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Fall sports: Volleyball

 

We continue our weekly look at our non-football fall sports by checking out the NU volleyball team.

After going 20-13 last season and reaching the second round of the NCAA tournament with a senior-laden roster, the Wildcats figure to be in rebuilding mode this year. Just two seniors are on the entire roster, and there are a lot of freshmen in the starting lineup.

So far, so good, though, as the team is off to a 6-2 start.

The youth on the team should bode well in a year or two down the line, as under head coach Keylor Chan, the team’s fortunes have been somewhat cyclical, as talented classes graduate and the program restocks. As with most of NU’s coaches, though, Chan’s taken the program to a level of success in his 12 years that hadn’t been seen around these parts for decades, if at all.

The team makes its home debut this weekend, after spending its first three tournaments on the road.

Hit the jump for a closer look.

How's the team doing? The team raced off to a fast start, albeit against a relatively weak schedule. NU started 5-0, not dropping a single set. The Wildcats then dropped a pair of matches to Ole Miss and Central Arkansas, before beating Arkansas-Little Rock to bring their record to 6-2. NU's action so far has all been on the road; the team hosts the Wildcat Classic this weekend at Welsh-Ryan Arena against Dusquesne, Colgate and New Mexico State. NU should be favored in all three games that it plays.

How's the sport work? All 12 Big Ten schools sponsor women’s volleyball, but the conference does not have a season-ending tournament to determine its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. That spot goes to the regular season champ. The NCAA tourney involves 64 teams in the familiar single-elimination format.

Women’s volleyball has largely been dominated by the Big Ten and the Pac-1012.  In fact, only two schools outside of those two conferences have won NCAA titles since 1990. One of them, Nebraska, which won titles in 1995, 2000 and 2006, is obviously now a member of the Big Ten. The other is Long Beach State, which won titles in 1993 and 1998.  Penn State has won the last four championships.

How'd NU do last year? 20-13 overall, 9-11 in Big Ten play, which tied them for seventh in the conference. In September, the Wildcats got ranked in the top 25 for the first time since 1987 and stayed in the polls for eight weeks, reaching as high as 20th.

The Wildcats then made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006, beating Arizona in the first round, before falling to Missouri. It marked the second time in program history that the team had reached the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Now-graduated Sabel Moffett and Naomi Johnson earned AVCA All-American honorable mention honors.

What's the historical context? Last season was a great one by NU standards, obviously. The Wildcats have generally been competitive during head coach Keylor Chan’s tenure, with a few down seasons here and there. In fact, NU has been .500 or better in six of the last nine years under Chan, no small feat while competing in the ridiculously tough Big Ten (which only got stronger with the addition of Nebraska), though he has yet to find the magic formula to take the team consistently into the upper tier of the conference.

What’s the outlook for this season? The Big Ten has seven — count ‘em, seven — teams ranked in the top 25 of the latest AVCA poll, led by No. 3 Illinois. That’s tops among all conferences (though the Pac-12 does hold the top two spots in the poll). That will make life challenging for NU.

But our plucky Wildcats do have a few things going for them. The Wildcats were in that "others receiving votes" section of the preseason poll — they have since stopped receiving any votes — indicating that some coaches out there think the team could make some noise.

Sophomore outside hitter Stephanie Holtus, named to the All-Big Ten Preseason Team, is the team’s leader on offense, ranking sixth in the NCAA in kills per set (4.93) and eighth in points per set (5.56). Redshirt freshman middle blocker Katie Dutchman ranks 18th in the NCAA in blocks per set (1.44).

Redshirt junior Madalyn Shalter takes over as setter from the now-graduated Elyse Glab, who was a four-year starter. Rounding up the starting lineup are senior outside hitter Alex Ayers, redshirt junior middle blocker Kathryn Chrystal, freshman opposite hitter Hannah Crippen and junior libero Julie Chin. Freshman outside hitter Yewande Akanbi and freshman Caroline Niedospial are also seeing a lot of time on the court early on.

No doubt the Wildcats are young, and they face a brutal Big Ten schedule, which begins Sept. 23. I don’t think NU will be able to hang with pre-season favorite Penn StateIllinoisMinnesotaNebraska and Purdue. But what do I know? Don’t answer that.

Who are the coaches? Keylor Chan is in his 12th season with the Wildcats, and in that span, he has led the Wildcats to four NCAA tournament appearances. His first, in 2002, was the program's first postseason berth since 1984. In fact, prior to his arrival in 2000, NU hadn't experienced a winning season since 1990.

Chan is a 1995 Florida graduate, where as a student, he served as an "undergrad assistant coach" for the Floridawomen's varsity team, a perennial powerhouse. He spent a year as an assistant at Kent State in 1996, before joining the NU staff for two years as an assistant. He then became the head coach of Furman for a season, going 18-15, before landing the head coaching gig at NU. His career record stands at 182-200.

Assistant coaches Kirstine Jensen and Aaron Smith are both in their third years at NU. Jensen, a 1997 Ohio Stategrad, coaches the outside hitters and serves as recruiting coordinator, while Jensen, a 2007 Penn State grad, is the video coordinator.