Northeastern High School's Bobcats hold homecoming festivities

Volleyball championship run makes it hard to pick against Penn State women

Associated Press

The loss of two All-Americans and two other senior mainstays would foretell a rebuilding season for almost any volleyball team.

Not Penn State.

"Right now," Stanford coach John Dunning said, "it's Penn State against everybody else. Until a few more teams beat them, how could you not pick them No. 1 preseason, winning as much as they have the last five or six years? I'm fine with it. I voted for them. It's where they should be."

The Nittany Lions have won six of the last eight national championships and are 270-23 since 2007. The "down" years were 2012, when they lost in the national semifinals, and 2011, when they lost in the regional semifinals.

Coach Russ Rose, entering his 37th season at Penn State and the all-time winningest Division I coach, said there's no secret to his ongoing success.

"Culture impacts things, and a university enables you to compete at a high level," he said, "but at the end it comes down to the kids who are in uniform and how they handle all the noise and all the challenges that are in front of them."

No. 2 Stanford appears to be the main threat to Penn State even after losing Volleyball magazine 2014 national player of the year Inky Ajanaku to a season-ending knee injury in June.

The Cardinal, which lost to the Lions in the NCAA semifinals last year after beating them in five sets in the regular season, bring back first-team All-Americans in Madi Bugg and Jordan Burgess and a second-team pick in Merete Lutz. Stanford also signed the nation's No. 1 recruit in Hayley Hodson.

Ajanaku's absence will force Dunning to adjust his offensive strategy. Last year, no team set the middle as much as the Cardinal did with Ajanaku.

The Cardinal will be challenged early, opening at home this weekend against Texas A&M and Minnesota and playing Illinois and Penn State in State College, Pennsylvania, next week.

Penn State no longer has American Volleyball Coaches Association national player of the year Micha Hancock, fellow All-American Nia Grant and regulars Dominique Gonzalez and Lacey Fuller. But the Lions bring back NCAA Championships Most Outstanding Player Megan Courtney, second-team All-American Aiyana Whitney, AVCA national freshman of the year Ali Frantti and Big Ten freshman of the year Haleigh Washington.

Rose still must identify a new setter and libero.

"As it's been for us a number of years, we graduate multiple players who are All-Americans, and you've got to replace them," Rose said. "Nobody is going to feel sorry for you, and you practice and get to work and try and find a new way of competing with the big boys."

Some things to watch this season:

CAN BYU DO IT AGAIN? The Cougars' surprise run to the national championship match was the story of the postseason. Heather Olmstead, the associate head coach last year, takes over for Shawn Olmstead, who became the BYU men's coach. Alexa Gray is among six returning players with starting experience from the team that went 30-5 and knocked off heavyweights Florida State, Nebraska and Texas on its way to the final.

TOP TEXAS TRANSFER: The No. 3 Longhorns will be bolstered by the addition of Ebony Nwanebu, a member of the 2014 USA Volleyball Collegiate National Team who transferred from Southern California. She'll move from opposite to right-side hitter. "When she's hot, she can be overwhelming," coach Jerritt Elliott said.

FLORIDA LOADED: The No. 4 Gators, who haven't made the volleyball final four since 2003, are well-stocked with SEC player of the year Alex Holston and five seniors among their 12 returning players.

PAC-12 POWER: After having a conference-record nine teams in the final 2014 AVCA Top 25, the Pac-12 has nine teams in the preseason rankings. Stanford is No. 2, followed by No. 10 Washington, No. 13 Oregon, No. 16 Arizona State, No. 17 Arizona, No. 20 UCLA, No. 22 USC, No. 23 Utah and No. 24 Colorado.

COACHING CHANGES: Jim McLaughlin, who led Washington to the 2005 national title and four final four berths in 14 years, left for Notre Dame. He was replaced by former assistant Keegan Cook. Other notable hirings: former Penn State star Blair Brown Lipsitz to Buffalo; Northwestern State's Hugh Hernesman to Clemson; Central Arkansas' David McFatrich to Mississippi State; and Miami's Lee Nelson to Nevada.