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Wayne Cavadi | NCAA.com | August 22, 2018

6 storylines to watch in the 2018 DII volleyball season

Concordia-St. Paul wins the 2017 DII Women's Volleyball Championship

The DII volleyball season is upon us. Before the first ball is served, let's take a glance around the preseason top 25 at these six storylines to follow in the 2018 DII volleyball season.

COMPLETE AVCA PRESEASON POLL

Concordia-St. Paul chasing 10th title in 12 years

When Brady Starkey retires, he could very well go down as not only the greatest DII volleyball coach in the history of the sport but the best across all three divisions. Starting in 2007, Starkey’s Golden Bears reeled off seven straight national championships before taking two years off as national champions. They’ve started the streak all over again, winning the last two national titles, not losing a single match in Pensacola, Florida last year at the championship. Starkey's 499-49 career record -- a .911 winning percentage that is tops amongst active DI, II, and III coaches -- is mind-boggling to think about.

MORE: Concordia is perfect in Pensacola for ninth title

While Concordia lost some seniors, most notably All-American Mariya Sampson and Shelby Seurer, the seniors on the 2018 squad are loaded in both talent and leadership. Elizabeth Mohr had a season to remember, taking home First Team All-American honors as well as the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award. Second Team All-Americans Brooklyn Lewis, Hope Schiller and Taylor Soine all appeared in every match of last year’s championship run and have the resumes to back it up. Sophomore Tori Hanson looks to build on a tremendous freshman campaign in which she led the team in total digs and a .958 receive percentage.

The run is all the more impressive when you consider that Concordia plays its regular season in the battle-tested Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference. The fact that the Golden Bears survive the NSIC and still go deep into the playoffs is a testament to Starkey’s coaching.

The NSIC is a DII volleyball factory

Speaking of the battle-tested NSIC, six teams appear in the preseason top 25 from the conference, four of which are in the top 10.

  • No. 1 Concordia-St. Paul
  • No. 2 Southwest Minnesota State
  • No. 3 Minnesota Duluth
  • No. 9 Northern State
  • No. 17 Winona State
  • No. 23 Augustana (SD)

That's not just battle-tested, that's an all-out war.

Southwest Minnesota State has certainly earned the honor, coming off a season in which they went 11-4 against top 25 teams and 5-3 against top 10 teams, including defeating Concordia-St. Paul in the NSIC championship. With AVCA DII Player of the Year Taylor Reiss and All-American Kaylee Burmeister returning, SMSU will look to stay on top of the rankings this season. But watch out for Minnesota Duluth. The Bulldogs ended SMSU’s run in the tournament and will have revenge on the mind when they square off against Concordia, who ended their runs in both the NSIC and DII postseason.

A new era of Florida Southern volleyball

Jill Stephens and Florida Southern became synonymous in the DII volleyball world. Stephens' first trip to the semifinals with the Mocs was way back in 1991 as a freshman player. Twenty-six seasons later, she was back, leading the Mocs to another semifinal and then advancing to FSC’s first ever championship match.

For Stephens, it would be her last.

Enter Chris Keen, who had been Stephens associate head coach and offensive coordinator. While four big seniors are gone – Anna Tovo, Sydney Marshall, Nicci Joyce and Allie Geary – Keen has four seniors returning to provide plenty of leadership and now, championship experience. First Team All-American and South Region Player of the Year Nicole Mattson returns, as does All-American Bethany Besancenez, Gabby Fresh, and Whitney Drost. Mix in Rachael Martin and Annie Collins, two sophomores that played pivotal minutes as freshmen last year, and the next chapter in Mocs history should get started on an exciting note.

What’s next for Regis?

Last season was a year to remember for Regis volleyball. The Rangers cracked the top 10 for the first time since 2001 and made it all the way to Pensacola, before bowing out of the quarterfinals in a loss to Gannon. 

All but one from that team returns.

That’s what made the Rangers' 2017 run all the more surprising. Behind a combination of youth and new faces, with only senior Caitlyn Martinez to provide veteran leadership, the Rangers reeled off one of the best records in program history and swept the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference regular season and tournament title for the first time since 1998. Junior Nikki Kennedy, who became the youngest First Team All-American in program history last year, will lead the way, but this team is stacked, including the past two RMAC Freshmen of the Year in Kelsey Green (2016) and Caitlyn Burroway (2017). It probably stung the Rangers getting swept in upset fashion as the No. 2 seed in Pensacola, and that’s just bad news for the RMAC entering 2018.

More wins for Rockhurst’s Rietzke

Last season, Rockhurst reached its eighth regional final under the leadership of head coach Tracy Rietzke. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, after all, he has more wins than any other coach in DII volleyball history. In 30 years at the helm, Rockhurst has averaged 34 wins a season, reaching the tournament 24 times. His 1,212 (1,040 with the Hawks) are even more impressive when you see he’s done it at an 81.8 percent lick. With Navy's Larry Bock now retired, the chase for the all-time wins mark of 1,348 is officially on.

The Hawks reached the national semifinals behind a 32-8 record last year, defeating Flagler in the quarterfinals before Concordia brought their season to an end. Rockhurst enters the season at No. 10 after losing a handful of seniors, but Rietzke has shown there’s always talent returning. Mark your calendars for October 20. Two Great Lakes Valley Conference heavyweights go head-to-head as Rockhurst takes on Lewis (preseason No. 6). Last year, Lewis ended Rockhurst’s run in the GLVC tournament, but Lewis returned the favor in the regional finals. 

Can Tampa bounce back?

Tampa finished last season 18-14, the first time since 1995 the Spartans won less than 23 games. A perennial Sunshine State Conference powerhouse, Tampa opens the season receiving votes outside the top 25.

Chris Catanach enters his 35th season, a member of the 1,000 wins club. Last year, the Spartans were a younger squad, with three freshmen and two sophomores leading the team in matches played. Now, the Spartans have a year of experience together under their belts and return their top-five leaders in kills and points as well as the team leaders in both assists and digs. The SSC is no easy conference, with No. 4 Florida Southern and No. 12 Palm Beach Atlantic poised for another great year. But Catanach has a winning pedigree, bookending Concordia’s seven-year run of championships with two of his own. With a once young team with another year of experience under its belt, Tampa could be a sleeper to watch in 2018.

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