The opening weekend of the NCAA women’s volleyball season is just around the corner. Here are five storylines to watch ahead of the action.

The ncaa volleyball tournament 2021 is the opening weekend of NCAA women’s volleyball. This will be a five storyline event, and the storylines will include the following:

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    ESPN.com’s Mechelle Voepel

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      Mechelle Voepel is an espnW reporter that covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports. Voepel has been with ESPN since 1996 and has covered women’s basketball since 1984.

One long-asked question about when the SEC will win its first NCAA title in women’s volleyball was addressed earlier this year: when would the SEC win its first NCAA championship in this sport? In April, Kentucky became the first state to do so. All thanks to COVID-19, the weirdest of volleyball seasons came to an end.

Volleyball, which is normally an autumn sport with a final in December, had a patchwork schedule in 2020, spanning eight months and two calendar years. Some leagues, such as the ACC, SEC, and Big 12, began play in 2020, while others, including the Big Ten and Pac-12, didn’t start until January 2021.

The season came to a close in Omaha, Nebraska, with a 48-player NCAA tournament field, which irritated volleyball’s coaches and players, as well as complaints about the quality of practice courts and other tournament conditions, which echoed similar issues raised at the NCAA women’s basketball tournament in San Antonio a month earlier.

The road to the 2021 title starts now, four months later. Preseason Nos. 1-4 Texas, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Washington, all of whom were semifinalists last spring, are among the favorites. The Big Ten and Pac-12 remain the powerhouse conferences, each with six teams in the AVCA preseason rankings, and will have a big say in who progresses to the semifinals in Columbus, Ohio, on Dec. 16-18.

As the women’s volleyball season gets underway this weekend, here are five stories to keep an eye on.

1. Will Kentucky be able to defend its title?

Kentucky’s title didn’t come out of nowhere (pardon the pun), but neither did it come as a surprise. Under coach Craig Skinner, the Wildcats had been a strong team that had been knocking on the door of the final four for a long time, and they headed into the school’s 22nd NCAA tournament last spring having only lost one match. However, they were carrying the burden of “nearly” with them: the SEC had previously made 11 appearances in the final four, with Florida leading the way with eight. However, there will be no national championship.

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Kentucky, on the other hand, didn’t play with any of that heft. Kentucky defeated Washington and Texas 3-1 in the national semifinals and finals, led by setter Madison Lilley, the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s national player of the year.

Although the NCAA permitted players to have an additional year to account for the effect COVID-19 had on the 2020-21 season, three senior starters from last season aren’t returning. Lilley and libero Gabby Curry have both graduated from college. Avery Skinner, an outside hitter, moved to Baylor for her senior season, where her father, former NBA player Brian Skinner, played collegiately.

Don’t count out the Wildcats, however. They return 11 letter winners, including Alli Stumler, the kills leader, and Azhani Tealer, the blocks leader. Setter is the most important position for the Wildcats, and it will be split between senior Cameron Scheitzach and freshman Emma Grome.

They have nonconference games against Wisconsin and Louisville, as well as visits from USC and Stanford. Back-to-back matches against SEC foe Florida, which is rated No. 6 in the preseason poll, will complete regular-season action.

2. Will another program’s lengthy journey culminate in an NCAA championship?

Kentucky has made it through, while Wisconsin and Florida have yet to do so. The Badgers have lost three NCAA championship games, the most recent in 2019, while the Gators have lost twice, the most recent in 2017. Last season, Wisconsin and Florida faced off in the Elite Eight, with the Badgers prevailing 3-2. Both programs are regular national competitors that contribute much to the sport, but you’d want to see them share the ultimate celebration.

Wisconsin only lost once last season, and it was in the national semifinals, when they were swept by Texas. They bring back Dana Rettke, a 6-foot-8 middle blocker, and Sydney Hilley, a setter, who are both in their sixth season. Wisconsin is the overwhelming favorite to win the ultra-competitive Big Ten, which they accomplished last year with a 15-0 record and will do again this year with an 18-2 record.

Wisconsin hosts the Big Ten/Big 12 Challenge this weekend in Madison, taking on TCU on Friday and No. 10 Baylor on Saturday. On Sept. 10, the Wildcats will face Kentucky in a crucial nonconference game. Florida is ranked second in the SEC, behind Kentucky, but has the most players on the preseason all-conference team (four). Six starters return for the Gators, including outside hitters T’ara Caesar and Thayer Hall, who led the team in points last season. The Gators will face No. 21 Stanford, No. 7 Minnesota, No. 10 Baylor twice, and in-state foe Florida State in nonconference play from Aug. 31 to Sept. 15.

3. Will seniors returning for their fifth year make a significant impact?

Absolutely. Wisconsin’s Rettke and Hilley, Skinner (was at Kentucky, now at Baylor), 2020 Pac-12 Player of the Year Dani Drews of Utah, 2020 Big Ten Player of the Year Stephanie Samedy of Minnesota, Washington’s Samantha Drechsel, Baylor’s Yossiana Pressley, and Nebraska’s Lauren Stivrins are all returning seniors from last season’s AVCA All-American first team. Lilley of Kentucky is the only one who will not be back.

This season, though, the main players for No. 1 Texas are seniors (not fifth-year players): Logan Eggleston, the 2020 Big 12 Player of the Year, and Brionne Butler, a first-team All-American, as well as Jhenna Gabriel, a third-team All-American. Juniors Skylar Fields, Asjia O’Neal, and Molly Phillips, who, together with Eggleston and Butler, made up the Longhorns’ top five scorers last season, are also returning. In a nutshell, Texas is a gold mine.

Dani Drews, the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year, returns to Utah for her fifth season. University of Utah photographer Steve C. Wilson

Last season, the Longhorns went through a Big Ten slew in the NCAA tournament, defeating Penn State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin in that order. Then, in the final match, they took the first set against Kentucky and seemed to be on their way to the program’s third NCAA Championship. The Longhorns were left with another NCAA tournament disappointment when the Wildcats won the following three sets. They are, however, back at the top this season.

4. Can Stanford, a nine-time NCAA champion, bounce back?

Because it’s Stanford, of course. We’ll use this comparison for non-volleyball fans: reading “No. 21” next to Stanford’s name is like seeing it for Alabama football. Until this season’s unranked result, the Cardinal had never been ranked lower than No. 19 in the final AVCA poll (in 2000) and had only ended outside of the top 10 six times in 37 seasons of rankings (since 1983).

Last season, though, was a perfect storm: the Cardinal had lost its great senior class, which had led them to three NCAA championships in the previous four years. Stanford only played 10 matches due to COVID-19 limitations, ending 2-8. Stanford didn’t make the field for the first time since the NCAA tournament for women’s volleyball started in 1981; now only No. 12 Penn State has gone to every tournament.

Stanford is about as near to “rebuilding” as it gets, having been predicted to finish fourth in the Pac-12 behind Washington, UCLA, and Oregon, and with just one player on the preseason all-conference team, junior opposite hitter Kendall Kipp. With Kipp and six other players from the team that won the national title in 2019, as well as an infusion of younger talent, Stanford should be able to quickly return to its former glory.

5. How do you think the new NIL regulations will affect the sport?

Despite the fact that the Athletes Unlimited indoor league began in the United States this year, most professional volleyball players in the United States must go abroad to earn a livelihood. However, the opportunity to earn money via their name, image, and likeness may assist some of them financially before they graduate from college.

Nebraska is an excellent example. The Huskers are a five-time NCAA champion, and elite players’ names are known across the state. This makes them particularly attractive to Nebraska-based companies. Lexi Sun, a fifth-year Nebraska senior, has signed agreements with apparel and jewelry businesses, the latter of which is headquartered in Omaha.

The number of endorsement possibilities volleyball players get is likely to be directly proportional to the amount of attention their programs garner in their respective regions. NIL agreements, on the other hand, can’t hurt for a sport that’s constantly seeking for a bit more national exposure.

The espn volleyball schedule 2021 is a list of five storylines that are expected to take place before the opening weekend of NCAA women’s volleyball.

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