Huskers, Longhorns, Badgers are women’s volleyball favorites

August 23, 2022 GMT
FILE - Nebraska's Madi Kubik (10) digs the ball during the championship match of the NCAA women's college volleyball tournament against Wisconsin on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. Kubik leads the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the 2021 national runner-up and the No. 1 team in the preseason rankings. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean, File)
FILE - Nebraska's Madi Kubik (10) digs the ball during the championship match of the NCAA women's college volleyball tournament against Wisconsin on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. Kubik leads the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the 2021 national runner-up and the No. 1 team in the preseason rankings. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean, File)
FILE - Nebraska's Madi Kubik (10) digs the ball during the championship match of the NCAA women's college volleyball tournament against Wisconsin on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. Kubik leads the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the 2021 national runner-up and the No. 1 team in the preseason rankings. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean, File)
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FILE - Nebraska's Madi Kubik (10) digs the ball during the championship match of the NCAA women's college volleyball tournament against Wisconsin on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. Kubik leads the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the 2021 national runner-up and the No. 1 team in the preseason rankings. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean, File)
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FILE - Nebraska's Madi Kubik (10) digs the ball during the championship match of the NCAA women's college volleyball tournament against Wisconsin on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. Kubik leads the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the 2021 national runner-up and the No. 1 team in the preseason rankings. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean, File)

Preseason prognostications 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 to walk away winning a championship,” Cornhuskers outside hitter Madi Kubik said. “But we have to look at this season as a fresh start and new year and a new group. We’re really excited for the opportunity for this group and these people to work hard to hopefully put ourselves back into 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 title contenders from the Big Ten, 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 all but two seasons since Nebraska moved to 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 favored 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 was 26-8 last season after recovering from a midseason lull of three losses in four matches and is the preseason No. 1 for the first time since 2016.

Kubik averaged better than four kills per set in conference matches and Lexi Rodriguez was national freshman of the year and the Big Ten’s top defensive player. Kaitlyn Hord transferred from Penn State after being named to the All-Big Ten first team three straight years.

“Everybody says we return everybody,” Huskers coach John Cook said. “Let’s see, we’re replacing two middles, we’re replacing the setter. One-third of our team is brand new.”

The Huskers play their first eight matches in the state, including a showdown with No. 18 Creighton in Omaha on Sept. 7 and No. 14 Stanford in Lincoln on Sept. 13.

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The regular season opens this weekend. Some other top teams to watch:

TEXAS (27-2)

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 pick and Fleck was two-time Pac-12 libero of the year for UCLA. Skinner transferred from Kentucky, where she led the team in kills.

LOUISVILLE (32-1)

The Cardinals went 28-0 in the regular season and won the ACC title on the way to their first final four. Anna DeBeer, who led the Cardinals in kills, is among four returning starters. Southern California transfer Raquel Lazaro takes over at setter.

MINNESOTA (23-9)

The Gophers must replace four-time first-team All-American Stephanie Samedy but bring back standouts in Jenna Wenaas and libero CC McGraw. The Gophers signed another top-10 recruiting class, including No. 1 overall player Mckenna Wucherer of Brookfield, Wisconsin, and they picked up four transfers.

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WISCONSIN (31-3)

Julia Orzol, Devyn Robinson, Anna Smrek and Danielle Hart have starting experience and will be joined by six newcomers, including four highly ranked transfers. The biggest questions are finding a successor to five-year starting setter Sydney Hilley and replacing the production of 2021 national player of the year Dana Rettke.

WASHINGTON (26-5)

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 attack percentage and hit over .400 in 17 matches. Hoffman fills the stat sheet and was the first UW outside hitter to hit over .300 and lead the team in kills since 2016. Powell is two-time Pac-12 setter of the year.

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