With the last of the confetti cleaned up following Kentucky’s historic volleyball championship, it’s time to look ahead to the 2021 season.

Predictions this far out are always tough. That’s especially true this year, as it’s still unclear how many seniors will take advantage of the NCAA’s blanket waiver and return for another go. This list could look very different if the bulk of Wisconsin’s seniors decide to stay — or if those I think will remain at Nebraska end up leaving. 

Regardless, it makes for an interesting exercise. And though last season only just wrapped up, I already can’t wait for next season to begin. 

1. Texas 

Logan Eggleston, Big 12 Player of the Year, said it best after Texas lost in the championship — this team will be back. The Longhorns had the talent to win it all this year, but their best players sometimes struggled to get in sync. Skylar Fields seemed to come out of her shell during the tournament. If she can find her stride early next year, she packs the perfect punch to complement Eggleston. That could be enough to get Texas over the hump.

2. Nebraska 

The Cornhuskers’ great NCAA tournament run was just cut short by Texas. Next year, they return their high-IQ setter Nicklin Hames to run the offense as well six-rotation outside hitter Madi Kubik to bring some stability to the lineup. Kubik is one of the best six-rotation outside hitters in the Big 10, and her experience will pair perfectly with Nebraska’s number-one ranked recruiting class. 

Jazz Sweet has already said she will not return, while Lexi Sun and Lauren Stivrins have yet to announce their decisions. Should they return, Nebraska would have both the talent and experience needed to contend for a title.

3. Washington

The Huskies return a number of key pieces, notably Ella May Powell, their First Team All-American setter, as well as Samantha Drechsel and Madi Endsley, two pin hitters who carry a huge load for UW. Drechsel was another First Team All-American, while Endsley was only a freshman last year. She was excellent in the tournament, creating high expectations for this trio next year. 

4. Florida

Florida returns the bulk of its starting lineup, including the highly-efficient trio of Marlie Monserez, T’ara Ceasar and Thayer Hall. Lauren Forte, an All-American middle blocker, is also returning for her extra senior eligibility. Elli McKissock, freshman libero, won the jersey this year and ran with it late in the season. I think we’re going to see a lot of progress in Florida’s backcourt game as she has another year under her belt. 

5. Kentucky

The Kentucky Wildcats had a pretty good season, in case you haven’t been following. Next year, the National Champions return several key pieces from their title-winning squad. The fantastic pin duo of Madison Skinner and Alli Stumler will bring sure firepower to the team, while middle blockers Ashani Tealer and Elise Goetzinger are also set to stay. 

The challenge for the Wildcats will be to replace two irreplaceable players — Madison Lilley, the AVCA National Player of the Year, and Gabby Curry, the SEC Libero of the Year. Even without them, Kentucky has the talent to be a Top 10 team.

6. Purdue

The Boilermakers keep the soul of their team intact as they approach the upcoming year. Hayley Bush, All-American setter, returns to run the offense of this team. Her go-to player, Grace Cleveland, First Team All-American, brings both experience and skill. The departure of Jena Otec, Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year, will be hard to swallow, but a solid recruiting class is coming in to complement an already-deep roster.

7. Ohio State

The Buckeyes went down swinging last season. Returning six of their seven best players, I expect them to start off next year swinging as well. Emily Londot, the AVCA Freshman of the Year, will return, as will Mac Podraza, the setter who feeds the team. That duo should shine next year after a full offseason working together.

8. Baylor

Returning First Team All-American Yossiana Pressley is reason enough to put Baylor in the Top 10. She has given plenty of top teams trouble over the past few years, and next season will be no different. Lauren Harrisson complements Pressley on the other left side pin, while the back court is patrolled by Shanel Bramschreiber, the reigning Big 12 Libero of the Year. Expect Baylor to contend with Texas for the Big 12 title.

9. Oregon

Oregon has some of the best ball control in the country. If their setter/hitter connection can improve, this is a very dangerous team. Brooke Nuneviller, Second Team All-American, returns as an outside hitter that passes as well as any libero in the country. Her ability to control the court is why Oregon will contend with Washington for a Pac 12 title.

10. Penn State

Penn State depended a lot of their youngsters last year. And while Annie Cate Fitzpatrick and Anastasiya Kudryashova will have another year of experience, the Nittany Lions are also bringing in several notable transfers, including Adanna Rollins (Minnesota) and Erika Pritchard (Maryland). 

Jonni Parker had an unbelievable season last year and was undoubtedly one of the most consistent scorers for Penn State with her aggressive right side play. Her senior year will be special. Kaitlyn Hord likewise brings both height and athleticism to the middle position, ensuring the team’s block will be up there with the best of the Big 10.

Many players shined in this year’s NCAA volleyball tournament. But these were the best of the best. 

Madison Lilley, Kentucky

It’s no surprise that Madison Lilley, Kentucky setter and AVCA National Player of the year, tops our NCAA tournament All-Tournament Team. She ran the offense that led Kentucky to their first-ever National Championship, tallying a personal-best 19 digs in the title game while keeping her team above a .300 clip for the entire tournament.

Alli Stumler, Kentucky

Alli Stumler, Kentucky outside hitter, led her team throughout the tournament. Her team made history by winning the SEC’s first volleyball title, and Stumler made personal history as well, with a career high 26 kills in the national championship match. Possibly the best six-rotation player in the tournament, she carried a huge load for the Wildcats on both offense and defense.

Logan Eggleston, Texas

The Big 12 Player of the Year, Logan Eggleston came into the NCAA tournament with lofty expectations as someone who is a threat from everywhere on the floor. When Texas was in trouble, Eggleston was there to clean up the mess. Her consistency in every aspect of the game led the Longhorns to the championship game.

Azhani Tealer, Kentucky

A jack of all trades, Azhani Tealer is a middle who can also run off two feet behind the setter. Her versatility is a huge reason Kentucky won a national championship, as she was able to find kills when needed all tournament long. She also earns a spot on this list for her blocking IQ. The tournament announcers repeatedly talked about her height — only 5’10 — but she closes to the pins and presses her hands over the net in a way where height doesn’t necessarily matter.

Dana Rettke, Wisconsin

Dana Rettke, middle hitter from Wisconsin, is one of a few middles who lead their programs in kills. She commands attention blocking, running the slide, and attacking in front of the setter. She opens up the court for her teammates and allows a lot of players to shine with her.

Chinaza Ndee, University of Pittsburgh

Chinaza Ndee, right side hitter for the University of Pittsburgh, helped take the volleyball program further than it had ever gone. Ndee played fearlessly against teams that were ranked higher and picked to win. Her swings sealed a ticket to the regional final in a big way — she had 19 kills to upset No. 3 Minnesota. 

Gabby Curry, Kentucky

Gabby Curry reads the game so well. Easy balls never fall on her watch, and she puts her setter (Madison Lilley) in a position to run her offense almost every time. The two-time SEC Libero of the Year brought energy, ball control, secondary setting and so many more crucial elements to the floor en route to helping Kentucky win their first-ever title.

Kentucky Volleyball won their first-ever National Championship Saturday, bringing to conclusion a season unlike any other. While they say history isn’t made easily, the Wildcats certainly made it look like that at key moments Saturday night, as they beat the Texas Longhorns 3-1 in Omaha.

Here’s how the action unfolded.

No. 2 Kentucky battled in the first set, but No. 4 Texas jumped out to an early lead. At the highest level of the sport, the serve and pass battle is what matters most, and Texas was passing dimes. The combination of Logan Eggleston and Skylar Fields proved lethal for the Longhorns, and when Jhenna Gabriel had the ball in her hands close to the net, Kentucky had to respect the efficiency of each hitter on the floor.

The Wildcats had their opportunities. Kentucky setter Madison Lilley, the AVCA National Player of the Year, often had the ball in her hands, but Kentucky couldn’t find the floor. Texas continued to ride their early momentum to a 14-10 before eventually taking the first set 25-20. Kentucky seemed to be playing with some nerves, as they only hit .216 in the opening set with seven errors — their worst numbers of the season.

This game was always going to be played on the pins. Eggleston (the Big 12 Player of the Year) and Alli Stumler (First Team All American and Kentucky’s kill leader) were going to carry a huge load for their respective teams in this match. And whichever team could hold the other player in check was going to have a good chance of winning the championship. 

Kentucky came out swinging fearlessly in set two. The dynamic pin play of Stumler and the Skinner sisters proved to be too much for the Texas defense, as Kentucky found a new level from the service line and forced Texas to play one-option volleyball. This helped Azanhi Tealer, as she got an early read on the block and could disrupt Eggleston and Fields. Kentucky dominated the set from start to finish, with an ace from Stumler sealing it, 25-18.

In set three, I expected both teams to find their go-to pin players. Lilley has said in interviews that she’s not afraid to ride the hot hand of her team as the match goes in waves. That player has been Stumler all year, and she continued to deliver on Saturday.

Tied at 13-13, this set was closer than the previous two until Kentucky made a run. Texas brought it within one at 22-23 but missed a crucial serve to give Kentucky game point. Kentucky won the set on yet another Madi Skinner kill.

Set four, and with a national championship on the line, Texas came out firing. Off to a 6-1 lead, past sets would have indicated a strong start would lead to a set win. Kentucky was facing the largest deficit they had seen all tournament, but the Wildcats clawed their way to a 14-13 lead, their first advantage of the set. 

The teams swapped sideout points and Kentucky battled to keep Eggleston in check. A crucial Avery Skinner kill put Kentucky at 21-19, and the Wildcats rolled from there. A service ace gave Kentucky room to breathe, and in the most fitting ending, Ali Stumler’s 26th kill of the match sealed Kentucky’s fate and won the NCAA championship, both the program’s and the SEC’s first.

Congratulations immediately began flowing in from various Kentucky luminaries: 

While students burned couches in the streets of Lexington: 

In the end, it only seemed fitting that a year like no other should end with history being made in the championship game.

Congrats, Wildcats!

Four teams remain in the NCAA volleyball tournament, including top-seed Wisconsin and No. 2 seed Kentucky.

The Badgers came into the tournament as the still-reigning national runner ups, having lost to Stanford in 2019. For Kentucky, it’s the program’s first-ever trip to a Final Four. 

Here’s what to expect when they take the court Thursday against Texas and Washington.

No. 1 Wisconsin Badgers vs. No. 4 Texas Longhorns

Unlike every other team in the Final Four, Wisconsin is led by a middle blocker, 6’8” Dana Rettke. Rettke is set up by Sydney Hilley, combining to form one of the most dangerous duos in college volleyball. Hilley has been able to find Rettke in big moments, including against Florida, allowing Wisconsin to stay alive in a five-set thriller and advance to the Final Four. 

The Badger duo depends on ball control in order to be dangerous. When the Badgers pass and defend at a high enough level to find Retke as often as they need to, they’re virtually unstoppable. Against Texas, the outside hitter pair of Grace Loberg and Molly Haggerty will be asked to hold the offense down when ball control is lacking, but that’s not how the Badgers will win a ticket to the finals. Where Loberg and Haggerty shine is when the ball is passed or dug well enough to make the other team think about the Badger middles. This will be a challenge against Texas, who is an incredibly high hitting and aggressive team. Texas has a number of tough servers, including Logan Eggleston, who has been an ace machine in the tournament. Serving tough will challenge Wisconsin’s passing game, forcing Haggerty and Loberg to take out of system swings while potentially neutralizing Rettke. 

The Longhorns entered the NCAA Tournament firing on all cylinders, and they will continue to look to their leading scorer Eggleston to take a lot of swings. As a six rotation outside hitter, she is a constant threat on the floor from both the pipe and outside pin. The biggest offensive threat in the Final Four, she has the ability to take over a match.

Sophomore Skylar Fields has likewise had a breakout tournament on the left pin, terminating 18 kills with a .630 clip against Nebraska to send Texas on to the semis. The Eggleston and Fields duo is orchestrated by setter Jhenna Gabriel, who will also be tasked with getting Asjia O’Neal involved. O’Neal has absolutely dominated this tournament when Texas can pass well enough to find her. 

The Texas serve receive will be challenged by Wisconsin, who play aggressive from the line. Assuming Wisconsin will target Eggleston, we will see if she can continue to carry a huge load for her team. Gabriel is the smallest setter in the Final Four, and Wisconsin may try to exploit that by setting the left pin, but their main offense weapon is still Rettke, who will be going up against two of the biggest blockers Texas has on the left side pin. 

My pick: Texas. What the Longhorns lack in serve receive, Eggleton and Fields make up for with their ability to play the high-ball game, allowing the Longhorns to spring the upset.

No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats vs No. 6 Washington Huskies

The Kentucky Wildcats have made their first ever Final Four appearance by playing high energy volleyball. Madison Lilley is a phenomenal setter who looks to Alli Stumler to take a lot of swings. The duo has been playing together for three years and they set the offensive pace for the team. When Stumler goes to the back row, Avery Skinner brings the one-two punch with her attack from the outside pin. 

This team could not run the offense they do without Gabby Curry, a three-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year winner. From serve receive to defense, she takes up a lot of court and plays the ball with the accuracy needed for Lilley to run the offense.

The struggle for Kentucky will be managing Washington’s aggressive serving. The Huskies will avoid Curry like the plague, likely targeting the seam between Skinner and Stumler when it’s available, and otherwise targeting Stumler alone. 

This is Washington’s first Final Four since 2013. Ella May Powell, Washington’s All American setter, runs a fast-paced triple threat offense. Pin hitters Samantha Drechsel, Shannon Crenshaw, and Madi Endsley lead the team in kills, while Washington’s defense depends on aggressive service, allowing the team to utilize their size at the net. 

The ability to keep teams out of system while remaining dynamic in blocking the high ball is what has kept Washington alive in the tournament so far. Their offense is pin-based, which means they don’t need a perfect pass to deliver the ball to their go-to hitter. With the block Washington will see from Kentucky, it will be crucial to keep the pass centrally located enough to make the middle guess which pin it will go to. While they’re certainly the underdogs, the Huskies have shown they can thrive with their backs against the wall.  

My pick: Kentucky. I think the Wildcats and Huskies play a similar pin-dominated game, but that Kentucky plays it a little bit faster and more consistently in transition. If Kentucky can continue to play low-error volleyball in high-ball situations, Washington is going to have a difficult time finding momentum. 

Tune in on Thursday: 

  • No. 2 Kentucky vs No. 6 Washington, 7:00pm ET on ESPN2. 
  • No. 1 Wisconsin vs No. 4 Texas, 9:00pm ET on ESPN2.