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2020-2021 AVCA Coaches Poll


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The "preseason" poll is out (in quotes because some teams have already played live matches). 

 

1. Wisconsin
2. Texas
3. Stanford
4. Kentucky
5. Nebraska
6. Baylor
7. Minnesota
8. Washington
9. Penn State
10. Utah
11. Florida
12. Louisville
13. Purdue
14. Notre Dame
15. Creighton
16. BYU
17. Missouri
18. Georgia Tech
19. Pittsburgh
20. Marquette
21. Hawai’i
22. UCLA
23. San Diego
24. Michigan
25. Western Kentucky
 

Six Big Ten teams ranked before they start playing, including two in the top five.  Wisconsin with Rettke and a fleet of good OH are going to be #1 all season, I think. 

 

Some teams are gonna plummet from these rankings when the big girl teams start playing live ball. Like, I'm happy for Kentucky that they're undefeated right now, but against SEC competition... meh. 

 

 

 

 

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As the ugliness and uncertainty of COVID bleed over into the new year, some of the weirdness associated with it has apparently affected the coaches for the initial AVCA rankings.

I didn’t expect Nebraska to be ranked so low. All the major players returning, upgrading the offensive ‘issue’ with the 2nd middle via transfer and incoming freshman, losing a talented coach, but replacing her with another talented coach familiar with the program who was instrumental in the 2017 title run….adds up to something higher than number 5 which is what they finished the 2019 season at. Minnesota was another team I expected to be in the top 5 but was slotted slightly outside. The lost one outside and one middle, but return Pittman in the middle who was 1st team All-American (yes, Strivins got hosed), can replace the outside with the 2020 No. 1 overall recruit (as deemed by Prep Volleyball), and still have Samedy at the opposite pin. Lot of talent still there.

 

Texas at No. 2 is somewhat understandable having played 14 matches already (2 were postponed), being unbeaten, and defeating Baylor twice on the Shorthorns home court. To be clear both matches were 5 setters and multiple sets went either deuce or extras. However, the Burnt Orange has shown a propensity at ‘spitting the bit’ come tournament time the past few years.

 

Stanford at No. 3 makes no sense aside from name brand recognition. It’s true they had the number 1 recruiting class in 2019, however, you don’t get much playing time as freshman when your starting line up consists of 5 senior / grad transfer All-Americans, all of whom exhausted their eligibility last year including their setter Gray and perennial POY candidate Plummer. That’s an extraordinary amount of talent and experience to replace. Some may compare it with what Nebraska lost in 2016 (the Rolfzen twins and Wong-Orantes) and the National Championship the next year in 2017, but Nebraska DID return an experienced All-American setter in Hunter and Ms. Fearless, one Mikela Foecke. And that 2017 team was the exemplification of the phrase ‘catch lighting in a bottle.’ When Anika Albrecht ‘figured it out’ with the help of Hildebrand (see the UCLA back to back matches), the team set off on an incredible run, and rarely looked back (aside from the inexplicable Northern Iowa loss). Truly a team where the whole was much greater than the individual pieces. The odds of that happening with this edition of the Color Cardinal are minuscule. I don’t see Stanford making a Final Four appearance this year.

 

Kentucky at No. 4 is a beneficiary of playing a schedule in the fall (even though abbreviated) and remaining unbeaten when others were sitting. The SEC is a better conference than most and having a two game lead heading into spring is substantial, but 8 games does not erase the fact the Wildcats were taken out by Washington in the Regional SEMI-finals last year. However, Kentucky did have the number 1 recruiting class in 2020 (according to PrepVolleyball) and the do have a returning senior setter in Madison Lilley (2nd Team All-American), so it may be too harsh to judge them on last year’s early exit.

 

If I had a vote, which fortunately for the ACVA I don’t, my top ten would be:

1)      Wisconsin

2)      Texas

3)      Nebraska

4)      Minnesota

5)      Washington

6)      Baylor (yes they had a bad loss to Kansas, but they still have Yossiana Pressley)

7)      Kentucky

8)      Penn State

9)      Utah

10)  Purdue

Maybe a little too B1G centric (Purdue may be a reach), but given that the B1G has placed two teams in the Final Four in 8 of the last 9 tournaments and factoring in the talent coming back (particularly with the Big Four), the bias is somewhat warranted. For what it’s worth, I have Stanford at 11 just outside the top 10.

 

As far as the remaining 10 thru 25, I find it odd that the ACC has four teams included in the poll. Again, the league is likely getting some benefit of playing in the fall. However, like the SEC (and unlike the Big 12 which played a 16 game schedule), the ACC played only 8 games. Hardly a significant sample size. In general, and the reason for this is not easily understood, the ACC is a very weak volleyball conference often times having only one or two teams in the top 25. They’ve had one team reach the Final Four in tournament history which is the same number of Final Fours that the University of Texas @ Arlington (Go Mavericks) has. It is even rare that they have a team reach the Regional Finals, notwithstanding Louisville’s improbable run last year in the Texas Regional. Not a rich volleyball tradition. Pittsburgh is the bellcow of the league and they lost two All-Americans and two more All-Conference veterans from the 2019 squad and currently sit at 4-4 after the shortened fall season.

The past few years, the quagmire from 15-25 has been the property of the PAC-12, often having between 5 and 7 teams in that area of the rankings. But this year the PAC-12 only had UCLA in that region of the poll. I’m not sure if the pollsters are discounting the depth that typifies the conference or if this is a down year in general for the league.

 

And I was a little surprised that no other B1G team was in the RV (Receiving Votes) category. Ohio State has a new coach and may be an unknown, but they did have a top 10 recruiting class in 2019, have new facilities, and last year’s record was impeded by a rash of injuries. Michigan State is another team that should have a seasoned squad ready to take the next competitive step and compete for a tournament berth (at least in a normal 64 team tournament year). But there was no love for the conference after Michigan at 24.

 

Pre-season polls don’t mean much. But it does get fans of the sport back into the discussion and is yet another indicator that the season is little over a couple of weeks away. Here’s to a successful season for the Fightin’ Schwartzenbachs.

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It certainly was an odd way to cancel (excuse me, postpone) a scheduled competition, even in this year of COVID. The cancellation (delay) occurred extremely late in the day, at least I didn’t catch it until late afternoon / early evening. I had watched the end of the Indiana – Rutgers match and noted that Nebraska – Northwestern was still on the BTN plus schedule. Then at 6:30 (that’s Eastern Time in Michigan) when I went to tune in to John Baylor’s pre-match show, I see the communications from the Nebraska Athletic department about the ‘postponement’ and noted the time was 4:43 PM which I assume was Central Time.
I don’t know the precise details of when the cancellation (deferment) occurred or the location of the Wildcat Volleyball team at the time, it would be likely that Northwestern had made the trek to Lincoln the previous afternoon or evening. Not knowing the exact protocols teams follow, it is probable they tested Thursday sometime during the day before getting on the plane, and then tested again Friday before getting a practice in at Devaney. And someone, somehow tested positive in that controlled environment and in that limited period time after previously testing negative. And it was a valid positive which impacted a significant portion of the team since Northwestern cancelled (err, I mean ‘postponed’) not only the Nebraska matches but the upcoming weekend matches with Michigan.  
The above is all conjecture on my part. I believe Brent Wagner of the Lincoln Journalstar has a more precise timeline, but my computer security settings don’t give me to access their website. And while I’m sure that the Lincoln Journalstar is an austere establishment, I don’t care THAT much to adjust the settings just to read what profundities he OR they may provide. No, I would rather do what most posters do and, with as little effort as possible, randomly speculate.
Soooo….. the mystery at middle and the battle for right pin continue into another week without the benefit of outside competition. The Huskers DID practice Friday and scrimmaged on Saturday to keep themselves in sync with the rhythm of this unique spring season.

Onto week 2 of the AVCA poll:

 

1

Wisconsin (48)

2

Texas (10)

3

Kentucky (2)

4

Nebraska

5

Baylor

6

Minnesota

7

Stanford

8

Utah

9

Penn State

10

Florida

11

Washington

12

Louisville

13

Purdue

14

BYU

15

Notre Dame

16

Missouri

17

Georgia Tech

18

UCLA

19

Creighton

20

Pittsburgh

21

San Diego

22

Western Kentucky

23

Michigan

24

Washington State

25

 Marquette

Outside the B1G, one of the bigger upsets of the week was South Dakota upsetting the Blue Jays of Creighton in a 5 setter on Friday after losing the first two sets. That match was in Omaha. Creighton returned the favor Sunday when they beat the ‘Yotes, also in a five setter, also after losing the first two sets, and on South Dakota’s home court in Vermillion. Husker fan may remember one Sami Slaughter (favorite student section chant, ‘You’ve been Slaughtered’) who featured prominently for South Dakota in both matches. Creighton dropped 5 notches to 19.

Apparently people wised up and realized that Stanford wasn’t even practicing indoors (they are practicing outside because of COVID restrictions in Santa Clara County) so they dropped them from 3 to 7 after the Color Cardinal ‘postponed’ an additional two matches. While I’m not sure what wind conditions are like on The Farm, I DO remember the gusts that prevailed at Ye Ole Candlestick Park when Wille Mays was roaming the outfield. If the squalls on The Farm are anything like Candlestick, the winds would render outdoor volleyball practice to be, I think the term I’m looking for is, ‘worthless.’ Elsewhere in the PAC-12, Utah remained at 8 in the poll after beating Cal twice (Cal was picked 11th in the conference preseason), but actually lost a set in match one, and had another set in match two go extras. Washington defeated Arizona twice to remain at 11, although one match went the distance. UCLA split with Oregon in Eugene but also stayed stationary at 18. Oregon is just outside the top 25. Washington State beat the Sun Devils twice to make an entrance into the poll at 24. And there’s a few other PAC-12 teams receiving votes so we may end up yet again with a PAC-12 quagmire from 15 thru 25.

The SEC started their season back up this past weekend with no major upsets, although Missouri (17 in this week’s poll) had to go the limit in both matches against LSU. The SEC is playing a 16 match conference only schedule this spring in addition to the 8 match fall season. The ACC starts play on the 2nd weekend in February and has two weeks of non-conference action before playing an 8 match conference schedule in March. The ACC played an 8 match conference only schedule in the fall.

And keep an eye out for the non-competition brewing between Michigan and San Diego in the polls. In the preseason poll, San Diego was 23 and Michigan was 24. After week one, Michigan’s dominance over a non-opponent compared to San Diego’s less than stellar performance against a non-existent foe resulted in Michigan jumping ahead to 21 while San Diego only moved up to 22. In week two, San Diego rebounded with a convincing win over the invisible team, while Michigan was ordinary while beating the imaginary adversary. To wit, San Diego moved up to 21 while Michigan dropped to 23. Both teams have yet to play an actual match and remain 0-0.

At least the pollsters finally realized that the Big West was not playing volleyball this year and finally Hawaii dropped out of the top 25, but just barely. So far two conferences, that I’m aware of, have declared they are not playing volleyball at all, the Big West and, of course, the Ivy League. That expands the at-large pool to 18 for the Tournament. Other conferences have completed their season in the fall, and appear to have a minimal amount or no games scheduled in the spring, but still have an automatic bid. One example is the Sun Belt conference which completed their season in November of 2020 with Texas State at 24 - 2 being crowned champion by winning the conference tournament. No games scheduled in the spring so far. Not sure that methodology works particularly well in trying to gain momentum into the NCAAs.

Over on the B1G side, No. 1 Wisconsin beat the Illini twice, had one set go over (30-28) in match one and managed to lose a set in match two, but still had a relatively dominant performance. Just a side bar in match one. Badger Coach Sheffield sat his All-American outsides Haggerty and Loberg and instead played a freshman (Demps) and a grad transfer from Pepperdine (Kraft). Kraft was second on the team in the match with 11 kills and led in attempts with 31. She’s listed as a outside hitter / defensive specialist and was also second on the team with 7 digs. Sheffield indicated all four outsides practiced well and wanted to get all four playing time. Haggerty and Loberg played in match two. As if the Ferocious Weasels didn’t have enough weapons. Minnesota beat Maryland fairly comfortably twice 3-0 and moved up a spot to 6 (see Stanford), although two sets over the weekend did go to deuce. Purdue bounced back after the Badger shellacking last weekend to beat Iowa 3-0 and 3-0 to remain at 13. Penn State was idle for a 2nd week and stayed at 9. Rutgers won in the B1G for only the fourth time since joining the conference by beating Indiana 3 to 1. The Hoosiers returned the favor the next night by the same 3-1 margin although they had to come back from an 8 to 15 deficit in the fourth set to make it happen. And A Ohio State beat Sparty twice to go 4-0 on the season, although 3 of the matches have gone the full 5. The Buckenidiots are in the RV (receiving votes) category but are still a ways away from cracking the top 25.

The Huskers moved up one spot to number 4 (see Stanford) even without playing. They face the Mighty Terrapins of Maryland who come in with an unblemished record of 0 wins with 4 losses. They are led by Erika Pritchard, a senior outside who made the pre-season All B1G team and was Honorable Mention All-American (Volleyball Mag) as a sophomore. The Terrapins were picked below Indiana in the B1G pre-season at 12 and I expect a similar outcome on this match up. The Big Red probably sweep both matches with an outside chance that Maryland steals one set over the weekend. The Fightin’ Schwartzenbachs roll.

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It would be a bit cliché to start the post quoting Dicken’s classic set in the French Revolution, but instead let’s just say the Big Red’s performance over the weekend was ‘uneven,’ particularly the first match. The Huskers won the first set securely enough, but that was largely due to the play of the middles and Maryland gifting the home team several service errors. Maryland actually outhit Nebraska in the first set .286 to .261.
But the second set was when the patchy play finally caught up with the Blackshorts and Maryland edged out a win in extras 27 to 25. Nebraska had 3 set points but squandered those opportunities with errors and tentative play from Sun. The pin hitters in general for Nebraska started out in a funk, which persisted for the first two sets and bled a bit into the third. And something was definitely off with Madi Kubik. Not only was she getting blocked, or missing hands, she was also making uncharacteristic mental errors (net violation on a point when the Maryland right side hit it out of bounds by three feet, interfering on a cover where Akana had perfect position to play it and instead pushing the ball out, to name two). And while Zuhn and Kubik started to warm up as the match extended into sets 3 and 4, Sun remained tepid throughout. Kubik actually ended up above the Mendoza threshold at .227 while Sun limped to the finish line at .100.
Fortunately Lauren Stivrens still has eligibility as she and her middle buddy Caffey carried the team much of the night. Caffey again was on a pitch count due to injury and was subbed out at the start of the fourth but posted an ‘okay’ 6 kills on 14 attempts with 3 errors to go along with 5 blocks in her 3 sets. Stivrens on the other hand went all time on the night with 18 kills on 20 attempts and a solitary error. The .850 hitting night put her in the ‘Top 5 hitting percentage for a match in Nebraska history’ category since the rally scoring period began. Which means she now has two entries on that top 5 list to go along with her perfect score on 10 kills against Northwestern in 2018.
As the pin hitters warmed up and Stivrens remained white hot, the Big Red finally started to put some distance between themselves and the Terrapins winning the 3rd set 25 to 19 and the 4th in a more comfortable 25 to 14 fashion. A somewhat odd stat for the Husker side was  that THREE players had double doubles. Hames ended up with 52 assists and 12 digs. Because she’s a digging machine, she accumulates double doubles like the Federal Government accumulates debt. And despite the tepid offensive display, the two outsides, Kubik and Sun, also were double digits in kills and in digs.
For Maryland, Pritchard played like the All Conference preseason pick and ended up with 13 kills. She was clearly the best pin hitter on the floor Friday for both teams. The other Terp who played like an All Conference performer for at least one night was the libero Samantha Burgio. She was seemingly everywhere keeping balls off the floor and getting some nice digs on hard shots. The Terrapin block was effective as advertised (3rd in the conference entering the match) and edged the Huskers in that department 10 to 9.
Of course the highlight of match came Anni Evans came in and served an ace that knuckled down at the feet of the Maryland defender in a fashion that would have made the Niekro brothers and Wilbur Wood proud. It was priceless to see the reaction of her teammates and especially from her. She seemed almost giddy, barely able to contain herself. This was probably a dream of hers to play for Nebraska since she was a little girl growing up in Waverly (as it is for many girls in the state) and the first time she’s on the big stage against a live opponent, she crushes it. One can only imagine the decibel level in Devaney if 8000+ fans were there to react. Oh well, still a great moment.
In match two, the pins came to play for the Big Red, particularly Kubik and Zuhn. Sun started out playing well, but tapered off in sets 2 and 3. Kubik and Zuhn started fast and pressed the pedal down for most of the match. Kubik ended with 12 kills with a .308 hitting percentage, and Zuhn went off with 11 kills on 18 swings with 2 errors. The maturation process is coming together for Riley. Again, her ceiling is higher than Sweet’s, she can hit OVER a solid block, and she, herself, is an intimidating block for opponents. As she gets more comfortable with playing time, and teams start game planning for her, it will open more opportunities for the other hitters to attack against single blocks. Sun hit a respectable .266 but was ‘finessing’ the ball much of the night. A lot of cream puff, not much iron. The middle play was solid for most of the match until the end of set 3 (more on that later) and it was good to see Caffey healthy enough for back to back starts.
The serving by Nebraska was tougher on Saturday night although the stats don’t indicate much difference on the aces / errors number (7 to 8 match 1, 8 to 7 match 2). Sun had a decent serving run in the 1st set and Madi went off on an 8-0 run in the 3rd. During Kubik’s service run, she had at least 2 if not all 3 of her aces, and Maryland was scrambling out of system every serve save maybe one.
Pritchard again led the Terps in kills with 10 but she hit well below the Mendoza line at .138. Pritchard was the only Terp even close to double digit kills. And after a stellar Friday night, the libero, Burgio, looked ordinary in the second match of the weekend. Nebraska out aced the Terrapins 8 to 3 and edged them in blocks 7 to 6. The Huskers breezed in the first set 25 to 14, the second set was tighter with Maryland getting to 21 before an attack error ended it, and the 3rd set was on its way to a blowout until Hames got sloppy trying to feed Stivrins towards the end resulting in the All-American middle’s hitting percentage dropping from .400 something to an even .200. The Big Red still posted a comfortable 25-18 final tally.
Again, a solid but not dominant performance over a team picked 12th in the B1G preseason. But gradual signs of improvement. The Huskers remain at 4 in the new AVCA poll.

Week 3 of the AVCA poll:

1

Wisconsin (50)

2

Texas (9)

3

Kentucky (1)

4

Nebraska

5

Minnesota

6

Baylor

7

Utah

8

Penn State

9

Florida

10

Washington

11

Purdue

12

BYU

13

Notre Dame

14

Louisville

15

Stanford

16

Missouri

17

Georgia Tech

18

UCLA

19

Pittsburgh

20

San Diego

21

Creighton

22

Washington State

23

Western Kentucky

24

Michigan

25

Marquette

 

The big news around the rest of the nation was the Arizona Wildcats (picked 10th in the conference preseason) curbstomping the Color Cardinal twice over the weekend in Stanford’s first foray into PAC-12, or any, action. Stanford just started indoor practice on January 26th due to COVID restrictions in Santa Clara County. Additionally, they only had eight players available for the Arizona matches. And to top it off, their only senior, outside hitter Megan McClure (COVID), and only experienced junior, middle Holly Campbell (knee?), were on the MIA list which also included a couple of defensive specialists. As a result, a young unproven Stanford team with little practice coupled with a serve receive game which was atrocious resulted in Arizona serving the Color Cardinal into oblivion 25-16, 25-17, 25-14. Stanford hit .057 for the match. The second match of the weekend was a little better for the defending champs, but the Wildcats still prevailed 3 sets to 1. Stanford dropped 8 notches to 15. Utah replaced Stanford at 7 by beating ASU 3-0 and 3-2. Washington reentered the top 10 by beating the bottom dweller Beavers twice. UCLA and Washington State split which resulted in the Bruins remaining stationary at 18 but the Cougars ended up gaining a couple to 22. And the Ducks won twice at USC, both 5 setters and sit at the top of the RV line just outside the top 25.
One additional comment on the Color Cardinal. This weekend series against the Cal Bears turns out to be critical. Cal was picked 11th in the conference preseason and sit at 0-6. If UC@WokeBerkley manages a split, Stanford is in jeopardy of moving out of the top 25 for the first time since………ever. And looking at the Cardinal schedule, it is hard to see less than 8 losses if they start 1 - 3 as they have paired matches with Washington State, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and UCLA still remaining. 10 – 8 probably doesn’t make the 48 team tournament. Which would be another ignominious first for the pride of Palo Alto.
The SEC resumed play but the main match between ranked teams Florida and Missouri was ‘postponed’ due to COVID issues with the Gators. Florida benefitted from the non-event by moving up to 9 while the Tigers stayed at 16. Kentucky was off and remains entrenched at 3. The ACC resumes play this weekend with non-conference action, however, Notre Dame jumped over Louisville in this week’s poll. Apparently the pollsters finally realized that the Fightin’ Leprechauns ‘straight setted’ the Bird Cardinal in the fall. In the West Coast Conference, BYU won a nonconference match by beating something called Utah Valley University out of the WAC. BYU moves up to 12.  And San Diego broke the Torreros deadlock with Michigan by getting on the board with a sweep of St. Mary’s (Sunday-Monday matches) 3-0 and 3-0 and moving all the way up from 21 to 20. In the Big East, Creighton split their matches with the former Warriors of Marquette in Omaha. Creighton fell two spots to 21 and Marquette remained at 25. The two teams play again this coming weekend in Wisconsin.
The hot mess that is the Big 12 appears to be about 2 weeks away from starting a handful of non-conference matches (plus any fall conference matches that were postponed) in the lead up to the NCAAs. Texas is playing 9 matches, only two that count towards the conference record, but they are playing Baylor again on a home and home arrangement as part of their non-conference schedule. They also play Texas State twice (RV category) who won the Sun Belt Conference in the fall. Baylor is playing 10 non-conference matches starting February 25th (they were able to fit in their complete Big 12 schedule in the fall), including the two Shorthorn matches, also playing Texas State twice, and scheduling Oklahoma for two matches.
In B1G action, Wisconsin beat the Eastern European Knights 3-0 and 3-0 and remains number 1. Minnesota swapped positions with Baylor and now sit at number 5 by virtue of their two 5 set wins over Purdue. And the Boilers actually moved up two slots to 11 following the two close losses. Although Purdue is probably kicking themselves as they were up 2 – 1 in both matches before letting them slip slide away. Penn State broke out of the two week COVID hibernation with a couple of victories over the Illini 3-1 and 3-2 and moved up to 8. Michigan didn’t play AGAIN and fell to 24.
Speaking of those Eastern European Knights with their roster full of ‘minas, ‘novas, ‘movas, ‘novics, and ‘kovics; they are next up for the Big Red. They are not the walkover Rutgers team of the past and did split with Indiana in week two of conference play. However, the Scarlet Horde is still firmly entrenched in the bottom tier of the conference. And while John Baylor will earn his pay calling the play-by-play and trying to pronounce those polysyllabic Slavic names, the Fightin’ Schwartzenbachs prevail 3 – 0 and 3 – 0 (don’t be surprised if one or two sets are closer than expected) in preps for the showdown with the Golden Rodents February 19th.

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Since Rutgers joined the B1G, their volleyball team has had a heavy influence of Eastern European players from places as Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Serbia, and so on. Assembling and structuring such a diverse group proved to be a difficult task and for a few years the Knights have been an easy target for opponents to pad their schedule. Now they have a new coach, but there are multiple players from that part of the world still on the roster. However, with this group there seems to be less confusion and more cohesion. Indiana can attest to that reality as the Scarlet Horde dumped the Hoosiers two weeks ago 3 to 1 in their first match up of the weekend. And Steve Aird’s young squad was fortunate to win the second match after having to comeback from being down 8-15 in game 4 to prevent the Knights from forcing a decisive game 5.
As it was last weekend against Maryland, inconsistent play plagued the Huskers in match one, and, as it was last weekend, the level of play plummeted in the 2nd set and nearly cost the Big Red their first set to Rutgers since the Scarlets entered the B1G. The biggest issue remains passing. During a large portion of the 2nd set where the Knights staked to a 15-10 lead, the Huskers were passing, as John Baylor would opine, ‘like a Yugo on the Autobahn.’ Cook was so disgusted he actually pulled Akana after a shank off a serve and subbed in Emma Gabel. Immediately the turbulent waters calmed as Gabel made a couple of nice digs and the Huskers righted themselves for a 25-21 set 2 win en route to a straight set victory in the opener. The middles again were efficient with Stivrins getting 11 kills on 18 swings and Caffey putting in 7 on 11. Both hit over .500. Lexi Sun rebounded from a moribund performance against Maryland with a team high 17 kills and a scorching .484 hitting percentage. The Rutgers hitters, particularly the right side, Beka from Belgrade, were taking advantage of Nebraska’s poor coverage on tipped attacks over blocks, something Wong-Orantes and Maloney were excellent at, but for some reason Knuckles, despite her athleticism, seems slow to respond to.
It wasn’t pretty, but there were plenti-o-‘reasons’ floated out as to the cause of the sub-par performance of the Big Red. Long flight, early morning testing, false positive giving the team a testing scare, early start to the match. We were assured that day two would bring a steadier performance for the Good Gals.
Instead, we saw a Rutgers offense that was on fire in set 1 of the second day with the vaunted defense of Nebraska seemingly unable to do much about it, even with Miss Callie starting in place of Caffey in the middle. The Scarlet Knights took it to the Big Red Machine and hit an astounding .400 in route to a 25-22 win. First set taken by Rutgers over Nebraska EVER. Well, at least since the Knights joined the B1G. The Big Red dominated sets 2 and 3 by identical 25-14 margins before putting the Knights away in a much more contested set 4, 25-20. Stivrins was once again Stivrins and got a double double with 15 kills AND 11 blocks. She keeps with this pace and Lauren may garner some POY consideration. Three other players accumulated double doubles with Hames of course adding to her total (49 digs, 17 digs) and the six rotational pins of Sun and Kubik hitting double digits in kills and assists. Sun was high error in this match and while she had 15 kills, she also blemished the stat line with 8 errors for a hitting percentage of .156.
Riley Zuhn was a disappointment. After making strides against Maryland, she regressed in New Jersey, hitting triple zeros for the weekend mainly due to attack errors that where long, whether mis#!t or missing hands. Finally, Coach Cook subbed in Jazz Sweet for the final 3 sets of the 2nd match. To compete against the best in the B1G (and by definition the best in the country), the Huskers are going to need have increased production at opposite.  For Wisconsin, the right pin was supposed to be a question mark in replacing Duello, but freshman Devyn Robinson has been tearing it up. Jazz DID have an excellent outing in the final 3 sets with 8 kills and a hitting percentage of .429, but she can also disappear in matches and hasn’t significantly improved her play since 2017 (at least to this untrained eye).  
The first set of matches against Indiana and Maryland were solid, but not dominant performances. This set of matches I would put under the ‘unimpressive and concerning’ category. The level of competition ramps up dramatically in the next two weeks (hell, the next month), and it is not clear that this version of Husker volleyball is ready at this juncture in the season.

Week 4 of the AVCA poll:

1

Wisconsin (50)

2

Texas (9)

3

Kentucky (1)

4

Nebraska

5

Minnesota

6

Baylor

7

Utah

8

Penn State

9

Florida

10

Washington

11

Purdue

12

BYU

13

Notre Dame

14

Louisville

15

UCLA

16

Georgia Tech

17

Washington State

18

San Diego

19

Pittsburgh

20

Creighton

20

Western Kentucky

22

Oregon

23

Stanford

24

Marquette

25

Missouri


1 through 14 remained unchanged although Wisconsin DID pick up an additional first place vote from Kentucky. 15 through 25 saw some maneuvering and is starting to look like a home for the 2nd tier from the PAC-12 again, but not as crowded as some years when you would have 6 to 7 teams from the conference slotted in the back half of the poll.
The big news around the country comes from the forementioned PAC-12 and once again concerns the defending national champs. After getting drummed out in Tucson last weekend, the volleyball team from The Farm played their rivalry match up with the dreaded Bears from UC@WokeBerkley on a Friday night. California was picked 11th in the pre-season PAC-12 rankings and, much like Arizona, hadn’t won a match this season resting at a meager 0-6. However, Stanford sans McClure & Campbell and only dressing eight due to injuries and COVID, turned out to be the chicken soup necessary for the Golden Bears to break into the victory column. It went 5, but Cal prevailed on Friday night in Berkley 3-2. Their first victory in 9 years over the Color Cardinal. The second match on Sunday at Palo Alto resulted in a dominant Stanford sweep. McClure was back for this match, and while her stats were pedestrian, Kendall Kipp, the heir apparent to Kathryn Plummer, had an outstanding match with 15 kills on .571 hitting and the Cardinal offense improved from .192 to .378 between the two matches. The 1-3 record compiled over the first two weekends against the bottom tier of the league didn’t put the Color Cardinal out of the top 25 for the first time. They are still clinging to the poll at 23. I personally don’t see how someone ranks them, but the AVCA poll has a lot of inertia associated with it, particularly with the blue blood programs. In other PAC-12 action, Utah beat USC twice, but it took 5 sets to prevail in the second match of the weekend. Washington split with UCLA 3-0 and 2-3 and remained at 10. The Bruins actually moved up three spots to 15. Washington State beat the Buffalos from Boulder 3-0 and 3-1 and climbed from 22 to 17. And Oregon crushed Arizona in straights in which only one set out of six was competitive, to make their entry into the top 25 at 22.
In the SEC, Florida and Kentucky held serve, but 16th ranked Missouri lost twice to unranked Tennessee, with the Tigers succumbing in the second match of the weekend in straight sets. Missouri drops to the final slot at 25. The ACC started their sparse non-conference play, the first of two weeks before entering the conference slate. Two of the four teams in the rankings elected to play no non-conference games (Georgia Tech and Notre Dame), Louisville was off after beating Dayton in an exhibition match last weekend and doesn't play again until March 5th in conference, and Pittsburg beat Villanova from the Big East 3-0 and also won’t play again until March 5th in conference. The Yellow Jackets, by not playing, still managed to move up one to 16 while the other three ACC teams stayed put. The Big 12 starts their bastardized non‑conference ONLY spring schedule on February 25th. Realistically Baylor and Texas are the only plausible teams from the conference with a chance of making the tournament (Texas has actually already garnered the automatic bid). Kansas State finished third at 10-6 in the fall, but play just 6 non-conference matches this spring. One IS against Creighton, but two are against Division II Wayne State. Not enough substance to build a resume for an at-large tournament bid particularly in this COVID year with a truncated number of at-large positions.
In the Big East, Marquette and Creighton DID NOT play this past weekend (despite what I erroneously wrote last week), but will play THIS COMING weekend in Milwaukee. BYU and San Diego both handled their business in West Coast Conference play. BYU beat Gonzaga twice 3-1, 3-0 and remain stuck at 12 and San Diego defeated Portland twice also 3-1, 3-0 to move up two positions to 18. And Western Kentucky had their Conference USA matches with Old Dominion postponed, but climbed up into a tie with Creighton at 20.

In B1G action, the spotlight matches over the weekend involved Minnesota and Penn State with the Golden Rodents beating the Cultists twice, 3-1 in which 3 of the 4 sets went deuce or extras (all won by the Gophers) and 3-2 in which none of the sets were particularly close. With the two close losses Penn State stayed at 8. More on the Rodents later. Michigan lost twice to Purdue in the Wolverines first action of the season 3-1 and 3-1. Purdue remains at 11 while Michigan drops out to the top of the RV line. Ohio State beat Iowa twice to run their record to 6-0 but still remain below the RV line, right behind Michigan. Wisconsin dispatched Indiana 3-0 and 3-0 but two of the sets in the second match went deuce or over. The Ferocious Weasels remain the top dog in the land accumulating even more first place votes.
The Golden Rodents come to Lincoln chalk full of All-Americans and highly ranked freshman. They have also been battle tested in this young season after beating Purdue and Penn State. Samedy is a force at opposite and has multiple 20 kill matches this season. The newcomer Taylor Landfair at one outside has struggled at times hitting percentagewise, but is an outstanding athlete and in the last match against Penn State had 22 kills on .340 hitting. Schaffmaster is the 6’03” setter who presents unique problems with her height and her willingness to attack on the 2nd touch, but also is undergoing some understandable growing pains. An odd stat prior to the Penn State matches was that Schaffmaster was averaging only one less attack PER MATCH than her 1st team All-American middle Regan Pittman. She sets the pins heavy, calls her own number quite a bit, but often neglects the middles. Some of it is that her pins are dynamic, some of it is Minnesota is not a premier passing team so setting the middles consistently is more difficult, and some, I’m sure, is inexperience.
After watching snippets of the second Penn State – Minnesota match, it is apparent that the Huskers are going to have to take their game up a notch. Both the Huskers and Gophers struggle with passing at times, but Nebraska should have an advantage at the service line. Minnesota has better pins, Nebraska has better middles. Hames has a slight edge at the setter (if Schaffmaster was 5’10” it wouldn’t be a competition), but Minnesota has CC McGraw at libero, a first team B1G All-Conference and honorable mention All-American performer last year. Nebraska doesn’t. It will be interesting if the brain trust comes up with a game plan to contain Samedy or Landfair a bit.  If Nebraska serves nails and the Rodents spend much of the two matches out of system, I think the Huskers split. If Samedy, Landfair, and Rollins can tee off all night (and all afternoon), it will be a rough weekend for the Big Red. Having said that, by the time the Tournament comes around, the Huskers will be a tougher out as Minnesota tends to peak a bit early most seasons.
The Fightin’ Schwartezbachs get the split with the Golden Rodents at home before they take their show on the road to Madison to face Mount Rettke.

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A battle tested 5th ranked Minnesota squad came into Devaney loaded with All-Americans and highly touted freshmen to give Big Red Nation a reality check on where this Husker team was at in the B1G pecking order, and how far they were from competing with one of the premier programs in the B1G and in the NCAA. 


The initial glimpse was not a positive one. The first match of the series was very reminiscent of the 2018 season when Husker Volleyball was in a stretch where they lost 5 of 7 matches and couldn’t put away teams in tight sets, even when the Huskers had the lead late. That team eventually figured it out and had a great run in November and December, before finally losing in the 5th set to Stanford in the championship match. But that team also had Mikaela Foecke. And Kenzie Maloney. A common theme in each of the four sets of the Friday match was the home team felt obliged to spot the visitors anywhere from a 5 to 7 point lead before starting to play in earnest. The hole dug in the first set was too much to overcome and Minnesota breezed to a 25 to 15 win as the Huskers were unable to decipher the serve from one CC McGraw, an issue that would persist throughout the match. The 15 points were easily a low point total for a set by the Big Red this season. In the second set, the Huskers again started slow but stormed back largely on the play of Stivrins 6 kills and Kubik’s 4 and won going away 25 to 20.


The third set was where Nebraska gave the match away. And it is probably a bit hyperbolic to say ‘gave away’ as it came down to two points at the end of the set.  Up 24 to 21 with four set points, Hames set Lexi for the back row kill and she crushed it deep…….and a fraction of an inch out. Then with the score 24 to 23, Samedy hits a cross court shot from the right pin that paints the line……just a fraction of an inch in. Set 3 was literally decided by fractions of an inch. The Huskers blew their chances to close the set out as the Gophers scored the last 4 points in route to a 26 to 24 victory. The fourth set was more of the same. Start slow, catch up, lead late, then spit the bit. The Huskers were up 23 to 22, but again failed to deliver in the clutch as the Rodents scored the final 3 points for a 25 to 23 win.


Samedy was tremendous as expected, playing at POY level, which was a good thing since her comrades on the left side had largely forgettable evenings (Landfair hit .067 with 8 kills but had 5 of those in the first set and Rollins, who may have been less than 100 percent, hit negative with only 3 kills and 4 errors). Regan Pittman set Devaney records for blocks in a 4 set match with 14. But the difference maker was CC McGraw with her serve AND uncanny knack for keeping the ball from hitting the floor. Minnesota accounted for a ridiculous 23 points in the match when McGraw was serving. And equally impressive was her coverage and digging. An All-American performance. If you would have swapped only the liberos for each team with the remainder of the teams remaining the same, the outcome would have been reversed. The Huskers would have had the higher hitting percentage by 50 points and won the match in four. An astounding impact for that position.

 
And then came Sunday. Whoever had “3 set sweep” on their bingo drinking card deserved to get inebriated in the early afternoon. Cook complained that the team was tentative on Friday, well there was none of that on the Sunday matinee version. Huskers started out fast and kept their foot on the throats of the Gophers for much of the first two sets as the Rodents were only able to tally 17 and 15 points respectively with Nebraska returning the favor from Friday as the 15 point tally was the lowest for Minnesota in a set this season. The third set was more competitive, but by that time, there wasn’t a sense that the Huskers were in much jeopardy. It seemed inevitable that they would sweep even when the score was knotted at 22, and this time it was Big Red that ran off the final 3 points to finish the matinee affair.


Multiple reasons for the reversal. One was strategic as in changing rotations so that Zuhn or Sun were matched up with Samedy most of the time (Samedy hit a season low .135 for the match). Another was certain players on the Golden Rodents didn’t have the stellar performances as they did Friday night (independent of strategy), most notably one CC McGraw from the service line. While she still had an impact digging, she was a mere mortal when serving and ended up with 0 aces and 2 service errors with one inexplicably sailing past the end line by several feet. Also Minnesota may have been satisfied with the split and didn’t have the sense of urgency they did on Friday. But the biggest impact on the match Sunday (and to be clear this is subjective) was the ‘no fear’ attitude of the team in general. Akana continued to serve nails and caused havoc with Minnesota’s passing game, the middles were solid again with Caffey having her best game as a Husker, and Hames appeared to make progress in running the faster pace offense that Tyler Hildebrand is trying to implement.


But no one thing epitomizes the dichotomy from Friday night to Sunday afternoon as much as the play of one enigmatic Lexi Sun. For as tentative as she was on Friday, she was as aggressive and confident on Sunday (trust it, big girl). She went from hitting .021 to 300 points higher. She also blocked, served, and dug at a high level. Unfortunately, this has been a pattern of hers the past 3 years at Nebraska. In 2018, she had 19 kills in the National semis against Illinois tying the team high with Foecke. The next match against Stanford she ended up hitting only .030 with 7 kills in a 5 set match. In 2019, she hit an incredible .619 with 14 kills in a straight set victory against Hawaii in the regional semifinals. In the regional finals against Wisconsin, it was 11 kills 10 errors on .023 hitting.


Still a solid performance by the Huskers and the split kept both Nebraska and Minnesota at no. 4 and 5 in the polls.

Week 5 of the AVCA poll:

 

1

Wisconsin (51)

2

Texas (8)

3

Kentucky (1)

4

Nebraska

5

Minnesota

6

Baylor

7

Utah

8

Florida

9

Washington

10

Penn State

11

Purdue

12

BYU

13

Louisville

14

Notre Dame

15

UCLA

16

Georgia Tech

17

Washington State

18

San Diego

19

A Ohio State

20

Western Kentucky

21

Pittsburgh

22

Oregon

23

Creighton

24

Marquette

25

Missouri


COVID protocol was the big winner across the rest of the country. Many of the matches involving ranked teams were postponed and as a result there was only minor movement in the poll.

One noticeable difference in the poll was the lack of The Color Cardinal in the listing of 25 teams. The King is dead, long live The New King (The Color Big Red, or more precisely scarlet and cream). For the first time in AVCA poll history (beginning circa 1982), Stanford was unranked leaving Nebraska as the only team to be ranked in every AVCA poll since it began. But my glee in this development is somewhat tempered by the reality of the situation for the volleyball women from Palo Alto. First they had to endure some of the tightest COVID restrictions in the nation imposed by Santa Clara County, then their university made a decision to support the men’s and women’s basketball teams by shipping them out of county and isolating them so those teams could continue to play while relegating the volleyball team to practice outdoors. They cancel the first four matches of the season, THEN they have 4 matches in which only 8 were eligible to dress, and finally this past weekend they cancel an additional set of matches with a ranked Washington State opponent due to COVID. And yes, Stanford was the team that had the puerile, classless depiction mocking Nebraska on their locker room whiteboard at the 2018 finals so I realize that Husker fan may not be sympathetic, but that team is largely gone. The big match in the PAC-12 between Utah and Oregon was ‘postponed’ (COVID protocols on the Utah side). Utah and Oregon stayed at 7 and 22 respectively. The Utah-Washington matches this weekend are also in peril of being ‘postponed.’ But the Huskies DID play this past weekend and beat the Buffalos in Boulder twice. Washington moved up to 9 as the Nittany Lions from Not-so Happy Valley faltered midweek. And the Bruins from LA dispatched Arizona State in their two matches to remain a fixture at 15.

The SEC had five pair of matches scheduled and of those five a grand total of two were played, and only Missouri – Georgia involved a ranked team. The Tigers did beat the Bulldogs twice 3-0 and 3-1 and stayed stationary occupying the final spot in the poll. Florida vs. Mississippi State and Kentucky vs. South Carolina were COVID casualties. Kentucky remained at 3 but Florida moved up to 8 (again see Penn State).  Florida and Kentucky don’t play until March 19th and 20th. The ACC is still two weeks away from any of their ranked teams from playing, but that didn’t stop Louisville and Notre Dame from swapping the 13th and 14th spots again. Two weeks ago when Notre Dame grabbed the 13th spot I presumed that the voters got wise to the fact that the Fightin’ Leprechauns had dispatched The Bird Cardinal in the fall by a 3-0 count. But now that Louisville jumped back in front, there is something else going on. Rumor has it voters are taking into account how the two teams PRACTICE (yes, we’re talkin’ practice) and while the PRACTICE competition was tight, Louisville gained the edge this week when Dana Busboom had her team run gassers AND lines at the end of the Thursday session. Or Not. The Big 12 starts play this coming week with Texas and Baylor staying at 2 and 6. Texas did lose a first place vote to Wisconsin.

The West Coast Conference DID get in their matches involving ranked teams as BYU (no. 12) beat Loyola Marymount 3-nil and 3-nil. San Diego (no. 18) also won twice but was extended to 5 sets in their 2nd match with Gonzaga. The Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky beat Charlotte twice in Conference USA action to take sole possession of the 20 spot. And, in keeping with the overall theme of the weekend, Creighton and Marquette had their Big East tilt ‘postponed’ due to………COVID. The issues are with the Blue Jay program and this coming weekend matches are also likely to be ‘postponed.’ The Golden Eagles (or is it The Gold?) remain at 24 but the Blue Jays dropped three notches to 23.

In the B1G, A Ohio State was the big mover in the polls jumping all the up from the RV line to 19 after upsetting Cultist Valley mid-week in a 5 setter, then Illinois twice over the weekend to run their record to 9-0. The Buckenidiots are an impressive 5-0 in five set matches. Penn State bounced back after that mid-week loss to beat Indiana 3-1 and 3-0 but dropped two spots to 10. The Boilers dumped Northwestern twice 3-0 and 3-1 to remain at 11. Wisconsin beat Sparty also with 3-0 and 3-1 tallies to remain atop the AVCA poll and picking up a first place vote from Texas in the process. In unranked competition, Rutgers and Iowa divided a pair which leaves the bottom tier of the conference of Indiana, Rutgers, and Iowa tied at 2-8 after splitting the match ups with each other.  And Maryland finally got in the victory column after halving two 5 setters with Michigan in Ann Arbor.

A trip to Madison and a climb to Mount Rettke is next for the Big Red. The holes the Ferocious Weasels had to fill prior to the season, replacing Duello at opposite (2018 All-American and 2019 All-Conference) and Clark (2018 All-American) have been accomplished, and with talent. Enter Devlyn Robinson freshman and Laura Barnes senior. Robinson is hitting an eye-popping .459 with just under 3 kills per set at opposite after beating out another freshman Jade Demps for the position. As for Barnes at the libero, Coach Sheffield indicated that she had taken a giant leap in improving her skillset and that she “may be one of the best ‘bros we’ve had in the program.” In the limited action I’ve seen her play, that seems to be the reality and not some coach speak. She anticipates well and covers a lot of ground (even those damn tip shots that the Huskers seem to have issues with). The remainder of the crew is a familiar nemesis to the Husker faithful. Rettke and Hart in the middle, Hilley running the offense, and Loberg and Haggerty on the outside. All are All-Americans of some form and all are seniors with the exception of Hart who is a redshirt junior. Rettke is a legitimate POY candidate and Hilley is one of the two best setters in the nation (Kentucky’s Madison Lilley being the other). To top it off, they’ve added depth in the freshman Demps who plays either pin, Giorgia Civita a defensive specialist transfer from Wichita State where she was an All-Conference libero, and Deahna Kraft a transfer from Pepperdine who can (and does) fill in as a defensive specialist and on the left pin. To further illustrate Kraft’s versatility, she was an All-American in 2019 at beach volleyball and an All-American in 2018 at indoor volleyball while at Pepperdine. As a team the Badgers are hitting an incredible .351 while holding their opponents to a suffocating .122. Really the only question on the Wisconsin side is whether Haggerty is healthy enough to play as she sat this past weekend against Michigan State due to injury.

A tall task. A steep mountain to climb.

It remains to be seen if the Huskers had a seminal moment on Sunday when they ‘finally played liked they practiced.’ When the pieces came together much like it did for the 2017 team during the UCLA matches before they went on their incredible run. OR was the Sunday matinee was just a one off. If the Huskers play like they did Sunday, the Big Red have better than a punchers chance at a split. If they play like the Friday version, it will likely be a sweep by the Badgers and it may be quick.

This is probably Husker vision shading my perspective, but the Fightin’ Schwartzenbachs climb Mount Rettke, and while they don’t conquer it, they gain the split and keep their B1G title hopes alive.

 

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The Huskers had another set of matches ‘postponed’ due to COVID, but this time there was less drama involved and no last second decision making based test results the afternoon of the match. Instead early in the week Wisconsin Coach Sheffield found out about Michigan State players, their opponents the previous Saturday and Sunday, testing positive and was fearful that his players may have been ‘contaminated.’ His fears came to fruition later in the week as multiple Badger players tested positive and, ‘out of an abundance of caution’ (this catchphrase is mandatory for all COVID postponement announcements) the much anticipated showdown between No.1 and No. 4 didn’t happen. The chances of rescheduling the matches appear to be slim to none, especially since the B1G made no apparent attempt to pull the Nebraska-Illinois matches up (the Illini were scheduled to play COVID Sparty this weekend) to create scheduling space on the backend. The next time these two teams meet may be in the NCAA tournament. You would hope that the Selection committee would put the Huskers and Ferocious Weasels on opposite sides of the bracket, but given the incompetence displayed by said committee in the past don’t be surprised with a regional final match up.

Week 6 of the poll:
 

1

Wisconsin (53)

2

Texas (6)

3

Kentucky (1)

4

Nebraska

5

Minnesota

6

Baylor

7

Washington

8

Florida

9

Utah

10

Penn State

11

Purdue

12

UCLA

13

Louisville

14

Notre Dame

15

BYU

16

Washington State

17

San Diego

18

Georgia Tech

19

A Ohio State

20

Oregon

21

Western Kentucky

22

Pittsburgh

23

Creighton

24

Marquette

25

Pepperdine



COVID cancellations (excuse me ‘postponements’) were AGAIN the main theme across the rest of the country. Which is slightly odd, since the third wave of the virus has peaked and is on a significant downward trend across the country. Another indicator that it is nearly impossible to predict the comportment of non‑linear, multi-variable, coupled, open systems (yes, that’s a mouthful) like the COVID pandemic. The B1G led the pack in cancellations of the Power 5 conferences:

B1G postponed 8 of 14 matches
PAC-12 postponed 4 of 12 matches
SEC postponed only 2 of 10 matches
ACC postponed 4 of 9 matches
Big 12 postponed 3 of 14 matches


The match of the weekend in the PAC-12 turned out to be a ho-hum affair. Washington had their way with previously unbeaten Utah 3-0 and 3-1. It wasn’t particularly close. A beatdown. The Utes and Huskies swapped 7 and 9 positions in the polls. The rest of the upper tier of the conference (aside from Utah) had banner weekends. UCLA beat Arizona 3-1 and 3-0 and finally, after a few weeks seemingly stuck at 15, jumped up to 12. The Cougars from the plains of Pullman shut out UC@WokeBerkley 3-0 and 3-0 to creep up one spot to 16. And Oregon dispatched the Buffaloes 3-0 and 3-1 to claim the 20 position up from 22. It is crowded at the top of the PAC-12 with Washington at 10-2, Utah – Washington State – Oregon all at 8-2, and UCLA at 9-3. The conference will likely send five formidable teams to the tournament. And one of those five won’t be Stanford. More on The Color Cardinal later.

In the SEC, Missouri split a pair with South Carolina winning the first 3-0 but losing the rematch 1-3.  The Tigers dropped out of the poll and are sitting at the top of the RV line. Florida blasted the Volunteers 3-0 and 3-0 and remained at 8. Kentucky’s matches with aTm were postponed and the Wildcats didn’t budge from 3. And congratulations to former Husker libero and championship assistant coach Kayla Banwarth as her Ole Miss Rebels finally got on the board in the win column by beating LSU in five. They currently reside at 1-13. The rebuild may take awhile.

ACC action saw no action among the 4 ranked teams. Louisville vs. Notre Dame was postponed and both remained stationary at 13 and 14 respectively. Georgia Tech and Pittsburg were not scheduled to play. Both teams dropped in the top 25. The Yellow Jackets slid to 18 and the Panthers slipped one notch to 22. ACC conference action begins in earnest this weekend as they introduce the mini-pod into the year of the COVID scheduling. Since there are 15 teams, 5 sites are picked each weekend and 3 teams per site each play 2 matches round robin style over a 3 day period. Not a bad concept. But with just 4 weekends prior to the tournament (i.e. 8 matches each team) it is too little too late.

Texas beat the Sooners 3-nil twice in a pair of ‘non-conference’ matches between Big 12 conference teams. Out of the four matches between the two schools this fall-spring season, Oklahoma has taken a grand total of 1 set. Baylor beat North Texas 3-0 but was pushed to the full 5 by Pepperdine from the West Coast Conference. Texas and Baylor remain at no. 2 and 6.

Speaking of the Waves, they are the newest member of the poll debuting at 25 despite the loss to Baylor. That’s due to the fact earlier in the week Pepperdine beat the previously unbeaten Cougars of BYU 3-0. BYU returned the favor the next night, but it took 5 sets. BYU swapped spots with UCLA and reside at 15. San Diego takes over the lead in the West Coast after defeating San Francisco  3-0 and 3-1. The Toreros are 10-0 and moved up 1 to 17.

 

In the Big East, Marquette won twice in non-conference action (St. Louis 3-1 and Iowa State 3-0) and remain at 24. The Creighton Blue Jays are still in COVID lockdown.
 

In the B1G, of the three sets of matches that were played, two involved ranked teams. The Boilermakers took care of their rivalry foe Indiana rather easily 3-0 and 3-0. They remain ranked at 11. A Ohio State swept Rutgers 3-0 in their initial match of the weekend, but the Scarlet Horde put up a fight in the subsequent match before succumbing in 5. Even with the pair of victories, the Buckenidiots stayed at 19. And finally, the most competitive match up of the weekend saw Iowa and Northwestern split a pair of 5 set marathons. 4 of the 10 sets played went deuce or over. In the first match, the 2nd set almost broke the 40 point barrier with the Hawkeyes winning 39 to 37. Of the ranked teams that didn’t play, none of them budged in the rankings; Wisconsin 1, Nebraska 4, Minnesota 5, and Penn State 10. Wisconsin did gather 2 more first place votes from the Shorthorns.

COVID cancellations could have an impact on tournament eligibility. 13 games is the minimum number to qualify for the mens’ and womens’ basketball tournament, and I believe that is the minimum number of matches for volleyball, although I couldn’t confirm it. Blueblood programs like Penn State and Stanford will need good COVID fortune the remainder of the year to meet that standard. The Color Cardinal have dug themselves a particularly deep hole starting out 1-3 against two bottom feeders of the conference and having to cancel 8 of the first 12 matches of the season with only 10 to play. And 8 of the 10 remaining are against Utah, Washington, Oregon, and UCLA. Not an enviable task. Teams can apply for an exemption of the 13 match minimum, but unless Stanford gets on a serious winning streak, they are likely to miss out on the tournament for the first time in program history. Penn State (the only other program never to miss an NCAA tournament) is in slightly better position as they are ranked, but they still have wood to chop. Their record is 4-3, have one match (this week) with Ohio State and twin matches with Purdue, Wisconsin, and Nebraska out of the remaining 11 matches. They’ll need some splits against top 10 opponents to break .500. It will be interesting to see if the committee will take a sub .500 team of a premier program from the B1G just based on the ‘eye test’ in a year with only 18 at-large.

The Illini are next up for the Big Red Machine. They have suffered attrition of star power in the past two seasons that have brought the program from the heights of a Final Four appearance to a mid-level B1G program. Gone are All-American middle Ali Bastianelli and generational setter Jordyn Poulter. They left in 2018. The 6’2” Poulter now roams the court with the U.S. National Team and is a likely member of the final 12 member Olympic squad. Gone is middle Ashley Fleming, an All‑Conference performer who had some huge games against the Huskers. She graduated in 2019. And also gone from 2019 is the indefatigable robotic arm of one Jacquelin Quade who attacked with power and grace and a Foecke-like fearlessness.

But while the talent pool is diminished, it is not empty. Megan Cooney is back at opposite and leads the team in kills with an impressive 3.70 kills/set which is among the league leaders, but is hitting just slightly above the Mendoza line at .205. Freshman Terry Raina is second on the team in kills on the outside but it is significant drop off from Cooney (122 kills to 70). Additionally young Raina is hitting slightly BELOW the Mendoza line at .193. Illinois hits .184 as a team which ranks 10th in the conference. The Illini are running a 6-2 with Diana Brown and Kylie Bruder which is a bit odd, as last season they ran a 5-1 with Brown as the main setter where she eventually wound up on the B1G All-Freshman team.

The stat lines may be misleading for Illinois as they lost to Wisconsin, Penn State, and Ohio State. They missed winnable matches against Michigan State and Northwestern due to COVID. And it doesn’t get easier for the Illini. After the Nebraska matches they travel up north to play the Gophers in Minneapolis.

There is not enough offense on the orange and blue side to compete with this group of Huskers. The Fightin’ Schwartezbachs ‘play like they practice’ and take two in Champaign in preparation for the (as of now) unbeaten Buckeyes coming to Devaney.  

 

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