Tournament Action at Mackey ... Wait, What?

It's true. After today's mugging by Xavier, the men face Lamar on Tuesday and then disappear for a couple of weeks. While they're gone, coach Dave Shondell and the women's volleyball team will be hosting regional action at Mackey on the 7th and 8th – literally. This weekend, 2011 Big Ten Player of the Year Ariel Turner led the Boilers to a sweep of Colorado State and a five-set win over host Florida State, meaning that Purdue will be playing on their sort-of-home court next weekend. (Like most non-revenue sports, the women's volleyball tournament is played at campus sites in the first two rounds; the top 16 teams are seeded and host first- and second-round matches.)

Purdue will be facing 8th-seeded Minnesota in one match while top-seeded Penn State faces 16th-seed Kentucky in the other; the Wildcats held off Ohio State to prevent an all-Big Ten regional. (Unlike men's basketball, there's no effort to keep conference teams from meeting prior to regional finals.) The Boilers and Gophers met just once this season – women's volleyball plays 20 conference matches, with each team playing nine schools twice and two schools once – with Minnesota prevailing in Minneapolis in four sets. Penn State beat Purdue in both meetings, a sweep at Penn State and a four-set win in Holloway Gymnasium Mackey Arena. Purdue and Kentucky did not meet this season. (Non-conference play is a little different in volleyball: rather than one-off matches, teams tend to play four-team round-robin events to reduce travel costs. Purdue did not play any SEC teams this season.)

Turner demonstrating moment of force

In addition to being the conference Player of the Year, Turner was also a first-team All-American in 2011, as well as a second-team Academic All-American. (Ariel's major is mechanical engineering ... no small feat to manage those grades and also be an outstanding varsity athlete.) An all-around player, the senior outside hitter leads the Boilers in kills (nearly 500 in regular-season play; sophomore Kiki Jones is next with 214) and is second in digs and aces behind redshirt junior Carly Cramer.

Drews turning a ball into a laser,
with her off hand, no less

The other regular starters are middle blocker Jones, redshirt junior setter Rachel Davis (averaging more than 9 assists per set), and senior middle blocker Anna Drewry. Cramer, the libero (defensive position: can sub in for anyone without reporting, cannot attack, can only serve at one spot in the rotation), missed only two matches this season, but one of them was the result of picking up a concussion during the home match against Nebraska (more on that below). Additional players who also cracked the starting lineup in double figures are redshirt senior Amanda Miller and junior Hilliary Fox, both defensive specialists, and 6' 4" freshman outside hitter Annie Drews

Those unfamiliar with volleyball or the team will nonetheless recognize characteristics of this team: solid road performances (wins over tournament teams Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State, plus the second-round win over Florida State), close matches against solid teams (the two four-set losses mentioned above), and puzzling losses (to conference bottom-dwellers Indiana and Iowa).

The latter loss was particularly odd: the Hawkeyes were just 2-18 in Big Ten play, but one of those wins was a 3-0 sweep of Purdue on October 6. Cramer went down in the middle of the previous day's match against Nebraska (who's advanced to the regionals as well; they'll be playing in Omaha) and was unable to play against Iowa. From the way the Boilers played, you'd have thought they were the last-place team ... as important as Turner is to the team, Cramer is equally important, and it was pretty clear that Saturday. Much as the men's basketball team looked after Hummel's first injury, the volleyball team looked without Cramer: poor play, lack of communication, general listlessness.

Hopefully the Boilers will avoid a similar fate this coming weekend. Their best chance at a Final Four appearance ended two years ago in a similar fashion: after the 16th-seeded Boilers swept top seed Florida, in the first set of their match against 9th-seed and host Texas, senior setter Jaclyn Hart went down with an injury and did not return. Purdue won the set, but did not win another, and lost 3 sets to 1 in their only Elite Eight appearance.

Either way, Shondell has the team primed for another run next year. The only other senior is defensive specialist Courtney Gosewisch; with fourteen returning players, Purdue should be ready to contend again in 2013. The Big Ten may be the toughest conference in volleyball – five of the last six titles were won by Penn State and Nebraska, and Illinois was last year's runner-up; seven Big Ten teams made the tournament, six made the regionals, knocking off seeded hosts Louisville, UCLA, and Florida State in the process – but the Boilers should be able to hold their own again. In the meantime, check out this year's squad Friday and Saturday in Mackey Arena (not nearly as loud as Holloway for volleyball, unfortunately). Upper-level all-session tickets are just $12 ... a definite bonus to following a non-revenue sport is that it's much, much cheaper than men's basketball or football.

More attractive than Brad (no
relation), to most of us, anyway

No, seriously, check them out. I never went to see them play when I was a student ... and watching those athletic women in tight uniforms now, I realize that I was an idiot. (Hey, at least the liberos would have been about my height ...) They're good, they're well-coached, and they'll provide a weekend of entertainment before Painter's men return to face Ball State on the 18th. And who knows? You might even see another Purdue team make a Final Four.

Monday Football Gumbo

Icy Boilers Lose 63-57