It's been a crazy offseason for Purdue Volleyball.
After their loss to Texas in last year's NCAA Tournament, five seniors graduated, including three starters. Two more players transferred, both likely starters. And, while the coaches tried to retool the team to compete in another rigorous Big Ten season, Holloway Gymnasium flooded as a result of a pipe leak, ruining their facility.
Even with all those changes, the program acquired three freshmen and one transfer and was hard at work all summer lifting, training and running camps. Practices started earlier this week, and the team just completed its first preseason scrimmage, and intrasquad match held at West Lafayette High School yesterday.
This iteration of the Purdue Volleyball team won't look like past teams. Familiar faces such as Annie Drews, Amanda Neill, Val Nichol, Kiki Jones, and Ariel Turner are long gone. With a roster of only 13 players, you'll see brand new players having to contribute seriously to this team, plus players at unfamiliar positions having to develop new components of their game. After yesterday's scrimmage, we have a decent idea of what the starting lineup will look like.
One position that never had any doubt surrounding it was the starting setter position. Redshirt junior Ashley Evans returns to the role after commanding a potent offense last year, which will help tremendously to ease the transition between last year's and this year's lineups. She's already learning to take more control of the offense, to be more aggressive in the frontcourt, and diversify the setting options based on this new-look lineup we'll see this year.
The other obvious starter is fifth year senior Faye Adelaja at one of the middle blocker positions. Adelaja is undoubtedly the leader of this team, statistically and emotionally. Undersized for a Big Ten middle, she uses elite speed to hit for extremely high efficiency numbers and changes the flow of matches by blocking the ball. Expect to see a lot of her attacking the ball when she's in the game.
The two outside hitter positions were a revolving door last year, but after the aforementioned graduations and transfers, junior Azariah Stahl is the only remaining true, natural outside hitter on the roster. A gifted athlete at the offensive end, she's also worked hard on her serve receive skills in the offseason, and will likely have to pass the ball in all six rotations this year. Her ability to control the ball at a high level will be absolutely critical to this team's success, as opponents will relentlessly target her from the service line if she struggles.
The other outside hitter position will be filled by the extremely athletic junior, Danielle Cuttino. Making the switch from the middle blocker position has forced her to learn new approach timings and focus hard on being in rhythm with the ball, but when she's on, she'll be absolutely unstoppable on the left side. Her vertical reach enables her to hit over most blockers in the Big Ten, which is impossible to account for defensively. Also, despite not being in the serve receive pattern, she'll likely play all six rotations due to her threatening back row attacking ability. If one singular player from this team is ever going to take over a match, it's Cuttino.
The other middle blocker position is likely to be filled by redshirt freshman Blake Mohler. Mohler, who's also capable at opposite, grew a lot in her redshirt season in practices in terms of her blocking game and generally seeing the game at a higher level. She's a versatile attacking option in front of and behind the setter, off one foot or two. If the team can pass the ball well enough to keep her and Adelaja involved in the offense, their chances of success are much higher.
The opposite position will be filled by redshirt sophomore transfer Sherridan Atkinson, from Long Beach State University. At 6'5", Atkinson matches up with absolutely anyone in the Big Ten in terms of size. Her volleyball skill set and athleticism have already developed a lot since she arrived on campus in January, but she still has a long way to go to be the threat that she wants to be. She's capable of shutting down hitters on the blocking end, but needs to improve her jump timing and range when she attacks the ball.
Filling Amanda Neill's shoes, and jersey number, at the libero position will be true freshman Natalie Haben. Haben was an extremely highly rated libero prospect, and backed up that praise with outstanding play in the first week of practice. Her vision of the game and defensive reactions combined with her ball control skill and overall athleticism make her the ideal candidate to fill the libero spot. When she learns how to really captain the serve receive unit and play under Big Ten levels of pressure, we could see an All-American libero by the end of her career.
Playing the back row for Atkinson will likely be redshirt sophomore Carissa Damler. Damler has worked hard on her serve receive, and has become one of the team's elite defenders. She's also a great teammate, and will be important to the ball control unit's success.
The team is not without injuries, even less than a week into the season. Redshirt freshman middle blocker Shavona Cuttino played in the scrimmage yesterday, but couldn't fully swing due to an abdominal strain. Sophomore defensive specialist Brooke Peters had stitches in her thigh on Wednesday after running into a treadmill in Cardinal Court, the men's basketball gym, trying to make a defensive play. She shouldn't be out more than two weeks.
Peters and junior defensive specialist Linnea Rohrsen will be the answers if either outside hitter needs a back row substitute for serve receive reasons. Shavona Cuttino, when healthy, has a weird and unconventional way of scoring a ton of points, so it's possible that she sees time at middle and Blake Mohler moves to opposite for some matches. The two other freshmen are setter Lexi Dorn and defensive specialist Olivia Van Zelst, both of whom will likely redshirt barring injury to Evans. Both of those players are raising the level of practices really impressively for freshmen.
In terms of overall strengths of this team, they have the athletes at the hitting positions to really score a lot of points against anyone in the country. Ashley Evans at the setting position should be a strength with her full year of experience. Also, a lot can be said about the atmosphere in Holloway Gymnasium and how it can help the team's emotions and momentum. They'll need all the help they can get from the home crowd this year.
If any of you have been watching indoor volleyball in the Olympics this summer, on either the men's or women's side, you probably noticed that success is almost always dictated by serving and passing. If you can pass the ball well enough to run your full offense, you'll likely win. If you serve the ball well enough to keep the other team from running their offense, you'll likely win. Struggle in these areas, and you'll likely lose. That's just how the game is at the highest levels.
Purdue's serving and passing are looking much more like weaknesses than strengths right now, and if they don't improve, we may be in for a long season. Head coach Dave Shondell likes to talk about the three components of defense: serving, blocking, and digging. To explain, serving is a defensive tactic in that it seeks to cause poor passing, and therefore limiting the opposing offense's speed and options. Blocking and digging are a complicated, connected set of systems that require trust, execution, and high level understanding to apply at the Big Ten level. Purdue needs a lot of improvement in all three of these defensive areas.
The AVCA ranked Purdue 20th in the preseason rankings, which are generally pretty arbitrary. Considering the team's losses through graduation and transfer, and not enough roster additions at the right positions, I think that ranking is extremely generous. Other ranked Big Ten teams include reigning national champions Nebraska at 1, Minnesota at 3, Wisconsin at 4, Penn State at 9, Illinois at 14, Ohio State at 15, and both Michigan and Michigan State in the honorable mentions. With that many top ranked powerhouses in conference, it's going to take some serious upsets to finish in the top half this year.
The redesigned and fantastic looking Holloway Gymnasium floor should be done by the end of this week, in time to host the annual Alumni match at 6 PM on Saturday, August 20th. The weekend after that, the non-conference schedule begins with the Mortar Board Premier, a four-team round robin tournament consisting of Purdue, #24 Kentucky, Washington State, and Wyoming. The following weekend, September 2-3, Purdue will travel to South Bend to play Howard, Coastal Carolina and Notre Dame in the Shamrock Invitational. The team will then make a trip out to Palo Alto, California to play Stanford and Cal Poly on September 9-10. September 16-17 will mark the second annual Stacey Clark Classic, hosted at Purdue and named for Stacey Clark, a tremendous supporter of the program who passed away from pancreatic cancer months after seeing the tournament named in her honor last year. After that, four straight home matches open up the Big Ten conference season.
I had my doubts about this team's potential entering this year, but I've been impressed by the first week of practice and the intrasquad scrimmage yesterday. This team will continue to improve all year long, but will struggle to reach the level of last year's NCAA Tournament team.