“I think #3 to probably #10 in the standings will be very close (it was last year). Lots of five set matches and great parity in our league.” – Steven McRoberts, head coach at Ole Miss.
Florida: The Gators are fresh off of a National Championship match appearance and now have the unenviable task of replacing some of the programs best players they’ve had. That list includes Rhamat Alhassan, Carli Snyder, Caroline Knop and Shainah Joseph. Talent wise, they’ve still got plenty of options. Rachael Kramer stands at 6’8″ in the middle and then comes the highly-touted youngsters. Paige Hammons came in with plenty of hype and contributed strongly as a freshman but now must take another step.
That will seemingly be the theme for the Gators this season. Who steps up and do the freshmen show out right away, mainly top recruit Thayer Hall. If Hall lives up to the hype it could make this team the SEC favorite, otherwise they may not be able to keep up with the Kentucky offense. Nonetheless, they’ve still got some pieces to be a strong defensive unit and be a physical presence at the net, but the youthful unit maturing early will be the difference in a strong season and another in the upper echelon of the country.
Kentucky: The Wildcats might just sport the nation’s top offense in 2018, or at least be near it. They bring back setter Madison Lilley to facilitate everything to Leah Edmond – a National Player of the Year candidate – and Avery Skinner at the pin. They also tack on some more recruits who could see the court early and make a positive impact in attack.
While Florida’s bugaboo could be their lack of experience and a bit of a step back in offense, Kentucky’s could be defensively. A lot of pressure will be put on new players to fill more important roles, because the Wildcats lost both of their middle blockers and star libero, Ashley Dusek. Not only was that important defensively, but Dusek was critical in getting up strong passes for then-freshman Madison Lilley to dish out and be strong in transition. The Wildcats appear to have the strongest of the units between them and Florida with their offense, but also their defense might be the biggest question. If they can sure that up they should win the SEC though.
Missouri: The Tigers are constantly around the top of the SEC, even winning a share of the title in 2016. They should be near the top as well, but will need some breakout players and improvements to reach the level of Florida and Kentucky. At the very least they have a star in the middle in Alyssa Munlyn, who is both an efficient option on offense and a powerful blocker on defense.
The host of transfers that the Tigers welcome in will be pivotal to their performance in 2018 along with the growth of players like Dariana Hollingsworth and Leketor Member-Meneh on the pins heading into year two. Coming off of a second straight Sweet 16 appearance though with a steady and trustworthy coaching staff, it’s safe to assume that the Tigers will take care of business, challenge the top two and make the NCAA Tournament once again. If the questions are answered though, they could move from another solid team to one that has a shot at a third straight Regional Semifinals appearance.
LSU: The Tigers made the NCAA Tournament a season ago at 20-10 and may be getting slept on just a bit as we enter 2018. That’s because they return five starters plus the libero, including 6’5″ outside hitter Taylor Bannister, who becomes a sophomore and should be an absolute force on the pin. Beyond that, the Tigers should at the very least have an NCAA Tournament team once again, but if the others surrounding Bannister improve their games as well, this could be a top 25 caliber team and a dark horse to finish top three in the league.
Georgia: The Bulldogs have one of the best hitters in the SEC in T’ara Ceasar, which they can match with anyone. They also return a vast majority of their other starters from a team that went 22-12 and made the NIVC Quarterfinals. If all that returning talent led by Ceasar leads to a few more SEC wins and a win or two more in the non-conference, the Bulldogs could be dancing come December.
Others to Note:
Auburn: The Tigers do return five starters, but the two they lost were All-American candidates in libero Jesse Earl (AVCA All-America Honorable Mention) and setter Alexa Filley (AVCA All-South). On the birght side, they’ll be loaded in the middle with Shaina White and Nebraska transfer Chesney McClellan along with some others, but anytime you take away your most important player for first and second contact, there will be questions.
Texas A&M: The Aggies had been a mainstay NCAA Tournament team and top half SEC team until last year’s fall-off, which led to a coaching change with former AVCA Assistant Coach of the Year Laura ‘Bird’ Kuhn. She should have a positive impact on the program, but the question will be how much in year one? A big part is developing a gritty defensive intensity that the program wants, which Kuhn said is “a process, takes time and earned trust.” At the very least the Aggies should be more solid all-around in 2018 and improve both in win total and conference ranking.
Circle Your Calendar:
Ten SEC matches to keep an eye on:
- September 26: Florida at LSU
- September 30: Missouri at Kentucky
- October 19: Kentucky at LSU
- October 21: Missouri at Florida
- October 21: Kentucky at Texas A&M
- October 26: Kentucky at Georgia
- October 31: Florida at Kentucky
- November 18: Florida at Georgia
- November 18: Kentucky at Missouri
- November 21: Missouri at LSU
VolleyMob’s Preseason Projection:
- Texas A&M
- South Carolina
- Ole Miss
- Mississippi 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 SEC Player of the Year as we embark on the season’s start (sorted alphabetically by last name):
- Taylor Bannister | OH | Sophomore | LSU
- T’ara Ceasar | OH | Sophomore | Georgia
- Leah Edmond | OH | Junior | Kentucky
- Rachael Kramer | MB | Junior | Florida
- Madison Lilley | S | Sophomore | Kentucky
Coaches Preseason All-Conference Team:
|Rachael Kramer, Florida||MB||Jr.||6-8||Phoenix, Ariz.|
|T’ara Ceasar, Georgia||OH||So.||6-0||Panama City, Fla.|
|Leah Edmond, Kentucky||OH||Jr.||6-2||Lexington, Ky.|
|Madison Lilley, Kentucky||S||So.||5-11||Overland Park, Kan.|
|Avery Skinner, Kentucky||OH||So.||6-1||Katy, Texas|
|Taylor Bannister, LSU||MB/OH||So.||6-5||Missouri City, Texas|
|Alyssa Munlyn, Missouri||MB||Sr.||6-2||Suwanee, Ga.|
|Mikayla Shields, South Carolina||RS/OPP||Sr.||6-0||Orlando, Fla.|
|Hollann Hans, Texas A&M||OH||Jr.||6-1||Corpus Christi, Texas|