One of the great conference seasons in college sports begins on Friday when the Big Ten volleyball season starts.
What makes it great? All 20 league matches for each team will come over 10 consecutive weeks; the number of times top-15 ranked teams will play each other; the swings of emotion that come with the best-of-five set format.
Also, the possibility that losing just two or three matches could cost your team a chance to win the Big Ten title.
Here’s a primer as we get started.
Nebraska: The Huskers (8-1) start the Big Ten season coming off an impressive road sweep at No. 13 Kentucky. That followed Nebraska’s only loss, a setback against Stanford. Nebraska's defense looks great again, and if the team can get healthy and settle into a lineup, the offense could be really good, too. Husker coach John Cook could reach 800 career wins (combined at Wisconsin and Nebraska) during Friday’s match against Michigan State. His career record in 30 seasons is 799-166.
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Wisconsin: The Badgers (6-2) have won three straight Big Ten titles, but now will try to win one without national player of the year Dana Rettke and her setter, Sydney Hilley. Like Nebraska, the Badgers have used a two-setter rotation this season. The Badgers’ two losses came against top-20 teams in Baylor an,d Florida.
Ohio State: Last season Ohio State coach Jen Flynn Oldenburg didn’t think the Buckeyes were ready for Week 1 of the Big Ten season because it hadn’t played enough good teams. So she put together maybe the toughest nonconference schedule in the country. That included matches against NCAA Elite Eight teams from last season in Texas, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech. When you add in Big Ten matches against Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Purdue that means Ohio State will play every Elite Eight team from last season. Ohio State (4-4) should be really good on offense.
A remarkable six of the top-11 teams in the rankings this week play in the Big Ten: No. 3 Nebraska, No. 6 Wisconsin, No. 7 Ohio State, No. 8 Minnesota, No. 9 Penn State and No. 11 Purdue.
As of now, Nebraska will play a ranked team during seven of the 10 weeks of the Big Ten season. In college football, three Big Ten teams are ranked in the Associated Press poll this week.
For many years, most of the coaches in the Big Ten were the same from year to year, but that’s not the case after Penn State’s Russ Rose and Michigan State’s Cathy George retired. Here are the three new head coaches.
Leah Johnson, Michigan State: She was previously the Illinois State head coach, going 104-53 over five seasons.
Katie Schumacher-Cawley, Penn State: She was a player on Penn State’s 1999 national championship team, and had been an assistant at Penn State the previous four seasons. She’s been a head coach at Penn and Illinois-Chicago.
Jim Barnes, Iowa: He’s been a head coach for 24 years at Lamar, Wyoming, Baylor and most recently Tulane.
Lexi Rodriguez, Nebraska: The Huskers’ how-did-she-do-that libero was the only freshman in the nation to earn first-team All-American honors last season.
Kaitlyn Hord, Nebraska: The three-time All-American at Penn State has elevated Nebraska’s already good defense. And on offense when she gets a really good set she comes through with a kill most of the time.
Rylee Rader, Ohio State: A second-team All-American last season, the middle blocker has an excellent .364 hitting percentage this season. When the Buckeyes swept Nebraska last season she had a team-high 15 kills with a .500 hitting percentage.
Madi Kubik, Nebraska: A strong all-around player, Kubik can get kills with several different types of shots — few players in the nation are as good at hitting shots off the blockers — and has reached double-digit kills in six of nine matches.
Mac Podraza, Ohio State: The third-team All-American setter last season leads the Big Ten with 10.56 assists per set. She’s also offensive with setter tips, sneaking over 21 kills already.
The 14 Big Ten teams combined for a nonconference record of 105-39, giving the Big Ten the nation’s top winning percentage (73%). That ranges from Michigan State’s 11-0 record to 4-4 for Ohio State.
Now, not every nonconference schedule is created equally. Some schools try to rack up enough wins during the nonconference to at least get themselves on the NCAA Tournament bubble if they only go a little better than .500 in the league season. And some teams build a schedule that prepares them for the Big Ten season and the final two weeks of the NCAA Tournament.
Familiar name, new Big Ten team
With the Big Ten having several attractive programs, some transfers end up staying in the conference. Sarah Franklin led Michigan State in kills last season and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors, but eight months later she leads Wisconsin in kills. Kaitlyn Hord was a three-time All-American at Penn State but is playing her super-senior season on the other side of the Big Ten at Nebraska. Taylor Trammel was a starting middle blocker at Purdue last season but now does that at Penn State.
Sneaky good streak
Purdue is a good-not-great program in the Big Ten, but that still makes you one of the top programs in the nation. Purdue has been ranked among the top 13 of the AVCA poll for 27 straight weeks dating to the spring 2021 season. The Boilermakers are 11th this week.
Emily’s top players
Big Ten Network volleyball analyst Emily Ehman, who played at Northwestern, ranked her top players in the conference before the season.
Ehman's list, in order: Ohio State setter Mac Podraza, Nebraska outside hitter Madi Kubik, Nebraska middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord, Minnesota libero CC McGraw, Ohio State middle blocker Rylee Radar, Nebraska libero Lexi Rodriguez, Ohio State right-side hitter Emily Londot, Nebraska setter Nicklin Hames and Maryland middle blocker Rainelle Jones.