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ERIC OLSON AP Sportswriter
Preseason forecasts offer evidence of how difficult it is to separate the top teams in Big Ten women’s volleyball.
Nebraska is the No. 1 team in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll. No. 3 Wisconsin is the Big Ten coaches’ pick to win a fourth straight conference championship.
Wisconsin beat Nebraska in a five-set thriller for the 2021 NCAA championship, and no one would be surprised to see a rematch when the national semifinals and final are held in Omaha, Nebraska, in December.
“It was very heartbreaking to get to that point and not come out winning a championship,” Cornhuskers corner hitter Madi Kubik said. “But we have to see this season as a new beginning and a new year and a new group. We are very excited for the opportunity for this group and these people to work hard to get back to a place where we can win a national championship in Omaha.”
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No. 5 Minnesota and No. 7 Ohio State are other contenders for the Big Ten title, the deepest conference in women’s volleyball with seven teams in the top 25.
Second-ranked Texas, beaten by the Huskers in a regional final last year, has won the Big 12 in all but two seasons since Nebraska moved into the Big Ten in 2011.
No. 4 Louisville, No. 6 Pittsburgh and No. 9 Georgia Tech are the strongest teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and No. 8 Washington is the favorite to win a third straight Pac-12 title. . No. 11 Kentucky and No. 15 Florida are the only Southeastern Conference teams in the top 25.
Nebraska went 26-8 last season after recovering from a midseason hiatus of three losses in four games and is the preseason No. 1 for the first time since 2016.
Kubik averaged more than four kills per set in conference play and Lexi Rodriguez was the national rookie of the year and the Big Ten’s best defensive player. Kaitlyn Hord transferred from Penn State after being named to the All-Big Ten first team three years in a row.
“Everybody says we give everybody back,” Huskers coach John Cook said. “Let’s see, we’re replacing two mids, we’re replacing the setter. A third of our team is new.”
The Huskers play their first eight games in the state, including a matchup with No. 18 Creighton at Omaha on Sept. 7 and No. 14 Stanford at Lincoln on Sept. 13.
The regular season opens this weekend. Some other important teams to see:
Logan Eggleston leads a formidable core with Asjia O’Neal, Zoe Fleck and Madisen Skinner. Eggleston is the two-time reigning Big 12 Player of the Year and the 2022 preseason player of the year, O’Neal was an all-conference first-team selection, and Fleck was a two-time Pac-12 Libero of the Year for UCLA. Skinner transferred from Kentucky, where he led the team in kills.
The Cardinals went 28-0 in the regular season and won the ACC title en route to their first final four. Anna DeBeer, who led the Cardinals in kills, is among the four returning starters. Transfer from Southern California, Raquel Lázaro, takes over as usher.
The Gophers must replace Stephanie Samedy, a four-time first-team All-American, but bring back standout Jenna Wenaas and libero CC McGraw. The Gophers signed another top-10 recruiting class, including No. 1 overall player Mckenna Wucherer from Brookfield, Wisconsin, and earned four transfers.
Julia Orzol, Devyn Robinson, Anna Smrek and Danielle Hart have early experience and will be joined by six newcomers, including four high-ranking transfers. The bigger questions are finding a successor for five-year starting setter Sydney Hilley and replacing the production of 2021 national player of the year Dana Rettke.
The Huskies bring back standouts in fifth-year players Marin Grote, Claire Hoffman and Ella May Powell. Grote led the Pac-12 with a .415 shooting percentage and hit over .400 in 17 games. Hoffman fills out the stat sheet and was the first UW outside hitter to hit over .300 and lead the team in kills since 2016. Powell is a two-time Pac-12 setter of the year.
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