2013 Preview: Volleyball in place for competitive season

The Pac-12 continues to show it is the premiere conference for women’s volleyball, showcasing the nation’s top talent and coaches. With a record 14 NCAA titles to its credit and a team playing in the national championship match for the third-consecutive year last year, no other conference in the country can match the Pac-12’s success. Seven league teams earned NCAA Tournament bids in 2012, marking the 12th consecutive year at least six league teams participated in the postseason. In 2012, eight players were named All-Americans, including five first-team honorees. For the third straight year, the national player of the year was a Pac-12 player as well.

The future of Pac-12 volleyball looks as strong as ever, with teams hauling in their share of top recruits. 2013 is no different with 17 Volleyball Magazine FAB 50 selections appearing on eight league rosters, more than any other conference. Nine Pac-12 teams had recruiting classes ranked in the top 30, with seven of those ranked in the top 15.

Here’s a brief look at the teams of the Pac-12 as they prepare for the 2013 campaign:

ARIZONA

With a squad of primarily underclassmen, the Wildcats struggled with consistency last year.  But after a year of ups and downs, including a big, late-season win over then-No. 5 UCLA, Arizona is looking at a seasoned roster going into 2013. Junior outside hitter Madi Kingdon has been a key contributor since arriving on campus as a freshman. Voted to the Preseason All-Pac-12 team by the league’s coaches, Kingdon was among the top-10 hitters in the Conference last year. Head coach David Rubio will have to rely on a freshman setter in Penina Snuka, a Volleyball Magazine FAB 50 prospect. Despite her newcomer status, Snuka has the skills to make an immediate impact and the Wildcats will have to bring her along quickly in order to achieve their goals and hopefully make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament.

ARIZONA STATE

The Sun Devils look to build on a very successful season that saw them go to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years, record their first 20-win season since 1993 and earn their most league wins since 1999. ASU relied on a talented freshman in Macey Gardner who acclimated to the collegiate game immediately, averaging 4.79 kills per set, which ranked 18th in the country. A Preseason All-Pac-12 pick, she was named first team All-Pac-12 last year, the first Sun Devil to earn the honor since 2002. Sophomore setter Allison Palmer dished out nearly 1,500 assists last year, mostly to Gardner, as the offense ranked as the fourth-most prolific in the Pac-12. Also returning is libero Stephanie Preach, one of three seniors on the squad. The senior leadership will be key in mentoring a talented incoming class that was ranked No. 13 in the country.

CALIFORNIA

The Golden Bears were plagued with injuries last season. Among the most significant was the season-ending loss of starting libero Robin Rostratter. Additional injuries resulted in significant contributors missing matches, including senior outside hitter Adrienne Gehan who was also not at full strength for most of the season. Regardless of those injuries, California still was able to maintain a .500 record, an accomplishment in itself because of the tough Pac-12 slate with a depleted roster, and earned an 11th-straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. Gehan is one of four returning starters, giving the Bears plenty of leadership. Gehan’s experience will be especially important as the only player on the roster to have played in the national championship match in 2010. The Cal returnees will have some help from a talented incoming class that was ranked 21st in the country and includes three Volleyball Magazine FAB 50 players, among which is setter Alyssa Jensen, who got a head start adjusting to the collegiate game after traveling to China with the Pac-12 All-Star team.

COLORADO

The Buffs saw dramatic improvement last season after bringing in one of the most talented classes in recent history. Colorado more than doubled its win total from two years ago last season and improved in the Conference win column. Head coach Liz Kritza has done solid job on the recruiting trail and brings in another talented class. That, combined with the return of every starter, gives Colorado the aim to build on its momentum from last year. The Buffs were also hit by the injury bug last year, impacting senior outside hitter Kerra Schroeder the hardest as she missed out on the majority of the season. The team’s kills leader in 2011, Schroeder looks to be back to form in her final campaign. In addition, sophomore Alexis Austin, who led the team in kills (3.39) as a rookie, comes back for the Buffs. The combination of the two, in addition to Neira Ortiz-Ruiz, could help Colorado put on a strong and experienced attack in 2013.

OREGON

The Ducks are coming off of their most successful year in the history of the program after reaching the NCAA Championship match last year. Head coach Jim Moore welcomes back two All-Americans in senior setter Lauren Plum and junior outside hitter Liz Brenner. Directing one of the most prolific offenses in the nation, Plum was the nation’s leader in assists per set (13.37) in 2013, while Brenner recorded the second-most kills per set on the team (4.39). Along with the nine letterwinners returning, Oregon also welcomes seven newcomers, including outside hitter Naya Crittenden and middle blocker Haylee Roberts. Both were highly-touted recruits and named to Volleyball Magazine’s FAB 50. Though plenty of weapons return for the Ducks in 2013, the team will have to make up for the losses of AVCA National Player of the Year and Pac-12 Player of the Year Alaina Bergsma, as well as Katherine Fischer, who provided consistency and was one of the top liberos in the Pac-12.

OREGON STATE

The Beavers recorded one of the biggest wins of the season last year, defeating then-second ranked Penn State, but had difficulties finding consistency throughout the rest of the season. Oregon State will be a young squad again this season with just one senior on the team. Only three starters return, including senior libero Becky Defoe who led the Pac-12 in digs per set last year (5.05). Junior outside hitter Arica Nassar also returns to lead the team’s offensive efforts. She has been an offensive threat since she arrived in Corvallis as a freshman. With Hall of Fame coach Taras Liskevich who enters his ninth season at OSU, the young Beavs are in good hands.

STANFORD

The defending Pac-12 Champion Cardinal was picked to win the Pac-12 title again in 2013 and was the highest-ranking league team in the AVCA Preseason Coaches poll, coming in at No. 3 in the country. With the return of 11 letterwinners from last year’s championship team, including every starter, the expectation for a repeat is no surprise. 2012 Pac-12 Coach of the Year John Dunning welcomes back four All-Pac-12 performers, including senior middle blocker Carly Wopat, who was also tabbed a first team AVCA All-American. Wopat was the most efficient hitter in the Conference, converting on nearly 40 percent of her hitting attempts, and was third in blocks (1.45 bps). But Dunning’s arsenal also includes four sophomores who burst onto the scene as freshmen: Inky Ajanaku, Brittany Howard, Madi Bugg and Jordan Burgess. All four were named to the Conference’s All-Freshman team, while Ajanaku, Howard and Burgess were also all-Conference picks. Dunning has also equipped the Cardinal with an incoming class that was ranked eighth in the country. With all the talent and depth at Dunning’s disposal, the Cardinal will be looking to make up for a disappointing NCAA quarterfinal loss in last year’s postseason tournament.

UCLA

The Bruins exited out of the NCAA Tournament in the second round last season, just one year after an unexpected run to claim the 2011 NCAA title. Consistency was an issue for UCLA last year, and while four starters return, the team is still a young one with 10 underclassmen on the roster. Additionally, the Bruins lost All-American Tabi Love and All-Pac-12 honoree Rachael Kidder. But what the Bruins do have is a talented squad, including an incoming class that was tabbed the sixth-best in the country and includes the nation’s top-rated libero of the 2013 recruiting class in Skylar Dykstra. Additionally, seniors Kelly Reeves and Mariana Aquino, and junior Zoe Nightingale return and bring a wealth of experience and leadership. Nightingale was among the top hitters and blockers in the Pac-12. Along with Aquino, the Bruins return a strong defense at the net.

USC

The Trojans have nearly every starter returning, including two-time first team All-American and two-time Pac-12 Libero of the Year Natalie Hagglund and 2012 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Samantha Bricio, who was also voted All-Pac-12 and honorable mention AVCA All-American. The duo leads a solid core of returnees that helped the USC post 30 wins last season, the program’s first 30-win campaign since 2003. Added to that is a talented class that was ranked No. 2 in the country and includes two Volleyball Magazine FAB 50 players. The Trojans have reached the NCAA semifinals or better six times in head coach Mick Haley’s 12 years and they are looking to get back again after back-to-back trips in 2010 and 2011.

UTAH

The Utes appear poised to make a move in the Pac-12 and improve upon back-to-back ninth-place finishes in their first two seasons in the Conference. Nearly half the roster has at least two years of experience in the new league, while also returning its top-six scorers from a year ago. Head coach Beth Launiere will have to find a solution for the loss of their top setter, McKenzie Odale, but sophomore setter Kendall Cygan saw her fair share of playing time in 2012 and should be able to make an easy transition to the primary position. If the Utes are going to make any moves in the Conference, Launiere will have to look to their blocking core to lead the way. Over the last two years, Utah has ranked in the top 10 in the nation in blocks per set. It had three players average at least 1.00 blocks per set last year, led by junior Bailey Bateman’s 1.53 blocks average, the ninth-best average in the country in 2012.

WASHINGTON

Ranked fifth in the AVCA Preseason Coaches poll, its highest preseason ranking since 2009, the Huskies are looking to make their first trip back to the final rounds of the NCAA Tournament this year since 2006. UW seems to have a lot of the pieces in place to make a run, beginning with junior Krista Vansant. The top-rated recruit in her final prep campaign, she has lived up to her billing since arriving in Seattle. Last year, she ranked fifth in the Pac-12 in kills per set (3.99) and points per set (4.64). Added to that is the return of senior defensive specialist Jenna Orlandini and senior setter Jennie Norgueras, while also welcoming the 10th-ranked recruiting class in the nation, head coach Jim McLaighlin’s squad looks to be a strong threat. An appearance in the NCAA final rounds would be even sweeter this season, as UW plays host to the event at KeyArea.

WASHINGTON STATE

The Cougars had just two non-conference losses and their 13 wins were the most since 2009, the last time WSU made the NCAA Tournament, but they struggled in league play to close out the season. But Washington State has seen improvement in each of head coach Jen Greeny’s first two seasons, and as she continues to rebuild the Cougar program, the team returns most of its starters and eight letterwinners overall. Greeny also heads into the 2013 campaign having landed the 14th-ranked recruiting class in the nation. Among the returnees is the team’s leading scorer in junior outside hitter Jaicee Harris. Harris was ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in kills per set (3.91) and was ninth in points per set (4.36). The Cougs will look to its seniors, Marcelina Glab and setter Camryn Irwin, to lead the young squad that features eight underclassmen and a transfer.