In this article, PrepVolleyball.com writer Chris Tobolski recaps his top five stories of the 2016 college season:
5. Unpredictability of the Pac-12
The standings took shape late in the season, settling down after a wild start in which anything could happen and often did. When the dust settled Washington was the champ, at 16-4. It was only the second time in conference history the champion finished on top with four losses (2009 was the other). It was only the fourth time the Pac-12 champ had three or more losses.
So bunched was the race eight schools finished within six games of each other. USC and Arizona tied for seventh at 10-10, six games back of Washington. Stanford and UCLA were one game back of Washington, while fourth-place Oregon was 13-7 and finished just two games ahead of Washington State and Utah, which went 11-9.
Last season, when USC and Washington shared the title at 18-2, both were 10 games clear of eighth-place Arizona State.
As the Pac-12 pack continued beating each other up, it was viewed as a down year for the conference. However, given that Stanford ultimately claimed the National Championship and both UCLA and Washington reached the Elite Eight, perhaps the conference was under-appreciated.
4. Big Ten trio rules
That neither Nebraska, Minnesota nor Wisconsin captured the National Championship can’t take away from the dominance the Big Ten trio displayed in 2016. No other school held the No. 1 spot in PVB’s Top 50 Rankings until the very end, when Stanford grabbed it after claiming the title.
The trio spent a total of six weeks ranked Nos. 1, 2 and 3, in some order, in our Top 50. Five more times, all three were ranked in the Top 5, where they remained from our Week 4 Rankings through the rest of the season. Their combined record was 88-12 overall and 52-8 in Big Ten competition.
3. Creighton does it again
A season after reaching the Sweet 16, Creighton was back at it in 2016. The Bluejays reached the Elite Eight, which eclipsed last year’s postseason mark as the best in program history. Creighton was relatively solid throughout the season as it adjusted to transfer setter Lydia Dimke, but did have shaky moments early on.
Wichita State upset Creighton in the season opener. The Bluejays also lost to USC and Kentucky. But after narrowly missing out on upending Kansas and falling in five, it set the stage for what proved to be a postseason rematch when the two programs met in Round 2, in Lawrence again.
This time, Creighton wasn’t going to be denied and ended Kansas’ year prematurely. The Bluejays were back in the Sweet 16 but they had bigger plans. Michigan was in the way, but it didn’t matter as Creighton raised the bar another level, downing the Wolverines in five games and reaching the program’s first Elite Eight.
The Power 5 Conferences get plenty of attention but Creighton is showing how it can be done from the outside.
2. Sweet 16 Madness and Beyond
The Final Four shouldn’t have been made up of Texas, Nebraska or Stanford. Minnesota avoided any close calls, but the other three all overcame improbable odds to survive and advance. It made for the most dramatic weekend of the season as the events unfolded.
It began when top-seeded Nebraska fell behind against Penn State, trailing 2-0 and down 24-22 in Game 3. Staring at a stunning sweep, Nebraska didn’t blink. The Huskers fought off both match points and came back to win in five games.
The Sweet 16 comebacks continued as Wisconsin was down to Ohio State, 2-1 and 19-14 in Game 4. It looked over for the Badgers but Wisconsin produced the unlikely rally as well to advance.
Then, Texas let two match points get away and failed to sweep BYU in yet another Sweet 16 showdown. BYU them held two match points of its own at 14-12 in the fifth set, only to watch Texas score the final four points to secure the victory.
It should have been over for all three, no doubt.
A day later, Stanford was down 2-0 against Wisconsin before coming back in five. Another team that could have been knocked out that wasn’t.
The storylines could have been so different if a few points go the other way.
1. Stanford/Texas overcome key losses and play for title
Stanford – starting four freshmen in Kat Plummer, Jenna Gray, Morgan Hentz and Audriana Fitzmorris – is the top story of 2016. The Cardinal figured it out at the right time and proved unbeatable in the final weeks of the season. On its own, it’s remarkable. Yet, with the loss of Hayley Hodson earlier in the season it makes it almost unbelievable. At no point did Stanford look like a championship contender, until reaching the Final Four.
Texas found its stride much in the same way Stanford did. The Longhorns lost a key player in Chiaka Ogbogu and didn’t look like a true contender as it struggled at times through Big 12 action. However, Texas came alive when needed and delivered its best performance of the season in sweeping Nebraska in the semis.
That Stanford and Texas turned in the seasons they did overcoming the adversity they did helped make 2016 one to remember.