Top 10 Above the Net

Many women's volleyball programs serve up the start of their 2006 seasons this weekend, and The Bootleg is proud to serve to you the first edition of our national Top 10 rankings. Three of last year's Final Four of Washington, Nebraska, Tennessee and Santa Clara are in our preseason Top 10. Read on for analysis of each team, plus the next five knocking at the door.

1. Stanford Cardinal

2005 Record: 26-6, 14-4 Pacific-10
2005 Postseason Finish: NCAA Second Round
2005 Conference Finish: Tied for Second Place

Top Returning Players:
Kristin Richards, Jr., 6-0, OH; Foluke Akinradewo, So., 6-4, MB; Bryn Kehoe, Jr., 5-11, S; Cynthia Barboza, So., 6-0, OH

Top Newcomers:
Janet Okogbaa, Fr., 6-3, MB/RS; Joanna Evans, Fr., 5-11; S

Top Players Lost:
Courtney Schultz, 6-2, L; Katie Goldhahn, 5-11, S

Summary:
Stanford enters the 2006 NCAA volleyball season with the experience, talent, and hunger to make a serious run at its seventh NCAA title, and if everyone remains injury-free, it will be difficult to displace the Cardinal.  Senior Kristin Richards and sophomore Cynthia Barboza form the country's top-ranked outside hitter tandem, as both are great all-around players who will compete for postseason honors.  The big question mark will be whether or not Barboza has fully recovered from an ACL tear suffered last year; if so, then Stanford becomes a threat to win it all.

Setting up Richards and Barboza will be junior Bryn Kehoe, who is known for her fierce competitive nature and ability to display great leadership.  Sophomore Foluke Akinradewo proved to be one of the top offensive middles in the country last season, and if her defense catches up to her attacking abilities, she could leave Stanford as one of their best middles in program history.  The libero position has been vacated due to the graduation of Courtney Schultz, but sophomore Jessica Fishburn is poised and ready to step in her place without missing a beat.  The depth that Stanford possesses is remarkable, with head coach John Dunning able to turn to seniors Nji Nnamani and Lizzie Suiter, junior Franci Girard, sophomore Erin Waller, and freshman Janet Okogbaa for support.  If the injury bug stays away this year, the Cardinal are my top pick to be holding the trophy up at the end of the year in Nebraska.

2. Nebraska Huskers

2005 Record: 32-2, 19-1 Big 12
2005 Postseason Finish: NCAA Runner-up
2005 Conference Finish: First Place

Top Returning Players:
Sarah Pavan, Jr., 6-5, RS; Tracy Stalls, Jr., 6-4, MB; Jordan Larson, So., 6-1, OH

Top Newcomers:
Brooke Bartek, Fr., 6-3, OH; Kori Cooper, Fr., 6-2, MB; Rachel Holloway, Fr., 5-10, S

Top Players Lost:
Christina Houghtelling, 6-2, OH; Jennifer Saleaumua, 5-11, OH; Melissa Elmer, 6-2, MB

Summary:
On paper, the Huskers are one of the most intimidating teams in the country.  It all begins with the hard-hitting, all-around game of junior Sarah Pavan, whose spikes are lethal from anywhere on the court.  Despite her height, she is fairly mobile and possesses one of the most devastating serves in the country.  Her role as the go-to player will be magnified this season, especially after the announcement that Christina Houghtelling, last year's AVCA Player of the Year, will redshirt the 2006 season due to a shoulder injury.  It's well known that Pavan wants the ball during crunch time, and you can guarantee that she will take that swing no matter what the defense throw at her.

Tracy Stalls has the experience to become an elite collegiate middle blocker, and with the graduation of one of the top net minders in NCAA history in Melissa Elmer, she has a chance to shine.  Sophomore Jordan Larson will look to build upon a productive freshman campaign, and her output on the left side could very well determine how far Nebraska will go into the tournament.  The battle for the setting position will be an intense one, as redshirt freshman Rachel Holloway, fresh off leading the United States Junior National Team to a gold medal at the recently completed NORECA Championships, will be pitted against Maggie Griffin, an experienced quarterback who helped Nebraska to the NCAA Championship Finals last season.  The Final Four in mid-December will be played out at the Qwest Center in Omaha (Neb.), giving the Red & White even more incentive come tournament time.

3. Texas Longhorns

2005 Record: 24-5, 17-3, Big 12
2005 Postseason Finish: NCAA Second Round
2005 Conference Finish: Second Place

Top Returning Players:
Leticia Armstrong, Jr., 6-1, MB; Brandy Magee, Jr., 6-1, MB; Michelle Moriarty, Jr., 5-10, S; Dariam Acevdeo, Sr., 5-10, OH

Top Newcomers:
Ashley Engle, Fr., 6-3, RS/S; Destinee Hooker, Fr., 6-5, OH/MB; Heather Kisner, Fr., 5-9, L/DS

Top Players Lost:
None

Summary:
Last season, Texas was the only team to defeat mighty Nebraska during the regular season and entered the postseason with high hopes.  Given the fact that the Longhorns were hosting a sub-regional, many expected them to advance to the Sweet Sixteen at a minimum.  Unfortunately, the selection committee placed Hawai'i in their bracket and the two teams battled until the Rainbow Wahine scored a second round victory in Austin, leaving the host team stunned at the defeat.  With every starter back and two highly regarded freshmen on the roster, expectations are raised to a higher level and anything less than a trip to Omaha would be a severe disappointment.  Michelle Moriarty is an experienced playmaker who has started since she stepped onto campus.  When the passing is on, she has two All-American middles in Leticia Armstrong and Brandy Magee to crush the ball for an easy point.  Dariam Avecedo returns for her senior year as a staple at the antennas, providing stability on the passing and hitting fronts, while Jen Christian has the physical tools to be an intimidating presence on the outside as a junior.  Head coach Jerritt Elliot has a pair of 6-5 sophomores in Lauren Paolini and Ruth Ann Feist, in addition to 6-3 senior Jennifer Todd, to rotate into the court should one of his starters falter.  That type of depth will prove to be crucial as Texas looks to return to the Final Four for the first time since 1995.

While the Longhorns have the advantage of superior depth and experience, they also add a whole lot of firepower this season that was missing last season with 6-3 rightside/setter Ashley Engle and outside hitter Destinee Hooker making their debut in Austin.  Engle, a member of the United States Junior National Team in 2005, is one of the most versatile players in her class, as she is considered a dominating attacker who also knows how to dish off a sweet set, while Hooker is one of the most impressive athletes on the squad who has the potential to do great things during her collegiate career.

4. Penn State Nittany Lions

2005 Record: 31-3, 20-0 Big Ten
2005 Postseason Finish: NCAA Sweet Sixteen
2005 Conference Finish: First Place

Top Returning Players:
Nicole Fawcett, So., 6-4, OH; Christa Harmotto, So., 6-2, MB; Melissa Walbridge, Jr., 6-3, MB; Kate Price, Jr., 6-2, OH

Top Newcomers:
Megan Hodge, Fr., 6-3, OH; Blair Brown, Fr., 6-4, MB; Jessica Yanz, Fr., 6-0, S; Alisha Glass, Fr., 6-0, RS/S

Top Players Lost:
Sam Tortorello, 5-11, S; Kaleena Walters, 5-9, L

Summary:
There is no doubt that Russ Rose has collected some of the best offensively-minded players in the country, with great options at all hitting positions.  Sophomore Nicole Fawcett, the 2005 AVCA National Freshman of the Year, returns to the left side where she was able to use her 6-4 frame to hit over or power through the constant double blocks.  Fellow second year Christa Harmotto returns to the middle after suffering an ACL tear just before the start of last year's NCAA Tournament; look for her to continue to make a name for herself with her great instinctual blocking and quick slide attack.  Depth is not a problem for the Nittany Lions, especially when players like 6-5 Cassy Salyer and 6-2 Kate Price will be fighting for time out on the court.

Penn State also welcomes the top-rated freshmen class according to PrepVolleyball.com, headlined by 2006 Gatorade National Player of the Year Megan Hodge.  The super athletic Hodge is still a work in progress, but her talent is undeniable and it will be difficult for Rose not to find a place for her in the starting line-up.  Despite the dangerous arsenal, the biggest question for Penn State fans this year will be who will run the team?  With the graduation of Sam Tortorello, one of the purest and most technical setters ever play at Happy Valley, the direction of the offense will rely in the hands of freshmen Jessica Yanz or Alisha Glass.  There is a possibility that a 6-2 will be run, to maximize Glass' awesome hitting abilities, but it is doubtful that Rose would want two freshmen with different setting styles to run his squad.  The Nittany Lions should breeze through the Big 10 conference schedule, considering all the weapons at their disposal.  But come tournament time, the freshmen setters will need to play like upperclassmen to ensure a championship ring at the end of the season.

5. Washington Huskies

2005 Record: 32-1, 17-1 Pacific-10
2005 Postseason Finish: NCAA Champions
2005 Conference Finish: First Place

Top Returning Players:
Christal Morrison, Jr., 6-2, OH; Courtney Thompson, Sr., 5-7, S; Alesha Deesing, Jr., 6-1, MB

Top Newcomers:
Janine Sandell, Sr., 5-10, OH; Stevie Mussie, Jr., 5-9, OH; Becky Perry, Fr., 6-2, OH

Top Players Lost:
Sanja Tomasevic, 6-1, OH; Candace Lee, 5-7, L; Brie Hagerty, 6-1, OH; Darla Myhre, 6-2, MB

Summary:
Losing six valuable seniors usually spells disaster for any team, but betting against Jim McLaughlin and his Washington Huskies would not be advisable.  The fifth-year head coach has had success at every stop in his coaching career and it all culminated in a National Championship last season, as his team dismantled a very good Nebraska squad in straight sets.  The loss of All-Americans Sanja Tomasevic and Candace Lee, in addition to solid contributors Brie Hagerty and Darla Myhre, will be felt greatly - especially at the beginning of the season - but U-Dub should be a Final Four contender by the time the tournament starts up.  McLaughlin has proven to be one of the best coaches in the game, and his players improve every year up in Seattle (Wash.).

Even though a big chunk last season's team is gone, all hope is not lost, especially when you have Courtney Thompson and Christal Morrison suiting up.  The dynamic duo were club teammates during their prep days and their partnership continued on through college.  Thompson is entering her fourth year as the starting setter for the Huskies, and she would love nothing more than to cap off her tenure with another NCAA title.  She may be only 5-7; she may not be the most athletic setters in the game today.  But she knows how to run a team, mixing up tempos and finding the hot hand at the most opportune moments.  Many of Thompson's sets will find their way in the direction of Morrison, as the junior will know become the main offensive weapon for the Purple and White.  She is an all-around threat, bombing away in the front and in the back and her jump serve scores a host of points in a hurry.  When the going gets tough, there will be no doubt in anyone's mind that Morrison will take the swing.  Assisting the twosome will be junior Alesha Deesing, a superb athlete who will be coming into her own this year as she patrols the middle, and senior Janine Sandell, a transfer from UC Santa Barbara who was crowned the 2005 Big West Player of the Year.  A repeat might be asking too much of a squad that lost so much firepower, but a berth to Omaha is certainly not out of the question.

6. Florida Gators

2005 Record: 33-3, 15-1 Southeastern
2005 Postseason Finish: NCAA Elite Eight
2005 Conference Finish: First Place

Top Returning Players:
Angie McGinnis, Jr., 5-11, S; Kisya Killingsworth, Jr., 6-3, MB; Amber McCray, Jr., 6-0, RS; Marcie Hampton, Jr., 6-1, OH

Top Newcomers:
Janine Williams, Fr., 6-0, OH; Allison Cecchini, Fr., 5-11, S; Elyse Cusack, Fr., 5-9, L

Top Players Lost:
Jane Collymore, 6-0, OH; Rachel Engel, 5-6, L

Summary:
Florida has dominated the Southeastern Conference for nearly two decades, laying claim to the past 15 regular season titles, and this year should be no different, as fellow SEC coaches voted the Orange & Blue to take home the top conference prize yet again.  With the graduation of All-American attack Jane Collymore and libero Rachel Engel, head coach Mary Wise will have to tinker with the starting line-up to replace the duo, but her team has the talent to overcome such obstacles.  Junior setter Angie McGinnis has been tabbed as a key component to the future success of the United State National Team for several years now and her talent is undeniable.  She has the perfect all-around game to lead the Gators to the promise land, and Wise will turn to her to make smart decision that will result in victories in close situations.  Fellow juniors Marcie Hampton and Kisya Killingsworth will also be counted upon to man the left side and middle positions, respectively.  Hampton is solid in the back row and can find holes in any defense to score points, while Killingsworth is an explosive performer who will look to push for All-American consideration after being named an honorable mention a year ago.

A trio of freshmen will look to make an immediate impact for the Gators this season, as two of them are slated to fill the vacancies left by Collymore and Engel.  Janine Williams hits a heavy ball and will look to complement Hampton on the outside, while Elyse Cusack will step in immediately in the back row, lending her superb passing and defensive skills.  Allison Cecchini is a highly touted setter out of Northern California who will push McGinnis during practices and will be a valuable asset to Wise in the years to come.

7. UCLA Bruins

2005 Record: 20-11, 10-8 Pacific-10
2005 Postseason Finish: NCAA Sweet Sixteen
2005 Conference Finish: Tied for Fifth Place

Top Returning Players:
Nellie Spicer, So., 5-10, S; Nana Meriweather, 6-1, MB; Kaitlin Sather, So., 6-1, OH

Top Newcomers:
Ali Daley, So., 6-0, OH; Emily Clements, Fr., 6-0, RS

Top Player Lost:
Nancy Barba, 6-1, MB

Summary:
The UCLA Bruins were the "It" program back in the 80's and mid-90's after capturing three NCAA crowns and making 10 Final Four appearances, but they have faded into mediocrity in recent years after not living up to past expectations, failing to reach the national semi-finals since the 1994 season.  However, head coach Andy Banchowski has assembled a deep and talented team that will hope to push its way back into college volleyball's inner circle.  Nellie Spicer established herself as one of the most promising young setters in 2005 with a solid freshman campaign, and her ability to turn any ball into a hittable set no matter how errant the pass will serve the Bruins well this year.

Senior Nana Meriweather is one of the most feared blockers in the game, using her long arms and explosive jump to put up a formidable wall against opposing hitters.  Vying to be Meriweather's partner in crime will either junior Rachelle Johnson, or sophomores Elise Cartesen or Megan Schoen.  The competition for the two outside hitter positions will be a fierce one, as 6-1 sophomore Kaitlin Sather, 6-1 junior Becky Mehring, 6-3 senior Katie Carter, and 6-0 sophomore transfer Ali Dailey will all be pushing each other for playing time.

8. Santa Clara Broncos

2005 Record: 27-5, 12-2 West Coast
2005 Postseason Finish: NCAA Final Four
2005 Conference Finish: First Place

Top Returning Players:
Kim McGiven, Sr., 6-1, OH; Crystal Matich, Jr., 5-11, S; Anna Cmaylo, Jr., 6-4, MB; Brittany Lowe, So., 6-0, OH; Annalisa Muratore, Jr., 6-2, MB; Caroline Walters, Jr., 5-9, L

Top Newcomers:
Lindsy Evans, Fr., 6-3, RS/S; Nina Sevastopoulos, Fr., 6-2, OH

Top Players Lost:
Cassie Perret, 6-1, RS; Kristen Luxton, 5-10, DS/S

Summary:
The Cinderella story of the 2005 NCAA Championships, Santa Clara became the first unseeded team in the history of the tournament to be among the last four standing.  Head coach Jon Wallace is one of the top young coaches in the game today, and with him calling the shots, the Broncos will always be ready to do battle.  Senior Kim McGiven is the heart and soul of the team and her attacks from the left side and the back row are particularly devastating.  All-Americans Crystal Matich and Anna Cmaylo also return this season to lend their services to SCU.  Matich is one of the most explosive and athletic setters on the collegiate scene, and Cmaylo is virtually unstoppable when her slide attack is executed properly.

Teaming up with Cmaylo in the middle is Annalisa Muratore, an imposing force who was voted the 2004 WCC Freshman of the Year as a result of her excellent hitting and blocking.  Manning the libero position for the third straight year is local product Caroline Walters, who hails from Los Gatos (Calif.).  She makes the type of plays that can change the momentum of a match and she has developed into one of the top defenders on the West Coast, if not the country.  In addition, 2005 WCC Freshman of the Year Brittany Lowe will help out Santa Clara with her excellent all-around game, and her passing will be important this year to help compensate for the loss of First Team All-American Cassie Perret.  The freshmen class that Wallace has brought to the Mission Campus will fit in nicely.  Do not be surprised if 6-3 Lindsy Evans sees time on the right side, though her future may lie in succeeding Matich two years from now.

9. Wisconsin Badgers

2005 Record: 26-7, 15-5 Big Ten
2005 Postseason Finish: NCAA Elite Eight
2005 Conference Finish: Second Place

Top Returning Players:
Taylor Reineke, Jr., 6-3, MB; Jackie Simpson, Jr., 6-0, S; Jocelyn Wack, Jr., 5-11, L; Audra Jeffers, So., 6-3, OH/RS; Maria Carlini, Sr., 6-2, OH

Top Newcomers:
Brittany Dolgner, Fr., 6-0, OH; Caity Dupont, Fr., 6-0, OH; Nikki Klingsporn, Fr., 5-10, S

Top Players Lost:
Sheila Shaw, 6-1, MB; Aubrey Meierotto, 6-1, OH

Summary:
Consistently ranked near the top of the Big Ten on a yearly basis, Wisconsin has assembled a team that could surprise many opponents throughout the season, combining solid defense with a varied offense.  Losing All-American Sheila Shaw will hurt the Badgers, but her departure will be lessened due to the depth in the middle.  Junior Taylor Reineke has transformed herself into one of the top middle blockers in the conference, and head coach Pete Waite will look to her to continue to development as the season progresses.  Senior Amy Bladow, sophomore Maya Carroll, and freshman Kathryn Dykstra round out the stable of middles that Waite will be able to call upon throughout the season.

Maria Carlini is the Badgers top returning outside hitter, and she will receive help in the form of a freshman by the name of Brittany Dolgner, who was named PrepVolleyball.com's 2005 National Senior of the Year and 2004 National Junior of the Year.  Sophomore Audra Jeffers will add depth at the antennas, as will senior Amy Bladow and freshman Caity Dupont.  Junior Jocelyn Wack proved to be one of the top libero prospects ever since she stepped into the collegiate arena, and as a seasoned veteran of the program, her defense and passing will invaluable.

10. California Golden Bears

2005 Record: 19-11, 10-8 Pacific-10
2005 Postseason Finish: NCAA Second Round
2005 Conference Finish: Tied for Fifth Place

Top Returning Players:
Angie Pressey, Jr., 5-8, OH; Sam Carter, Sr., 6-0, S; Jillian Davis, Sr., 5-9, L; Morgan Beck, So., 6-3, OH

Top Newcomers:
Hana Cutura, Fr., 6-2, OH; Cat Dailey, Fr. 6-1, OH; Mindi Wiley, Fr., 6-3, MB; Kristen Kathan, Fr., 5-6, DS/L

Top Players Lost:
Jenna Brown, 5-11, OH; Alicia Powers, 6-2, MB; Alexis Kollias, 5-8, DS

Summary:
Rich Feller took over the laughingstock of the Pac-10 eight years ago and has quietly turned the program around into a perennial Top 20 team.  He has taken the Bears to new heights and continues to knock on the door of the college elites.  This year, a combination of experience and new talent could push Cal over the edge and past the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in school history.  Senior Sam Carter has been the starting setter for Feller since she arrived in Berkeley, and her steady progression has turned her into one of the top players at her position in the conference.  Carter's main offensive option will be Angie Pressey, a tiny bundle of energy that explodes with power and grace.  Standing at just 5-8, the junior is able to still collect her kills despite facing blockers who are substantially taller than her and put down balls with authority, using her incredible hops to sky over defenders.

Sophomore Morgan Beck had a solid freshman year on the outside and will be just another weapon for Feller & Co. to use.  Defense is a strong suit for Cal, anchored by Jillian Davis at the libero spot and Ellen Orchard in the middle.  Big things are expected out of freshman Hana Cutura, a 6-3 attacker from Croatia who can play either the left or the right side, and many consider her to be the second coming of Mia Jerkov, Cal's famed All-American outside hitter.  If Cutura delivers, the Golden Bears will have enough firepower to challenge for the Pacific-10 crown and will be a serious contender for a Final Four berth.

The Best of the Rest

11. Hawaii Rainbow Wahine

2005 Record: 27-7, 16-0 Western Athletic

Players to Watch:
Kanoe Kamana‘o, Sr., 5-8, S; Sarah Mason, Sr., 6-3, OH/RS; Tara Hittle, Jr., 6-0, OH; Jamie Houston, So., 6-1, OH

Impact Newcomers:
Elise Duggins, So., 5-8, DS/L; Amber Kauffman, Fr., 6-0, MB; Dani Mafua, Fr., 5-10, S

12. Southern California Trojans

2005 Record: 17-11, 12-6 Pacific-10

Players to Watch:
Debora Seilhamer, Sr., 5-5, L; Diane Copenhagen, Jr., 6-2, OH; Katelyn Bishop, Jr., 6-2, MB; Kelli Tennant, So., 6-2 MB/OH; Jessica Gysin, So., 6-1, OH

Impact Newcomers:
Taylor Carico, Fr, 5-10, S; Asia Kaczor, So., 6-4, OH; Marta Siemiatkowska, Jr., 6-1, MB; Bethany Johansen, Jr., 6-3, MB/RS

13. Louisville Cardinals

2005 Record: 31-3, 13-1 Big East

Players to Watch:
Ana Yartseva-Stewart, Sr., 6-4, MB; Stephanie Marsh, Sr., 6-3, RS/OH; Rui Liu, So., 6-3, MB; Svetlana Dukule, Jr., OH, 6-3

Impact Newcomers:
Samantha Dabbs, Fr., 6-0, S; Jana Matiasovska, So., 6-6, MB

14. Minnesota Gophers

2005 Record: 25-8, 14-6 Big Ten

Players to Watch:
Meredith Nelson, Sr., 6-3, MB; Kelly Bowman, Sr., 5-10, RS/S; Meghan Cumpston, Sr., 6-2, OH; Jessy Jones, Jr., 6-3, MB; Kyla Roehrig, So., 6-4, OH/RS

Impact Newcomers:
Rachelle Hagerty, Fr., 6-3, OH; Krista Chin, So., 5-7, L

15. Tennessee Lady Volunteers

2005 Record: 25-9, 13-3 South Eastern

Players to Watch:
Sarah Blum, Sr., 6-3, MB; Yuliya Stoyanova, Jr., 6-1,OH/RS; Kelsey Fautsch, Sr., 6-1, OH/RS

Impact Newcomers:
Jena Berg, Fr., 5-10, S; Kylie Marshall,Fr., 5-11, OH


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