2022 NCAA volleyball season primer

After three runner-up finishes, Wisconsin’s volleyball program finally won its first NCAA championship, defeating five-time champion Nebraska in a five-set thriller last December.

Can the Badgers repeat?

Gone are All-Americans Sydney Hilley and Dana Rettke, but the Badgers, ranked third in the preseason AVCA Coaches Poll, return an impressive lineup that features Devyn Robinson and Julia Orzol.

Ahead of them are the top-ranked Cornhuskers, who boast an impressive roster headlined by Lexi Rodriguez and Kenzie Knuckles, and No. 2-ranked Texas, which returns All-American outside hitter Logan Eggleston.

Two ACC teams reached the final four last year, but neither of them — Louisville and Pitt — made it to the championship. Can either one break through and become the league’s first national champion?

Which players will stand out this season? Who will be the four teams that make it to the final four in Omaha? And which one will be the last one standing? Our analysts and experts make their predictions for the 2022 season.

What is the biggest storyline entering the season?

M.A. Voepel: Can Texas win an NCAA title 10 years after its last championship? Not trying to rub any salt into the wounds of Longhorns fans, but there may not be a program in any college sport that has been in the running for more championships that it didn’t win than Texas volleyball. On one hand, you have to give the program a lot of credit for being so consistently in the mix. On the other hand, it’s got to be frustrating to the Texas faithful that they have just two championships: in 1988 and 2012. This year, as is virtually always the case, the Longhorns are favored to make what would be their 14th trip to the final four. They are stacked with talent, including transfer middle blocker Kayla Caffey, who previously played for Missouri and Nebraska. Will it be the Longhorns’ year again?

Missy Whittemore: The biggest storyline this season is the transfers. Many of them are quite talented, but also some of them are also fifth- and sixth-year players, so they are also experienced. Teams may have to work through some chemistry issues early in the season, but I think eventually, that gives teams an advantage over the course of a long season.

Sam Gore: In addition to the transfer portal, it’s a combination of stories that will be answered as the season progresses. Will the Big Ten be as dominant on the court as it appears on paper? The conference, coming off an all-Big Ten final, is loaded with elite talent yet again. Also, can the ACC maintain the momentum it gained last year with two national semifinalists and become a perennially top league?

Courtney Lyle: Just like every other sport, the transfer portal has drastically changed collegiate volleyball — it is rare now to see a team without any transfers. This season, I have my eyes on how transfers can instantly change a team’s chances at making a deep tournament run. Texas went out and raided the transfer portal, adding a big arm in Madi Skinner from Kentucky, a middle in Kayla Caffey from Nebraska (previously at Missouri) and defensive specialist Zoe Fleck from UCLA (whom I’m a huge fan of). I can’t wait to see how Texas incorporates them into its physical style of play.

Holly McPeak: Texas appears to be the biggest beneficiary of new talent from the transfer portal, gaining six new players on their roster, namely Caffrey, Fleck, setter Jenna Ewert from Colorado and Skinner. But the question remains: Will Texas be able to find the chemistry and trust to win it all? Meanwhile, Nebraska returns five starters, and despite the loss of Caffrey gain Kaitlyn Hord from Penn State in the middle. With a new starting setter and new middle blocker, they could have a new look that will be exciting to see come together.

Paul Sunderland: No question it’s the number of elite players that have changed jerseys via the portal. One key addition can make all the difference when it comes to competing for a championship. Kaitlyn Hord at Nebraska and Madi Skinner at Texas are the headliners, but there are too many who will change their new teams’ fortunes. Beyond that, I wonder if Louisville and Wisconsin can stay in the hunt given all their losses, especially at setter. Both play a challenging nonconference schedule, so we shall see early.

Katie George: I’m with Paul, keeping track of the vast number of prominent transfers will be difficult and seeing how players immediately impact their new teams will be interesting. I believe the top teams in the ACC will remain national powers even though all three programs, Louisville, Pitt and Georgia Tech, said goodbye to key players. I’ll be curious to see if the Pac-12 can have a resurgence of elite level play. Washington remains consistent with one of the most accomplished senior classes in the country at the helm. How will Wisconsin handle life after Dana Rettke?

Jennifer Hoffman: All eyes are on Louisville. Graduating a floor general like Tori Dilfer will be hard to replace, and the Cardinals will be the talk after such a historic season. Speaking of difficult losses, what does Wisconsin look like after graduating such a core group of players?

Which regular-season match are you most looking forward to watching?

Voepel: We’re always eager to see Nebraska vs. Minnesota, but those Big Ten powers don’t meet until Nov. 26. So let’s pick an earlier match: Stanford at Nebraska on Sept. 13. The Cardinal won three NCAA titles between 2016 and 2019, but then saw the graduation of one of the best classes in program history. That was followed by a 2-8 season greatly limited due to COVID-19, and then a 19-11 record last year that ended with a second-round loss to Minnesota. Stanford starts the season ranked No. 14 and will be going through a very challenging non-conference schedule that includes Texas, Louisville, Penn State, Minnesota and Nebraska. We’ll have a good idea before the Pac-12 season starts whether the Cardinal are really back to elite status.

Whittemore: Look no further than opening weekend to find great matches like Texas at Ohio State on Friday and Saturday. It will be interesting to see how Texas’ transfers come together against an Ohio State team that has been on the verge of something great over the past two seasons yet underwhelmed in postseason play. It’s a great nonconference match that could be used as measuring stick to compare talent throughout the year.

Gore: Beyond the obvious national championship rematch between Wisconsin and Nebraska, I’m very intrigued by the first two matches of the regular season between Texas and Ohio State. Texas looks incredible on paper, but after some noteworthy offseason additions, will the Longhorns play well together and be able to have a historic season? Ohio State is now among the best programs in the country, and a win or two against Texas early could be a launching pad to tremendous success.

Lyle: Nebraska vs. Wisconsin. Who doesn’t love a national title rematch? Nebraska-Wisconsin has become such a key match over the past few years in the Big Ten, made more dramatic by the five-set nail biter in the national championship. They face off on Oct. 26 and Nov. 25, and you bet I’ll be watching.

McPeak: Louisville-Nebraska on Sept. 27 should be a strong test for Louisville. The Cardinals lost only one match last season, and the Cornhuskers are the preseason favorite.

Sunderland: I’ll take any match between Nebraska, Wisconsin and/or Minnesota. It doesn’t matter if it’s in Lincoln, Madison or Minneapolis. The talent, coaching elites and sellout crowds all make these can’t-miss matches. The question, though, becomes, when are other Power 5 conferences going to replicate the Big Ten’s attendance numbers and atmosphere? Sure, there are some exceptions (Texas), but no one comes close to matching the Big Ten as a whole.

George: I’m biased, but the instate rivalry between Louisville and Kentucky never disappoints. Two seasons ago Kentucky won its first national championship. Last December, Louisville appeared in its first national semifinal. The Cardinals travel 60 miles down the road to Lexington on Sept. 14. Both programs have offensive firepower and excellent defenses. This will be an early season test that will tell us a lot about each team moving forward. No. 3 Wisconsin at No. 1 Nebraska on Nov. 25 is going to be an electric environment. It’ll be a revenge match given they’ll have already met a month before. It could also have Big Ten title implications on the line. Shall I continue?

Which newcomer will make the biggest impact in 2022?

Voepel: As with other sports, transfers have become a major factor in volleyball, and they will play a big role in who wins the 2022 title. But looking at freshmen, I’m eager to see Nebraska middle blocker Maggie Mendelson, part of the Huskers’ stellar rookie class and a two-sport standout. That’s unfortunately something we see less and less of in Division I, but hopefully the 6-5 Mendelson will be able to excel for the Huskers in volleyball and basketball. She has a chance to make an impact from August through March for Nebraska sports.

Whittemore: With Nebraska No. 1 in the preseason poll, I think the most impactful newcomer could be Kaitlyn Hord. She might be the most coveted transfer of the offseason. Her ability to anchor the middle for Nebraska could go a long way in determining if the Big Red will play for a national championship in their home state again this year.

Gore: Hord was a three-time All-American and four-time all-Big Ten middle blocker at Penn State. She was one of the most efficient hitters in the Big Ten, hitting .440 in 2019, .421 in 2020 and .394 in 2021. She finished with 522 career blocks, and her valuable experience under Russ Rose, one of the greatest college volleyball coaches of all time, will impact Nebraska, which lost Lauren Stivrins, Callie Schwarzenbach and Kayla Caffey.

McPeak: At Texas, there are a number of the transfers that can make a big impact, but chemistry with all the new players in the gym remains a huge question. Ewert will make a push at the starting setter position and battle with Saige Ka’aha’aina-Torres. The starting setter will be a big factor if Texas can actually win it all this year.

Sunderland: Mckenna Wucherer is a 6-foot-1 freshman outside hitter who will play six rotations for the Golden Gophers and has already gotten praise from coach Hugh McCutcheon. She will be paired with Jenna Wenass, who broke out last year. Other freshmen to keep an eye on are the two middles at Nebraska, Maggie Mendleson from Utah and Bekka Allick from Lincoln.

George: Elia Rubin is a freshman outside hitter at Stanford. Kevin Hambly expects Rubin to have an immediate impact. She has great poise and ball control and can play all the way around if needed. Averi Carlson, a freshman setter at Baylor, is arguably one of the most versatile players in the country and is excellent at putting her teammates in prime position to score. Raquel Lazaro transferred to Louisville from USC and has big shoes to fill. The Cardinals run to the national semifinal last season was led by setter Tori Dilfer, who’s now competing for Team USA. Louisville still has a plethora of offensive weapons … can Lazaro step in and keep a well-oiled machine running at a high level? After four years at Georgia Tech, Matti McKissock traveled to UCLA for her fifth collegiate season. She’s a veteran setter with regional final experience. She is crafty and fiery, which will be good for the Bruins.

Who will win national player of the year?

Voepel: Dynamic outside hitter Logan Eggleston of Texas was an All-American and strong candidate for NPOY last season. The Longhorns as a team appear to be even more talented this season, so we’ll see if that helps or hurts her chances at the award.

Whittemore: Logan Eggleston. She has a golden opportunity with an extra year at Texas. She has always been the glue, and if she can help the new core of players gel, it could result in a big payoff.

Gore: Julia Bergmann of Georgia Tech. Coming off a first-team All-American season and an impactful performance with the Brazilian national team over the summer, the 6-foot-5 Bergmann seems primed to dominate the NCAA this season. Last year, she averaged 4.44 kills and 2.61 digs per set, hit .284, had 67 blocks and totaled a team-best 36 aces. She’s arguably the most complete player in the country.

Lyle: Eggleston is my front runner for player of the year. Her all-around game is strong. She can put up eye-popping numbers from the pins and her serve causes nightmares for passers. Speaking of passing, she can do that too. There is no question she will impact how far the Longhorns go in the postseason.

McPeak: Eggleston has been one of the best 6-rotation players in the country over the past three years, and with a strong supporting cast around her this season, I expect her to dominate.

Sunderland: Eggleston does it all and may be the frontrunner, but with so much talent and firepower surrounding her, perhaps her numbers will be down. Of course, that isn’t always a bad thing. If Washington has a big year, it will be because of Ella May Powell, who was the Pac-12 setter of the year twice. The Huskies had a good run last year before falling to Texas after leading 2-0. Lastly, if Madi Kubik takes her game up a couple notches and the Huskers have the season they hope for, she’ll be in the conversation.

George: It’s hard to bet against Eggleston. The two-time first team all-American averaged 4.72 points per set, which is just ridiculous. She does it all for Texas, at a very high level. If she leads the Longhorns to the national semifinals or final, I don’t think anyone argues with her winning this award.

Hoffman: A player that plays for Texas. The Longhorns are loaded and Eggleston is on the top of the list for player of the year, but Texas’ Achilles’ heel has been passing. Zoe Fleck fixes that. I say the two of them share the title.

What four teams will make it to Omaha and who is the last team standing?

Voepel: Nebraska, Texas, Washington, Louisville, and the Huskers will triumph in their home state again.

Whittemore: Ohio State’s young superstars are now upperclassmen who are ready to break out. Texas has too much talent to deny. Don’t sleep on Washington out of the Pac-12; with Ella May Powell running the offense, the Huskies are always in the hunt. And Nebraska will be motivated to play for a championship at home. Remember, the Huskers beat Texas for the title in 2015. Will history repeat itself?

Gore: I’m only comfortable picking two: Nebraska and Texas. The game is so deep and many teams have legitimate paths to the national semis. I’ll go out on a limb here, though, and say Texas reclaims the title (but don’t hold me to it).

Lyle: Nebraska, Ohio State, Texas and Wisconsin, with Texas winning it all.

McPeak: I believe Stanford will surprise some teams this year. Kendall Kipp can dominate on the right pin, and Kami Miner is one of the elite setters in the country. With Caitie Baird and Sami Francis on the other pins, Stanford has a chance to make a big post season push. Beyond the Cardinal, I think Nebraska, Texas and Louisville round out the final four.

Sunderland: Nebraska and Texas are the two favorites. After that, there are so many unknowns. I could see Stanford, Washington, Louisville, Minnesota and Wisconsin making final four runs.

George: It’s hard to imagine Nebraska not playing in Omaha come December or hoisting the trophy. I think Texas, Louisville and Minnesota could all join the Huskers. Louisville, now having experienced a final four, will be better for it. My darkhorse would be Ohio State. Back-to-back Sweet 16 losses still sting. If the Buckeyes can get past the round of 32, I think they could surprise some people. That is, if they get through the gauntlet of conference play healthy.

Hoffman: My guess is as good as yours. I can’t wait for Omaha.