College News

College: Previewing and Predicting the “Games of the Week”

South Carolinian Thayer Hall makes her return to the Palmetto State in a Florida Gator uniform. Will it be a victorious homecoming? We opine inside

Photo Taylor Greenberry

Every Friday, will look at some interesting match ups for the coming weekend and make predictions about their outcomes.

Last week was a second straight below average effort for your feckless soothsayer. After a string of 5-2 weeks, I appear to be mired in a 4-3 rut. I am heartened that my Upset Special, Rutgers over Ohio State, came SO VERY CLOSE to coming to fruition. Alas, the Buckeyes rallied from down two sets to one to take it.

Undaunted, I take a look at seven more matches this week and try, once again, to predict a significant upset.

Spotlight Match of the Week

No. 9 Florida (15-3) at No. 38 South Carolina (14-2) – Friday

Florida was picked near the top of the SEC in the pre-season, South Carolina in the middle, but this one has all the makings of a down-to-the-wire thriller in Columbia.

The trends all favor the Gators, who finished second in the NCAA Tournament a year ago. They are on an 11-match winning streak, are 55-7 all-time versus South Carolina, including 25-5 on the road, and haven’t lost to the Gamecocks in 13 years.

On top of that, the match marks the return to South Carolina of Thayer Hall, last year’s consensus top recruit from Dorman High. She leads Florida in kills per set.

Recently, Florida has relied heavily on the right side attack of tall Holly Carlton, who stands 6-7. She and big-blocking middles Taelor Kellum and 6-8 Rachael Kramer are a formidable front line.

South Carolina is 5-1 in the SEC and most recently defeated a Texas A&M team it was 1-10 against previously. The Gamecocks are paced by libero Aubrey Ezell, one of the top servers in the nation; and the high-scoring pin tandem of Mikayla Shields on the right and Brittany McLean on the left.  

The verdict: Yes, Florida is unbeaten in conference play and hasn’t lost a match since Sept. 7. But the Gators have been shaky the last two times out, being extended to five sets both times, and now must try to score in volume against the athletic block of Mikayla Robinson. We think Hall might struggle with expectations and Robinson’s big block. Shields has a big night taking sets from Courtney Koehler and South Carolina rallies to win in five sets.

Other Matches We Like

UC Santa Barbara
(12-7) at No. 7 Cal Poly (16-1) — Friday

Nationally-ranked Cal Poly takes on perhaps the only team in the Big West Conference that has the firepower to hang with them in the first Blue-Green rivalry match of the season. UCSB has won four of its past six matches and its only losses during that stretch have come in five sets, so the Gauchos could make a game of it.

The problem for Santa Barbara is Cal Poly is playing on its home court and the Mustangs do not lose at home, winners of 17 straight in San Luis Obispo dating back to 2016. Cal Poly, which trails the all-time series, 49-30, also have won five of the past six meetings.

Look for Santa Barbara’s freshman setter, Olivia Lovenberg, to get the ball often to OH Lindsey Ruddins, who is second nationally in kills. Cal Poly will counter with its own freshman assist maker, Avalon DeNechochea, setting prolific hitter Torrey Van Winden.

UCSB will need a supreme effort from libero Emilia Petrachi, the school’s career digs leader, to slow Van Winden down. The problem UCSB faces is that Cal Poly also has another Van Winden, Adlee Van Winden, who is capable of picking up the offensive slack. And the Mustangs also boast Madi Mercer in the middle, a big blocker as well as attacking threat.

The verdict: UCSB has a shot. The Gauchos are much more competitive than they have been for the better part of the past five years. But with Cal Poly at home and riding a 15-match winning streak and 23-match Big West unbeaten streak, it may just be too tough a task. Cal Poly drops the first set but rebounds to win in four.

Appalachian State
(13-5) at No. 30 Texas State (16-5) — Friday

Appalachian State heads to Texas for two this weekend as a hot team, having won seven of its past eight. But Friday, the Mountaineers face an even hotter team at home, the Texas State Bobcats, winners of 11 matches in succession.

It has already been an incredible year for App State, which won only 12 matches in 2017 after victories in just four contests in 2016. The Mountaineers are led offensively by setter Becky Porter and OH Emma Longley and defensively by middle Kara Spicer and libero Emma Reilly.

Two newcomers are fueling the Texas State surge: freshman setter Emily DeWalt, who has been at least as good as advertised; and pin Cheyenne Huskey, the Florida transfer who is a terrific offensive complement to kill leader Amy Pflughaupt.

The verdict: Texas State has ruled the Sun Belt Conference since joining two years ago and is unbeaten in conference so far in 2018. App State poses a challenge, but the Bobcats have handled everything thrown their way since losing consecutive matches to Power 5 powerhouses Texas and Kentucky back-to-back in early September. Texas State drops a set but wins the match, in four.

Fairfield (8-10) at No. 63 Iona (9-5) — Friday

The MAAC regular-season title might be determined Friday when the Stags travel to play at Iona. Fairfield is the defending MAAC champion while the Gaels currently rest atop the conference in 2018.

The teams played already this season, with Fairfield winning in four at home on Sept. 23. That was the only conference loss for Iona, which has since won five straight. Fairfield was 7-0 in conference play before losses last weekend to Canisius and Niagara snapped a 58-match conference unbeaten streak.

Fairfield is led by the hitting tandem of Luci Albertson and Mayda Garcia and setter Alexis Rich. Iona’s Claire Archibald, the pre-season pick for conference POY, has been on fire of late both as a hitter and defender. Libero Jessica Paolucci also has been terrific for the Gaels.

The verdict: Iona is at home and hungry for revenge. We say the Gaels even the season series but not without a serious fight. Iona in five sets.

Valparaiso (18-3) at Illinois State (13-5) — Friday

It’s a battle of the two teams chasing Northern Iowa in the Missouri Valley Conference on Friday night.

Valpo won a total of 17 matches all of last year but already has 18, tied for the second highest total in all of Division I. The Crusaders, who returned five starters plus standout libero Rylee Cookerly from last year’s squad, are led by setter Brittany Anderson, who also plays softball for Valpo and hit .231 and a homer last season. OH Katherine Carlson, who has more than 1,000 career kills and digs, Allison Ketcham and Peyton McCarthy are other players to watch at the net.

Despite its loss to UNI last weekend, Illinois State remains one of the most underappreciated teams in the country. The Redbirds, who are led offensively by setter Stef Jankiewicz and pin Kaylee Martin and on defense by terrific Courtney Pence,
have a win over SEC school Auburn and losses only to ranked teams Wisconsin, Marquette and Washington State as well as once-ranked Georgia.

The verdict: Illinois State is 5-2 all-time versus Valpo and is at home. But being on the road doesn’t matter to the Crusaders, who are 6-1 at home, 6-1 on the road and 6-1 in neutral-court matches this year. This could be a nail biter. Illinois State hangs on to win in five.

Loyola Marymount (15-3) at Pepperdine (12-5) — Saturday

Two teams fighting for second place behind national No. 1 BYU in the WCC face off in Malibu on Saturday. Last year, the teams split matches, with each winning on the other’s home floor.

LMU comes to Pepperdine having won four straight. The Lions are paced offensively by amazing setter Tess Reid, who is averaging 12.55 assists per set; hitters Savannah Slattery and Sara Kovac and libero Kekai Whitford.

Pepperdine also is riding a four-match winning streak. The Waves also have a terrific setter, the tenacious Blossom Sato. Pepperdine matches LMU on defense with libero Hana Lishman. The Waves hold the edge on pin firepower, where the trio of Hannah Frohling, Rachel Ahrens and Shannon Scully may not have a peer in the conference.

The verdict: Pepperdine leads the all-time series 54-24 and holds a one-game edge currently for second in the WCC. We think it’s two after Saturday. Pepperdine wins it in four sets.

No. 31 Florida State (9-7) at No. 37 Syracuse (9-5) — Sunday

Potent offense takes on a massive block when the Seminoles and Orange clash on Sunday. Florida State has won all seven matches in the series, none of which went the distance.

Florida State is a hot team, heading to the weekend winners of five of its last six, the lone blemish at the hands of national No. 3 Pittsburgh. The Seminoles pack an offensive punch, led by Payton Caffrey, Christina Ambrose and Taryn Knuth.

Syracuse also is a hot team and has won six of its last seven, also losing only to Pitt. Freshman Polina Shemanova has been a prolific scorer for the Orange, who put up the ACC’s best block behind the tandem of Amber Witherspoon and Santita Ebangwese.

The verdict: Two hot teams…something’s gotta give. The ‘Cuse is at home, but the ‘Noles always beat the Orange. Florida State’s setters are really good. They make the offense go. FSU in four.

More Intriguing Matches of Note:


James Madison/College of Charleston
Stanford/Washington State


Iowa State/TCU
Kansas/Texas Tech
Nebraska/Penn State
Portland/St. Mary’s



Upset Special!

Central Michigan/Miami (Ohio) (Saturday) – Central Michigan is at home tomorrow night to one of the leaders in the Mid-America Conference. On paper, the Chips don’t stand a chance. Miami has won four straight in the series and CMU comes in at 3-16 overall and riding a 10-match losing streak. But Central Michigan is not without talent and Mike Gawlik’s team is very young. This is a great spot for an upset.

“I think our growth has been in the ‘roots’ of our team more than the ‘branches’ thus far,” said Gawlik. “It’s hard for people on the outside to see the growth of your roots when they judge you based on the branches.  We will get there.  Our roots will help us grow tall and strong in time.”

We predict the time is now. There are five Michiganders on Miami’s roster. The young Chippewas will want to show them a thing or two. CMU breaks the streak by winning in four sets.



Every week, we’ll keep a running total of how I am doing on my picks. I’ll be hoping for praise while taking my licks.

Week 7 record: 4-3
Upset Special 0-1
Season to Date:
Season to date: 30-19 overall; 2-5 in Upset Specials

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