The 2018 Big Ten season will once again be the talking point of many, as the league boasts arguably the most talented and deep league in the country. The conference will continue to provide an incredibly challenging road for everyone involved, whether the end result is just finishing above .500 or winning the Big Ten, which once again makes every week a grind in the league. There might not be a better way to describe it than how Iowa head coach Bond Shymansky did to VolleyMob, when he said ‘Should be a wild year in the Big Ten.’
Minnesota: The Golden Gophers last won the Big Ten in 2015, when they edged out the likes of Wisconsin and Nebraska for the league title – something they’ll be trying to do in 2018. It won’t be easy, and more likely than not two or three teams could come up with a shared title at the end of it – although the Big Ten technically awards just the one winner based on tiebreakers. Minnesota’s hopes of doing so three years later rests on their five returning starters plus strong recruiting class, which they are hoping creates the right blend for a special season.
They might just have the best setter in the country, let alone the conference in Samantha Seliger-Swenson. That gets things started and they have a Big Ten and National Player of the Year candidate on the right pin in Stephanie Samedy. Alexis Hart helps tie things together on the left. The question that will likely determine Minnesota’s results as the top of the Big Ten versus just a top three or four finish will be if some of their young pieces – albeit very talented – contribute at a high enough level early in their careers to fill roles or depth. One of those pieces potentially with a big load to shoulder as a freshman could be CC McGraw, a highly-decorated DS/L recruit who may slide into Dalianliz Rosado‘s role from 2017.
Nebraska: The Huskers have the pedigree and have a myriad of talented players – new and returning – that will keep them right near or at the top in the Big Ten. It wouldn’t at all be surprising to see Big Red take home the Big Ten title once again in 2018 regardless of the loss of so many starters. That’s because the defending Big Ten and National Champions have arguably the best and deepest left side depth chart in the country to go with elite libero Kenzie Maloney and plenty more.
Kind of like Minnesota, the difference between a top three finish or winning the league for Nebraska will be about how do some of the newcomers acclimate and contribute to winning right away. Obviously Lexi Sun is the big one, but she sat out the team’s final scrimmage to rehab an injury and was noted that she is going to be limited to a defensive and serving role – with the former being inconsistent for her as a freshman. Again though, the Huskers depth at the position should get them through it with Mikaela Foecke leading the way. Another key newcomer will be highly-touted freshman setter Nicklin Hames, who has the tough act of following Kelly Hunter. It’s safe to assume that John Cook will do everything he can, but with just two starters plus the libero back it’s up to new faces to step up if they want another league title.
Wisconsin: The Badgers will be looking to make a bigger jump than the other two teams in this classification, but bringing back four starters plus the libero and 2016 AVCA Third-Team All-American Molly Haggerty from injury is huge. They seemed to show some big strides in the finish to 2017 also, especially with some of their youth that progresses, and on paper have one of the most talented teams in the country. Still, it’ll be asking of a big jump in conference record to achieve this after the 11-9 finish to 2017.
Overall though, this could be one of the deepest teams that Kelly Sheffield has had with the Badgers. They’ve got the star talent too with a Player of the Year candidate in Dana Rettke. Speaking of Rettke, Wisconsin’s success likely rides mostly on the sophomore class between her, setter Sydney Hilley, Haggerty (redshirt sophomore), Grace Loberg and more part of the class. Relying on underclassmen isn’t always the best recipe for success in the Big Ten, but these are experienced sophomores for Wisconsin whose talent cannot be undermined. Additionally, while Minnesota has a home-and-away with Nebraska, Wisconsin and Penn State, the Badgers only get Nebraska (home) and Penn State (away) once on their schedule.
Not Far Off:
Penn State: The Nittany Lions have to replace almost their entire starting lineup, as just one starter plus the libero returns. That’s what could keep Penn State from winning the Big Ten in 2018, but what gives them the potential to accomplish the lofty goal is the prominent recruiting class and additions the school brings in – not to mention that other viable options fill the bench at a program like Penn State. That combination gives the Nittany Lions maybe a wider margin between ceiling and floor than any of the other top five projected teams, but it’s tough to bet against them.
Their first four Big Ten matches come on the road too with meetings at Minnesota, at Ohio State, at Michigan State and at Michigan, so if they can start 4-0 they’ll be feeling great, but a rugged start could be in order for such a young team. Still though, with the transfer addition of Taylor Leath to steady some things, two top five PrepVolleyball recruits and a handful of other newcomers with previous award distinctions, the Nittany Lions should stay at the top of the league. The question for this team is easy. If those freshmen can deal with the long grind of the Big Ten and going to hostile environments, then they have the potential to win the league. Otherwise, they’ll still be in good position to host in the NCAA Tournament opening rounds, but won’t be on the same level as teams like Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Illinois: The Fighting Illini combine an experienced bunch with one who had a strong 2017 and a exclamation point Sweet 16 run to round out the year. In terms of that experience, it kind of makes them the opposite of Penn State, who is all about youth this season. Adding to the intrigue is that Illinois actually had a better Big Ten record than Wisconsin last season and returns more starters. After seeing what Michigan State did last season with a veteran group, Illinois has the floor plan laid out for a special 2018.
In the middle is where the headlines start with Ali Bastianelli, who should continue to keep Illinois going with her block. Jordyn Poulter at setter provides stability, but who can step up into attacking roles at a level high enough to be a top 10 team nationally? Megan Cooney looks like one answer after a strong freshman season and Jacqueline Quade was strong last season, but they’ll be trying to identify more options and depth on the team. That matters even more if they can’t get sufficient play from the libero – a position where they have viable options but plenty to replace after losing Brandi Donnelly. Overall though, the experience should push Illinois to a strong mark in the Big Ten and a potential top five finish, but those questions must be answered if they want to out-do one of the teams listed ahead of them.
Michigan: The Wolverines had an up-and-down 2017, but now return a majority of their starters from a team that showed some highlights at seasons’ end against Illinois, Michigan State and Purdue twice. If they can muster that same magic up, they could rise up the ranks in the conference. Carly Skjodt will be a steady force on the pin and they’ve got Cori Crocker as a strong option in the middle. MacKenzi Welsh‘s game should grow as a junior, which should make for an interesting discussion what to do with highly-touted recruit Erin O’Leary. Whatever happens, Michigan just needs to be more consistent and find another middle blocker in 2018 if they want to return to form of the 2016 team that made the Sweet 16.
Purdue: The Boilermakers lost some key cogs to 2017, but have a solid enough core back plus a new crop of incomers set to make a future and current impact on the team. Sherridan Atkinson has been strong for the program and was a third-team AVCA All-American last season, but her senior year in 2018 could be even better. Purdue will likely need that to happen if they want a chance at cracking the top five or six in the league to go with some nice returning pieces in middles Blake Mohler & Shavona Cuttino and libero Brooke Peters. Those constants should keep them in the middle to top half, but the difference in moving up and potentially hosting in the NCAA Tournament likely rests on a strong crop of freshman joining the program looking to fill the void of some lost contributors.
Others to Note:
Iowa: The Hawkeyes are on the rise after recording their first winning season since 2000 in 2016 and earning their second straight after going 18-15 in 2017. They bring back three of their top five attackers in kills, including their leader in Taylor Louis who hit a strong .248 for a left side. Setter Brie Orr is also back and if a player like Meghan Buzzerio takes a step forward – as they plan her to do as a six rotation outside – the Hawkeyes could be dancing in 2018. If they’re unable to find some breakout players, it could still be a winning season or near .500, but not nearly the goals the program wants for this season.
Ohio State: The Buckeyes went from Sweet 16 in 2016 to missing the NCAA Tournament in 2017 after losing some key players. It was an indication of the rugged Big Ten, where a team who loses some pieces can fall to the wayside with so many other powerful opponents. A spot in the lower middle is likely once again for Ohio State, but going better than 7-4 (like they did a season ago) in the non-conference is likely. If they mix stronger pre-conference results with a win or two more in the Big Ten, they should be an NCAA Tournament team again. Still, that’s asking on some returners to step up after losing Luisa Schirmer (leader in kills), Ashley Wenz (second in kills) and setter Taylor Hughes. They should be strong in the middle with Lauren Witte and Madison Smeathers.
Michigan State: The Spartans had an incredible run to the Elite Eight last season behind a veteran team that also went 14-6 in the Big Ten. The problem now is that because of how experienced that team was, this one will be the opposite with just the libero back from the starting lineup. A huge recruiting class will have plenty to say on what happens to Michigan State in 2018. Beyond that, the difference between a rebuilding year and one where they still make the NCAA Tournament could deal with the growth of players like sophomore outside hitter Meredith Norris and junior setter Maggie Midgette, who are set to take on important roles this season.
Circle Your Calendar:
Ten Big Ten matches to keep an eye on (with so many high-level matches in the conference, we had to stretch our rules a bit and include some double meetings as one):
- September 19/November 23: Penn State at Minnesota; Minnesota at Penn State
- September 21/November 24: Illinois at Purdue; Purdue at Illinois
- September 26/October 31: Wisconsin at Minnesota; Minnesota at Wisconsin
- September 29/October 27: Nebraska at Illinois; Illinois at Nebraska
- September 29/November 9: Wisconsin at Purdue; Purdue at Wisconsin
- October 3/October 13: Wisconsin at Illinois; Illinois at Wisconsin
- October 6/October 20: Minnesota at Nebraska; Nebraska at Minnesota
- October 13/November 2: Nebraska at Penn State; Penn State at Nebraska
- October 19: Nebraska at Wisconsin
- November 10: Penn State at Illinois
VolleyMob’s Preseason Projection:
- Penn State
- Ohio State
- Michigan State
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 Big Ten Player of the Year as we embark on the season’s start (sorted alphabetically by last name):
- Ali Bastianelli | MB | Senior | Illinois
- Mikaela Foecke | OH | Senior | Nebraska
- Dana Rettke | MB | Sophomore | Wisconsin
- Stephanie Samedy | RS | Sophomore | Minnesota
- Samantha Seliger-Swenson | S | Senior | Minnesota
Coaches Preseason All-Conference Team:
2018 PRESEASON ALL-BIG TEN VOLLEYBALL TEAM
Ali Bastianelli, ILL
JORDYN POULTER, ILL
Taylor Louis, IOWA
CARLY SKJODT, MICH
Alexis Hart, MINN
STEPHANIE SAMEDY, MINN
SAMANTHA SELIGER-SWENSON, MINN
MIKAELA FOECKE, NEB
Kenzie Maloney, NEB
Taylor Leath, PSU
Kendall White, PSU
SHERRIDAN ATKINSON, PUR
DANA RETTKE, WIS
Tionna Williams, WIS
UNANIMOUS SELECTIONS IN CAPS