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Minnesota Volleyball: Big Ten/ACC Challenge Preview and Big Ten Preview

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The Gophers kick off their season Friday down in Chapel Hill. 

Gopher Athletics

Minnesota gets the season started today against North Carolina. The Big Ten/ACC Challenge kicks off a loaded non-conference schedule for the Gophers.

Read on for a weekend preview, preseason Big Ten Honors, Big Ten Preview, and list of games on television this season.

Big Ten/ACC Challenge Preview

Minnesota takes on host North Carolina Friday at 5:30 CT and Saturday they’ll face Florida State at 2:30; both matches will air on ACC Network Extra.

This weekend will be a nice tune-up for the Gophers before they get into the meat of their non-conference slate; it even worked out that they play the better of the two teams second. The biggest key Friday and Saturday will be how well Kylie Miller connects with her hitters and run the offense. Lucky for her she has plenty of options who can all put the ball away. If Miller spreads it around and has good location the Gophers will be in good shape.

Top Returners

class, height, position, # name, stats, (statistical rank nationally)
Positions: MB- middle blocker, OH- outside hitter, RS- right side hitter, DS- defensive specialist, L- libero, S- setter
Stats: K/S- kills/set, B/S- blocks/set, D/S- digs/set. .000- hitting percentage, A/S- assists/set SA/S- service aces/set

So. 5’9 L 7 CC McGraw- 4.0 D/S

Jr.. 6’2 RS 10 Stephanie Samedy- 3.49 K/S, .284, 3.1 D/S, 0.82 B/S

Sr. 6’0 MB 12 Taylor Morgan- 2.42 K/S, .379, 1.1 B/S

Sr. 6’0 OH 19 Alexis Hart- 3.02 K/S, .255

So. 6’0 OH 20 Adanna Rollins- 2.59 K/S, .250, 2.68 D/S

Jr. 6’5 MB 21 Regan Pittman- 2.58 K/S, .400, 1.14 B/S

North Carolina

North Carolina lost its best hitter from last season to transfer. They still have a point-scorer in Destiny Cox but is she is wildly inconsistent hitting only .105 last season. Like Cox, the rest of the roster has plenty of room for improvement. A talented freshman class will also help the Tar Heels improve. The other ACC coaches are optimistic about the Tar Heels picking them to finish fifth this season after tying with Virginia for last-place last season.

Top Returners

So. 6’1 OH/RS 1 Destiny Cox- 3.19 K/S

Sr. 6’2 OH 6 Skylar Wine- 2.65 K/S

Jr. 6’2 MB 7 Katharine Esterley- 1.13 B/S

Jr. 5’11 S 10 Hunter Atherton- 9.18 A/S

Sr. 5’6 L 13 Mia Fradenburg- 3.74 K/S, 0.2 SA/S

Florida State

The Seminoles like the Tar Heels will be better this season. They boast two preseason All-ACC honorees who are the workhorses for them. In order for the Seminoles to deliver on a preseason billing as the second-best team in the ACC they’ll need the supporting cast to step up. Former Gopher, transfer Jasmyn Martin is one of those players who could give their offense a bump.

Top Returners

Jr. 6’3 MB 13 Taryn Knuth- 2.42 K/S, .351, 1.72 B/S

Sr. 6’0 OH 15 Payton Caffrey- 4.37 K/S, .294, 0.23 SA/S

So. 6’2 S 17 Adrian Ell- 4.74 A/S

Preseason Big Ten Honors

The Big Ten Preseason poll and All-Big Ten teams were just released. While the national coaches poll favored the Gophers as the top Big Ten team heading into the season the Big Ten coaches tabbed Wisconsin as the preseason favorite. Nebraska was also picked in front of the Gophers who came in in third. They were followed by Penn State and Illinois.

Full list

  1. Wisconsin
  2. Nebraska
  3. Minnesota
  4. Penn State
  5. Illinois
  6. Purdue
  7. Michigan
  8. Ohio State
  9. Michigan State
  10. Maryland
  11. Indiana
  12. Northwestern
  13. Iowa
  14. Rutgers

Three Gophers were named to the preseason All-Big Ten list; Alexis Hart, Taylor Morgan, and Stephanie Samedy. There were three unanimous selections: Jacqueline Quade, Illinois; Kendall White, Penn State; and Dana Rettke, Wisconsin. Full list here.

Big Ten Preview

The vaunted Big Ten is as tough as ever; five teams are in the AVCA Preseason top ten and two more are in the top 25. It’ll be a tough go of it for the Gophers to defend their title.

Wisconsin

The Badgers lost only one starter from last year’s Elite Eight squad. The improvement shown by the remaining starters will determine how far Wisconsin will go. Junior, middle blocker Dana Rettke who spent a good part of the summer with the USA National team playing in the Volleyball Nations League and Olympic qualifying tournament rightfully gets most of the attention but she can’t carry them to a title by herself. The Badgers will need consistent production from their pin hitters to keep defenses honest. Molly Haggerty is now two years out from her back injury and will look to return to All-American form. If Haggerty can get back to the same level of production from her freshman year the Badgers will go far. The addition of ex-Gopher Lauren Barnes also helps shore up some problem areas for Wisconsin as she is a great server, passer, and defender.

Nebraska

While no one can expect two freshmen to immediately step in and replace departed All-Americans Mikaela Foecke and Kenzie Maloney the Huskers have brought in two all-star freshmen to fill the roles. Libero Kenzie Knuckles and outside hitter Madi Kubik join a stout starting lineup who is looking for an offensive identity since Foecke is gone. Last season outside hitter Lexi Sun never truly hit her stride with inconsistent performances all season similarly right side hitter Jazz Sweet was hit or miss. Sophomore Capri Davis has shown tremendous improvement which will make it hard for Coach John Cook to keep her off the court. Expect some shuffling of the lineup as the Huskers figure out what works best for the senior-less lineup. Through it, all though expect the same tough serving and defense.

Penn State

The Nittany Lions are a couple of seasons away from really contending in the Big Ten. They have six freshmen and nine sophomores on this year’s squad. The offense will be led by sophomores preseason All-Big Ten players Jonni Parker and Kaitlyn Hord. They’ll have a new setter running the show as Gabby Blossom takes over for Bryanna Weiskircher. How quickly the roster comes together and newcomers adjust will be the difference between upsetting the top teams in the league or just beating the teams they’re supposed to beat. As good a passer and defender as libero Kendall White is good ball control won’t alleviate all their offensive concerns.

Illinois

Like Penn State, the Illini have a slew of newcomers and have to replace an outgoing setter. From an offensive standpoint though, the Illini are ahead of the Nittany Lions. Illinois returns First Team All-American outside hitter Jacqueline Quade and four other hitters from last year’s Final Four team. No disrespect to the setters battling for the starting job but it will be a tall task to expect the Illinois offense to run as fluidly as it did last season with Jordyn Poulter commanding the floor. It may get there towards season’s end but there may be hiccups early in the season. Not to mention the loss of frontline defense provided by Poulter and the program’s leading blocker Ali Bastianelli.

Purdue

Purdue this season will have to figure out who they are without a go-to point scorer. For the last few seasons, they’ve been able to rely on All-Americans Danielle Cuttino and Sherridan Atkinson to score for them. Unless someone emerges as that caliber of a threat the Boilermakers are going to need balance. Fortunate for the Boilers their freshman class provides depth at nearly all positions. More competition in the gym could help the Boilers down the road but this year they’ll still be on the outside looking at the teams in the top tier of the league.

Michigan

Similar to the Boilers, Michigan graduated their main point scorer and have to figure out who they are. A bigger issue though for the Wolverines is the first contact. Michigan only has three defensive specialists on their roster and all three are in the running for the libero spot which doesn’t signify that this is a position of confidence. This also forces some hitters to pass and play defense that may not be comfortable or particularly proficient in that sort of role.

Ohio State

The Buckeyes are looking to rebound after a rough 12-20 season, 3-17 in league play, last year. They have a freshman setter who will give them more stability at this position. Otherwise, there is plenty of competition for the remaining starting spots due in part to a talented freshman class who may see a lot of action this season.

Michigan State

The Spartans are one of the teams looking to rise to the top of the bottom half of the conference. They have a high-level middle blocker in sophomore Naya Gros but no one else on the roster is at that same level. Setting and the libero position are two glaring weaknesses that won’t likely be much better this season than last.

Maryland

Maryland only graduated two players from last season, an outside hitter and a defensive specialist, and finished a game under .500 in conference play. Despite that, the conference coaches were not particularly high on the Terrapins. Unlike some of the teams picked above them, the Terrapins have two above-average hitters, outside Erika Pritchard and middle Katie Myers, and have a competent setter and libero. They also added a heralded freshman outside hitter, Rebekah Rath. Rath re-classified and graduated early to join the Terrapins this year so expect to see her on the floor opposite Pritchard. In summary, do not sleep on the Terrapins.

Indiana

Indiana is on the up-and-up with Steve Aird at the helm. They were much more competitive last season in his inaugural season. Aird has been working hard to instill his culture and change the perception of his program. This offseason he sent a message to his team and the rest of college volleyball as he brought in nine new players, four freshmen, and five transfers. This prompted three defections from the 2018 Hoosier roster.

Several newcomers will see immediate action. The two biggest additions to the roster are Kari Zumach from Creighton who will likely be a starter at either the right or left pin, and incoming freshman setter Emily Fitzner who was an Under Armour All-American. The rest of the newcomers will be battling it out for spots in the lineup. Also big for the Hoosiers is the return of Kendall Beerman who tore her ACL last season. Similar to Maryland, folks around the league may be underestimating the Hoosiers and the pace of this turnaround.

Northwestern

Northwestern has all their starters back from last season but that doesn’t mean they’ll be much better this year. They did bring a graduate transfer setter and some talented freshman but ball control issues will likely continue to hold them back. The Wildcats serve surprisingly tough but surrender a lot of aces themselves.

Iowa

Iowa has a new but familiar face at the helm of the programs this season. Former associate head coach Vicki Brown was promoted to interim head coach after former head coach Bond Shymansky was let go this summer due to an NCAA rules violation. Shymansky gave an athlete money for rent over the summer after her scholarship status changed. Iowa went ahead and fired him instead of waiting for the final NCAA ruling.

Brown though has the tall task of replacing the nation’s outgoing active kill leader, Taylor Louis, their libero, and two hitters, one lost to graduation and another to a medical retirement. The Hawkeyes have a large freshman class who will look to pick up the slack. Fortunate for Iowa they have a veteran setter, Brie Orr, guiding everyone as they revamp most of their roster. Iowa may surprise a team or two this season but they’ll still likely be jockeying for position with the rest of the bottom half of the league.

Rutgers

The Scarlet Knights are looking for their first Big Ten win since 2015, and this might be the year they get it. They have a great setter running the show and added the No. 35 recruit in this year’s class.

Prediction

My pick to win the conference is Nebraska, in large part because of their schedule. Unlike some other Big Ten teams, Nebraska is easing into conference play. They will play Stanford but otherwise, they are not playing as rigorous preseason slate as the other league contenders. In conference play, they only play twice against one of the conference contenders, Wisconsin. Minnesota, Illinois and Penn State all face two teams twice and conference favorite Wisconsin has two matches each with Nebraska, Minnesota, and Penn State. The Huskers get Penn State at home and face Illinois and Minnesota on the road. Fortunate for the Huskers they also get two games against Michigan State, Maryland, Northwestern, Iowa, and Rutgers who are all projected to fall in the bottom half of the league; half of their conference slate is practically guaranteed wins. When you add in they are of course a good team and John Cook is a tremendous coach its a winning combination. Like the Gophers last season they make take the conference title by a couple of games.

Gophers on TV

Minnesota will make 11 appearances on TV this season. The first will come against Texas September 4 airing on FS1.

Nine conference matches will air on BTN:

9-28 vs. Purdue

10-2 @ Iowa

10-9 @ Illinois

10-13 @ Wisconsin

10-25 @ Michigan

10-27 @ Michigan State

11-14 vs. Wisconsin

11-22 vs Nebraska

11-30 @ Penn State

Minnesota also gets a bonus conference game as they’ll face Purdue November 3 on ESPN2.

If you missed them before you can find the team preview here and non-conference preview here.