Women's volleyball rankings: Five takeaways from the AVCA preseason poll
With the fall season bearing down on us, the American Volleyball Coaches Association released its preseason Top 25 Wednesday afternoon. Are they just preseason rankings? Of course. Are they still fun to read, analyze, and get excited about? Of course. So let's talk about them.
Here are five things that jumped out from the first poll of the year:
1. Do the top two teams seem familiar?
No, you're not seeing double: the top two teams in this preseason poll were the two teams duking it out for the title last December.
Texas (No. 1) and Stanford (No. 2) weren’t ranked atop the AVCA poll after Week 14 last fall, but they were the two schools left standing by the championship match, when Stanford capped off John Dunning’s time in Palo Alto with his first title since 2004.
And the defending championship participanats have plenty going for them entering the 2017 season.
Texas lost three seniors, including All-American Second Team setter Chloe Collins, but it brings back stud senior middle back Chiaka Ogbogu, who didn’t play in 2016, and a pair of All-Americans in Micaya White and Ebony Nwanebu. The Longhorns also add freshman outside hitter Lexi Sun and freshman middle back Brionne Butler, two recruits who should have Longhorns fans excited.
Stanford, meanwhile, brings back the Freshman of the Year and a rising star in 6-foot-6 outside hitter Kathryn Plummer, as well as 6-foot-8 opposite Merete Lutz, two players who were instrumental in the Cardinal’s championship run. And Kevin Hambly’s first freshman class in Palo Alto includes the highly-touted outside hitter Meghan McClure.
2. A look at the conference distribution
How balanced is the conference distribution between the Top 25?
Eight different conferences have at least one team listed in the AVCA rankings. Unsurprisingly, the Big Ten (8) and the Pac-12 (6) are dominating the scene as usual, but they're not the only ones getting some love. The SEC has three teams, all ranked in the top 20, while the ACC, WCC, and Big 12 have two teams apiece in the rankings.
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And the Big East (Creighton) and Big West (Hawai'i) have one team each -- for now.
So, like any number of prior seasons, the Big Ten and the Pac-12 are the major players, but it's still anyone's game.
3. Who can topple the super-powered conferences?
With its No. 1 ranking, Texas is officially the great hope of all conferences not named the Big 10 and the Pac-12. Since the turn of the century, only one NCAA champion has come from conferences other than those two powerhouses: the Big 12’s Longhorns.
Before Texas’s title in 2012, the run of dominance from the Big 10 and Pac-12 actually stretches back to 1998, when Long Beach State of the Big West knocked off Penn State.
After coming so close last season before falling to a dynamite Stanford squad from the Pac-12, and losing to the Big 10’s Nebraska the year before, the Longhorns have a legitimate shot at the crown in 2017. The combination of returning Ogbogu and All-American White, along with the strong freshman class, makes Texas as formidable as any team in the country.
No. 8 Kansas and No. 10 BYU can be another potential status quo disruptor, particularly BYU.
After a solid showing from a young core in 2016, the Cougars have their sights set on another deep NCAA tournament run. Losing All-American middle back Amy Boswell won’t help the beginning of the season, but returning sophomores McKenna Miller and Mary Lake should have BYU in a good place for years to come.
4. Going back to back is always a challenge
Outside of Penn State’s legendary late 2000s run, no other school in the country has repeated as national champions since USC in 2002 and 2003. Stanford repeated as champions just once, in 1996 and 1997, or exactly 20 years ago.
So the question becomes: do the Cardinal have what it takes to run the table again? Or are we going to see a challenger triumph, much like the Cardinal did last year? A few teams to keep an eye on:
1. Washington is returning each of its key pieces from a season in which the Huskies finished ranked No. 7 and reached their regional final in the tournament before falling to a loaded Nebraska team. Returning outside hitter Courtney Schwan, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, leads an experienced Washington squad intent on leaving a mark.
2. Minnesota lost production in the graduation of All-American outside hitter Sarah Wilhite and strong middle back duo, but the Gophers return Samantha Seliger-Swenson, an All-American setter, and have plenty of youth ready to go. If their incoming freshman class can make a mark, expect Minnesota to make noise in the Big 10.
3. Wisconsin is in a similar situation to that of Minnesota: the Badgers only have four returning starters, and will need to find a replacement for All-American setter Lauren Carlini. But a powerhouse freshman class, including setter Sydney Hilley, could step in and lift the Badgers as the season goes on.
5. Patience is still a virtue!
Preseason polls are always exciting because they signal the beginning of a new season, but if your favorite school isn’t slotted among the Top 25, don’t sweat it: preseason polls often don't reflect the final poll at the end of the season.
Take a look at last year’s AVCA Preseason Top 25, for example. Eight teams in the preseason Top 25 finished the year outside of the Top 25, while four schools (Michigan, Missouri, Michigan State, and Arizona) began the season unranked but finished up in the Top 25.
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Also, if your favorite school made the rankings, but isn’t nearly as high as you think it should be, you can still breathe easy. In last year’s final Top 25, four of the top 10 schools began the year ranked *outside* of the Top 10.
And one last note: Stanford, last year’s national champion, was never ranked higher than No. 7 in the AVCA rankings during the regular season. The Cardinal peaked at seventh in Week 6, and were actually ranked ninth heading into the NCAA tournament. But we all know how their season ended.
All of this is to say: this is a long season with so much going on! And there’s going to be movement. So fasten your seat belts.