By Douglas Kroll

There’s no denying which conference will likely be the best in 2009. Just look at the preseason AVCA poll, which sees six Pac-10 teams in the top 25 to start the season.

Even with the Pac-10 being loaded, the team to beat still resides on the East Coast, with Penn State having won the last two national championships.

It’s tough to wrestle that distinction away from the preseason No. 1 team, especially when the Nittany Lions lost just two sets in 2008, both coming in the national semifinals.

Can Florida finally break through on the national scene after years of dominating the SEC? Will Hawaii return to national prominence?

Here’s a look at ten teams that are national contenders in 2009.

Going 26-7 for most teams would be a successful season, and if California didn’t have to play in the Pac-10, it likely would have had fewer losses than even that. But the Bears did, and the 2009 season will see Cal return most of last season’s squad that ran into the buzzsaw that was Penn State in the quarterfinal round of the NCAA tournament. The two biggest names that head coach Rich Feller welcomes back are junior setter Carli Lloyd and senior Hana Cutura, both All-Americans in 2008. Lloyd was ranked third in the NCAA with 12 assists per set, while Cutura recorded a stellar 4.34 kills per set as they’ll hope to lead California back to the NCAA semifinals after its last appearance in 2007.

The Gators have won 18 straight SEC championships - a Division I record for consecutive conference titles – but a national championship has somehow eluded head coach Mary Wise during her 18 seasons in Gainesville. Last year’s 27-4 team saw many underclassmen lead the way, and now with some experience thrown in, it could be the recipe needed to finally grab that first one. The offense will be directed by 2008 AVCA National Freshman of the Year Kelly Murphy at right-side and setter, while the defense will be anchored by senior libero Elyse Cusack, the school’s all-time career digs leader. Having not lost a regular season home game in almost four years, Gainesville will continue to be a tough place to play. But matches against No. 4 Washington and No. 5 Stanford will be at neutral sites.

Much like how Florida has dominated the SEC over the last two decades, Hawaii has done the same in the WAC. The Rainbow Wahine have nabbed 14 straight conference titles, and is the favorite to do so once again in 2009. Four starters return off last season’s 31-4 team, which fell to Stanford in the Regional Final. Seniors Amber Kaufman and Aneli Cubi-Otineru are back, along with junior setter Dani Mafua and sophomore outside hitter Kanani Danielson. Hawaii will look to win its first national championship since 1987, and will hope to duplicate the same stats as 2008 when it finished in the top ten in assists per set, kills per set and hitting percentage.

Playing in the same conference as the two-time defending national champions is not an easy thing to do, but the Illini held their own in 2008. A 3-0 loss to California in the Round of 16 ended one of the best seasons in years, and sees them with the highest preseason ranking (No. 10) in 16 years. Why the enthusiasm? Seven starters are back from last year’s squad, including second team All-American Laura DeBruler, Big Ten Freshman of the Year Michelle Bartsch and the nation's blocks leader Johannah Bangert. DeBruler finished with 4.66 kills per set – sixth in the nation – while Bangert maintained a nation-best 1.6 blocks per set. Circle Sept. 26 and Nov. 13 on the Big Ten calendar, when the Illini and Nittany Lions wage battle.

Besides football, there’s not a bigger sport in the state of Nebraska than women’s volleyball, as seen by the consistent sellouts in Lincoln each year. The Cornhuskers have now been ranked in the top 10 for 351 weeks, coming into the 2009 season with a No. 3 preseason ranking in the AVCA poll. The Cornhuskers welcomes back five starters from last season’s 31-3 team that reached the NCAA semifinals, with All-Americans Tara Mueller and Sydney Anderson leading the way. Anderson was eighth in the nation with 11.6 assists per set, and will look to guide a recruiting class that features five Volleyball Magazine Fab 50 selections.

Penn State
There was no questioning which team was the best in the nation in 2008, as Penn State ran roughshod through the Big Ten and the NCAA tournament. Just how dominant were they? The Nittany Lions didn’t drop a set all season until the NCAA semifinal match against Nebraska. When you look at the 2008 Penn State schedule, 37 of 38 matches were won 3-0. Pretty impressive. Not to mention, head coach Russ Rose notched his second straight national championship. So can the back-to-back defending national champions be stopped in 2009? It’s going to be tough. Five starters return, but perhaps none more important than senior setter Alisha Glass and senior outside hitter Megan Hodge. Glass led the nation with 12.5 assists per set, while Hodge averaged just over four kills per set. The Nittany Lions will look to replicate the .390 hitting percentage that was best in the country. The non-conference portion of the 2009 schedule isn’t the most challenging, look for Penn State to be riding an impressive unbeaten streak entering Big Ten play in late September.

Falling to Penn State in the national championship in 2008 was nothing to be ashamed of, even if it was the Cardinal’s third straight trip to the national title match with nothing to show for it. Neither was winning their third straight Pac-10 championship in the toughest conference in America. So for the program that has notched more NCAA titles, won more NCAA tournament matches, made more national semifinal appearances and been in the national championship match more times than any program in the nation, coming up empty-handed is not taken lightly. Four starters return for head coach John Dunning, but two that do not are two-time National Player of the Year, Foluke Akinradewo, and three-time first-team All-American Cynthia Barboza. One of those that will be back is two-time All-American Alix Klineman, who will record her 1,000th kill in her career during the 2009 season. A matchup with Florida in Stockton and a trip to Honolulu to face Hawaii will be Stanford’s toughest tests in the non-conference portion of the schedule.

A preseason No. 2 ranking will have expectations the highest they have been in a long time in Austin, a year after winning 29 games and falling a set short of the national championship match. Senior Destinee Hooker is one of the best outside hitters in the country, and was named the 2008-09 Big 12 Conference Female Athlete of the Year. Also returning is the 2008 Big 12 Freshman of the Year after Michelle Kocher finished with 11.08 assists per set in her first season on campus. Texas will meet a ranked opponent in all five of its non-conference matches, taking on No. 6 California, No. 7 Hawaii, No. 15 San Diego, No. 20 Saint Louis and No. 23 Long Beach State on its season-opening road trip, which will certainly be a test before Big 12 play.

Head coach Andy Banachowski has seen just about everything as he enters his 43rd season at the helm of UCLA Women’s Volleyball. His biggest task in 2009? Replace one of the best setters in Pac-10 history in Nellie Spicer. The good news is Banachowski will have the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year at the net, as Amanda Gil finished sixth in the country in her first collegiate season with 1.46 blocks per set. The 2009 Bruins will be a very young group, but talented nonetheless. Lauren Cook leads one of the best freshmen classes in the country into Westwood, where they will look to make an impact right away. An early trip to Nebraska will be quite a test, but will prepare them for what will be the beset conference in the nation, yet again.

The 2008 season ended in disappointment for Washington, falling in the NCAA tournament’s quarterfinal round to Nebraska on its home floor. But there’s plenty of optimism in 2009. The preseason favorite in a stacked Pac-10, the Huskies return six of seven players from last year’s starting lineup. The two stars to look out for are All-Pac-10 senior libero Tamari Miyashiro and third team All-American junior setter Jenna Hagglund. Last year Hagglund led the Pac-10 and was second in the nation in assists with 12.17 per set while Miyashiro garnered Defensive Player of the Year honors. Two key matchups to keep an eye on in the non-conference portion of the schedule will both take place in the same September tournament in Tampa at the Tampa Twice Tournament. Dates with Minnesota and Florida will be the toughest tests before the brutal Pac-10 schedule arrives later in the month.