The Boilermaker Volleyball team had a productive spring season of practice and competition, and whether you kept up with the competition results or not, I have some inside analysis for you that you can't get anywhere else in preparation for the fall season.
Shortly after the fall season ended with a disappointing exclusion from the NCAA tournament, the players launched into intense individual workouts in the weight room and the practice gym. Full team practices started just after spring break, and the team competed against Illinois State, Butler, IUPUI, Western Kentucky, Xavier, Louisville, and Indiana.
Also, in early February, six players participated in tryouts for various levels of the USA National Team, including opposite Annie Drews, middle blocker Danielle Cuttino, setters Lydia Dimke and Ashley Evans, libero Amanda Neill, and outside hitter Azariah Stahl. Evans was selected to the Collegiate National Team to tour China this summer, and Neill and Stahl were named to a different Collegiate National Team that will compete in New Orleans this summer.
Defensive Specialist and Avon, Indiana native Brooke Peters forewent the second semester of her senior year of high school to enroll at Purdue and join the team in practice and games. Last season's team lost setter Val Nichol and middle blocker Kiki Jones to graduation, but retained them in the practice gym for the spring. Freshman outside hitter Christina Ambrose decided to transfer closer to home to Florida State University after a redshirted freshman season where she never seemed to fit in to the Purdue system in practice. This left the team with 14 players for the spring season, but only two true outside hitters, Stahl and Sam Epenesa.
In addition to Peters, the fall class of freshmen includes 6'2" middle blocker/opposite Blake Mohler from Ocean Springs, Mississippi, and 6'1" outside hitter Alexa Smith from Monument, Colorado. Smith was named a first team Under Armour All-American, the 2014 Volleyball Magazine National Player of the Year and has significant USA Youth and U20 National Team experience, and should make an immediate impact at Purdue. Mohler was named to the second All-America team and set all kinds of school and state records in the state of Mississippi throughout her career. Rumor has it that Danielle Cuttino's younger sister, middle blocker Shavona, might be joining the team in the fall, but that has yet to be confirmed.
The starting lineup for the fall still has a lot of questions. The "locks" for now are senior Amanda Neill as the incumbent libero, quick, athletic junior middle blocker Faye Adelaja, and powerful, left-handed senior opposite Annie Drews. Defensive specialist Kate Workman will almost definitely play the back row for one of the outside hitters as well. The rest of the lineup will be determined through competition in practice in the fall.
The most important player on a volleyball team is the setter, and Purdue has two very good and capable setters, Lydia Dimke and Ashley Evans. Dimke, a freshman, saw time last year in a 6-2 system with Val Nichol, but control of the offense was never truly hers. Evans has never set for the Boilers but saw tons of time at outside hitter last year. Both players were hitters turned setters in their late high school and club careers, which leaves the possibility for a 6-2 where they each set and hit three rotations (which would likely move Annie Drews to the left side), but the coaching staff likes Drews's back row attacking enough to commit to one setter in a 5-1.
A setter's most important characteristic is consistently locating the ball where the hitters need it, and this requires a lot of chemistry and connection between the setter and her hitters. In practice, Evans seems to connect better with middle attackers while Dimke sets the pin hitters better, but Evans shows more of an ability to adapt to a hitter's location preference. As six rotation players, they also have to be able to block, defend, and be an attacking threat. Dimke's block is definitely the better of the two, Dimke has a slight edge in defensive ability, and Evans has a more threatening dump attack. I think Evans understands how to run an offense better; she understands hitters' abilities and confidence in a match and how blocking schemes affect her set choices. She also has a vicious jump serve, a natural leadership quality and will to improve that will make it impossible to keep her off the court. My prediction is that Evans will start game 1 in the fall, but both players will definitely see time.
The lack of availability of outside hitters this spring spawned an interesting experiment: Danielle Cuttino as a left side hitter. Cuttino is an absolute athletic anomaly: she's 6'4" and touches 10'9", a ridiculous asset at any position. Her attacking is practically unstoppable at any point on the floor due to how high she touches, but she lacks polished volleyball skill in just about every area of the game. I have no doubt that she can hit high balls on the left side over and around every block in the nation, but there's much more to being an outside hitter, like playing off-blocker defense, blocking, serve receive, and ability to adapt to out of system situations. She had some success as a middle last season, but it's harder to get her the ball there and her lack of lateral quickness leaves something to be desired in the blocking game. She'll absolutely see a lot of court time in the fall, but it will be interesting to see at what positions.
Sam Epenesa has worked very hard on her serve receive over her career to become a six-rotation player, which saves two substitutions per six rotations. The team tended to run out of substitutions in close sets in the fall, so this could be a big factor in how much she plays. Stahl is an unbelievable athlete with a spectacular vertical jump, but she struggles against a well formed double block on an out of system, high set. Incoming freshman Alexa Smith tore her labrum in her hitting shoulder in early April and had successful surgery, but won't be 100% by the start of the season. The competition for the outside hitter spots will surely produce two excellent players in the fall.
The other middle blocker spot is a toss-up between redshirt senior Kaisley Fisher, Danielle Cuttino (depending on what position she settles into), incoming freshman Blake Mohler, and potentially incoming freshman Shavona Cuttino. That battle will take place right away in August.
As aforementioned, Amanda Neill will likely start at libero again, and Kate Workman will almost certainly see time as a defensive specialist for one of the outside hitters, but there's a legion of talented defensive players itching to see court time as well. Freshmen Linnea Rohrsen, Carissa Damler, Burgundy Price, and Brooke Peters will likely all see time as defensive substitutes for hitters in various situations. Those positions are all about effort and coming up with big defensive plays.
As far as the competition results from the spring, the season started with a 4-0 sweep of Illinois State at home. Illinois State was an NCAA tournament team last fall, and is a common first or second round matchup for a Big Ten team in the tournament, so a sweep is a comfortable result in that match. A win on the road at Butler followed, to lead into the Indy Collegiate Invitational, where the team went 5-3 in sets. The Boilers beat IUPUI 2-0, then split matches 1-1 with rising rival Western Kentucky, Xavier, and Louisville.
The last match was at home against Indiana a couple weekends ago, which I was able to be at. The teams played 5 sets, and Purdue won each by 7 points or more. We saw samples of 5-1 offenses of both setters, plus a 6-2 in the fifth set. Adelaja and Cuttino started at middle all five sets, as did Epenesa and Stahl at outside hitter. All of the defensive players played exceptionally well.
IU was completely outmatched in the blocking, attacking, and serve/serve receive matchups. Purdue's serve receive was on point the whole match, allowing for easy in-system options for the setters to give their hitters high percentage opportunities. Purdue was also able to put on a lot of pressure from the service line, scoring points on aces and keeping the Hoosiers' offense out of sync. The offense hit very efficiently, which has been a big point of emphasis for the coaching staff. The pin hitters chose smart, high shots on out of system plays and almost never made errors while scoring at a high percentage. Against a lesser opponent, this looked like a well-oiled machine.
With a freshman class this talented, and a team with this much experience, it's safe to have high expectations of this team in the fall. Depending on how the team comes together chemistry-wise, they could make a deep run into the NCAA tournament. Follow the team on Facebook and Twitter and get pumped for August!