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Five storylines ahead of the opening weekend of NCAA women’s volleyball

Women’s volleyball opens its 2021 season with one long-asked question already having been answered earlier this year: When would the SEC win its first NCAA championship in this sport? Kentucky did it in April. That concluded the strangest of volleyball seasons, all due to COVID-19.

Normally a fall sport with its championship in December, volleyball’s 2020 season instead was a patchwork spread across eight months and two calendar years. Some conferences, including the ACC, SEC and Big 12, had matches in 2020, while others such as the Big Ten and Pac-12 didn’t begin play until January 2021.

The season ended in Omaha, Nebraska, with a pared-down NCAA tournament field of 48 — which didn’t sit well with volleyball’s coaches and players — and complaints about the quality of practice courts and other tournament conditions that echoed similar issues brought to light a month earlier at the NCAA women’s basketball tournament in San Antonio.

Now, four months later, the path to the 2021 championship begins. The favorites include names you expect, led by preseason Nos. 1-4 Texas, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Washington, which were the semifinalists this spring. The Big Ten and Pac-12, each with six teams in the AVCA preseason rankings, remain the powerhouse leagues and will have much to do with who advances to the semifinals in Columbus, Ohio, Dec. 16-18.

Here are five storylines to follow as the women’s volleyball season launches this weekend.

1. Can Kentucky repeat its championship?

Kentucky’s championship didn’t come out of the blue — forgive the pun — but it also wasn’t the result many expected. The Wildcats had been a good program knocking on the door of the final four for a long time under coach Craig Skinner, and they went into the program’s 22nd NCAA tournament last spring having lost just one match. But historically, they were carrying the weight of “almost” with them: The SEC previously had 11 appearances in the final four, led by Florida’s eight. But no national championship.

Kentucky didn’t play with any of that weight, though. Led by setter Madison Lilley, the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s national player of the year, Kentucky got 3-1 wins over Washington and Texas in the national semifinals and final.

Three senior starters from last season aren’t returning, although the NCAA allowed players to have an extra year to account for the impact COVID-19 had on the 2020-21 season. Lilley and libero Gabby Curry have finished their college careers. Outside hitter Avery Skinner transferred to her home state of Texas to play her final season at Baylor, where her father, former NBA player Brian Skinner, played collegiately.

However, don’t write off the Wildcats. They return 11 letter winners, including kills leader Alli Stumler and blocks leader Azhani Tealer. The biggest position question for the Wildcats is setter, which will be handled by senior Cameron Scheitzach and freshman Emma Grome.

Among nonconference matches, they have trips to Wisconsin and Louisville, and visits from USC and Stanford. They will conclude regular-season play with back-to-back matches at home against SEC rival Florida, which is ranked No. 6 in the preseason poll.

2. Will another program’s long quest end with an NCAA title?

Kentucky broke through, but Wisconsin and Florida are still waiting. The Badgers have lost the NCAA championship match three times, most recently in 2019, and the Gators twice, most recently in 2017. Wisconsin and Florida met in the elite eight last season, with the Badgers winning 3-2. The programs are still perennial national contenders that bring a lot to the sport, but you would like to see both get a chance to have the ultimate celebration.

Wisconsin lost just once last season, but at the worst time: The Badgers were swept by Texas in the national semifinals. They bring back the dynamic duo of 6-foot-8 middle blocker Dana Rettke and setter Sydney Hilley, both playing their fifth season. Wisconsin is the unanimous pick to win the ultra-difficult Big Ten, which they did last year at 15-0 and in 2019 at 18-2.

Wisconsin starts this weekend hosting the Big Ten/Big 12 Challenge in Madison, facing TCU on Friday and No. 10 Baylor on Saturday. Another key nonconference matchup will be against visiting Kentucky on Sept. 10. Florida is picked second behind the Wildcats in the SEC but has the most players (four) on the preseason all-conference team. The Gators return six starters, led by outside hitters T’ara Caesar and Thayer Hall, their points leaders from last season. The Gators will get some strong nonconference tests: From Aug. 31 to Sept. 15, they’ll face No. 21 Stanford, No. 7 Minnesota, No. 10 Baylor twice and in-state rival Florida State.

3. Will seniors who are returning for a fifth year have a big impact?

Absolutely. Eight of the nine seniors on last season’s AVCA All-American first team are back: Wisconsin’s Rettke and Hilley, Skinner (was at Kentucky, now at Baylor), 2020 Pac-12 player of the year Dani Drews of Utah, 2020 Big Ten player of the year Stephanie Samedy of Minnesota, Washington’s Samantha Drechsel, Baylor’s Yossiana Pressley and Nebraska’s Lauren Stivrins. The only one not returning is Kentucky’s Lilley.

However, for No. 1 Texas the key players are seniors this season (not fifth year): 2020 Big 12 player of the year Logan Eggleston and Brionne Butler, who were both first-team All-Americans, and Jhenna Gabriel, a third-team All-American. Also back are juniors Skylar Fields, Asjia O’Neal and Molly Phillips, who with Eggleston and Butler composed the Longhorns’ five top point scorers last season. In short, Texas is loaded.

The Longhorns went through a Big Ten gauntlet in the NCAA tournament last season, beating Penn State, Nebraska and Wisconsin in succession. Then they took the first set against Kentucky in the championship match and seemed on their way to the program’s third NCAA title. But the Wildcats won the next three sets, and the Longhorns were left with another NCAA tournament frustration. This season, though, they are right back at the top.

4. Will nine-time NCAA champion Stanford bounce back?

Of course, because it’s Stanford. For non-volleyball fans, we’ll make this analogy: Seeing Stanford start with “No. 21” next to its name is like seeing that for Alabama football. Until last season’s unranked finish, the Cardinal had never been ranked lower than No. 19 (in 2000) in the final AVCA poll and had finished out of the top 10 only six times total in 37 seasons of the rankings, which began in 1983.

But last season was the proverbial perfect storm: The Cardinal had lost the superstar senior class that led them to three NCAA titles in the previous four years. And because of COVID-19 restrictions, Stanford played just 10 matches, finishing 2-8. It was the first time since the NCAA tournament began for women’s volleyball in 1981 that Stanford didn’t make the field; now the only program that has been to every tournament is No. 12 Penn State.

This is about as close as Stanford gets to “rebuilding,” picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 behind Washington, UCLA and Oregon and with just one player, junior opposite hitter Kendall Kipp, on the preseason all-conference team. But with Kipp and six other players who were with the program when it won the 2019 national championship, plus an influx of younger talent, Stanford likely won’t take too long to climb back up to its more familiar perch.

5. What impact will the news NIL rules have on the sport?

Although the Athletes Unlimited indoor league launched in the United States this past year, American volleyball players mostly need to go overseas to play professionally and make a living. The chance to make money through name, image and likeness could help some of them financially, though, before leaving college.

Nebraska is a good example. The five-time NCAA champion Huskers are extremely popular, with the names of top players recognized statewide. That can make them especially appealing to Nebraska-based businesses. Fifth-year Nebraska senior Lexi Sun, for instance, now has deals with clothing and jewelry companies, the latter based in Omaha.

How many endorsement opportunities volleyball players get are likely to correlate a lot with how much attention the programs receive in their areas of the country. But for a sport that’s always looking to get a little more attention nationally, NIL deals can’t hurt.

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