|UCLA: 2011 National Champs|
It seems like only yesterday that we were in San Antonio watching the epic matches of the 2011 NCAA Women’s Division I National Championship and now here we are – only a few hours away from the start of the 2012 season. The AVCA Coaches Top 25 preseason poll came out last week and familiar names are near the top again, but here’s hoping for another wacky year where anyone in the preseason poll has a shot. It’s not great for the coaches and their sleeping patterns (or lack thereof), but from a fan’s perspective, anytime a preseason No. 11 (UCLA) can beat a preseason No. 8 (Illinois) for the title in a great match with two of the best young coaches in the game, the future of our sport is bright.
An argument can be made that the last day of preseason is akin to Christmas Eve in terms of excitement and anticipation. Teams can finally play someone other than themselves, the delirium of three-a-days has produced inside jokes and memories that will carry throughout the season and beyond, and players can finally put all of the hard work and blood, sweat and tears to the test.
Each program has different goals, both subjective and concrete: improve and learn each practice, defeat a certain opponent on the schedule, win the conference, make it to the NCAA tournament. But the ultimate goal of many teams is to be the last standing at mid-court of the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville in December (tickets on sale now!), and there are several programs that have a shot at this experience:
UCLA: The defending national champs return a significant portion of their lineup from a year ago, and this group has the additional experience of “being there” at the end, which many coaches will tell you, is something that will come in handy in tight situations. UCLA will need to replace its setter but brings in a highly talented group of freshmen who could make impacts right away. Add in playing in the minefield of the Pac-12 and the Bruins should be in the picture at the end this season.
Texas: The Longhorns have made it to the NCAA Semifinals three of the last four years after losing to UCLA in the Regional Finals a year ago. The hunger in Austin is palpable and the talent on the roster is stacked. Texas will need to replace a few key cogs from last year’s squad but brings in a large and gifted class of freshmen who could cause the coaching staff fits as they decide on a lineup, as most of these players need to be on the floor!
Penn State: Most programs would love to have the self-proclaimed “down” year that the Nittany Lions had a season ago, but Penn State brings back six of seven starters and fills in some holes with new talent. The competition in the practice gym will be fierce due to depth at several positions, but it will prepare the Lions for the brutal Big Ten season and beyond.
While these three lead the preseason poll, there are any number of teams who have the ability to surprise and beat ranked programs this season. The parity in the sport is evident with five different teams garnering first-place votes in the poll and I don’t think it would be shocking if any team in the top 10 of the poll claims the title at the end of the year.
If the last day of preseason is Christmas Eve, that makes the first matches Christmas morning. So let’s rip off that shiny paper, fire up the laptops for live scoring, video feeds and message boards, and enjoy this crazy, wild and unpredictable ride that is the Division I women’s volleyball season!