Thursday, August 11, 2011

Women's 2011 College Previews -- The Pac 12

Penn State is obviously the dominant program in women's volleyball, having won the last four NCAA titles. Arguably, however, the second-, third-, and fourth-best teams a season ago were all from the Pac 10 (now 12), namely Cal (national runner-up), USC (Final Four participant), and Stanford (which ended Penn State's 109-match winning streak in September and ultimately lost a tight regional-final match to USC). In addition, Stanford (1st, .319), Cal (3rd, .308), and USC (8th, .290) all were among the nation's most highly ranked teams last season in hitting percentage.

Of the three schools, USC returns the greatest number of key players -- basically everyone -- whereas Cal and Stanford lose some top players. Another three Pac 12 schools -- UCLA, Washington, and Arizona -- were in last year's NCAA tournament, and will seek to improve their conference standing based on returning players and/or strong recruiting classes.

The following chart highlights the most noteworthy returning and departing players for all Pac 12 schools (including newcomers Colorado and Utah), in the statistical categories of hitting percentage, blocks/set (game), and digs/set from last season. As with my previous Big 10 and Big 12 previews, my general criteria for top hitters include an attack percentage of .250 or higher and taking an appreciable share of their teams' spike attempts (20% for outside/right-side hitters and 15% for middle blockers). Readers can click on the chart (and then on the magnifying-glass/plus icon that appears next) to enlarge it. All statistics in the chart are from the overall season (i.e., conference and non-conference matches), unless a pound sign (#) appears by the school's name to indicate the stats are from conference play only. Additional discussion of each team appears below the chart.

In writing these conference previews, I have discussed teams in order of their 2010 finishes in their respective league standings. I will stick to this practice here, but for the record, I would favor USC to win the Pac 12.

CAL loses only one of its leading players from last year -- but it happens to be the AVCA national player of the year! The player in question is setter Carli Lloyd, who during her senior campaign last season not only ran the high-powered Golden Bear offense, but also hit a respectable .265 on 283 tries (7% of the team's attempts) and contributed 1.08 blocks/set. (In the course of writing these previews, I've come to regard an average of 1.00 or greater blocks/set as a marker for excellence in blocking.)

Senior 6-3 OH Tarah Murrey is back to pummel the Bears' competition. Murrey took a whopping 36% of Cal's spike attempts last season. Such a proportion is rare, though not unheard of; what makes Murrey's 2010 season so extremely unique is her ability to maintain a hitting percentage well above .300 while taking so many attempts. Cal also returns 6-4 MB Correy Johnson, whose hitting percentage exceeded even Murrey's (see chart above). Enhancing their hitting depth, the Bears bring in a pair of first-team AVCA All-Americans, Michelle Neumayr, a 6-1 OH, and Lillian Schonewise, a 6-2 (6-3 according to the Cal website) MB.

Leading blockers Kat Brown and Shannon Hawari, and digging dynamo Robin Rostratter, return to bolster the Bears' defense. As of the spring, the starting setter gig (or what might be called the "Lloyd Void") was slated to fall to junior Elly Barrett, who participated in an online chat here.

At the other end of the San Francisco Bay, the loss of three senior stars from last year leaves doubt whether STANFORD can contend this year at its typical nationally elite level. Gone are Alix Klineman and Cassidy Lichtman, who together accounted for nearly 50% of the team's hitting attempts, plus leading libero Gabi Ailes. Lichtman also was a setter in the Cardinal's 6-2 offense, with returnee Karissa Cook. In the just-out Pac 12 coaches' poll, Stanford is picked for an uncharacteristically low fourth in the conference. Over at VolleyTalk, what might be considered a "hand-wringing" discussion thread about Stanford was launched and, at the moment, has reached 75 pages!
Stanford will never be devoid of talent and, indeed, there are strong returnees for the Cardinal. Junior OH Hayley Spelman, at 6-6 one of the tallest players in the country, hit above .300 last season. Further, Stephanie Browne (6-4) and Carly Wopat (6-2) each averaged over 1.00 blocks/set. In addition, Stanford will be adding two high-school All-American players, first-teamer Kyle (MacKenzie) Gilbert, a  5-7 defensive specialist/libero, and second-teamer Morgan Boutkather. The latter is either 6-2 or 6-1 tall (depending on which source one consults) and appears to be a right-side/opposite hitter (she is listed as an OH on the Stanford webpage, but the roster doesn't appear to differentiate between "outside" hitters on the left and "opposites" on the right).

Last year's third-place conference finisher, USC, is a unanimous pick to win the Pac 12 this year in the aforementioned poll (Cal received a first-place vote, but the article refers to the Trojans' receipt of "all 11 possible first-place votes," implying that coaches could not vote for their own teams). USC returns all of its key players from a year ago, including a trio of AVCA All-Americans: Alex Jupiter (6-3 senior OH, 1st team), Kendall Bateman (5-11 senior setter, 2nd team), and Lauren Williams (6-4 senior MB, 3rd team).

OH Falyn Fonoimoana, another tall Trojan at 6-4, was given nearly a quarter of the team's hitting attempts last season as a freshman, recording an attack percentage of .239. If she can improve on that percentage, 'SC will be that much more dangerous. Even the liberos are tall on this team, with 5-9 Natalie Hagglund, leading the team in digs/set last year as a freshman.

As unstoppable as USC looks this year, it also appeared poised to do real damage in last year's Final Four until Cal put the brakes on the Trojan attack. With a single-elimination NCAA tournament, anything seemingly can happen at the end.

Across town in Los Angeles, UCLA will be trying to return to the national elite under second-year coach Mike Sealy. Last year's workhorse hitter, Dicey McGraw, has finished her college career, whereas the Bruins' top statistical returning attacker, junior OH Bojana Todorovic, hit only .230.

Last year's team leader in blocks/set, Katie Camp, discusses her recovery from ACL surgery and prospects for the upcoming season here. Digs/set leader Lainey Gera also returns.

The Bruins have a large and highly touted recruiting class coming in this season, although only 6-3 MB  Zoe Nightingale (first team) was on the AVCA high-school All-America squad. Setter Megan Moenoa has also received a lot of buzz. Last year's starting setter Lauren Van Orden returns for her senior season. Whether Moenoa will join Van Orden in a 6-2 offense remains to be seen.

Things appear to be looking up for WASHINGTON, as last year's fifth-place Huskies are tabbed for third in the coaches' poll. U-Dub loses a pair of senior, second-team All-America outside hitters from a year ago, Kindra Carlson and Becky Perry, as well as last year's senior setter, Jenna Hagglund.

Bianca Rowland, a 6-0 MB who last year recorded gaudy numbers in both hitting and blocking, returns for her senior season. She received AVCA honorable mention All-America honors last year. Other returning defensive assets for the Huskies are Lauren Barfield, a 6-5 senior MB, and sophomore DS/L Jenna Orlandini, who led the team in digs/set a year ago.

First-team high-school All-America Krista Vansant, a 6-2 OH comes on board; as noted above, Washington's greatest losses were at this position.

Last year's sixth-place team, ARIZONA, is predicted by the coaches to drop a notch to seventh this year, perhaps not surprisingly given that the Wildcats were a senior-oriented team a year ago. Key losses include Tiffany Owens, who not only carried the Cats' hitting load last season (hitting .262 while taking 30% of the team's attempts), but also led the team in digs/set; and setter Paige Weber. Cursty Jackson, a 6-2 MB who excelled in hitting and blocking last year, returns for her senior year.

Joining Jackson will be an impressive recruiting class that includes four high-school Americans: Chloe Mathis (5-10 or 5-11 setter, height varies by source; 1st team), Madison Kingdon (6-1 OH, 2nd team), Halli Amaro (6-2 or 6-0 MB, honorable mention), and Elizabeth Manthei (6-0 OH who also set in high school, honorable mention).

OREGON's front-court play may be a little weaker this season. Heather Meyers, who hit .285 while taking a quarter of the Ducks' spike attempts during her senior season, moves on. Also, Jocelyn Levig, who led Oregon in blocks/set, is transferring to the University of San Francisco. Leading Duck returnees are OH Alaina Bergsma (6-3 junior), setter Lauren Plum (5-9 soph), and libero Haley Jacob (5-2 junior). Joining Oregon will be first-team high-school All-America Elizabeth Brenner (6-2 or 6-1 tall), who played MB as a prep but is listed on the Ducks' roster as an OH.

ARIZONA STATE's biggest strength appears to be blocking, with MB's Sonja Markanovich (6-1 senior) and Erica Wilson (6-1 junior) returning. Wilson also hit .318, taking 11% of the Sun Devils' attack attempts. Presumably, ASU will go to her more often this season. Setter Cat Highmark had one year of eligibility remaining, but will forgo her senior season due to knee injury.

OREGON STATE returns some promising players, foremost among them 6-4 soph MB Mona Kressl, who averaged 1.16 blocks/set and nearly hit .300 a year ago. Junior setter Megan McBride, who also hit .267, returns, as do 5-11 junior Ashley Eneliko, a productive blocker who has been used at opposite hitter and middle blocker; and sophomore L/DS Becky Defoe, who led the squad in digs/set last year.

WASHINGTON STATE, which went 0-18 in conference play last year, is in a state of transition. The athletic director's first move after last season was to give the volleyball team a greeny -- no, not amphetamines, the slang for which is "greenies," but rather a new coach, Jen Greeny. Also as part of the Cougars' turnover, a few non-senior players from last year are no longer on the WSU roster. Digs/set leader Oceana Bush has transferred to Rutgers, whereas for two other departees, I couldn’t find any articles on what happened with them. Hoping to provide some stability is 6-3 senior OH Meagan Ganzer, who took an amazing 38% of the Cougars' spike attempts last season (albeit hitting only .149) and led the team in blocks/set.

And now for the newcomers. COLORADO made the NCAA tournament in 10 of the first 11 years of Big 12 play (1996-2006), but were a combined 13-67 in that conference the last four years. Moving to the Pac 12 hardly seems like a good recovery plan, but the Buffaloes may be able to compete with some of the weaker teams in the new conference. As seen in the chart above, Colorado returns all of its leading players. However, no one was close last year to (unofficial) markers of distinction such as .300 hitting and 1.00 blocks/set. On a more positive note, soph DS/L Megan Beckwith averaged 4.10 digs/set last year in the Big 12, which placed her 10th in that conference.

UTAH finished third last year in the Mountain West Conference, but did not make the NCAA tourney. Two returning Ute middle blockers, Danielle Killpack (6-3 senior) and Erin Redd (6-3 sophomore), each hit over .300 last year, with Kilpack also leading the team in blocks/set.

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