The 2018 ACC season should be quite intriguing, as things appear to be wide open – which is a bit odd considering one team who went 18-2 last season in league play returns all six starters plus the libero. But overall, many of the top half spots in the league look to be for the taking, with questions of if things will be chaotic and back-and-forth or if some will emerge to reign supreme at the top.
Pittsburgh: The Panthers come in at #17 in our VolleyMob Preseason Top 25 Power Rankings because they won the ACC last season, made the second round of the NCAA Tournament and now bring back all six starters plus the libero. The expectations for the Panthers should be to win the league once again, and maybe even have a chance at hosting in the first couple of rounds as they try to breakthrough to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
They had the top offensively efficient team in 2017 and also notched the most kills/assists per set. The defense overall was a top five unit in the ACC, but if they want to contend at a higher national level they’ll need to improve their block and floor defense. With all the pieces back in place though – led by three preseason selections and right side Nika Markovic – this team is not only the favorite in the conference, but a ‘dark horse’ from the National standpoint.
Not Far Off:
Louisville: The Cardinal lose a couple of starters from their 2017 team that shared the ACC crown at 18-2 in league play. They also went 24-7 overall and made the NCAA Tournament and of the starters they bring back, four – more than any other school – landed on the coaches preseason awards list. Featured in that group are 2017 ACC Defensive Player of the Year Molly Sauer and Setter of the Year Wilma Rivera.
The Cardinal were deadly at home last season, going 13-1. Unfortunately for them, their match against Pittsburgh comes on the road. Sauer helped create a scrappy defense overall that allowed opponents to hit just .172 (second in the ACC in 2017) and also led the way for a strong unit in serve reception, but they’ll need to improve on their consistency offensively – they were fifth in kills/assists per set and sixth in hitting percentage in 2017 – to go with a slight rise from a blocking aspect. If that happens, they’ll challenge Pitt once again at the top and stick around the Top 25 nationally.
Florida State: The Seminoles have established a strong foundation as a top-notch ACC team, but had some injuries and youth in 2017 that held them back a bit – they still won 18 matches and made the NCAA Tournament. They’ve got seven players back though who were freshmen last season with formerly injured players returning and four starters back, which has the coaching staff looking forward to the year.
All-Big 12 outside hitter Payton Caffrey transferred in from West Virginia, which will only add to the offense and the serve. The latter more important for a unit that was last in the ACC in aces per set, which contributed to a defense that struggled at times. Middle blocker Taryn Knuth should carry the middle as well. They’ve got the talent, so if they can take a step forward from last year they should contend for the ACC, with a win boost likely regardless based on experience and health getting better.
Others to Note:
Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish sported the top defense in the ACC last season with a solid block, strong serve and feisty floor defense. With senior libero and preseason All-ACC member Ryann DeJarld back after an incredible 6.12 digs per set as a junior, they should sustain near that rate, but they also lost a lot of their other contributors in digs and to a lesser-extent in blocks. To make up for the departures they’ll need the offense to improve, which has a good start behind Jemma Yeadon, but must find more termination after hitting just .189 last season.
North Carolina: It hasn’t been the best year or so for the Tar Heels, who went from top 10-15 aspirations heading into 2017 (after a Sweet 16 appearance the year before) to 14-14 last season and a disastrous offseason where the team lost a handful of players to transfer. Still, they’ve got some talent on the roster and added a few transfers of their own. If former Nebraska setter Hunter Atherton solidifies an offense that was 13th in the ACC in assists per set in 2017, they should be in store for a better 2018 and compete for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Duke: The Blue Devils had a quietly strong 19-win campaign in 2017 and now will count on a sophomore jump from Payton Schwantz to take over as the top attacker after losing Cadie Bates along with top blocker Anna Kropf. Still, a good amount returns for Duke to where if they can slightly improve from being a middle of the pack team in many aspects, especially serve and pass, they could challenge for a top four spot in the league and therefor a chance at the NCAA Tournament.
Syracuse: The Orange had the benefit of playing in the postseason NIVC Tournament to garner more experience for a team that returns all six starters this season. They also wound up in fifth in the ACC for hitting percentage and third for opponent hitting percentage as they started 6-1 in league action in 2017. They fell off a bit though, but should be more equipped to finish strong in 2018 as they look to be a dark horse NCAA Tournament team.
NC State: The Wolfpack had quite the senior class last season that took them to a third-place tie in the ACC and the NCAA Tournament. While they bring back a few familiar faces like Kylie Pickrell and Melissa Evans that contributed heavily to their success, the challenge will be to stay near the top after losing so many key pillars to the program – like Kaitlyn Kearney (top five in the ACC in blocks and hitting %) and Julia Brown (sixth in the ACC in points in 2017). It’s no secret that newcomers and/or former bench/role players will have to step up. Otherwise, they’ll likely stick to the middle of the standings and struggle to emerge among the best.
Miami (FL): The Hurricanes lose a ton, including ACC Player of the Year Olga Strantzali, but still add a big recruiting class and have setter Haley Templeton. They’ll likely fall off from being a second round NCAA Tournament team, but should stick around the middle of the league and if some young players hit should put themselves in play for an at-large selection to the NCAA Tournament.
Circle Your Calendar:
Ten ACC matches to keep an eye on:
- September 23: Louisville at North Carolina
- October 12: Pittsburgh at North Carolina
- October 21: Louisville at Pittsburgh
- October 28: Pittsburgh at Duke
- November 4: Florida State at Louisville
- November 16: Pittsburgh at Florida State
- November 16: Louisville at Notre Dame
- November 21: Florida State at North Carolina
- November 21: Notre Dame at Duke
- November 23: Florida State at NC State
VolleyMob’s Preseason Projection:
- Florida State
- Notre Dame
- North Carolina
- NC State
- Miami (FL)
- Georgia Tech
- Virginia Tech
- Wake Forest
- Boston College
Five Player of the Year Candidates
Of course, several others could be included on this list, and a handful of players are set to breakout in 2018. Considering team projection, player production from past seasons and role in 2018 though, here are five players to watch for ACC Player of the Year as we embark on the season’s start (sorted alphabetically by last name):
- OH | Payton Caffrey | Junior | Florida State
- RS | Nika Markovic | Junior | Pittsburgh
- OH | Melanie McHenry | Junior | Louisville
- S | Wilma Rivera | Senior | Louisville
- OH | Stephanie Williams | RS Junior | Pittsburgh
Coaches Preseason All-Conference Team:
2018 ACC Volleyball Preseason All-Conference Team
Kaylin Korte, Sr., OH/RS, Clemson
Leah Meyer, Jr., MB, Duke
Payton Caffrey, Jr., OH, Florida State
Taryn Knuth, So., MB, Florida State
Jasmine Bennett, Sr., MB, Louisville
Melanie McHenry, Jr., OH, Louisville
Wilma Rivera, Sr., S, Louisville
Molly Sauer, Sr., L, Louisville
Haley Templeton, R-Sr., S, Miami
Melissa Evans, So., OPP, NC State
Kylie Pickrell, Sr., S, NC State
Ryann DeJarld, Sr., L, Notre Dame
Jemma Yeadon, Jr., OH, Notre Dame
Kamalani Akeo, Sr., S, Pitt
Nika Markovic, Jr., RS, Pitt
Stephanie Williams, R-Jr., OH, Pitt
Santita Ebangwese, Sr., MB, Syracuse
Jaila Tolbert, Sr., RS, Virginia Tech