After I published my last article after the Sweet 16 lost, I had a discussion with one of my new readers. The reader said I was being too negative and that the volleyball team deserved more respect from me after all they accomplished this season. When someone criticizes me, I listen, and try to improve. I realized that yes, I was being too negative in that post and writing with a bitter taste in my mouth right after the game was a rookie mistake on my part. I’m not perfect, writing has never been my strength, and the volleyball team did deserve better than what I had written after the Sweet 16 game. (Heck, I even forgot about the 100+ dig team record set during the match!) So after finals were over, I set out to do a full season recap of the season. But work, family, and laziness got in my way. But here I am, nearly 3 weeks after the season ended for our Lady Boilers and almost 2 weeks since UCLA beat Illinois 3-1 for the National Title (that Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl is going to be a great rematch!), I finally got myself to write this recap, a recap that the volleyball team deserves.
Personally, I think that Purdue Volleyball is currently the most successful team during the Fall and Winter months at Purdue (I would say year round, but don't forget about the Women's Golf team winning the national title in 2010 and runners-up in 2011). Before you shot me for saying that, just remember that the volleyball team has made it to the Sweet 16 five of the last 7 years out of 6 tournament appearances, including 2010's run to the Elite 8. I may have dropped my math minor this semester, but I know that of the last 6 tournament appearances, the team has made it to the Sweet 16 83% of the time, compared to Painter's team that has made it 40% of the time and Sharon Versyp's team that has made it 50% of the time (though she does have 2 Elite 8 appearances since 2007). Dave Shondell has taken Purdue from a bottom feeder in the conference to one of the top teams in the Big Ten and Division I, and with the help of the Block Party, the IAF and Boiler Box has been one of the toughest venues in the nation, with Purdue only losing 4 games at home in the last 2 seasons (all to ranked opponents). The 2011 season was one of the best seasons in Purdue's history with multiple records broken, from wins, to kills, to digs, to even attendance. The ending was bitter, but the future looks sweet.
The season started off with high hopes, despite losing All American setter Jaclyn Hart and hitter Kristin Arthurs to graduation, as the team came off an impressive run to the Elite 8 the previous season. Carly Cramer, Ariel Turner and Tiffany Fisher were selected to the All-Big Ten Preseason Team, showing the conference and the country that Purdue was going to be a force to be reckoned with in 2011. Coach Dave Shondell also brought in a talented freshmen class with Val Nichol, Kierra "Kiki" Jones, and Kaisley Fisher (who I believe ended up redshirting this season), who were ready to make a sudden impact.
Purdue started off the season 14-0, its best start since the 1980s, defeating tournament teams Ball State, Cincinnati and Louisville in non-conference play, as well as handing Michigan its first loss of the season. But bad news came before the Louisville game when junior defensive specialist and libero Carly Cramer was lost to a stress fracture. Redshirt senior Blair Bashen was immediately placed at libero, a position she originally had before Cramer. It wasn't a smooth start for Blair, with ball control errors and poor digs hampering the team. But as the season progressed, her skills improved and soon broke digs records, as both her and senior Emily Ehlers both reached the 1,000 dig mark.
The first couple of weeks in October were a rough stretch for Purdue, as they started the month 1-3 and had fallen to a 3-3 conference record after losing to Illinois and Nebraska on the road and Penn State at home. But Shondell's squads don't break, they just bend and bounce right back, as Purdue went on to win 10 straight, including upsets over Illinois and Nebraska. Purdue closed out the regular season 27-4 and 16-4 in conference play, good for 2nd place and their best finish since 1987. Purdue went on to be a #5 seed in the NCAA Tournament and hosted the 1st and 2nd Rounds for the second straight year, and had little to no trouble with Morehead State and Louisville at home.
Purdue entered the Sweet 16 match up against #12 Florida State as favorites to move on to the Final Four. But this year, FSU was smelling an upset as the underdogs and they not only out-powered Purdue in the Sweet 16, they also went on to beat #4 Iowa State in the Elite 8 to become the first team in ACC history to advance to the Final Four. The loss left a bitter taste in everyone's mouth, especially the seniors as their careers fell short of the ultimate goal. But alas, we cannot judge the season by the end, but by what was accomplished from August until December as the team finished with a 29-5 record.
There were so many positives this year, but I think the one thing that sticks out is junior hitter Ariel Turner. After the season was complete, Ariel was named 1st team All-American as well as all-Mideast Region, All-Big Ten and Big Ten Player of the Year after earning 5 Big Ten Player of the Week awards (tied for 1st all-time). Ariel ranked 6th nationally with kills per set (4.84), 3rd in points per set (5.46) and led the Big Ten in both categories. She also broke the team record of hitting attempts with 1,682 and was 2nd on the team with 2.84 digs per set; posted 32 double digit kills out of 34 matched and had 17 double-doubles for kills and digs. Let's not forget that after the season was over, Ariel was also named Academic All-American; she is a Mechanical Engineering major, and from what I heard is also in the honors program (I guess I better stop complaining about my math classes now). Coach Shondell always called Turner the "cerebral" player, and it shows on and off the court. Just watching Ariel play the last 3 years, I noticed she doesn't hit the ball hard like other hitters in the conference, but she hits it smart and is always able to find that open spot on the floor to get the kill. And the best part is, she still has one more year to play.
Another positive was the senior class with Blair Bashen, Emily Ehlers, and Tiffany Fisher. This group had a rough season in 2009, but was able to finish off their careers with the 2010 Elite 8 run and the 2011 season. I may have been critical of some of them throughout the season for not playing like seniors should, but overall, this class has one of the largest amounts of wins for a single class that will hopefully be broken by next year's seniors. The 3 of them never gave up when fellow teammates were lost to injuries, when their team was trying to climb up a steep and slippery slope, and even when no one gave Purdue any respect. They have rewritten the record books at Purdue as both Ehlers and Bashen reached the 1,000 dig mark each and with Tiffany Fisher earning unanimous All-Big Ten honors and Honorable All-American honors.
One of the biggest holes to fill from last season was that left by All-American setter Jaclyn Hart who was lost to graduation. We saw our first glimpse of Rachel Davis against Texas in the Elite 8 game in 2010 when Hart was injured. It was not smooth, as the team's "quarterback" was unfortunately not prepared for such a fierce battle. That game gave Rachel motivation to improve for the 2011 season, as she worked hard to fill in the gap left by Hart. As soon as the season began, it was almost as if Hart never left and Rachel Davis acted like Hart 2.0; she even went on to be the Active Ankle Challenge MVP during non-conference play. Personally, I feel like the setter can be invisible to the fans, as we all see the blocks, digs and attacks, but we almost take the setter for granted, even though they are such a key component of the game. But just like Hart, Davis made sure she wasn't invisible to the fans with those surprise attacks when it seemed like she was going for the assist. Davis even went on to earn National Player of the Week during the season for her success at the setter position, and we still get to see Rachel Davis play for two more seasons.
The last big positive from the season was the freshmen class, mostly Kierra "Kiki" Jones and Val Nichol as Kaisley Fisher redshirted. Shondell worked the two into the system very effectively and we even got to see the two of them start on a few occasions during Big Ten play and in the postseason. Val and Kiki made their mark throughout the season, and we even got to see Kiki's impressive dance moves whenever she made a huge play. Kiki will continue her career to be a great middle blocker, and honestly Val looks like she could be Turner 2.0 as she progresses.
The 2011 season was great, but unfortunately, there were significant weaknesses that came up multiple times throughout the season, especially in the Florida State and Penn State games. The main problem would have to be ball control, especially after Carly Cramer was lost to injury. When Purdue lost those 3 matches in October and in the Sweet 16, Purdue had a tough time controlling the ball, costing the team points and did not allow them to attack properly. From poor digs to bad sets to bad attacks, it was a weakness that was easily exposed when Purdue could not successfully control the opposing team's attack. There are just 3 rules in volleyball: don't let the ball hit your side of the floor, get it over the net in 3 hits, and get it to land in between the lines on your opponent's floor, and it was the first 2 that Purdue struggled with during the season. FSU will leave a bitter mark on the team's mind about this issue, but I am positive that the team can significantly improve on it during the offseason with the return of Carly Cramer, and they were able to improve it during the 10 game win streak.
Another problem was relying on Ariel Turner too much. Probably a few of you (if you are still reading at this point) might have gasped when I said this. No one can deny how great Ariel Turner is, heck I wrote a bunch about her awesomeness a few paragraphs ago, but as we saw especially against Penn State and Florida State, when Ariel Turner is shut down, the whole team shuts down. Teams are going to focus on the best players in any sport, but it is the great teams that have a multitude of great players that are ready to step up when one or two are shut down. We saw that though FSU was able to stop Ariel, they had no answer for Tiffany Fisher. However, we need more than one player to fill in when Turner gets shut down. Purdue's opponents next season are not going to ignore Turner (and those who do will greatly regret it) and will do everything they can to stop her. It is extremely important for the team to rely on their other hitters next year such as Catherine Rebarchak, Val Nichol, Kiki Jones, Katie Griffen and Anna Drewry to not only play alongside Ariel, but also fill in when Turner is stopped.
Looking ahead to 2012
Next season, the conference will be B1Gger and better (see what I did there?), and with the potential of a Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge as soon as next season with Wednesday's announcement, the 2012 season could have a very exciting start. Though we lose Blair, Emily and Tiffany to graduation, Purdue brings in another top recruiting class with Faye Adelaja, Annie Drews and Sam Epenesa to go along with all the returners like Turner, Cramer, and Nichol. With Purdue Volleyball being this exciting, the home crowd has improved tremendously with multiple sell outs and a louder Block Party. Next season, the Boiler Box will be rocking all year round as Purdue prepares for a Final Four run. The road to the Final Four will be a little bit easier, as Purdue can have the advantage of hosting 4 tournament games as the West Lafayette Regional (Sweet 16 and Elite 8) will be hosted inside Mackey Arena for the 2012 NCAA Tournament. It has been great to see volleyball getting more attention this year on Hammer and Rails and throughout campus. I hope to see not only an overflowing Block Party every game next season, but hopefully we can get more H&R readers to experience Purdue Volleyball next season (especially Mr. T-Mill himself). The 2012 season is poised to be even greater than the 2011 season, and despite the 2011 season ending on a bitter note, momentum is already building for the Road to Louisville in 2012.