VB Rolls Tide, Sweeps Mortar Board Premier
After a nice walk around campus early Saturday afternoon, I headed into Holloway to catch what I thought would be the end of a 3-0 Cleveland State sweep of Oral Roberts ... only it was 2-0 ORU, and at one point it looked like maybe scheduling the Purdue match for 3:00 would leave a little too much waiting around. The Vikings rallied (thanks in part to a questionable line call), forcing a fourth set, then a fifth, and pulling away to take a 3-2 win and salvage a win from the weekend. That left the Good Gals to face then-83 Alabama, essentially the same rank as Cleveland State. With cool air in the building and a much quicker pace as a result (because you don't need 2-minute breaks between points to sweep the floor), you'd expect another solid match from the Boilers.
You got one.
Oh, two items I forgot from yesterday: Purdue Pete's been hanging out in my section (no doubt an avid reader of Boiled Sports), and the Boiler Box Band stole a couple of rows from the Block Party. Not sure if that's going to be a regular thing, but if it is, and you're sitting on that side of the gym, bring earplugs. Don't worry, you'll hear the band just fine. (That much sound in a small space is ... not what I would have chosen. But the band did a great job Friday morning before the Block Party had assembled, so I trust it'll work out for the best. Now, if I were in the section closest to the band instead of farthest from it ...)
Purdue 3, Alabama 0 (25-21, 25-12, 25-14)
You don't really need to scroll down on the official play-by-play to get the story of this match: 8 ties, 2 lead changes, with half the ties and both lead changes coming in set 3. Even the first set wasn't that close, with Danielle Cuttino recording four straight kills, three with Julianna Reisinger at the service line, to put the Good Gals up safely, 15-9. Alabama wouldn't get closer than 3 the rest of the way.
Set two was even better for Boiler fans: after Purdue took a quick 7-1 lead, Alabama rallied to score four straight points, then got another three-point run off consecutive attack errors by Azariah Stahl to draw within 1 ... but a Sherridan Atkinson kill made it 10-8, three straight attack errors forced a timeout at 13-8, and then Atkinson and Stahl ran off three more kills, followed by an Atkinson/Blake Mohler block and a Brooke Peters ace, and the set was basically over at 18-8.
Alabama came back from the break with maybe their best run of the day, sticking with Purdue early and even taking a 4-3 lead (which was, by the way, their only lead of the match). Then ... oops. Service error, attack error, Atkinson/Shavona Cuttino block, two Atkinson kills, another Atkinson/Shavona block, another Atkinson kill, and Alabama coach Ed Allen had no choice but to use a timeout at 10-4. Another attack error, a Stahl/Shavona block, and a Jena Otec ace made it 13-4, and after Alabama's final timeout, it was all over but the cookies. (Which I bought Friday; believe it or not, half of them are still around. Maybe I'll save some for a long ride this week.)
With Purdue's bench relatively thin yet again, it's possible that we're seeing the same lineup Shondell will use during conference play: Danielle Cuttino, Atkinson and Stahl at OH, Ashley Evans at S, Mohler and Shavona Cuttino at MB, Peters at libero, Carissa Damler and Otec at DS, with Reisinger the first serve substitution off the bench and Olivia Van Zelst, Caitlyn Newton and Erin Williams backing up as needed. Everyone but Van Zelst saw time against Alabama, although Newton and Williams had limited impact (both had a kill and an error).
Danielle had another double-figure kill day, but hit only .259 thanks to Alabama's ability to dig; Atkinson joined her in double figures with 10 at .263. Evans notched 38 assists, close to triple Alabama's total as a team (they managed just 16) ... and Stahl took dig honors with a match-high 17, two better than Peters. Atkinson and Shavona each had 2.0 blocks of the team's 7.0, and on the service line, Reisinger had 2 of Purdue's 6 aces, as the team managed to break even, thanks somewhat to disorganization on Alabama's part. (There was one serve where a rough return was saved toward the front, but two Tide players watched it hit between them; another serve split a pair of players in a way you rarely see outside this part of the season.)
Alabama didn't have their best day on the scoresheet: three players tied with 4 kills and a team hitting percentage of .010. Freshman setter Meghan Neelon had 13 of the Tide's 16 assists; freshman DS Kaylee Thomas and junior DS Quincey Gary had two aces each as Alabama was actually +1 from the line. Senior MBs Leah Lawrence and Abolanle Onipede recorded 1.5 blocks each, with Lawrence and freshman OH Christine Jarman getting a solo apiece. Jarman added a team-high 8 digs.
Up next for the Boilers is a trip to Tiller Country for the Wyoming Invitational, where they'll face #242 Jacksonville, #207 Eastern Michigan and #142 Wyoming. It would be a surprise to see Purdue come back with anything less than a 6-0 mark; losing a set, especially to the hosts, wouldn't be all that big a deal, but a team that has its eye on a December run should be looking to extend their perfect start to 18 sets. Although Purdue has swept five of the last seven Mortar Board Premiers, they haven't always continued the season in that fashion: their hottest start in recent times was in 2014, when they ran off 7 straight 3-0 wins before dropping a five-setter at Western Kentucky. (It's OK, we got them back by taking their football coach.) Coincidentally, that was also the last season the Boilers missed the NCAA tournament, so ... let's not think about that just yet. Instead ...
MB Faye Adelaja graduated as one of the most accurate hitters in Purdue history. A four-time academic all-conference honoree, Adelaja holds multiple records for hitting percentage: .800 in a four-set match, 15-19 attempts; .667 in a five-set match, 15-19 attempts; and .690 in a five-set match, 20-plus attempts. She's the last Purdue player to record 10+ blocks, notching 11 vs. Pittsburgh in 2013. She led Purdue each of the last two years in hitting percentage, ending her career with the second-best single-season percentage, .397 in 2015, behind Stephanie (Lynch) Harpenau (.409 in 2008), whom you might notice on game nights on the Purdue sideline as the Supervisor of Operations; Adelaja is also second in career hitting percentage (.362), just behind KiKi Jones (.367).
Two other Boilers departed, although unfortunately I don't have much news on either one. DS Linnea Rohrsen would have been a senior, but may have been looking to get more playing time elsewhere. Libero Natalie Haben, who'd be a sophomore, apparently is retiring due to injury, probably related to her injury last season against Nebraska.
Libero Brooke Peters takes over for Haben; the junior has yet to miss a match in her career, posting career highs of 293 digs and 27 aces in 2016. If the Avon, IN native can find a better touch at the service line (her 60 service errors led the Boilers), she'll be a solid all-around libero - when she and Azariah Stahl are on the floor together, no ball is out of play and anyone in a chair had better keep their eyes open.
S Ashley Evans begins her third consecutive year as Purdue's starter, just missing the all-time top-10 list for assists with 1403 last season. The redshirt senior from Liberty Township, OH should end up around sixth on the all-time list and will likely top 4000 assists for her career; her 3000th assist could well happen in Wyoming. Her triple-double in last year's Mortar Board Premier against Kentucky was the 20th in school history; the last seven have come from setters, with Val Nichol (4), Jaclyn Hart, and Renata Dargan preceding Evans.
S Lexi Dorn will see backup minutes on occasion, although if Shondell's history is any guide, those minutes will be few and far between. Dorn is poised to be the starter once Evans graduates; the sophomore from San Diego will have two seasons of eligibility remaining.
MB Shavona Cuttino moves up to the #2 spot at middle, the redshirt sophomore from Indianapolis didn't play much last season, which is understandable when you consider who was ahead of her on the depth chart (Adelaja and Blake Mohler, plus her sister Danielle was originally a MB). She's ready for a full-time role now, hitting .294 over the weekend, and should continue to excel in a spot that is a key part of Purdue's offense.
OH Azariah Stahl will reprise her role as a full-rotation player again this year, looking to add to her career highs in aces (17) and assists (33) while she racks up kills and digs. The energetic senior from Elkhart, IN should post another 300-300 season; while she's unlikely to maintain her .304 hitting percentage from the weekend, if she can stay in the low 200s, she'll be an excellent complement to the team's taller hitters ... and her effort in the back row is invaluable on a team with a short bench.
DS Carissa Damler is the lone remaining DS from her class of three (Rohrsen and Burgundy Price were the other two), and watching her play, it's clear why she's not only staying, but starting. Although she's the shortest Boiler at 5'4", her ability to read and react lets her cover as if she were taller, and it certainly helps that this is her second full season playing with Peters (Damler redshirted her freshman year and didn't play much as a redshirt freshman; she's been reclassified as a senior this year, not sure why) - coincidentally, the Brownsburg, IN native is, like Peters, from the west side of Indy.
DS Olivia Van Zelst provides much-needed depth at DS. The redshirt freshman from Glenview, IL will be looking to earn minutes alongside the two incoming DS; my very early guess is that she'll remain a backup when conference play rolls around, but making predictions based on non-conference rotations is like buying a box of cookies for a long trip and imagining that they'll all make it to the end.
OH Sherridan Atkinson enters her second season with the Boilers after transferring from Long Beach State, coming off a 268-kill performance in 2016. Since she redshirted as a freshman, she's got one season remaining here, and early returns suggest that it'll be more productive: the Long Beach native - one of four Californians on the roster - has been working on her serve in the offseason and already has 4 aces to show for it. At 6'5", Atkinson is the tallest player on the team, and provides a perfect complement to Danielle Cuttino in the rotation (although with Cuttino a full-time OH now, there won't be many 6'5"-6'4" blocks anymore.)
MB Blake Mohler is more than ready to be the next solid Purdue middle, following in the footsteps of KiKi Jones and Faye Adelaja. The Ocean Springs, MS native is, like Shavona Cuttino, a redshirt sophomore, but unlike Shavona, Mohler already has a full season under her belt. Starting all 33 matches in 2016, Mohler posted a team-high 102 block assists and hit .299 on 402 attacks. She's traded in her unorthodox perpendicular approach at the service line for a more straightforward approach; while it would be nice to get her aces up and service errors down, those will likely not be what she's remembered for. Her blocking skill plus her ability to hammer quick sets should give her all-region-caliber numbers this season ... and she has two years of eligibility remaining.
All-American OH Danielle Cuttino is a full-time OH this season, just like last year, and the Indianapolis native comes off a season where she became the first Purdue player to earn all-region honors at two different positions (MB and OH). Danielle took full advantage of the move to OH last season, hitting .272 with a team-high 530 kills, but also staying true to her MB roots with a team-leading 20 solo blocks. (The move also created the potential for Cuttino/Cuttino blocks, which are always cool to hear.) A season like last season would vault her into the top-10 list for kills; like Evans, she may hit a milestone in Wyoming, needing just 47 for 1000. If Atkinson or Stahl can develop into a significant secondary threat, that could open the door for Danielle to have an outstanding season, and it's not out of the question that she could make the jump from AVCA Honorable Mention (2015) to Third Team All-American or even higher.
S Hayley Bush, a freshman from Union, KY, will redshirt barring a season-ending injury to Evans. Even if Dorn were to become unavailable, Shondell seems unlikely to burn a redshirt for a handful of plays, and it'd be better in terms of spacing for Bush to have two years left after Dorn graduates rather than just one.
OH Caitlyn Newton, a freshman from Terre Haute, will see spot action in non-conference play and will likely wait in the wings until Danielle Cuttino and Stahl graduate. With Atkinson the only other returning OH next season, Shondell may look for another transfer to complement Newton.
DS Julianna Reisinger, a freshman from Coto De Caza, CA, has shown a solid serve over the weekend (2 aces, 1 error). At 5'6", she may end up like Damler, providing a boost off the bench until she's ready for full-time DS work, but regular serve and back-row opportunities would certainly help her development.
MB Erin Williams, a junior from Cerritos, CA, transferred from Loyola Marymount and looks to be a quality third middle behind Mohler and Shavona Cuttino. Her experience may get her more playing time than Shavona had in that role last year, but at 5'11", she may be a little shorter than Shondell would prefer for a MB.
DS Jena Otec, a freshman from Crystal City, MO, has taken the rotation spot opened by Peters' move to libero from DS, and Otec has put up some reasonable numbers for a true freshman (11 digs and 3 aces in three matches). If she can get the college jitters out of her system (4 service errors so far), she could develop into a back-row fixture.
The Boilers will be thin again, expecting to play just 14 of their 15 players (by comparison, Alabama has 20 total, Cleveland State 18, Oral Roberts 15). Shondell doesn't have many options available if he wants to change things up, and so far, he doesn't seem to have anyone on the roster with a reliable jump serve ... although he seems to be moving away from the float serves that have bedeviled the Boilers (instead of their opponents) in recent years. Purdue's just a -4 after three matches, while their opponents are -11. If the service line becomes an asset, it'll fix a glaring weakness from recent years, and it could be a deciding factor in their season.
Once again, the Big Tenteen will be loaded: the AVCA preseason poll put the Good Gals in the second half of the conference, even though they were ranked #25 overall. Their non-conference schedule will have one tough weekend, a trip to Lawrence to face #7 Creighton and #24 Kansas; they may drop both matches (Massey currently has them as 1-3 losses), but those are the matches you have to at least split to make a run.
Early-season ratings don't quite match the polls, with Purdue fourth in the conference and #15 overall. Unfortunately, one of their conference home-and-homes is against #2 Minnesota. They get both #5 Wisconsin and #9 Penn State only in Holloway, which is a nice break, and are home-and-home with #22 Ohio State. (Road-match-only opponents are #31 Illinois, #33 Iowa and #54 Maryland.) This is likely one of the better, more experienced teams Dave Shondell has had in his years in West Lafayette, and the schedule is set up for the Boilers to make a solid push for a top-4 finish, but there's no shame in falling short in a conference that's arguably the best in the country.
In fact, it's not just the schools that make Big Tenteen volleyball great. Seven of the top nine schools by average attendance are conference schools, with only Hawai'i (2nd) and Missouri?? (8th) breaking up the pack. Despite having a capacity less than half of other schools, Holloway packs them in every night, as you know if you've been there; average attendance in 2016 was 110.89% of capacity, third-best behind Louisville (206.89%, 950 capacity) and TCU (115.36%, 1350 capacity). I'm telling you, there is unmet demand here, and even though there's no chance at this point that we'll see a larger arena, there's no doubt in my mind that the fan base could fill one; double the seating, and it'd still be hard to get a ticket for the better matches.
Anyway, Massey pegs Purdue to be somewhere around 20-10 going into NCAA tournament play; to break into the elite section of the conference, they're probably going to have to flip 2-4 of those matches. Hold off Nebraska and Wisconsin at home and steal one at Illinois, and the Boilers could well be seeded - tournament matches in Mackey would be a great thing to have, and we could do worse than to send off this group of seniors with a couple of December wins.
Do I have to predict? I guess so. You deserve something for making it all the way down here. The Good Gals go 21-9, sweeping in Wyoming but falling at Creighton and Kansas in non-conference play and going 13-7 in conference play (keeping the Monon Spike, of course). That won't be enough to be a first- and second-round host, though, and that will cost Purdue, as they'll come up just short of a regional berth.
Best-case scenario is a fourth-place conference finish, probably 23 or 24 regular-season wins, and an Elite Eight appearance when the bracket falls their way. There's just too much talent on other rosters to see this team making a Final Four appearance ... but there's plenty of time before we get to that point, and there's potential on this team that could make a difference. Will it be enough?
Photos by John Underwood, courtesy of Purdue Athletics