Aug. 28, 2009

By Douglas Kroll

Concordia-St. Paul hadn’t won a Division II national championship on the volleyball court before notching its first in 2007. In 2008, it doubled that number.

The Golden Bears look to make it three in a row in 2009, but will not only have tough competition in NSIC play, but the top teams in the nation are stacked and ready to overtake the two-time defending champs.

Grand Valley State and Tampa, the two champions before Concordia’s run, will look to get back that title, while Nebraska-Kearney returns almost its entire roster as it hopes to win its first ever national championship.

Here’s a look at the national championship contenders for the 2009 season.

Cal State San Bernardino
The Coyotes have been the class of the CCAA for the last three years, claiming the conference championship in each of those seasons. Reaching the NCAA regional title match in each of the last nine has put Cal State-San Bernardino in the national spotlight, but a national championship has evaded them. National runners-up a year ago, the Coyotes were two points away from claiming it. Entering her 19th season at Cal State San Bernardino, head coach Kim Cherniss is faced with the challenge of replacing three All-Americans, including CCAA Player of the Year Jessica Granados, but they’ll start the year at No. 2 in the nation and are picked by the CCAA coaches to win their fourth straight league title.

Concordia-St. Paul

There’s been no denying who the best team in Division II Women’s Volleyball has been over the last two seasons. Concordia-St. Paul has captured the last two national championships, topping Cal State San Bernardino in last year’s national championship match while going 37-1. The Golden Bears begin 2009 on top of the AVCA preseason poll, and will have the help of the 2008 AVCA Division II Player of the Year once again, in senior Maggie McNamara. The three-time All-American has lost just seven games in her career, and will have four other starters returning with her in 2009. The NSIC schedule won’t be easy, with five teams receiving a Top 25 preseason ranking.

Emporia State
Five teams in the MIAA will begin the 2009 season ranked in the Top 25, and none is expected to do more than the Hornets this year. Picked to win the league title, Emporia State returns four of six starters and their libero from last year's 34-4 MIAA Championship team. Junior Ting Liu was a first-team AVCA All-American and the MIAA's Most Valuable Player while senior Arica Shepard earned third-team AVCA All-American honors.  

Grand Valley State
Head coach Deanne Scanlon starts her 15th season as head coach of the Lakers, compiling an overall record of 387-102. Grand Valley State returns 11 letterwinners and four starters from last year’s team. Junior middle blocker Rebeccah Rapin, an All-GLIAC First Team selection last season, and senior outside hitter Whitney Tremain, most valuable player of the 2008 Midwest Regional Tournament, will lead the Laker offense. Also returning on the starting unit are senior outside hitter Katey Crichton and senior libero Meredith Young, who led the conference with 524 digs last season. The Lakers will look to win their first national title since 2005 after falling in the national semifinals in 2008 to the eventual national champs, Concordia-St. Paul.

Minnesota Duluth
For the second straight season, Minnesota Duluth had to watch its bitter NSIC rival, Concordia-St. Paul win a national championship. And perhaps what made things tougher in 2008, was losing to the Golden Bears in the regional final of the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs will be without three solid contributors from the 2008, but return12 letter-winners and four starters from a squad that finished with a 26-9 overall record and battled to a third place finish in NSIC play. The toughest challenge for UMD may be a lack of experience, as senior defensive specialist and team captain Rachel Jacobson is the Bulldogs' lone senior. Jacobson finished second on the team in assists a year ago, with 487.

There’s a lot of reason for optimism in Kearney as the Lopers get set to open the 2009 season. The Lopers, who are the five-time defending RMAC regular season champions, are led by Preseason Player of the Year Jeri Walkowiak and Preseason Setter of the Year Cola Svec. UNK went 32-4 last fall and finished the year ranked sixth in the nation. The Lopers return nearly its entire roster from a squad that fell to two-time defending national champion Concordia-St. Paul, 3-2, in the Central Regional semifinal.

Southwest Minnesota State
Eight players return for the Mustangs in 2009, including a pair of All-NSIC performers return for SMSU in 2009.  Senior Sara Graf returns to her setter position, while Devin Diedrich, a sophomore middle blocker, is also back. Diedrich was named NSIC Freshman of the Year, AVCA All-Central Region, AVCA Central Region Freshman of the Year and AVCA All-America honorable mention. SMSU finished the 2008 season 28-6 and made its fifth straight NCAA tournament appearance and sixth overall.

To say Tampa has been a fixture in the Division II women’s Volleyball landscape over the last decade would be an understatement. The Spartans open the 2009 season in the Top 10 of the preseason poll for the 12th straight season with a young Spartan squad that features no seniors. Tampa welcomes back three starters and nine letterwinners from last season’s 27-5 campaign. After winning the SSC championship, the Spartans advanced to the NCAA South Regional semifinals. All-American Melissa Vanderhall leads the way as the reigning SSC and South region Player of the Year following a 2008 season in which she recorded 381 kills. Fellow starters Sam Macks and Camille Hanks also return for Tampa.

There’s a new head coach for Truman in 2009, but there’s the same outlook. The Bulldogs, who finished the 2008 season with a run to the national semifinals and a 33-8 overall record, return six letterwinners – including junior all-MIAA setter Ashley Petak and senior right-side hitter Lauren Graybeal, a member of the 2008 South Central regional tournament team. Ben Briney will take over as head coach this fall after serving as the program’s top assistant for the past four seasons. An appearance in the NCAA tournament’s semifinals a year ago should have Truman set for another run in Briney’s first season.

West Texas A&M
The Lady Buffs have claimed the last three Lone Star Conference championships, and it looks like 2009 should be no different. The Lady Buffs posted an undefeated 13-0 conference record en route to the NCAA South Central Regional tournament. The team returns four seniors this year, Laura Prinsen, Katie Rickwartz, Natalie Johnson, and Melissa Harper. Prinsen was named as the preseason Offensive Player of the Year and Katie Rickwartz was tabbed as the preseason Setter of the Year, both for the second straight fall.