With the 2018 NCAA Division I Sweet Sixteen only a day away, let’s have some fun and project the 16 teams that will be in this elite company one year from now, the 2019 Sweet Sixteen.
Admittedly, there is a lot we don’t know as of this moment in time. There will be injuries and player movement and coaching changes that undoubtedly will impact the fortunes of teams next fall. Touted recruits might not pan out right away. Less-heralded recruits could surprise. Foreign players might come in and make a huge impact. Bench warmers in 2018 could make quantum leaps and become standouts or even megastars in 2019.
So take this with a grain of salt and understand that the thinking will change over time. I do not expect to be 100% right here, only mostly right.
I started by looking at the 2017 Sweet Sixteen and comparing it to this year’s group. Only 10 of the 16 are the same. Of those 10, here are the locks to return to the Sweet Sixteen in 2019, in no particular order:
Stanford – The current No. 1 team graduates only one middle position, returns its four junior superstars along with OH Meghan McClure and MB Holly Campbell and has a top-ranked recruiting class coming to Palo Alto.
Texas – Two veteran producers, MB Morgan Johnson and RS Yaazie Bedart-Ghani, will graduate but everyone else returns, including Big 12 POY Micaya White and Big 12 Freshman of the Year Logan Eggleston. Coach Jerritt Elliott also brings back multiple options at setter, a freshman libero who did well and has the kind of plug-and-play talent on the bench and coming in (No. 1 recruit Skylar Fields) that allows the Longhorns to rebuild year after year.
Minnesota – The Golden Gophers will surely miss four-year starter and Big Ten POY Samantha Seliger-Swenson. There are setters in the fold, but this will be a question mark going into the season (unless the team can persuade an experienced collegiate setter to transfer in). Everyone else is back, including RS Stephanie Samedy, MB Regan Pittman, OHs Alexis Hart and Adanna Rollins and libero CC McGraw.
Wisconsin – The Badgers will graduate only MB Tionna Williams and has talent behind her capable of stepping in, like Dani Hart or Nicole Shanahan or 6-7 Julia Wohlert. Otherwise, Kelly Sheffield’s team is loaded, with a star setter in Sydney Hilley, strong defense, capable, experienced pin hitting and 6-8 MB Dana Rettke, one of the elite middles in the country.
Nebraska – The ‘Huskers graduate their all-world outside, Mikaela Foecke, and terrific libero Kenzie Maloney, but everyone else is back. Maloney’s loss is significant, but there is backcourt talent primed to step in and excel. Foecke is another story. Capri Davis and rising freshman Madi Kubik are capable, but those are big shoes to fill. Still, with the return of Lauren Stivrins and Callie Schwarzenbach to the middle, Nicklin Hames at setter, Jazz Sweet on the right and a healthy year from OH Lexi Sun, John Cook’s team should again be ready to challenge for it all.
Kentucky – MB Brooke Morgan was amazing for the Wildcats in 2018, but she’s the only starter that Craig Skinner graduates off of a 26-4 team that’s won 23 matches in a row. Notably, Kentucky returns its two superstars, setter Madison Lilley and OH Leah Edmond, and also brings back standouts like libero Gabby Curry and OH Alli Stumler.
Florida – The Gators are set for 2019. Yes, Taelor Kellum, who emerged this year as a big-blocking middle, will graduate. So, too, will Allie Monserez, half of an effective setting tandem with her sister. But Marlie Monserez, at 6-0, is ready to assume the fulltime role. And ultra-athletic Darrielle King should be as good as or better than Kellum. If that’s so, with everyone else back – Rachael Kramer, Paige Hammons, Thayer Hall, Holly Carlton – and a deep, good defense, this is a team that could make it to Pittsburgh (site of the 2019 Final Four) and contend for the title.
That makes seven. I then looked in depth at this year’s Sweet Sixteen and added these two:
Washington – The Huskies may have been a surprise in this year’s Sweet Sixteen, but they won’t be next year. When they take the floor tomorrow, there will not be a senior in the group. With the likes of Kara Bajema, Sam Drechsel, Lauren Sanders and Avie Niece back on the front line and the first two contacts in good hands with Shayne McPherson and Ella May Powell, this team’s future is set.
Oregon – The Ducks graduate three starters, including kill leader Lindsey Vander Weide, but we’ve been writing all year about how deep Matt Ulmer’s team is. That will serve Oregon well next year. August Raskie did a great job setting the team, but freshman Kylie Robinson was No. 8 in the Senior Aces and will fill the void. Lauren Page came on strong as a springy senior middle, but 6-4 freshman Karson Bacon, No. 11 in the Aces, could be even better. Replacing Vander Weide is more problematic. Two freshies, Alex Laita and Taylor Williams, will vie for the position and Ulmer has Jolie Rasmussen back after rehabbing an injury in 2018. The team will return its entire blue-chip defense and “the blockinator,” Ronika Stone. Oregon will be just fine.
That gets me to nine.
Next, I examined the four national seeds that were upset in either Round 1 or Round 2 this year. Of those, I added these two:
USC – The Women of Troy were dinged a little at the end of this year, which may have contributed to their Round 2 demise. But expect a return to the top 10 next year behind hitters Brooke Botkin and Khalia Lanier and Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Raquel Lazaro at setter. USC graduates its libero, but has capable in-house help to fill in. And head coach Brent Crouch brings in Madison Horin, who should make an immediate impact in the vacant middle blocker position.
Pittsburgh – The ACC-champion Panthers lost only twice this year, the second in Round 2 to Michigan in five in a match they were missing leading hitter Kayla Lund after she got hurt the night before. Put Lund in the lineup and this team makes the Sweet Sixteen this year and is a no-brainer pick for at least the same status in 2019. Only two starters graduate off the team: a setter in a 6-2 offense who will be replaced by her sister, who is probably better; and the team’s libero. If the defense holds, look for Pitt to be in the Sweet Sixteen conversation for 2019.
That takes me to 11.
This one does not go to 11, however, but to 16.
Over the past eight years or so, the vaunted Big Ten Conference has been represented by at least five, and usually six, teams in the Sweet Sixteen. So I will add these two teams to get to five:
Purdue – The Boilers will graduate their libero, but there are fantastic defenders still in the fold and the team won’t miss a beat there. Head coach Dave Shondell will need to replace tall RS terminator Sherridan Atkinson. There is talent and position flexibility in-house to lessen the blow as well as the imminent arrival of dynamic hitters Emma Ellis and Maddie Koch.
Penn State – The Nittany Lions are one of those five teams to be in each of the last six Sweet Sixteens and I could have put them as a lock with the top seven. After all, Russ Rose’s squad did bring in the top-ranked class last year, five of whom were significant contributors, and it is Penn State after all. But I admit to being worried, not so much about the graduation of Bryanna Weiskircher at the setter position. The combination of Jonni Parker and Gabby Blossom should work well there. But what will the team do about the loss of OHs Taylor Leath and Nia Reed? Allyson Cathey, one of those fab freshmen, returns and three strikers are coming to Happy Valley – Lauren Clark, Sydney Ferguson and Gabi Bailey – but I just don’t know…
The number is 13, which is unlucky, so let’s finish with three final teams to get to Sweet. I contemplated several teams, including BYU, Creighton, UCF, Michigan, UCLA, Cal Poly, Hawaii, Notre Dame, Marquette, South Carolina, Kansas, Ohio State and Marquette, before ultimately deciding on these three:
Baylor – The Bears came within a breath of this year’s Sweet Sixteen with a team that had only one senior, OH Aniah Philo, in the starting lineup. Look for Maryland transfer Gia Milana to move over from right to left next year to pair with high flyer Yossiana Pressley and for the team to be very potent in the middle with rising senior Shelly Fanning as well as incoming freshman Kara McGhee, one of the top recruits in the nation.
Missouri – The Tigers were a top 25 team for much of the year but, after defeating Arizona, 3-0, in the First Round, were ousted by Nebraska in the second. MB Alyssa Munlyn is the only starter that coach Wayne Krelow will lose in Columbia. That means All-SEC picks Kylie Deberg, Dariana Hollingsworth and Leketor Member-Meneh will all be back on the pins along with setter Andrea Fuentes, who shined as a freshman; and dynamic middle Tyanna Omazic. The team could fill that spot with Kayla Caffey, who was injured all of 2018; or incoming freshman Claudia Dillon.
Tennessee – The Lady Vols achieved an amazing turnaround in the first year with Eve Rackham on the bench. The team went 25-5 during the regular season and carried a 12-match winning streak into the Second Round before losing in four at Washington State. What’s more, there is tremendous momentum surrounding the program. Tennessee returns both setters, amazing OH Tessa Grubbs and a strong supporting cast that includes Lily Felts, Danielle Mahaffey, Addisyn Rowe and Madison Coulter. The Lady Vols will have to figure out how to fill the void caused by the graduation of middle Erica Treiber but Rackham’s smart. She will find a way.
So there you have it, the Sweet Sixteen for 2019!
From the Pac:
From the B1G:
Two from the 12:
ACC rounds it out: