|espnW.com: News & Opinion|
The journey that is the 2011 NCAA Division I women's volleyball season begins this week, heading toward its final destination, the Alamodome in San Antonio, for the national championship in mid-December.
Penn State has won four straight titles and could contend for a fifth. The Pac-12 is loaded with talent, boasting four teams (USC, Cal, Stanford and Washington) in the preseason top 10.
Texas, with 25 postseason tournament appearances in 28 years, is back in the mix, looking for a second national title. Florida, coming off a 29-2 season, promises to be a force from the South.
Here are five storylines to watch during the coming season:
1. The dynasty
The Penn State Nittany Lions, led by veteran coach Russ Rose, are one of college sports' most amazing success stories -- confirmed by four consecutive NCAA championships. Rose, who took over the program in 1979, owns a career coaching record of 1,033-164 and an .863 winning percentage, which ranks best in NCAA history.
At Penn State, Rose's teams have never posted worse than a 22-win season. In 32 seasons, he has coached 64 All-Americans, having at least one on his team every season except 2001. The 2008 national championship team, which went 38-0, featured six All-Americans.
"We had a great run," Rose said of the four straight titles. "And this year we have a team with little to minimal experience, and we know we are going to be in the pack. Our goals are to get better and see if we can be relevant late in the year."
Six players -- three of them four-year starters -- were lost to graduation from last year's championship team. The 2011 edition is young, with 13 freshmen or sophomores among the 17 players, but they still earned the No. 1 preseason ranking.
Sophomore Deja McClendon returns after a season that included national freshman of the year honors, a second-team All-American selection and a postseason performance that made her only the second freshman voted NCAA championship MVP.
2. Shake it up
Some of the sport's powers have shifted -- literally. Conference realignment could play a huge part in determining how this season shakes down.
Nebraska, ranked fifth in the preseason poll and a longtime power in the Big 12, is now in the Big Ten, where Penn State has long ruled the roost. Colorado also has bolted from the Big 12.
Utah left the Mountain West to take on the Pac-12, where California and USC are nationally ranked.
If ever a team was going to feel it was always in the wrong place at the wrong time, it would be the Cal Bears.
Just like Penn State with four consecutive NCAA titles, the Bears are riding an exceptional streak. During each of the four Penn State national championship runs, the Bears were eliminated in the playoffs by the Nittany Lions -- including last year's defeat in the national championship match.
Now, coming off last year's Pac-10 title, the Bears may be ready for the breakout season. Cal will begin play with a No. 3 preseason ranking.
"I think there's a better sense of belief in what we can accomplish," Cal coach Rich Feller told CalBears.com. "Prior to last year, we had gotten close but we hadn't gotten over the hump of getting to the national championship game. The process of getting there is such a huge deal.
"We know the systems we're using are good, the work ethic we've established is good and the culture that we have is good. This is really our second full year of this system and this style of play, and I think that will help us be just that much more comfortable from day one with it."
4. Women of Troy
After reaching the NCAA semifinals and finishing third in the Pac-10 last season, the USC Trojans return virtually intact, boasting five starters and their top libero back for 2011.
With three returning All-Americans in seniors Kendall Bateman (setter), Alex Jupiter (outside hitter) and Lauren Williams (middle blocker), the Women of Troy begin the season ranked second behind Penn State.
It should not take long to get a reading: USC begins play in the AVCA Showcase in University Park, Pa., against Penn State and No. 12 Minnesota.
The schedule also will include matches against No. 3 California, No. 6 Stanford, No. 7 Washington and No. 11 UCLA.
5. Gator to watch
Florida senior setter Kelly Murphy looks to dominate again after three straight All-American seasons and a 2010 selection as SEC Player of the Year. She was the league's only player last season to rank in the top 10 in kills per set, service aces per set and hitting percentage.
Ranked as the nation's top 2007 prep recruit coming out of Joliet (Ill.) Catholic Academy, Murphy became just the second Florida player to lead the SEC in aces per set during a single season. Ranked fourth in the SEC and 26th nationally with a .374 hitting efficiency, she also tallied seven triple-doubles last season, including three that came in three-set matches.