Today, I present the final batch of 2011 women's college team previews. Having done comprehensive (i.e., every team) previews of the Big 10, Big 12, and Pac 12 thus far, I didn't have time to do the same for all the remaining conferences, with play beginning in a little over a week! What I did, therefore, was look at last season's NCAA bracket and the newly released 2011 AVCA pre-season poll to select a manageable number of teams to preview.
I ended up with 23 new teams, from 11 conferences. If a school made the round of 32 in the NCAA tourney and/or received a substantial number of votes in the new pre-season poll (even if it didn't actually crack the top 25), then that team is included somewhere (either in today's preview or in one of the earlier ones). When today's 23 teams are added to those reviewed earlier, it brings the total to 56 squads for which we now have capsule summaries.
Below is a chart (actually, two charts, given the large number of teams) that summarize the statistics, followed by some narrative commentary. The teams are organized by conference.
For those of you who've read the previous conference previews, the routine is old hat, but here it is for new visitors. In the charts below (which you can click on, and click again on the magnifying glass/plus icon that follows, to enlarge), you'll see information on teams' leading returning and non-returning players from last year. Statistics are based on the full 2010 season (conference plus non-conference), unless you see a pound sign (#) to indicate conference-only stats. To define leading hitters, I generally look for hitting percentages of .250 or higher and for players who took an appreciable share of their teams' spike attempts (generally 15% or more for middle blockers and 20% or more for outside hitters), although I'll post something that looks interesting to me, even if it doesn't fit within the aforementioned parameters. Specific block/set (game) and dig/set statistics are noted next to the names of team leaders either to illustrate a virtual tie between two players or, again, to convey something interesting.
Of course, returning players are not the only personnel on a team. The AVCA high-school All-America list is available here, so you can see which of the schools are bringing in nationally lauded prep players. Tennessee, Tulsa, and Pepperdine successfully recruited first-team All-Americans, whereas several other schools in today's preview are bringing in second-team and honorable-mention awardees.
OK, let's move on!
FLORIDA began the 2010 season on an auspicious note, going into Omaha (Nebraska's home away from home) and knocking off the Cornhuskers in an early-season tournament. A 3-1 loss to Penn State on the Gators' home court followed shortly thereafter. However, a perfect run through the SEC (coupled with some Penn State losses in the Big 10) gave Florida the No. 1 seed nationally in last year's NCAA tournament. Unfortunately for the Gators, they turned out not to be ready for Prime Time, barely surviving against Florida State in the round of 32 and then getting swept by Purdue in the Sweet 16.
Senior Kelly Murphy, who doubles as a setter and right-side (RS) hitter par excellence -- hitting .374 while taking 20% of Florida's spike attempts a year ago -- is back for her final go-round leading the Gators (see this YouTube highlights reel of the left-handed Murphy in action). Cassandra Anderson gives UF strength at the net, although fellow middle blocker Lauren Bledsoe has finished her college career. (Note that, because so many teams are reviewed today, not all players listed in the charts are discussed in the text.)
Also from the SEC, LSU returns a pair of plus-.300 hitters and its leading blocker and digger, whereas TENNESSEE brings back two plus-.300 hitters and someone who hit .298. The Vols also return two setters to feed the attack, plus their leading digger. As an aside, I discovered an excellent Tennessee fan site during my research for this report.
From the ACC, DUKE (No. 12 seed) got to the NCAA Elite Eight, where it took a game off of Penn State. The Blue Devils, in fact, were the only team outside the Big 10, Big 12, and Pac 12 to make a regional final. Duke returns two plus-.300-hitting middle blockers, starting setter, and leading blocker and digger.
NORTH CAROLINA was a conundrum last year, taking second in the ACC, yet hitting only .210 as a team. The loss of Christine Vaughen, who hit .325 during her senior campaign, deprives the Tar Heels of what little offense they had. Setting, blocking, and digging are areas of experience for UNC this year, though. MIAMI, FLORIDA ST., and VIRGINIA TECH joined Duke and UNC in the NCAA field last year. On paper, the most interesting player to me among the latter three schools is the Hokies' Cara Baarendse, who hit .362 in ACC play while taking 20% of her team's spike attempts, unusually high for a middle blocker.
HAWAI'I returns two dynamic players, OH Kanani Danielson who last year hit .301 taking 31% of the team's spike attempts, and Brittany Hewitt who hit .365 and averaged 1.68 blocks/set (where I consider 1.00 to represent excellent blocking).
The Big West Conference's top two teams a year ago were Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State. The 49ers' Haleigh Hampton was another player who enjoyed a tremendous hitting/blocking year a season ago (.357, 1.58), her reward being a spot on the U.S. Junior National Team.
Two Ohio teams, DAYTON (from the Atlantic 10) and OHIO UNIVERSITY (from the Mid-America Conference) look to continue making inroads on the national scene. Ohio took Duke to five games in an NCAA second-round match last season. Like the aforementioned Hewitt and Hampton, the Bobcats' Katie Post posted impressive numbers hitting and blocking (.334/1.47). Overall, however, Ohio U. was one of those rare squads that did well a year ago, despite hitting only .232 as a team.
NORTHERN IOWA, WICHITA STATE, and CREIGHTON formed a formidable trio from the Missouri Valley Conference last season. Northern Iowa was seeded No. 5 nationally in the NCAA tourney (perhaps a bit generous) and dropped a five-game opening-round match to Missouri. I've been noting plus-.300 hitters throughout this report; UNI takes things a step further, boasting of two returnees, Michelle Burow and Krista DeGeest, whose 2010 hitting percentages were both north of .350. The Panthers' digging last year was delightful, as well, with Amy Braun (4.02, returning) and Ellie Blankenship (5.49, non-returning) racking up enormous digs/set numbers. Creighton's claim to fame is its NCAA first-round upset of Iowa State last year.
TULSA, from Conference USA, swept 13th-seeded LSU in an NCAA first-round match last year, then took intrastate rival Oklahoma to five games in a second-round loss. It almost sounds like a game of "Can you top this?" to state that Tulsa has two returning players whose hitting percentages exceeded .370, Tyler Henderson (.372, taking fully a third of the team's hitting attempts) and Elizabeth Kale (.402, albeit on only 9% of the Golden Hurricanes' attempts).
CINCINNATI and LOUISVILLE are the leading lights in the Big East Conference. Cincinnati loses what ESPN.com writer Dave Reed last year called "[o]ne of the most potent kill-producing combinations in the country," setter Annie Fesl and OH Stephanie Niemer. Both were seniors a year ago. Niemer took a whopping 36% of the team's spike attempts, but came through with a .331 percentage. The Bearcats do return Jordanne Scott, who hit .333 last year.
Over at Louisville, Gwen Rucker hit .414 (though on only 9% of the team's attempts) and averaged 1.30 blocks/set. Rucker and Cardinals teammate, setter Taylor Brauneis, are both part of the U.S. national team's development program. Beyond Rucker and Amanda Simmons, who hit .329 as a senior last year, Louisville was a very balanced hitting team, as four players each with at least 128 spike attempts in conference play hit for averages of .258, .262, .264, and 266.
Megan Plourde will likely be the go-to gal for COLORADO STATE of the Mountain West Conference. The 6-3 junior MB recorded hitting/blocking numbers of .383/1.23 last year in conference play.
Finally, we have the West Coast Conference, with SAN DIEGO, ST. MARY'S, and PEPPERDINE leading the way a year ago. USD, the conference's only NCAA-tournament team, swept Long Beach State and then lost 3-1 to powerhouse USC. The Toreros look to ride Chloe Ferrari, whose name provides irrestible pun opportunities, to success this season. She hit .403 as a frosh for USD last year. WCC runner-up St. Mary's returns MB Gabby Jolly, who hit .328. Finally, there's Pepperdine, who in the recently released AVCA pre-season rankings, had the highest voting point total of teams not in the top 25. The Waves return three players who hit between .280-.329 last year, plus they return their setter, leading blocker, and leading digger.
Done! Between this report and my three previous ones, we now have a repository of basic data on 56 of the nation's better teams. As the upcoming season unfolds, I'll be interested to see if there are some statistical markers that are associated with improvement or decline in the teams compared to a year ago (e.g., returning or losing starting setters; returning or losing players who took 25% or more of their teams' spike attempts and hit .300 or higher).
Let the games begin!