2016 VB Preview: Help?
Volleyball finished its last preseason tuneup Saturday, welcoming program alumnae back to town for a practice match before Friday's season opener against Wyoming. I didn't make it into town for the game, and thus can only refer you to the usual excellent set of pictures from it, so the least I can give you is an idea of what to expect this season as we search for anything other than football to focus on.
The Boilers got off to a reasonable non-conference start, going 9-2 and picking up road wins at St. Louis and LSU, losing only to #12 BYU and unranked Miami. After a big road sweep of Michigan and Michigan State to kick off conference play, Purdue reeled off four more wins, including a home-and-home sweep of rival Indiana, to reach a high-water mark of 15-2. Unfortunately, the meat of their conference schedule fell in the final two-thirds, and it proved to be the Boilers' undoing, as they dropped 5 of 6 matches to ranked opponents. Purdue rebounded with a 3-2 upset of #3 Minnesota in Holloway, but lost their final two matches at home. The win over the eventual conference champs may have made a difference, as 2014's squad stayed home despite a fifth-place finish, while 2015's 13-7 mark was good enough to earn a spot in Austin against SMU. The Boilers advanced easily to the second round, but lost to the third-seeded hosts in four sets. (Remember, volleyball seeds only the top 16, so this was the equivalent of playing a #1 seed in basketball.)
Five Boilermakers played their final seasons in 2015: All-American OH Annie Drews, OH Sam Epenesa, MB Kaisley Fisher, libero Amanda Neill, and DS Kate Workman. In addition, two Boilers transferred: S/OH Lydia Dimke to Creighton and OH Alexa Smith to Colorado.
Might as well get the good stuff out of the way first. Honorable Mention All-American Danielle Cuttino returns for her junior season; she and redshirt senior Faye Adelaja would be a solid duo by themselves, but with redshirt freshman Blake Mohler now eligible, they should comprise one of the better MB rotations in the conference. Redshirt freshman Shavona Cuttino will provide valuable depth.
Adelaja and Cuttino were 1-2 in attack percentage in 2015 (Fisher hit .486, but only had 37 attacks), and with no one else hitting over .300, the middle will once again be a key part of the Boilermaker attack. Mohler looks to be another solid weapon in the middle, and with none of the four shorter than 6'1", a lot of attackers will be looking for the solo block on the outside. Cuttino tied for 30th nationally in solo blocks with 24, and Adelaja's team-leading .397 was 26th in the country.
Outlook: Outside Hitter
Purdue lost two senior OHs; the bigger loss here is clearly Drews (and the cannon attached to her shoulder). Although she hit only .253 last season, that was partly due to Purdue's inability to find a second consistent threat outside. The loss of Smith wasn't unexpected - plenty of athletes end up needing to play closer to home - but it does leave an even bigger hole in this group. Atkinson's arrival was badly needed, and the 6'5" transfer should get immediate reps with junior Azariah Stahl (.179).
Other than that, uh. The Boilers have traditionally had thin rosters, something that's caused midseason problems when players are struggling or injured, and this year it's worse than before. With only 13 scholarship players, and only two players listed at OH, it's hard to see how Dave Shondell can get enough bodies on the outside. Even if the Boilers move back to a two-setter rotation and give Mohler or Shavona Cuttino reps at OH, they'll still have unusual lineups on the floor from time to time. I think an extra player or two is needed here, even if it's just walk-ons to help with practices. If Atkinson or Stahl miss any significant playing time, it'll be a real issue.
The dropoff from Val Nichol's All-American 2013 junior season to her injury-plagued senior season was significant, and the transition to then-redshirt sophomore Ashley Evans was another step down, understandably so. It's not difficult to tie Purdue's hitting struggles to the loss of talent in those three years: senior Rachel Davis was a solid partner for Nichol in 2013, and when Davis graduated, Shondell went to mostly a one-setter rotation in 2014, which made things worse when Nichol injured her finger early in the season and never fully recovered.
Despite Dimke getting more reps at setter in 2014 (155 assists to just 40 for Evans), Evans got the vast majority of playing time at S in 2015. Dimke looked solid at both S and OH (.254 in 122 attacks), but for whatever reason, she's in Omaha and Evans is the only returning Boiler with experience. If Dorn doesn't share time at setter, she'll have to get time at OH - with so few players, Shondell doesn't have the luxury of redshirting anyone. (Or shouldn't, anyway.)
Outlook: Libero/Defensive Specialist
For each of the past several years, coach Shondell has a returning junior or senior DS who had earned the start at libero. This year, the lone upperclassman is junior Linnea Rohrsen, who has a total of 3 digs in two years at Purdue. (I'm not sure why she wasn't redshirted with classmate Carissa Damler and now-departed Burgundy Price.) Damler had a whopping 14 digs in her redshirt freshmen year, so it's fortunate that Shondell found Avon star Brooke Peters last season. Peters had an immediate impact, playing in all 33 matches and leading the team with 30 aces. The true sophomore is almost certain to be the libero this season; the Boilers desperately need a solid defender to replace Neill in that position.
Ordinarily, at least one of the incoming freshmen DS would redshirt, but it's hard to see how that would work this season. Sam Epenesa spent a lot of time rotating through the back row, probably at the expense of some of her hitting skill, and while she struggled at times, it meant something that she kept getting those minutes. Someone has to replace those too, and there are no "extra" OH, so Haben and Van Zelst will need to adjust quickly to Big Ten-caliber competition in September. One key difference: like Peters, the two newcomers are 5'9", so they'll hopefully have the reach to cover more of the back.
For some reason, Purdue players rarely get to break out jump serves. As a result, the Boilers spend a lot of time floating returnable balls to their opponents, either that or sending agonizing serve after agonizing serve out of play or into the net. Purdue tied for 131st in aces, with just 145, and their two most reliable servers, Neill (29 aces/23 errors) and Smith (21/12), are gone. (Throw in Dimke's 10/10 and call it three.) With 79 more errors than aces, the Boilers frequently gave away points they really needed; could it really be that much worse to be more aggressive?
The schedule doesn't do Purdue many favors; they catch preseason #3 Minnesota only at home, play #4 Wisconsin, #9 Penn State and #14 Illinois home and away, and play #15 Ohio State only on the road. With six of their last seven matches away from Holloway, Purdue will have to take care of business early in the season, particularly in the Wisconsin-Minnesota week (9/30 and 10/2). Indiana and Maryland may not be top-25 caliber, but funny things happen on the road sometimes, and as history has shown, finishing on a poor run is a great way to find yourself on the outside looking in come NCAA time. Four matches in ten days at distant sites (Indiana-Penn State-Maryland-Ohio State) will be a tough way to finish, especially if the already-thin Boilers have injury problems.
Unreasonably Specific Predictions
- Purdue's first loss will be against current-#24 Kentucky on Saturday. The Boilers tend to have one bad match in non-conference play, and this has all the makings of a surprise. (Losing at Stanford would be no surprise at all, especially with match time being 11 PM Eastern.)
- The Boilers will lose their conference opener to Illinois. That's too bad. The Illini travel very well, and their student section is politely obnoxious in Holloway (they're loud, but they aren't crude).
- Purdue will turn around and beat Indiana in Mackey to keep the Monon Spike. I know, that's not really going out on a limb, is it?
- Danielle Cuttino will be named an All-American; Brooke Peters will make AVCA first team.
- The Boilers will finish 12-8 in conference play, 20-11 overall, and will not make the NCAA tournament. I know, they're ranked 20th now, but part of that is last season's finish and part of that is the same thing that happens in every sport: people ranking teams because of the name. I just don't think Purdue is deep enough to play good enough volleyball to avoid the problems that kept them out of the NCAAs in 2014.
All photos courtesy of Purdue Athletics