Before I start out this preview, I want to give a shout out to Rachel Van Gessel, who will be stepping in and covering the volleyball team the rest of the season. It is not an easy sport to cover, mainly because we are one of the few sites that cover Purdue Volleyball. SBN blogs for Penn State and Nebraska also do a fine job covering their volleyball squads, which is no surprise given their national power and influence. Luckily for us, Purdue is rising as a national power. All that's left is to break two glass ceilings: a final four appearance and a national title. Could Purdue break one or both of those ceilings this year?
Last year for Purdue:
The non-conference schedule got off to a rough start against tough opponents for Purdue, who fell to then #5 USC at home 3-1 in their season opener. After falling to Western Kentucky in 5 sets, Purdue went on to win their next 8 matches to finish the non-con 9-2 (they did lose to the Polish Professional Team 3-1 in South Bend, but that was an exhibition). But as soon as they started Big Ten play, Purdue ran into a brick wall, being swept on the road by Wisconsin and Minnesota in consecutive nights. After coming back home and splitting matches with Ohio State (W), Penn State (L), Illinois (W), and Northwestern (L), Purdue had started the Big Ten season a rough 2-4. Granted, it was against some of the best teams in the conference, but it's never good to be swept in consecutive nights and to start out conference play under 0.500.
However, Purdue began to bounce back, highlighted by defeating #8 Nebraska 3-1 in Lincoln. This gave Nebraska their first ever loss in the Devaney Center. That's huge, folks. After defeating Michigan in Ann Arbor, Purdue looked good and unstoppable sitting at 6-4. But then, Purdue would go 1-5 in their next 6 matches, with only a 5 set win against Wisconsin giving them a shining light in all the loses. However, once again after sweeping Nebraska at home, Purdue would finish the regular season winning their last 4 games finishing the season 20-11 and 11-9 in conference play. Purdue’s struggles throughout the season cost them a seed for the second straight year, but that didn’t stop them from making noise in the tournament.
Purdue would go on to sweep Central Arkansas in the First Round of the tournament, which was no surprise given how dominant the volleyball team, and most Purdue squads, are in the first round. Purdue then entered the 2nd round facing host and undefeated #4 Missouri. On paper and those with little volleyball knowledge, this would have looked like a guaranteed Mizzou victory, but it was anything but a sure win for the Tigers. Purdue came out firing on all cylinders and took down the SEC champs, proving once again that the B1G is better. Purdue would then go on to sweep host Illinois in the Sweet 16, before falling to eventual runner’s up Wisconsin in the Elite 8 3-1. The graduating seniors left Purdue as one of the best, if not the best, class ever in Purdue history, having reached the Sweet 16 all four seasons and reaching the Elite 8 twice.
What to Expect this Season
Though Purdue lost a talented group of seniors, their expectations remain high, especially with the #3 recruiting class coming in this year. Trips to the Sweet 16 and even the Elite 8 aren't good enough anymore. This team wants to go to the Final Four. Shondell's squad knows they can achieve it, and many in the volleyball community can see it too, especially with the #8 preseason ranking. It certainly will not be easy, but it can be done. So who is leading the way?
Purdue has two very talented seniors with Val Nichol and Kiki Jones. I remember when they came in as freshmen in 2011 and made a huge impact on that Sweet 16 team. Kiki is an electrifying middle blocker who can shut down almost any attack in the Big Ten. Val started off as solely an outside hitter, but in 2012 Shondell began a 2 setter formation, with her and now graduated setter Rachel Davis as rotating setters. It got off to a rough start, but Val was able to learn the ropes of being a setter in the Big Ten, and took a lot of pressure off Davis. Though 2 more setters come in with this freshmen class, expect Nichol to continue as setter, an extremely vital position in volleyball.
The juniors come in with even more expectations. DS Amanda Neill is expected to be the libero this year, taking over Carly Cramer's position. Carly left big shoes to fill, but the Lafayette local has had two years to mold into the role, and is ready to make some noise. Outside hitters Annie Drews and Sam Epenesa look to continue their killing streak. Epenesa played a great role last season, even earning the final point in the Sweet 16 match up against Illinois. Drews has been an amazing player since she arrived in West Lafayette, always tricking the opponent with her left hand swing. Kaisley Fisher is a bit of an unknown at the moment, given that she redshirted in 2011, did not see much time in 2012, and did not play in 2013 due to a torn ACL (a Purdue player with a torn ACL, surprise surprise).
The two sophomores come in as redshirt sophomores. Both Faye Adelaja and Kate Workman haven't made the much of an impression in the stats book, but have come in crucial moments and made big plays for the Boilermakers. Expect Workman to play major minutes this season to help in the back court, while Adelaja may play the same amount of minutes as last year, if not hopefully more, she should be expected to come in and still make big plays when needed. She was a big reason why Missouri could never get a run going against Purdue in the Sweet 16, blocking many of their attacks and 'kill'ing their momentum. DS Bridget Powell was supposed to be in this class, but left after the 2013 season and transferred to the University of Illinois at Chicago, but did not join their volleyball team (she is originally from the Chicagoland area).
This year, the freshman class is HUGE. The lone freshman from last years squad, Ashley Evans, used her redshirt last year as well, making this year's class even bigger. The freshmen class is made of 8, yes EIGHT, players: 2 setters, 3 defensive specialists, 1 middle blocker, and 3 outside hitters (Lydia Dimke is both a setter and outside hitter so she was counted twice, and no she does not work for Madrigal from Breaking Bad).
The incoming freshmen rank #3 of all recruiting classes in the country, and word on the street is that they are playing well along with the veterans and look to play some serious minutes this season. As for who plays, I really couldn't tell you. Shondell could use two setters to prepare for Nichol's graduation, but as for if Dimke or Evans takes that second spot is beyond me. I do expect to see Price, Damler, and/or Rohrsen in the back court with Neill and Workman, as there is always a serious need for a good defense. Stahl or Ambrose could also see sometime as outside hitters, giving Drews and Epenesa a break. Unless Cuttino shows serious promise early on, the middle blockers should be set with Kiki, Adelaja, and Fisher.
Though the schedule looks tough, I expect, along with the volleyball team, to make some serious noise this year. It is possible for Purdue to enter B1G Conference play undefeated, which will be a huge boost as they face Michigan and Michigan State at home to open up conference play. After last year's seniors graduated, no one on the current squad has defeated Penn State. That needs to change this year. Purdue went 2 decades between their last 2 victories over the Nittany Lions, and Purdue only gets one shot at them this year. Luckily, it's at home and on national TV. The Lions will come out giving everything they got like they always do, but I think now is the time for Purdue to slay the Lions once more. Purdue's schedule does end on an ugly note, with road trips to Minnesota, Michigan State, and Wisconsin. Unlike previous seasons where the team was able to build up momentum before the tournament, these games could kill it. Granted, if Purdue wins even one of these games, it could be a huge boost.
Ultimately, I expect Purdue to finish the regular season with a Top 16 seed, which means the 1st and 2nd rounds will be hosted at Purdue. This year, the four regional sites are Ames (Iowa), Seattle, Louisville, and Minneapolis. The last time Purdue traveled to Minneapolis for a regional, they fell in the Sweet 16 to eventual Final 4 team Florida State in 2011. That season began much like this one, with very high expectations and a high preseason rank after a surprising run to the Elite 8 the previous year. Purdue looks to burst through this year and defend their current ranking and finally break through into the Final 4 for the first time in school history.
Purdue opens up the 2014 season this Friday against South Florida at 10am and #14 San Diego at 7:30pm. I will be attending the San Diego game, and if you are spending Friday night in West Lafayette for the football game, I highly suggest you attend. Just like Mackey, the IAF (or as we like to call it, the Boiler Box) will get loud. They also play LSU Saturday night, who appeared in last year's tournament. You can usually get discounted tickets for a Saturday game with your football ticket stub, so I suggest you stick around.
We are looking forward to a great year of Boilermaker Volleyball.