Last week, we generated excitement and discussion by forecasting our Sweet Sixteen Division I college volleyball teams for 2019. Today, it gets a little more problematic as we unveil our Sweet Sixteen for 2020.
We understand how much we don’t currently know as of this moment in time, especially when making assumptions about rosters two years from now that will be comprised of current college freshmen and sophomores and current high school juniors and seniors, rosters that will be further shaped by player movement, injuries and foreign talent. But that’s what makes it fun!
Without further ado, here are our Sweet Sixteen for the 2020 season:
Let’s start with the mighty Big Ten Conference, which seems to be getting mightier and mightier. We have six from the B1G getting to the second weekend and that does not include Michigan, Michigan State, Illinois, Northwestern and Maryland, which could also have that kind of success.
By 2020, Nebraska could be aiming for its sixth straight Final Four appearance behind a terrific group of outsides, led by Lexi Sun, Capri Davis and Madi Kubik, and two terrific defenders, Megan Miller and Kenzie Knuckles. Add 2018 starters Lauren Stivrins, Callie Schwarzenbach in the middle, Nicklin Hames at setter and Jazz Sweet on the right and you have our favorites to win the title!
Did you see how many impact sophomores were in Wisconsin’s starting lineup? They will be seniors in 2020. That means Sydney Hilley at setter, Dana Rettke in the middle and Molly Haggerty and Grace Loberg on the pins. Add another MacDonald (Anna) to the defense and several very capable and dynamic options to fill the MB2 and right side positions and this is a Badger team that looks to be Final Four-bound as well.
Penn State had the top-ranked freshman class this year, meaning the Nittany Lions should be brutes by the time these athletes are juniors. RS Jonni Parker, who also sets; middles Kaitlyn Hord and Serena Gray, OH Allyson Cathey and defender Jenna Hampton all contributed significantly in 2018. That freshman class also included setter Gabby Blossom, the 2017 Andi Collins Award winner, who should start next year; fast Amanda Phegley, who could challenge for a spot in the middle or transition to the right; and defender Brooklynn Hill. Without more, that would be enough, but Penn State also will have a new crop of outsides, including athletic Sydney Ferguson, hard-hitting Lauren Clark and ball-control wiz Gabi Bailey, among others, to give the coaches that much more flexibility.
Ohio State had a down 2018, in large part because of injuries, but the Buckeyes have good talent in Columbus that is on the verge of getting very capable reinforcements. Imagine how good a team will be that has Becca Mauer and Machaela Podraza as setters, Kylie Murr and Hannah Gruensfelder on defense and Mia Grunze and Gabby Gonzales on the left side? And that doesn’t even mention the middles, which could arguably be the team’s strongest and deepest position, with Lauren Witte, Emily Londot, Rylee Rader and Reilly MacNeill.
Setter Melani Shaffmaster and OH Taylor Landfair will arrive in 2020 for Minnesota, making the Golden Gophers a national title contender. Those two will join a core that will include senior RS Stephanie Samedy, senior MB Regan Pittman, junior OH Adanna Rollins, junior libero CC McGraw and sophomore DS Rachel Kilkelly. That assemblage wins a lot of matches, perhaps a natty if MB Shea Rubright is as good as advertised or Jazz Martin takes the next step.
Purdue is my final pick from the B1G. The Boilers will have GREAT defense with Marissa Hornung, Jena Otec, Julianna Reissinger among a deeper than deep group. Starting setter Hayley Bush had a great freshman year and will get competition from tall Megan Renner. By 2020, Jael Johnson will be established in the middle and get help from three talented freshmen, including recent commit Lourdes Myers, an athletic freak. Grace Cleveland will continue to grow as an outside hitter and be joined than no fewer than five other dynamic pin talents: Emma Ellis, Maddie Koch, Caitlyn Newton, Garrett Joiner and Maddy Chinn.
To that six from the B1G we’ll add three from the mid-major ranks: BYU, Creighton and Dayton.
Watching how BYU’s young middles, Heather Gneiting and Kennedy Eschenberg, played last weekend to help the Cougars get to this year’s Final Four, it’s easy to see just how nasty this duo (or trio given the presence of freshman middle Whitney McEwan) will be in 2020. BYU also will have Madi Robinson as a high-scoring pin along with Taylen Ballard and high-ceiling freshmen, Leilani Dodson; dynamic Kate Grimmer on the right and two Bower Sisters, Morgan and Whitney, to compete for the setter and libero positions.
Creighton was senior-heavy on the pins in 2018, which limited the chances of three talented freshmen strikers. By 2020, Jaela Zimmerman, Keeley Davis and Kari Zumach should all be established stars. Four excellent middles, including freshman Kiara Reinhardt; and a host of top defenders should make the Bluejays formidable again. The only question mark is at setter but that was supposed to be the case this year before Madelyn Cole transferred in and owned the position.
Dayton, from the Atlantic 10, is my dark horse pick for the Sweet Sixteen. The Flyers have terrific coaches and will have the kind of talent in 2020 to make this kind of run. Look for current freshmen Alli Papesh (OH) and Amelia Moore (MB) to lead the way on a team that will be very deep at the setter position, paced by current starter Brooke Westbeld back for her senior year. Exciting Lexie Almodovar and steady Maura Collins are two of a stable of defenders capable of extending rallies.
The other four Power 5 conferences will split our final seven selections.
From the ACC, we like Louisville! The Cardinals should feature heady Shannon Shields setting on the pin to jumping jacks Anna DeBeer and Nena Mbonu, with Amaya Tillman anchoring the middle. Defense should be a strength with Alexis Hamilton, Kelly O’Neill and Ayden Bartlett. Middles Emily Scott and Piper Roe and OH Claire Chaussee are others with impact potential.
Of course, the University of Texas will be there from the Big 12. No team has more high-level talent year in and year out than the Longhorns. If everyone stays, here is a team that will thump from the pins with the likes of Logan Eggleston, Skylar Fields and Madison Williams and be stout in the middle (Brionne Butler, Asjia O’Neal, Blair Westerlund) and on defense (Sydney Petersen, Nalani Iosia). At the setting position, current sophomore Ashley Shook and current freshmen Jhenna Gabriel, both of whom started at times this year, will be challenged by silky smooth freshman Naomi Cabello.
My other Big 12 team is a bit of a surprise and that’s Texas Christian. I think the world of Jill Kramer and see her putting a roster on the floor in 2020 that not only is considered a lock for the tournament but a serious threat to win one round, maybe three. ‘elan McCall, who was unstoppable when healthy in this, her freshman year, will be a superstar in 2020 and lead a team of very talented pin hitters that will also include Allye Beth Deaton, Julia Adams and Audrey Nalls. The Horned Frogs also will be deep at middle, led by Katie Clark and Sarah Swanson, and have terrific setting choices in Tori Dilfer and McKenzie Nichols. I also like the defense, which will feature Berklie Baker and Ina Ingnacio.
Turning to the SEC, you’ve got to have Florida in the mix. Paige Hammons and Thayer Hall both will return to the left, with Holly Carlton and Haley Warner on the right. How scary is that!? Marlie Monserez could set a 5-1 with this group or it might be Birdie Hendrickson (or both!). The defense will be top-drawer and the middle position will have size and athleticism. This team could be amazing…
My coaching panel is skeptical of Missouri being in the mix in 2020 but count me a believer. Three sophomores, Leketor Member-Meneh, Dariana Hollingsworth and Kylie Deberg, powered the attack from the pins this year and all will return for their senior seasons. So, too, will starting middle Tyanna Omazic and dynamic Kayla Caffey, who missed all of 2018 with an injury. The setter position was handled this year by a freshman, Andrea Fuentes. She’ll be a veteran assist maker by 2020.
I round things out with two from the Pac-12, Washington and Stanford.
Washington will bring back four 2018 starters, setter Ella May Powell, pins Samantha Drechsel and Claire Hoffman and middle Lauren Sanders, plus highly-regarded middles Marin Grote and Sophie Summers and power-hitting Madison Endsley. 6-2 OH Shannon Crenshaw also figures in the mix, perhaps at libero and she is a sensational passer.
The “Fab Four” of Kathryn Plummer, Jenna Gray, Morgan Hentz and Audriana Fitzmorris will have graduated in 2020 but the Cardinal should still be in position. Sophomore OH Meghan McClure and freshman middle Holly Campbell are current starters and impact players on the nation’s No. 1 team. Stanford’s 2019 class, which features outsides Caitie Baird and Natalie Berty, setter Selina Xu, RS/MB Kendall Kipp and MB McKenna Vicini, could be rated No. 1 in the May Top 30 Recruiting Class Rankings. And there are a couple in the pipeline for 2020, which includes a middle and OH/libero. When added to the other talent still there like Kate Formico, Mackenzie Fidelak and Michaela Keefe, this is a deep and versatile roster capable of continuing the current run of high-level play.
Among the teams that just missed, besides those from the Big Ten mentioned above, are these:
Remember, this is just for fun. Who knows what’s really going to happen in 2020? All I know is I will tuck this article away, where it shall remain for two years when I either announce myself as a genius or someone else reveals me to be a fraud!