by Jen Armson-Dyer
The 2010 season proves to be a very exciting one as there are several teams from around the country that could be strong contenders to hoist the hardware in Kansas City come December. Read on to learn a little more about some of the teams atop the national radar.
The Golden Bears look to continue their record-setting ways by garnering a ninth consecutive bid to the NCAA tournament in 2010. Cal, who ended last season ranked eighth, returns two-time AVCA All-American setter Carli Lloyd at the center of its four returning starters and nine returning letterwinners. However, the Bears will be young as 10 of the 13 players on the roster will be either freshmen or sophomores. This youth will have to make up for the loss of AVCA All-American and Pac-10 Player of the Year Hana Cutura, who last season averaged 5.15 kills per set for 628 total kills, almost double that of her next closest teammate, now-junior outside hitter Tarrah Murrey (345 kills). One of the newcomers, 6-foot-1 outside hitter Lauren Loerch, enrolled at Cal in the spring to become the first player in Bear volleyball history to do so.
The Rainbow Wahine look to continue the success of last season, which found the squad advancing to the NCAA National semifinals where they fell to eventual champion Penn State and finished ranked third in the country. Hawaii has big shoes to fill with the losses of outside hitter and AVCA Third Team All-American Aneli Cubi-Otineru, middle hitter and AVCA Honorable Mention All-American Amber Kaufman and outside hitter and Second Team All-WAC honoree Stephanie Ferrell, but it returns a core group with a plethora of experience. Junior outside hitter and AVCA First Team All-American Kanani Danielson leads the way as she averaged 4.23 kills per set (482 total kills) on .314 hitting last season. The Wahine also return Dani Mafua, a senior setter and 2009 AVCA Honorable Mention All-American along with WAC Freshman of the Year Brittany Hewitt (MH) and Second Team All-WAC performer Elizabeth Ka’aihue (L). Add in a top ten recruiting class and Hawaii looks to make waves again in 2010.
Boasting one of the toughest schedules in the nation, the Fighting Illini will be tested early with match-ups against Texas and Nebraska, just two of the 12 NCAA tournament teams from a year ago that the squad will face. Illinois returns six starters, highlighted by senior outside hitter and AVCA First Team All-American Laura DeBruler in addition to junior middle hitter Michelle Bartsch, senior setter Hillary Haen and senior middle hitter Johannah Bangert, all AVCA Honorable Mention All-Americas in 2009. The Illini will have to replace libero Ashley Edinger and outside hitter Kylie McCulley but they bring in the seventh-ranked recruiting class by Prep Volleyball, which includes 6-foot-3 middle hitter Anna Dorn. Also joining Illinois this season is 6-foot-2 outside hitter Colleen Ward, a junior transfer from the University of Florida who averaged 3.09 kills per set and ranked second on the Gator team in total kills a year ago.
The Cyclones jump right into the fire to start out the 2010 season when they face two NCAA regional semifinalists from a year ago in Florida and Kentucky at the Runza/AVCA Showcase in Omaha. Iowa State brings back 12 letterwinners, including six starters, from the squad that finished second in the Big 12 and advanced to the NCAA regional semifinals before falling to Nebraska. Anchoring the defense is senior libero and AVCA First Team All-American Ashley Mass who picked up 587 total digs in 2009. Joining Mass are a talented core of players, including senior outside hitter and AVCA Third Team All-American Victoria Henson who led the squad with 4.14 kills per set. The Cyclones will need to find a way to replace AVCA Third Team All-American setter Kaylee Manns but they bring in the 16th-ranked recruiting class in the country according to Prep Volleyball, highlighted by 6-foot outside hitter Hannah Willms.
The Golden Gophers will look to be one of the contenders in the Big Ten this season as they return nine letterwinners, including four starters, from last year’s team that advanced to the NCAA Semifinals. Minnesota returns AVCA First Team All-American Lauren Gibbemeyer, a senior middle hitter, in addition to senior outside hitter Hailey Cowles and sophomore outside hitter Tabitha Love who both received NCAA tournament recognition a year ago. The Gophers will have to contend with the loss of setter Taylor Carico and libero Christine Tan to graduation but bring in a strong class with two Prep Volleyball Top 15 picks in outside hitter Ashley Wittman and middle hitter Tori Dixon. Minnesota will also gain the services of UCLA transfer Stephanie Nucci, a junior setter, and Steffi Sooter, a freshman libero.
The Cornhuskers look to exit the Big 12 conference with a bang as they return six starters and 12 letterwinners from last season’s squad that advanced to the NCAA Regional finals and finished ranked fifth in the country. Nebraska also gains the services of sophomore setter Lauren Cook, a transfer from UCLA who was named the 2009 AVCA Freshman of the Year. Add Cook in with senior setter and two-time AVCA All-American Sydney Anderson, and the Huskers have the makings for a very powerful and effective 6-2 offense that will be backed up by four offensive options who recorded more than 250 kills last year. Returning to lead the offensive output will be sophomore outside hitter Hannah Werth, the 2009 Big 12 Freshman of the Year who led the team in kills (343) while also ranking second in digs (332). In addition to the offensive firepower, the Huskers also return all of their primary passing talent in Werth, senior outside hitter Tara Mueller and senior libero Kayla Banwarth. With this wealth of talent, a sea of red could swamp Kansas City in December.
While the Nittany Lions lost two of the best players in the country from a year ago, they still have enough remaining and incoming talent to be in the discussion about the top squads in the nation. Penn State will have to find a way to replace two four-year starters in 2009 AVCA First Team All-American setter Alisha Glass and 2009 AVCA Player of the Year outside hitter and primary passer Megan Hodge, which is no small feat, even for a seasoned coach like Russ Rose. Compounding the challenge for 2010 is the loss of returning sophomore outside hitter Darcy Dorton, a 2009 AVCA Honorable Mention All-American who tore her left ACL and medial meniscus during the spring season and had surgery on March 23. Penn State will replenish the roster with a wealth of talent in its nine incoming freshmen, ranked as the second-best recruiting class in the country by Prep Volleyball, including 6-foot setter Mikinzie Moydell who will be called on immediately to run the potent Lion offense. AVCA All-Americans Blair Brown (senior RS) and Arielle Wilson (senior MH) return to the court, but with the potential to start several freshmen, the learning curve will be great if Penn State wants to continue its NCAA-record 102-match winning streak, not to mention making a run for an unprecedented fourth consecutive national title.
Headlined by the top recruiting class in the nation according to Prep Volleyball, the Women of Troy will be looking to better their early exit from the NCAA tournament a year ago. Filling the hole left by the graduation of outside hitter Jessica Gysin (3.30 kills per set, 2.95 digs per set) will be 6-foot-4 freshman Falyn Fonoimoana, the top prospect in the country and one of three USC newcomers ranked in the top 11 of incoming freshmen. Combine Fonoimoana with junior Alex Jupiter, a 2009 AVCA Third Team All-American who led the squad last season with 4.54 kills per set, and USC has a lethal one-two punch on the outside. Junior setter Kendall Bateman, who led the nation in assists per set in 2009, returns to run the offense, but the Women of Troy will need to fill the defensive gap as the graduated Alli Hillgren picked up a team-leading 510 digs last season. Looking to challenge for the spot will be freshman Natalie Hagglund, who was ranked as the nation’s top libero by Prep Volleyball.
The Cardinal will be looking for their fifth consecutive Pac-10 title and seventh NCAA championship in 2010 and will be aided by a strong returning core along with a talented incoming class. Stanford has a trio of decorated seniors in outside hitter Alix Klineman, libero Gabi Ailes and outside hitter and setter Cassidy Lichtman who have a wealth of experience, including having played vital roles in the runs to back-to-back NCAA Runner-up finishes in 2007 and 2008. Stanford brings in the third-ranked recruiting class in the country according to Prep Volleyball, including outside hitter Rachel Williams, the 2009 California Gatorade Player of the Year, who, along with twin newcomers Sam and Carly Wopat (an outside hitter and a middle hitter, respectively), aided the United States Junior National Team in capturing the NORCECA Junior Continental Championship in Mexico earlier this month.
Like Penn State, the 2009 NCAA Runner-up Longhorns will need to replace two vital cogs with the loss of AVCA First Team All-Americans Ashley Engle (RS/S) and Destinee Hooker (OH) along with libero Heather Kisner. They return four starters from last season’s Big 12 champion team, led by senior outside hitter and AVCA Third Team All-America honoree Juliann Faucette, along with junior middle hitter Rachael Adams, senior middle hitter Jennifer Doris, junior setter Michelle Kocher and junior libero Sydney Yogi. Texas will also pick up the talents of the fifth-ranked recruiting class in the country, which includes four talented newcomers in Ashley Bannister (OH), Haley Cameron (MH), Sarah Palmer (L) and Hannah Allison (S), who enrolled at Texas in January 2010 and has been practicing with the team since then.
Other Teams To Keep An Eye On
-Florida: A tough schedule with the likes of Iowa State and Nebraska on opening weekend along with the potential to face Penn State, Stanford and/or Texas will test this Gator team early. Junior setter and right side hitter Kelly Murphy, a 2009 AVCA Second Team All-American, looks to lead Florida to its 20th straight 20-win season.
- Kentucky: The Wildcats return five starters from last year’s 29-5 squad that advanced to the NCAA Regional Semifinals. Senior outside hitter Sarah Mendoza was named an AVCA Honorable Mention All-American.
- Michigan: The Wolverines reached the NCAA Regional Final for the first time in school history and look to continue with that success. Senior setter Lexi Zimmerman headlines the 11 returning letterwinners after becoming the first player at Michigan to be named an AVCA First Team All-American.
-Michigan State: The Spartans return 11 letterwinners from last year’s NCAA tournament team and will face some tough tests early with Hawaii and Southern California.
-Washington: Home to one of the four NCAA Regional Championship sites in 2010, the Huskies return three AVCA All-America honorees in senior outside hitter Kindra Carlson, senior setter Jenna Hagglund and junior middle hitter Bianca Rowland.