Aug. 25, 2009

Courtesy of Shamus McKnight
University of Nebraska Media Relations

The 2009 season commences in the same place where last year’s champion was crowned, as the Qwest Center hosts the Runza/AVCA Showcase.

In the second year of a conference challenge format, the Runza/AVCA Showcase will feature Nebraska and Kansas State from the Big 12, while Minnesota and Michigan will represent the Big Ten in this weekend’s matches. This is the second of a three-year run for the conference challenge format, insuring that the Runza/AVCA Showcase will continue to draw the nation’s top programs to the prestigious event.

All four matches this weekend will be televised nationally by CBS College Sports and shown across the state of Nebraska in high-definition on Nebraska Educational Television (NET), giving the sport a national spotlight during the opening weekend of competition.

“Our goal with the Showcase is to kickoff the volleyball season with elite teams battling in an electric environment,” said AVCA Executive Director Kathy DeBoer. “The Big 12 and Big Ten give us two of the best leagues, the Qwest Center in Omaha gives us the best venue, and Runza gives us the best partner.  All in all, this is a premier event!”

The inaugural conference challenge format was a great success, as the event featured four of the top seven teams at the time, with three of the squads (Nebraska, Stanford and Texas) eventually returning to Omaha last December for the NCAA semifinals.

The 2009 Runza/AVCA Showcase brings together another national-championship caliber field. Kansas State, Michigan, Minnesota and Nebraska are all ranked in the preseason AVCA Top 25, and if history is any indication, at least one of the four teams will be in Tampa this December playing for an NCAA title. In all, 21 former Runza/AVCA Showcase participants have played in that season’s national semifinals since the event began in 1995.

The field will also showcase some of the nation’s top players, as the four teams combine for six 2008 AVCA All-Americans, including three from Minnesota and two from Nebraska. With four high profile programs on display, this year’s showcase will treat fans to some of the best collegiate volleyball in the country.

Kansas State has been one of the nation’s most consistent programs this decade. Under Suzie Fritz, the Wildcats have made seven NCAA Tournament appearances in the past eight season, including a pair of Sweet 16 showings. The Wildcats are making their second AVCA Showcase appearance and first since the 1993 campaign. Last year, Kansas State finished with a 24-8 record and placed third in the Big 12 with a 14-6 mark.

The 2009 Wildcats will be young, as they look to replace a trio of starters, including two-time All-American Nataly Korobkova. K-State welcomes back preseason All-Big 12 performer Kelsey Chipman, who averaged 2.10 kills and 1.09 blocks per set. She was among the Big 12 leaders in both hitting percentage (.354) and blocks a year ago. KSU also welcomes back one of the Big 12’s top liberos in Lauren Mathewson, who ranked fifth in the league with 4.11 digs per set.

While Michigan is the lone newcomer to the AVCA Showcase, the Wolverines have crafted their own impressive legacy this decade. Under Coach Mark Rosen, Michigan has qualified for the NCAAs in eight of the last 10 seasons after reaching the tournament one time prior to 2000. Michigan, which checks in at No. 16 in the AVCA preseason ranking, comes off back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Regional. Michigan has won 29 of its last 30 matches against non-conference opponents, with the only blemish coming against the Huskers in the 2009 Seattle Regional.

In 2009, Michigan returns five starters after losing just two players on a team that went 26-9 and recorded its most wins since 1981. The Wolverines are led by junior setter Lexi Zimmerman, who garnered second-team AVCA All-America honors after averaging 11.37 assists, 1.37 kills and 2.65 digs per set last season. The Wolverines also welcome back outside hitter Juliana Paz, who averaged 3.31 kills per set and played junior college ball at nearby Iowa Western Community College.

Another program with high expectations for the upcoming season is Minnesota. The Golden Gophers make their third Runza/AVCA Showcase appearance after  competing in the event in 2002 and 2004. Minnesota   reached the championship match in both previous showings. Under legendary coach Mike Hebert, the Gophers have been one of the country’s perennial powerhouses, reaching a pair of NCAA semifinals earlier this decade. Hebert, who begins his 34th season in the collegiate ranks, may have one of his most talented Gopher teams to date entering the 2009 season.

Minnesota went 24-6 last year before falling to Iowa State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Gophers welcome back four starters, including returning AVCA All-Americans Brook Dieter and Lauren Gibbemeyer. The 2009 season marks the first time since their NCAA runner-up squad in 2004 that Minnesota has three first-team All-Big Ten performers returning. Dieter led Minnesota and ranked among the Big Ten leaders with 3.57 kills per set last year, while also chipping in 2.23 digs from her outside hitter spot. Gibbemeyer was one of the Big Ten’s best middle blockers, averaging 3.24 kills and 1.39 blocks per game. In addition, All-Big Ten libero Christine Tan returns after averaging 4.89 digs per set a year ago.

In addition to the returning talent, the Gophers also welcome the nation’s top recruiting class according to The class consists of four of the top incoming players as well as a pair of senior transfers in setter Taylor Carico and Megan Wilson. Carico, who played in last year’s AVCA Showcase at USC, earned All-America honors as part of USC’s NCAA semifinal squad, while Wilson played at Missouri for three seasons before heading north for her senior campaign.

Nebraska has been one of the nation’s dominant programs this decade, winning a pair of national titles and reaching the regional final in each of the past five years. The Huskers, who have the best winning percentage in the country this decade,  are making their sixth showcase appearance and are a perfect 8-0 in AVCA Showcase matches under John Cook. Last year, the Huskers knocked off No. 2 Stanford and No. 4 USC in the first conference challenge format.  NU, which was ranked third in the AVCA preseason poll, welcomes back five starters from a team that went 31-3 and made its third NCAA semifinal appearance in four years. The Huskers have dominated the Big 12 in recent years, winning six straight conference crowns and eight in John Cook’s nine years at Nebraska.

The Huskers are led by All-Americans Sydney Anderson and Tara Mueller, who were first-team All-Big 12 selections in 2008. Anderson ranked eighth nationally in assists (11.60 per set) and was among the league leaders in service aces (0.29 per set). Mueller garnered second-team honors after averaging 3.51 kills and 2.37 digs per set, while ranking third on the team with seven double-doubles.  Senior middle blocker Kori Cooper is NU’s third returning All-Big 12 performer after ranking 10th nationally with a .396 hitting percentage, as she averaged 2.10 kills per set.

Nebraska also welcomes a top-ranked recruiting class, as the Huskers’ incoming group was ranked second nationally by The class features Gina Mancuso, who was the Gatorade High School Player of the Year in 2008.