The Big Ten, once again, is one of the premier conferences in all of Division I volleyball. Volleymob’s RPI ranking had the Big Ten as the second toughest conference next to the Pac 12. The Big Ten also sent eight of their 14 members to the NCAA tournament in 2016. The gauntlet that is the Big Ten conference schedule will not be any easier for any of the teams that will want to jostle for position in the NCAA tournament come December.
That being said, here goes our prediction of who is an early favorite, a few that can challenge, a dark horse, and some of the top upcoming conference matches that we will see this fall.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS
Nebraska (18-2, 31-3 in 2016), the 2016 Big Ten champ, loses their libero (Justine Wong-Orantes, 4.23 digs/set), the Rolfzen twins (combined over 5 kills/set and 2 blocks/set) and Andie Malloy (#3 in kills at 2.66/set) to graduation. Minnesota (17-3, 29-4) graduate three of their top four attackers, including Sara Wilhite, Volleymob’s National Player of the year. The Golden Gophers do return their starting setter (junior Samantha Seliger-Swenson) and libero (senior Dalianliz Rosado) along with starting attackers Alexis Hart and Molly Lohman . Wisconsin (17-3, 28-5), despite the loss of all-world setter Lauren Carlini to graduation, still return starters Molly Haggerty (led team with 3.41 kills/set), Lauryn Gillis (3.07 kills/set) and Tionna Williams (2.27 kills/set, 1.27 blocks/set).
Considering their yearly success, Penn State (14-6, 24-10) is the dark horse in my opinion. They graduate exactly ZERO starters from last season’s squad, and you can never count out coach Russ Rose from any challenge. This program will always be a tough out in State College, and their road play is exceptional with the preseason schedule that coach Rose schedules annually.
A FEW CONTENDERS
Michigan State (13-7, 25-9) surprised no one in East Lansing with their 25-win season in 2016, and they only lose two attackers to graduation. However, the Big Ten schedule was not kind to them, as they have to play Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin twice each this fall. Michigan (11-9, 24-11) always brings a competitive team to every match, and also only lose two attackers to graduation. However, they also have a difficult schedule similar to Michigan State’s slate. Ohio State (10-10, 22-13) avenged an early season loss to RPI top 50 Missouri State in a preseason tournament in 2016, only to avenge that defeat in the first round of the NCAAs. With the losses of libero Valeria Leon (4.01 digs/set) and do-everything middle Taylor Sandbothe (3.83 kills/set, 1.09 blocks/set, second on the team in aces) cause other players to step up and make the NCAAs again?
TOP FIVE CONFERENCE MATCHES TO WATCH
- September 22, Nebraska at Penn State – When you compete for National Championships every year, schedule a tough preseason schedule, as both of these teams do. But play each other in the first conference match of the season? There should be no question about how big this match is.
- September 22/24, Michigan/Michigan State at Minnesota – OK, I cheated and counted this as one. But if Big Blue and Sparty want to truly contend for a conference title, there is no better way to test yourself than at Minnesota at the start of the conference slate.
- September 29, Minnesota at Nebraska – Remember that gauntlet I mentioned earlier? We’re not even to October yet, and I’ve mentioned two nationally top-five matchups. This will be no exception to testing how good each of these programs can be.
- November 5, Purdue at Iowa – This match last season went to the Hawkeyes in five sets. Purdue knocked off Iowa in West Lafayette in four to solidify their NCAA resume and all but removed Iowa from the conversation. However, this is the only meeting between these two in 2017. I can’t imagine this match being anything but important—-for BOTH squads.
- October 6, Maryland at Rutgers – What? You were expecting Wisconsin/Nebraska? When both of these programs joined the conference in 2014, not much was expected of them, at first. But since then, Maryland’s coach Steve Aird has built some respectability in College Park, MD. Rutgers? Not so much. So why is this in my top five? Rutgers’ only conference win (1-59) since joining the Big Ten was against Maryland—in 2015. This might be the Scarlet Knights’ only chance at avoiding another winless conference schedule.
Minnesota. It’s more of what Nebraska loses in the Rolfzen twins than in what Minnesota has gained. Plus, Minnesota plays defending national champion Stanford twice in the preseason. I’m thinking coach Hugh McCutcheon is looking for toughness early, and that’s exactly what he’ll get.
VOLLEYMOB’S 2017 BIG TEN CONFERENCE PREDICTIONS
- Penn State
- Michigan State
- Ohio State