In the history of the Big 12 Conference (and its forerunners, the Big 8 and Southwest Conferences), there have been two nationally elite programs, Nebraska (winner of three national titles, most recently in 2006) and Texas (participant in the last three Final Fours and national champion in 1988). Nebraska is now gone to the Big 10, so for now at least, Texas seems to be in a dominant position in the Big 12.
Let's start with my chart of capsule summaries of the teams, with additional discussion of each team below (you'll need to click on the chart, and possibly on the plus-sign magnifying glass icon that will appear next, to enlarge it). As noted previously in my Big 10 preview, when it comes to teams' leading hitters, I'm generally looking for hitting percentages of .250 or better, and players who take appreciable shares of their teams' spike attempts (20% for outside hitters and 15% for middle blockers).
As hinted at by the high 2010 hitting percentages shown for TEXAS spikers, the Longhorns were one of the best attacking teams in the nation last year. Texas finished fourth, to be exact, with a .306 hitting percentage, behind only Stanford (.319), and last year's NCAA finalists, Penn State (.314) and Cal (.308). In addition, Longhorn MB Rachael Adams, who returns for her senior season, led the nation in individual hitting percentage. Sha'Dare McNeal, who is listed on the team roster as a utility player, perhaps due to her digging, as well as hitting, prowess, is also back.
The Horns lose high-percentage hitter Jennifer Doris and workhorse Juliann Faucette. However, they have a bunch of new (and redshirt-returnee) players who may be able to help take up the slack. Freshman Madelyn Hutson (6-5) received the dual recognition of being named a first-team AVCA high school All-America last year and being selected to the U.S. women's junior national team. Hutson was listed as an outside hitter on the AVCA site, but is referred to as a "utility" player on the Texas site (perhaps she will also be tried at middle blocker). Two other freshmen are first-team All-American Katherine (Khat) Bell, a high school MB who will also be tried at OH (either 6-3 or 6-1 tall, as player heights sometimes differ between official school rosters and other sources, such as the AVCA list) and OH Haley Eckerman (6-3), a member of the junior national team. Other possibilities on the front line are sophomore Bailey Webster (6-3 OH), who is attempting a comeback from missing the 2010 season due to knee surgery, and redshirt-freshman Ashley Bannister, returning from an ankle injury.
Texas is also deep at setter, returning two who saw considerable action last year, sophomore Hannah Allison, yet another Longhorn member of the junior national team, and senior Michelle Kocher. Though a two-setter (6-2) offense might seem a natural for UT, coach Jerritt Elliott's squad seemed to employ mostly a one-setter (5-1) line-up last year.
As a game-show announcer describing a prize-package would say, "...and that's not all!" UT's leaders from last year in blocks/set (game), the aforementioned Adams, and digs/set, senior Sydney Yogi, return as well (Yogi has had injury problems, however).
If this isn't enough Longhorn coverage for you, VolleyTalk has a thread discussing the upcoming Texas season, which has stretched to 10 pages!
Tied for third last year behind Nebraska and Texas was IOWA STATE. Few programs, in any sport, have experienced the kind of overnight turnaround as Iowa State did in 2005 with the arrival of coach Christy Johnson-Lynch. As seen in the graph below, the Cyclones had several 1-19 conference records (along with a 0-20 campaign) prior to Johnson-Lynch's arrival. In her first year, ISU shot up to nine wins, and the team has had a winning Big 12 record each season ever since. In the postseason, the Cyclones have gone as far as the Elite Eight, although last year the team suffered a first-round exit.
Johnson-Lynch and one of her former players discuss what they see as the reasons for the program's turnaround, in this November 2009 video. The statistical information on which I based the chart is available here.
This year's Cyclone squad will be led by junior Jamie Straube, an honorable-mention All-America who put up excellent numbers hitting and blocking last season. However, first-team All-America Victoria Henson, ISU's go-to hitter with 30% of the team's spike attempts, has finished her collegiate career. Star libero Ashley Mass, a third-team All-America, has also finished up. Setter Alison Landwehr, who also hit .370 on 246 attempts (6% of the team's total), returns. Also, Iowa State has added an honorable-mention high school All-America for this season, 6-3 MB Tory Knuth.
Sharing third place last year with ISU was OKLAHOMA, which also made the NCAA Sweet 16 before running into the buzzsaw called Penn State. The Sooners return third-team All-America setter Brianne Barker (a senior), plus their 2010 team leaders in hitting (from both the outside and middle), blocking, and digging. Soph MB Sallie McLaurin hit over .300 and led the team in blocks/set. Suzy Boulavsky, a 6-1 senior listed as both an outside hitter (hitting from the left-hand side) and right-side hitter, took a quarter of OU's spike attempts last season and acquitted herself well, hitting .273. Leading digger Maria Fernanda (junior) rounds out the returnees. The Sooners also bring in 6-2 OH Tara Dunn, a second-team high-school All-America.
MISSOURI, the final Big 12 team to make the NCAA field last year (also making the Sweet 16), will be led by Brittney Brimmage, a 6-3 senior who is listed at both MB and OH. Brimmage hit .331 last season and led the team in blocks/set, and is part of U.S. women's volleyball development program. First-team high-school All-America Jade Hayes, a six-footer who played OH as a prep, is also highly touted defensively and apparently will also be tried at libero, potentially replacing last year's senior Caitlyn Vann. Highly decorated sophomore setter Molly Kreklow, a junior national team player, is back to run the offense.
To the extent the BAYLOR Bear program has left its mark (or in this case, paw print) on women's college volleyball in recent years, it is largely through stunning UCLA in Pauley Pauley in the 2009 NCAA second round, before losing in the round of 16. Baylor failed to build on that success in 2010, and the loss of some key talent may make it difficult for the Bears to reach the postseason in 2011. Elizabeth Graham, who hit .307 and led the team in blocks/set last year has moved on, as has digging dynamo Caitlyn Trice. MB Torri Campbell, a 6-2 junior, hit just about as well as Graham last year. Campbell recorded an average of .86 blocks/set, not too far from the 1.00 per set that top blockers are often able to reach (Graham was way up there at 1.29, third among Big 12 players for the overall -- conference and non-conference -- season). The Bears' two setters, Kate Harris and Brittany Ridenour, are both back.
KANSAS last made the NCAA tourney in 2005. Given how tough the conference has become (even with Nebraska's departure), I don't know if KU can make it back this year, but it has a good young nucleus. The Jayhawks return leading hitter and blocker Caroline Jarmoc (sophomore), leading digger Brianne Riley (sophomore), and setter Nicole Tate (senior). Joining the squad is second-team high-school All-America, Chelsea Albers, a 6-0 OH.
The first nine years of the Big 12 (1996-2004), TEXAS A&M enjoyed steady success, winning between 12-16 conference matches a year (out of 20) and making the NCAA tournament in every season. The past six years, however, the conference win totals have been 9, 5, 10, 11, 11, and 7, with only two NCAA tourney appearances during that time (2005, 2009). If the longtime Aggie coaching duo of Laurie and John Corbelli is to get things turned back around this season, it will probably be through defense. In fact, one could say that team cohesion will be a product of 3M: Miller, Minnerly, and Mellinger. Junior 6-2 middle-blockers Lindsey Miller and Stephanie Minnerly each exceeded 1.00 blocks/set last season. Leading digger Tori Mellinger is also a junior. Finally, sophomore setter Allie Sawatsky appears to use her 6-2 height to good purpose, contributing .48 blocks/set last year.
KANSAS STATE is in a bit of a funk like Texas A&M. After reaching seven NCAA tournaments in the eight years from 2001-2008, K-State has compiled identical 6-14 records each of the last two seasons. In their effort to get things back on track, the Wildcats do have one major force, namely 6-1 junior Alex Muff, who finished second in the Big 12 last year in overall-season blocks/set with 1.31, behind only Nebraska's Brooke Delano (1.42). Big 12 opponents have learned that if you go up against Alex Muff, you're likely to suffer a stuff! Muff's fellow middle-blocker Kaitlynn Pelger (sophomore) hit slightly higher than Muff, but both were only around .250. Junior setter Caitlyn Donahue is back to run the office. (Before leaving the discussion of K-State, I wanted to mention this amazing fan page for the volleyball team.)
Finally, we get to TEXAS TECH, the school at which I've been on the faculty for 14 years. Over the last few years, the Red Raider program has hit rock bottom, losing 64 straight Big 12 matches until finally winning one last October. As well, the midseason departure of then-coach Trish Knight last season contributed to the image of a sinking ship. Into this setting marches new coach Don Flora,* most recently an assistant at New Mexico State (Beth Falls, who went from Texas Tech assistant coach to interim coach, remains with the Red Raiders as an assistant under Flora).
The 2011 Red Raiders' fortunes would seem to be heavily in the hands of 6-3 senior Amanda Dowdy, who toured Europe this summer with one of the U.S. women's developmental squads. Dowdy took an astounding 36% of Texas Tech's spike attempts last season, but hit only .170. That hitting percentage potentially could be somewhat misleading if either (a) opponents focused their block on her because Tech didn't have other big hitters to divert attention; or (b) the huge number of attempts caused fatigue. Dowdy has been switched between OH and MB during her time in Lubbock, but is listed only at OH this year.
One coup for Texas Tech was the signing of honorable-mention high-school All-America Breeann David. Though she apparently did some setting in high school, the 5-11 (or 6-0, depending on which source you believe) David is listed exclusively as an OH by Tech. With her setting ability, however, she may be able to salvage some out-of-system plays.
Karlyn Meyers, who did most of the setting last season, returns for her senior year. However, the team's leaders last year in blocks/set (Barbara Conceicao, 1.03) and digs/set (Jackie Vincent) are gone, as seen in this photo gallery from last year's Senior Day.
As of this writing, the Red Raider roster has 23 players listed, which should spark fierce competition for spots on the team!
*I've gotten to know Coach Flora, which I wanted to disclose so readers can take this information into account regarding the tone of my writing about Texas Tech (whether it seems overly favorable or critical).