn’t recruit off campus for more than a year, finally getting back on the road this past April. COVID recruiting in a nutshell: We were visiting in June and Grand Canyon coach Tim Nolland told me, “I’ve got a kid who might start for me and I have not seen her play in person since 2018.” 

I have my own agenda for the fall, and, if it all works out, will see at least 24 different teams in person, plus the teams that visit LSU and Southern here in Baton Rouge, where I live. That includes Florida and Kentucky on back-to-back weekends in October. Ed will see a bunch of matches, too, shooting the best photos anywhere along the way …

Three outside hitters to watch who you might not know a lot about, and they were all VolleyballMag.com third-team All-Americans last spring: Mariana Brambilla of Georgia Tech, Elizabeth Juhnke of South Dakota, and McKenna Melville of UCF. Ballers … 

If I were going to embed with a league for an entire season, it would be the Mid-American. So many strong teams, so many fun and experienced coaches, the epitome of blue-collar athletics. And all in-conference bus trips. Love MAC-tion …  

We mentioned Julia Orzoł, the player from Poland who is a freshman at Wisconsin. She came to America for the first time when she arrived in Madison just more than two weeks ago. The entire team went to meet her at the airport and it was priceless:

Bring it on

This has a strong chance to be the greatest NCAA Division I women’s volleyball season ever. 

The most returning talent in history. 

So many fantastic teams. 

So many great matchups from the get-go. The first weekend alone, whew, what battles we will see. And, by the way, if you want to watch any match, go to our TV and Streaming listings elsewhere on this site. If it’s being shown, we’ve got you covered.

Please let us get through this. May everyone’s tests be negative all season long.

And even if ultimately it’s all about the usual suspects at the end, when we gather in Columbus, Ohio, for the AVCA Convention and NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship, after what our sport went through the past year, we can all agree it will have been worth the wait.

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