Finally, after a goofball of an offseason, Marquette Volleyball can get down to brass tacks. Picked to finish second in the Big East this season, MU is looking to extend their NCAA tournament streak after reaching the field of 64 each of the past four years. This is a noteworthy achievement, because that's also the only four NCAA tournament appearances in program history.
Meghan Niemann will be the centerpiece of what Marquette's doing this year, both figuratively and literally. She's a middle hitter, so she's literally going to be playing in the center of Marquette's front line, plus, as MU's lone preseason all-Big East honoree, she's also the player that opposing teams know they need to keep an eye on as the season gets started. There's a multitude of questions as to who is going to account for the offense that the Golden Eagles will need to win matches this season, although the primary answers to those are, for the time being, redshirt freshman Taylor Louis and junior transfer Joy Miley.
Luckily, because NCAA volleyball loves their non-conference tournament events, we're going to get three looks at what head coach Ryan Theis is thinking about his team right in the opening weekend.
Match #1: vs North Dakota (0-0)
North Dakota comes into 2015 after tying a school record with 26 wins a year ago. They're picked to finish third in the Big Sky this season, but that's not a knock: they picked up three first place votes and four teams finished within seven points of the top of the poll.
UND returns two key components from the 2014 team in Faith Dooley and McKenzie Hart. Dooley, a middle hitter from Wheatland, ND, was the Big Sky Freshman of the Year last year after breaking the school record for blocks and ranking 13th in the country in total blocks. She ended up second on the team in kills/set as well, and let the team in total points scored. Hart was named the 2014 Big Sky Libero of the Year after breaking the school record for digs, which helped North Dakota lead the conference in digs per set.
Match #2: vs Dayton (0-0)
North Dakota will be a good opening test for the Golden Eagles, but things really ramp up quickly on Saturday. Dayton won the Atlantic 10 regular season and tournament titles in 2014 and eventually made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
It would be enough to say that the Flyers are experienced after that run, but to make things worse for Marquette, they're bringing back all of their featured players. Back for more in 2015 are senior outside hitter Alaina Turner, the 2014 A-10 Player of the Year, sophomore Jane Emmenecker, the 2014 A-10 Setter of the Year, and senior Janna Krafka, the 2014 A-10 Libero of the Year. That's a hell of a deck and it really doesn't even matter what they return around them at that point.
Turner is a lethal server, ranking in the top ten in the country last year in aces/set and total aces, while Emmenecker is an elite setter, finishing 2014 with the fifth most assists in the country. Somehow, the Flyers are not the unanimous pick to win the Atlantic 10 this year, as they only got eight of the ten possible first place votes. What the hey, guys?
Match #3: vs #21 Iowa State (0-0)
If the first half of Saturday's twin bill for MU isn't going to provide enough of a measuring stick, the second half will make sure that gets taken care of in quick order. The Cyclones are ranked #21 in the preseason AVCA poll and looking to make it to their tenth consecutive NCAA tournament this year. Last year, ISU finished 19-10 and got dumped out of the national championship tournament by overall #10 seed Illinois in a match that took place in Champaign, IL.
This year, Iowa State is picked to finish second in the Big 12, but hey, that's what happens when you have a four time defending conference champ and 2014 Final Four team like Texas in your league. The focal point of the returning Cyclones is Caitlin Nolan. The senior libero set a Big 12 record for digs per set on her way to being named an All-American by the AVCA, and she's now ISU's lone representative on the Big 12 preseason all-conference team. Ciara Capezio led the Cyclones in kills as a sophomore last year with 2.98/set, and she's back to pace the offense again this year.