2018 VB Preview: New Kids in Town
It's that wonderful time of year when you look at the calendar and you see that your weekends are occupied from now until ... well, until you have to get a new calendar. No, I'm not talking about the start of yet another school year - come on people, I'm single and have no kids, if it weren't for the school zone signs with lights or the two weeks in fall and spring when all of my coworkers with kids are on vacation, I doubt I'd know anything about school calendars. (Especially when you consider how many different calendars there are in Indianapolis. I don't think any two schools are in session the same days.)
I'm talking about sports season. We're already posting football content, soccer already has a win in the book, and volleyball starts their season with the annual Sauna Invitational on Friday. (The forecast actually seems reasonable, but I'll believe it when it's 7 PM and I don't look like I ran from the parking lot to Holloway.) That must mean it's preview time!
2017 Recap: A Lot of Recognition
The Boilers got off to a flying start, sweeping their first five series and dropping just one non-conference match, in four sets at then-top-10 Kansas, before entering the death march known to some as conference play. The Good Gals held their own, peaking in November with home wins over #10 Minnesota (3-1) and #9 Wisconsin (3-0), but back-to-back 1-3 losses to #30 Michigan might well have cost them a chance to host a regional. Instead, they headed out to Utah, pushing aside High Point in four sets before falling to the host Utes in four.
The 2017 team set a record by placing three players on All-American teams. Setter Ashley Evans became the fourth VB player to earn both All-American (honorable mention) and Academic All-American (first-team) honors in the same season. MB/OH Danielle Cuttino became the fourth to earn first-team All-American honors as she capped her career with her third straight AA mention, and OH Sherridan Atkinson joined them as a third-team All-American in her first appearance on the rolls.
Danielle Cuttino headed a four-player senior class that will leave their mark both in West Lafayette and in destinations to come. DS Carissa Damler received the Big Ten's Sportsmanship Award in her final season; her three classmates will all be continuing their careers elsewhere, as Cuttino (Italy - Pomi Casalmaggiore), Evans (Spain - Voleibol Logroño) and OH Azariah Stahl (Switzerland - Geneve Volley) are playing overseas for the 2018 season, joining alumnae Val Nichol (Poland - LKS Lodz) and Annie Drews (Team USA) as active players.
While Purdue will be losing some significant players (Evans and Cuttino were four-year starters, while Stahl and Damler were fixtures the last two years), they're also bringing in the #13 recruiting class, according to PrepVolleyball.com ($), with four Top 100 Senior Aces and two of those in Volleyball Magazine's Fab 50.
Grace Cleveland, a 6'3" MB from Normal Community (IL), was part of an AAU championship team last year; she'll join Jael Johnson, a 6'2" MB from Avon (IN) - the same school that senior libero Brooke Peters came from - as valuable additions to what will be another talented rotation for the Boilers. Johnson helped Avon to a sweep of Crown Point in the 4A state finals last season, although it should be noted that Crown Point lost Morgan Chacon to injury in the first set and she did not return.
Garrett Joiner is a 6'3" OH from Brentwood (TN); she and 5'7" libero Marissa Hornung (Providence - Clarksville (IN)) round out the Senior Aces in the class. Hornung was PrepVolleyball's 2015 Sophomore Player of the Year; she and Joiner may find immediate playing time, given the departures of Cuttino and Damler.
The class rounds out with 5'6" libero Emma Terwilliger (Valparaiso (IN)) and 5'9" setter Joy Chen (Ann Arbor Huron (MI); if I'd have stayed in AA I'd have gone to Pioneer back in the days when it was a two-school town, now I'd be in the Skyline district). I would add some more here, but Purdue switched to Sidearm Sports during the offseason - it'll mean good things going forward, but they've made a real hash of the volleyball section and a lot of information is unavailable right now.
Outlook - Outside Hitter
Redshirt senior Atkinson will be in every match, even the non-conference ones; she'll be joined by sophomore Caitlyn Newton, whose play as a freshman all but forced Dave Shondell to switch Danielle Cuttino back to MB to put three excellent hitters in the rotation. Newton played in 25 matches last season, so expect Joiner to get at least that much playing time, since there are currently only three players labeled as OH on the roster.
Atkinson hit .322 on 855 attacks in 2017; it wouldn't be a surprise to see that number drop, since she'll likely be the #1 option for the offense in 2018, but given that she hit just .263 on 632 attacks as a sophomore, it's also possible that she's just hitting her stride. If Atkinson can continue to improve as a #1, that will open up lanes for Newton, Joiner and the middles.
Outlook - Middle Blocker
Would it surprise you that Danielle Cuttino had just the third-highest blocks per set on the team in 2017? Fortunately for the Old Gold and Black, the top two are returnees, with Blake Mohler second only to Illinois' Ali Bastianelli in that category. The redshirt junior joins classmate Shavona Cuttino as top returning MBs; Shavona was on pace to top Mohler's numbers before giving way to older sister Danielle in the rotation. Senior Erin Williams will provide rotation depth as needed, although that may not be the case this season.
With both Cleveland and Johnson expected to push for playing time, Shondell will have some decisions to make - if he does his normal 3-MB rotation, at best the two freshmen will play just half the time, and possibly in backup roles at that. On the other hand, it's hard to recruit a highly-ranked player and expect her to sit for a year ... it works really well in video games (not that there's a video volleyball game I've seen, but you know what I mean), but not so well in real life when there are multiple priorities to consider. Shavona hit .344 on 122 attacks last season, so if that kind of MB is pushed out of the rotation, well, you've got one heck of a triumvirate in front of her, and if she and Mohler keep their spots, it'll be even more interesting next year when there are two seniors and two sophomores vying for playing time.
Outlook - Setter
Hello, Hayley Bush! Remember how we just saw a four-year starter graduate from your position? Guess who gets a chance to be the next four-year starter? With the transfer of Lexi Dorn to Georgia Tech, likely for playing time (Tech returns nobody at S), Bush has the role all to herself ... unless Chen is able to pass her. That seems unlikely (otherwise Dorn, as a junior, would probably have done so), but an alternative is that Shondell may switch from his favored 5-1 to the 6-2 he used back in the days of Nichol and Rachel Davis.
Either way, the Boilers will be starting someone with zero Big Tenteen matches under her belt. The pressure will be on both Bush and Chen to provide service for the talented front line around them; hopefully one or both will answer that call.
Outlook - Back Row
Senior Brooke Peters is the starting libero; I am as sure of this as anything I know about Purdue volleyball. If you're a senior with libero experience, you're going to start until it's not physically possible for you to do so, and in any event, with Damler's graduation, there are no other returning upperclassmen who are likely to challenge Peters.
Shondell does return three defensive specialists: true sophomores Jena Otec and Julianna Reisinger, who are locks for the rotation, and redshirt sophomore Olivia Van Zelst, who saw nothing outside of garbage time last year. Players in that situation tend to either find the magic (as Damler did her junior year) or find themselves passed in the lineup. With Hornung likely to replace Damler and Terwilliger capable of providing depth, we should know by late September who's going to play and who isn't ready yet.
Hard to say. Normally a DS and a setter are locks to redshirt, but Shondell is unlikely to go into the season with just one setter, and while Terwilliger is the most likely candidate, it's also possible that Shondell will reward all of the freshmen if they earn playing time. The Boilers could do worse than have a six-player senior class with three full years of Big Tenteen experience.
Massey has the Boilers at #19; that's a good sign given the talent that departed, although I don't know how much he takes into consideration - after all, analytics are only somewhat better than polls at preseason prediction. On the other hand, given Purdue's surprisingly easy non-conference schedule (#40 Louisville is the lone top-50 opponent, and that match is in Holloway), even a relatively inexperienced Boiler squad has a solid chance to enter conference play unbeaten ... the 3-1 prediction for Louisville is the only one that isn't a sweep.
Naturally, conference play is a different matter. Home-and-homes this year are Illinois, Maryland, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State, Iowa, and Indiana; one-offs are Northwestern, Ohio State and Nebraska here, with Michigan, Rutgers and Minnesota away. Massey has it as 11-9, which sounds pretty good, especially with 6 of the last 9 against preseason top-20 teams (Iowa at home and both Indiana matches are the others).
The problem with getting more than that is the conference - Purdue's a top-20 team and still barely in the top half of the conference, with six other schools ahead of them, with three of those (Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin) in the top five. 20-9 overall sounds nice, but you have to have quality wins, which means the Good Gals will need to take maybe both from Illinois and possibly one from Michigan State to be sure of an NCAA berth.
I think they'll do it. The offense will be a little rough early on, and the Boilers will drop a match they shouldn't in non-conference play, but most of a year under Shondell will have the freshmen playing like veterans, and going 5-4 in that final stretch, with upset wins at Minnesota and Illinois, will be enough for 21-8, which should get them to the dance again. They won't have home court, and once again, that will be the difference, as their NCAA run ends in the second round, but it'll be pretty good given that they replaced four seniors with six freshmen. In 2019, well ... that might be a different story.
As a reminder, you can listen to all matches for free online. Most matches are on TV/streaming on BTN Plus, which is the online pay version of BTN, the one that does everything except football and men's basketball (well, maybe one MBB game). So if you've read this far, you probably need to subscribe, because otherwise you're relying on me for all your volleyball updates, and while that's flattering, you deserve better, my friends.
There is a name for this tournament, but it's really long and it's kind of silly and I'd rather not type it or copy it. I'll think of a better name later this week.
Photos pulled from the ones I borrowed last year or from Purdue Sports directly; most were taken by Charles Jischke or John Underwood. Apologies if you took one and I left you out - let me know and I'll fix that.