5 Burning Questions For The NCAA Women's Volleyball Season

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Micha Hancock, the most outstanding player of last year's NCAA tournament, will lead a top-ranked but young Penn State team.

When Penn State won the women's volleyball championship last December in Seattle, the top of the totem pole in this sport officially had co-residents. Both Penn State and Stanford now have six NCAA titles -- and look who starts the season ranked first and third, respectively, in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll.

Penn State has the top spot over No. 2 Texas, followed by Stanford. But considering the players the Nittany Lions lost and the youngsters they may need to rely on, it seems like that's expecting a lot from Penn State early on.

Then again, it is Penn State, the program that's definitely been the most dominant in recent years. The Nittany Lions have won five of their six championships since 2007. The most recent of Stanford's titles was a decade ago, in 2004. The Cardinal have not made it to the national semifinals since 2008.

Jeff Moreland/Icon SMI

Russ Rose, in his 36th season leading Penn State, isn't cutting his inexperienced team any slack.

But this might be Stanford's year to win it all again. The Cardinal were picked to win the Pac-12 in the preseason coaches' poll, and that league's favorite is always going to be prominent in the national-championship picture.

However, just one point behind Stanford in the Pac-12 poll is USC, another program that's typically right in the mix but which hasn't won the NCAA title since 2003.

As for the Longhorns, they won the national championship in 2012 and were the top seed in last year's NCAA tournament. But they ran into a hot team in Wisconsin in the national semis and lost 3-1. Now, Big 12 boss Texas is raring to go again.

The volleyball season gets started this weekend, and it includes some powerhouse matches, including No. 3 Stanford at No. 7 Nebraska on Sunday. Here are five questions about the upcoming season, which will conclude with the national semifinals and final in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Dec. 18-20.

Is Penn State going to win it all again?

Most coaches who lose three All-America starters and bring in eight freshmen are going to want it frequently acknowledged that they have a young team. But Penn State coach Russ Rose typically scoffs at such leniency. He figures the players are all young -- hey, they're all college kids, right? -- so there are no excuses.

But even if Rose -- starting his 36th season at Penn State's helm -- isn't willing to cut himself and the Nittany Lions any slack, we are. You don't lose the likes of hitters Deja McClendon and Ariel Scott and middle blocker Katie Slay and not feel it. They were just too good and too big a part of all that the Nittany Lions did the past four years, winning NCAA titles their freshman and senior seasons.

That said, Penn State does have its senior "quarterback" returning: Setter Micha Hancock was the most outstanding player of the NCAA championship. She's sort of the fire to Rose's ice, in terms of personality, and she will keep the blue-chip rookies on their toes while also encouraging them when they need it.

"As a setter, you have to know how to manage and talk to each player," Hancock said. "Who you can get after, who you need to be more polite with, or be more technical with. Not try to overload them."

The youngsters will get a good look at the reality of facing a fellow top-level team very early. After opening with three matches this weekend at home, Penn State travels to Stanford on Sept. 5-6 to play the Cardinal and UCLA.

It seems unrealistic to think the Nittany Lions will match or better last year's 34-2 mark, just because they probably will have some growing pains. But that doesn't mean they won't be right there by December. If not before.

How big are Texas' title hopes?

Texas' Haley Eckerman returned home from the volleyball championship last December and opted for an unpleasant viewing experience: the Longhorns' national semifinal loss to Wisconsin.

University of Texas Athletics Photography

Haley Eckerman and No. 2 Texas are ready to move on after a bitter loss to Wisconsin in last year's NCAA tournament.

"As soon as we got back, I started to watch it," Eckerman said. "I got through about a game and a half, and I had to stop watching and just delete it. I decided to put it in the past and work on what I needed to do to get better and help the team improve."

It took her coach, Jerritt Elliott, a few months to finally watch that match. He did make it all the way through, but probably didn't need to. He already knew a lot of what the Longhorns had done wrong, but also what the Badgers had done right.

Elliott thinks he learned some things about his team's ability to adjust and change tactics when things are unexpectedly not going well. That's something he can apply with the 2014 Longhorns, who have senior outside hitter Eckerman back as one of the best players in the country and definitely have hopes to compete for the NCAA title.

Texas lost standouts such as hitter Bailey Webster, the 2012 most outstanding player of the NCAA championship, and setter Hannah Allison. But the Longhorns are still loaded with talent and are expected to run a 6-2 system (utilizing two setters) for at least the early part of the season with sophomores Chloe Collins and Nicole Dalton setting.

Will Stanford reach its potential this year?

The Cardinal have been to the national semifinals 18 times, but not since 2008. That year, they lost their third consecutive championship match, losing to Penn State for the second straight year after having fallen to Nebraska in 2006.

Since then, the Cardinal have met with frustration at different levels of the NCAA tournament, including three losses to Michigan. Last year, it was another Big Ten team, Penn State, that took out Stanford. That was in a fantastic, championship-caliber match that was played in a regional final; the Nittany Lions won 3-2.

As disappointing as that was, though, Stanford middle blocker Inky Ajanaku didn't dwell on it.

"People got very emotional afterward," Ajanaku said. "But I was just thinking about what we could have done to win. I had my sights on next year pretty fast."

Now it is next year, and Ajanaku is part of a talented five-member junior class that could very well lead Stanford to a seventh title.

"We're really lucky, because we were put into a situation where we needed to mature quickly," Ajanaku said of how important her class was -- and how much playing time they got -- from freshman year on. "And I really love how [coach John Dunning] challenges us before we even start the Pac-12."

Indeed, the Cardinal's nonconference schedule has Iowa State, Nebraska, Penn State and Illinois all in the first 10 days of the season.

What should we expect from conference play?

Once again, the power leagues are the Big Ten and the Pac-12. Schools that currently are in those two conferences have won 14 of the past 15 NCAA titles, the exception being the Big 12's Texas in 2012.

University of Wisconsin

Recovered from last season's partially torn hamstring, talented Wisconsin sophomore Lauren Carlini should be even better this year.

OK, we're cheating a little, because we're counting Nebraska's 2000 and 2006 titles in that, and those came when the Huskers were still in the Big 12. Nonetheless, the Huskers are part of the mighty Big Ten now, and they are picked second behind Penn State in the league's preseason poll.

Wisconsin, last year's Cinderella team that made it all the way to the national championship match, is picked third in the Big Ten. The Badgers return sophomore setter Lauren Carlini, who already is one of the best players in the country.

"I think we'll see a player who is defensively better," Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said of Carlini, who played splendidly last season despite dealing with a partially torn hamstring. "Her injury last year was painful for her. Making some of the moves you have to do, especially defensively, it should be easier for her this year."

As for the Pac-12, No. 4-ranked Washington was voted third in the league behind Stanford and USC. The Huskies made the national semifinals last year at home in Seattle but ran out of gas against Penn State. This year, Washington is host to one of the regional sites, as are Iowa State, Minnesota and Louisville.

Outside of the big two leagues, the ACC and the SEC continue to make progress in the sport. Their respective preseason favorites are Florida and Florida State, who meet in a nonconference showdown Sept. 4 in Tallahassee.

And also keep an eye on:

• The Mountain West, whose preseason favorite, Colorado State, went 28-2 last season.

• The West Coast Conference, which has BYU and San Diego as its top teams coming into this season. The Cougars are ranked No. 9 nationally and are led by Jennifer Hamson, who got a lot of notice for her basketball skills last season, leading her team to the NCAA Sweet 16 in March. San Diego is ranked No. 14 nationally.

• The Big West, where favorite Hawaii is ranked No. 17 in the AVCA preseason poll.

Who will end up in Oklahoma City?

It's really hard to pick dark horses in volleyball, in part because there is still a disparity in the strength of conferences. Odds are that not that many observers were looking at Wisconsin going into last season's NCAA tournament, considering the Badgers had gone 12-8 in league play. But Big Ten coaches would have told you how dangerous Wisconsin was, because you can be a very good team and still lose eight matches in that league.

Then there is Missouri, which was a good team but realistically not as good as the Tigers' undefeated record made them look going into the tournament. At 35-0 after an 18-0 run through the SEC, they faced a Purdue team that had gone 11-9 in the Big Ten in the NCAA tournament second round. The Boilermakers won 3-1 on the Tigers' home court.

And you also have to add in how the tournament is set up year-to-year, with some regionals ending up overloaded with good teams and others providing substantially easier paths for the top seeds.

All in all, it makes predicting anybody but the favorites at this time of year a nearly impossible task. So ... we'll say there's a good chance you will see Penn State, Texas, and Stanford in Oklahoma City, and maybe Nebraska joins them.

By the way, while Oklahoma is not really known as a top-notch prep volleyball state, it can claim two of the best current players in college, both of whom hope to end this season back home. Penn State's Hancock is from Edmond, just outside Oklahoma City, and Stanford's Ajanaku is from Tulsa.

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