Monday, August 25, 2014

Deb's Top-5 to Win it all in 2014

by Deb Kniffin

Parents have bid farewell to their student-athletes. Players have moved back to their respective campuses. Gear has been distributed. Media day photos have been snapped. Player bios have been updated online. Training sessions have begun. The first matches of the 2014 NCAA DI Women’s Volleyball season are just days away. And I can’t wait.

For those of you new to the blog, my name is Debbie Kniffin (formerly Stadick). I am entering my second year as the chief women’s volleyball blogger for the AVCA and will spend the next four months providing a smattering of my top-5 matches to watch each week, along with my opinionated analysis and outcome predictions.

Before competition starts and I dive into weekly previews and predictions, I want to do a kick-off post highlighting five teams to watch all season. Mainly because I think one of them will be hoisting the trophy in December.

It should come as no surprise that this historic volleyball program is on my list of teams to watch. Their 2013 and 2014 incoming classes featured a total of fifteen new players, but instead of rebuilding, Nebraska posted a 26-7 record and advanced to the NCAA Regional Finals.

Six of seven starters return to the court this fall, and three of the six returning players garnered All-American accolades (Kadie Rolfzen/third team, Meghan Haggerty/honorable mention and Mary Pollmiller/honorable mention). This 2014 squad features young, experienced, talented players. That’s a deadly trifecta.

In addition to having the right personnel, Nebraska competes in the Big Ten, faces quality competition on a weekly basis and knows what it takes to win. Given those factors, I think Nebraska has a legitimate shot at a national title.

Red Box Pixtures
After falling in the NCAA Semifinals in front of a roaring home crowd, Washington will undoubtedly be hungry to claim the title this season.

A slew of upperclassmen will lead the charge, including AVCA Player of the Year/First Team All-American Krista Vansant and Third Team All-American Kaleigh Nelson.

If you didn’t have the opportunity to watch Vansant last season, you missed out. Her consistent level of play and ability to carry her team were inspiring. And that was during her junior year. I can’t wait to see what she does on her senior campaign.

Vansant will have five other returning starters around her. I think it’s fair to say Washington will be a formidable force. Rest assured: if Washington falls before the final match of the season, it will be with everything left on the court.

PSU Athletics
Defending national champions, the Nittany Lions return arguably the most potent setter in the NCAA. Micha Hancock’s blistering jump serve, in-control court presence and gutsy performances are fun to watch. More importantly, they get the job done.

I think we can count on Hancock to effectively run the court for Penn State and help new players phase into the starting line-up. It’ll be necessary, because Penn State loses a trio of All-Americans (Katie Slay, Deja McClendon and Ariel Scott).

It isn’t just Hancock that puts this team on the map in 2014, though. It’s her supporting cast (read: hot hitters, feisty defenders and highly esteemed coaches) and the program’s winning tradition (read: ridiculous buy-in, lofty expectations and multiple national titles) that will make this squad tough to topple. There’s a lot to be said for playing with unbridled confidence.

Ten underclassmen highlight this USC squad, but I don’t think their youth will hold them down. Their incoming class is highly ranked, and the returning players hold key roles that will be critical to this group finding their rhythm and winning big matches.

Second Team All-American Samantha Bricio and First Team All-American Ebony Nwanebu are back after combining for almost half of the team’s total kills last season. Half of their setting tandem returns in Hayley Crone. Consistency in these key positions should speed up the learning curve for the fresh talent in the Trojans’ gym.

Like Washington, USC competes in one of the top conferences in the nation: the Pac-12. Their grueling conference schedule should amply prepare them for the final stretch of the season. I think the other teams on this list are more talented than USC position by position. But when it comes to hoisting the trophy, you don’t have to be the most talented team position by position. You have to be talented enough. USC will definitely talented enough. So let’s see what happens, shall we?

The Longhorns are unique from the other programs making my list. Unlike Penn State and Nebraska or Washington and USC, Texas competes in the Big 12. While the Big 12 is a respectable volleyball conference (according to this Iowa State alum), it doesn’t come close to breaching the competitive level of the Big Ten or Pac-12.

Yet, despite their less challenging schedule and lack of opportunity to be pushed on the court during conference play, Texas manages to stay on the national radar and contend for titles each season. Maybe it’s because they coast through conference play and head into the tournament healthy and rested, unlike most other national contenders. Maybe it’s because they train like crazy people all season long. Maybe it’s because their athletes are just that talented. Maybe it’s a little bit of all the above.

Either way. I don’t see this changing in 2014. The Longhorns once again feature an athletic roster, including six significant contributors from last year’s NCAA Semifinals squad. My money is on them to win it all.

That’s all for now, volleyball fans. I’ll see you next week when we starting diving into my Top-5 matches to watch!