Five volleyball players to watch
Volleyball is the ultimate team game. And, as the NCAA tournament gets underway Thursday, you'll see the almost uncanny synchronicity of the nation's best teams.
Singling out individual players to watch is difficult, especially when they'd be the first to tell you how important everybody else on the floor is. Still, here are five of the very best players in the country you'll want to keep an eye on this postseason.
Four of them were their league's player of the year; another is a past most outstanding player at the final four. They are all aiming for the same thing: the chance to lift the trophy in Seattle on Dec. 21.
Haley Eckerman, Texas
An Iowa native, Eckerman knew Texas was for her as soon as she visited Austin. It's been a great partnership. She was recently named the Big 12's player of the year for the second season in a row. In 2011, she was the league's freshman of the year.
A 6-foot-3 junior outside hitter, Eckerman helped lead the Longhorns to last year's NCAA title, and now she hopes for a repeat. Texas went undefeated in Big 12 play for the first time in 2013, and, at 23-2 overall, earned the No. 1 seed in the NCAA bracket.
Eckerman was responsible for a team-high 425 points this year, including 371 kills. On a team with a lot of weapons, she is pretty much the deadliest. Six times this season, she had 20 or more kills.
Texas has never lost an NCAA first-round match (26-0), and the Longhorns will face Texas State in the opener Friday in Austin. Cheering on the Longhorns and Eckerman will be her 3-year-old son, Cayden, who is her biggest fan.
Deja McClendon, Penn State
She was a freshman in 2010 when the Nittany Lions won the program's fourth consecutive NCAA title. Even though she was a rookie surrounded by seniors, McClendon was chosen the most outstanding player.
She'd tell you now that she barely knew the game then because she has learned so much since. A 6-1 senior outside hitter from Louisville, Ky., McClendon came to Penn State as a stellar athlete but will be leaving as a well-rounded volleyball player.
She had 305 kills and 290 digs this season as Penn State won the Big Ten and earned the No. 2 NCAA seed. McClendon's improvement on defense has been outstanding, and she also has become a leader for the Nittany Lions (28-2), who face LIU Brooklyn in the first round Friday.
Last year, McClendon had a chance to win another NCAA title, this one in her hometown of Louisville. But Penn State -- which didn't play as well after setter Micha Hancock was injured in the semifinals -- lost to Oregon. Hancock, a junior, is also back this season to try to win her first NCAA title, and she'll be setting McClendon a lot in her quest to do that.
Krista Vansant, Washington
A powerful 6-2 hitter, Vansant was named Pac-12 Player of the Year. She's the third Huskies star to receive the honor of being named the league's best, and the first since 2006, when the conference was still the Pac-10.
Vansant averages 4.31 kills per set and has a .318 hitting percentage. She was the league's freshman of the year in 2011. This season, she really became a complete player for the Huskies, who finished first in the Pac-12 and are the No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Vansant, a junior from Redlands, Calif., had 422 kills and 262 digs this season. She set the tone for the Huskies, who have a big goal in mind. Seattle is the host city for the NCAA final four later this month, so this year has been a "target" season for the Huskies. They really want the chance to play for an NCAA title in Seattle.
They will open NCAA tournament play at home, facing Alabama State. They might encounter No. 6 seed USC on the Trojans' home court in the regional final. The Huskies beat the Trojans 3-1 in both of their regular-season matchups, with Vansant combining for 43 kills in those two matches.
Molly Kreklow, Missouri
Adding to the glow of a perfect regular season, the 34-0 Tigers also have their first conference player of the year. That's Kreklow, a masterful setter who earned the SEC's honor in Mizzou's second season in the league.
Kreklow, a 6-0 senior from Delano, Minn., came to Missouri to play for her uncle, Wayne Kreklow. He was named SEC Coach of the Year, and the Tigers also have the conference's freshman of the year, defensive specialist Carly Kan.
Molly Kreklow has been a starter her entire career at Mizzou and will leave as one of the best "quarterbacks" in program history. She has 5,278 career assists -- just the second Tiger to top 5,000 -- and has directed an MU offense that is one of the most effective and efficient in the country. The Tigers lead the nation in hitting percentage (.362).
Kreklow and fellow senior Lisa Henning -- who is the Tigers' career leader in kills with 1,767 -- have a 96-36 record in their time at MU. The No. 4-seed Tigers are early-round hosts for the NCAA tournament and get underway Friday against IUPUI.
Kelsey Robinson, Nebraska
Robinson's Huskers career will last just one season, but she has sure made the most of it, including being named Big Ten Player of the Year. Even though her time in Lincoln, Neb., will be short, she will be remembered by Huskers fans.
A transfer to Nebraska after three years with Tennessee, the 6-2 outside hitter was an offensive and defensive stalwart for the 23-6 Huskers. They are the No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament and open Friday against Fairfield.
Robinson, from Bartlett, Ill., led Nebraska with 481 kills and 356 digs. Although she is an elite hitter at the college level, she also has worked out with USA Volleyball at the libero position, which further illustrates her athletic versatility.
Despite being new to the team, Robinson as a senior was put in an immediate leadership role for a very young Huskers group. She adjusted so well that it's easy to see now that Nebraska was probably always the right fit for her. But better late than never.
Nebraska finished second in the Big Ten to Penn State, and the Huskers won't have to leave the state to make it to the final four -- although they might have to beat No. 1 seed Texas to get there. The Huskers host the early rounds and a regional in their new home, the Devaney Center.