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My Final Four Prediction for the 2021 NCAA Women's Volleyball Championship by Ema D.
After the 2020 season was postponed due to obvious COVID reasons, NCAA Women’s Volleyball has started up again, with the regular season that began January 22, 2021. Now that the regular season has ended, the NCAA tournament started on April 14th and many fans are formulating their brackets, myself included. Here are my predictions for the Final Four this tournament.
In the top-left bracket, I predict the regional winner will be Wisconsin. Wisconsin made it to the National Final in 2019, falling to Stanford (who did not qualify for the tournament this year) in 3 sets. They won the Big Ten for the second time in a row, remaining undefeated, and have amazing and experienced players that can dominate the court. Even with their former libero, Tiffany Clark, and their former right side, Madison Duello, graduating, their replacements, Lauren Barnes and Devyn Robinson have done an outstanding job filling those positions.
Lauren Barnes, the new libero, played as a defensive specialist in previous seasons, so she has that back row experience. Devyn Robinson, a freshman, has really brought together this Badgers team averaging 2.64 kills per set, the third most on the team. Not to mention the superstars of the team, Dana Rettke and Sydney Hilley. Dana Rettke leads the team with an average of 3.29 kills per set, an incredible number for a middle blocker. Even standing high at 6’8, she manages to move around the court with speed and stealth. She leads the Big Ten with most blocks per set and knows how to find empty space on the other side of the court. Sydney Hilley, on the other hand, is one of the best setters in the country. Hilley has an amazing connection with her hitters and knows how to read her opponents’ blockers to get her hitters the best opportunity to get a kill. She has the third most assists per set in the Big Ten and is the textbook definition of a great setter.
Four members of this Wisconsin team have made the All-Big Ten volleyball first team, including Devyn Robinson and Grace Loberg, another fantastic outside hitter. Sydney Hilley and Dana Rettke made the team with unanimous votes, an even bigger accomplishment. The other remaining starters, Lauren Barnes, Molly Haggerty, and Danielle Hart made the second team, so not far behind. This team is a tough one to beat and seeded first for a reason. I don’t think that they will have too much of an issue making it to the national semifinals.
In the bottom left bracket, I predict that the regional winner will be Nebraska. Seeded 5th overall, this team is always a challenge to beat. Nebraska is a fan favorite every year, and this year is no exception. However, the fanbase plays no role in this prediction. The Cornhuskers are undeniably one of the best in the Big Ten, if not the entire nation. Even though last year they sadly lost to Wisconsin in the regional final, they have worked incredibly hard this season and it is easy to see. Their bracket has some good competition, but still not consistent enough to beat in my opinion. Their bracket consists of Penn State, Baylor, and Texas, which are all great teams; however, Nebraska has proven time and time again that they are simply better.
With three players in the All-Big Ten first team, half of Nebraska's starters are voted to be the part of the Big-Ten All American Teams. Nicklin Hames, Lexi Sun, and Lauren Stivrins really pull this team together. Nicklin Hames, junior setter, leads the Big Ten in assists per set with an average of almost 11 assists per set. She is, in my opinion, one of the best setters in the country and really knows how to find her hitters to set up the perfect chance for a kill. She’s on the shorter side for a college setter at 5’10 but has a fantastic vertical and a great sense for blocking and dumping.
The seniors of the team, Lexi Sun and Lauren Stivrins, were voted unanimously to be selected on the first team for All-Big Ten, and it’s for a reason. Lexi Sun has the most kills per set on her team with 3.82 as an average. She is an all-around outside hitter who can pass and defend in the back row and then go up and swing like crazy in the front row. If you’re looking for someone to look up to as an outside, Lexi Sun is first on my list.
Next up is Lauren Stivrins, 6’4 middle blocker who is known for her “Stivrins Slide,” a slide attack that she runs with Nicklin Hames. She has the highest hitting percentage in the Big Ten and is insanely consistent. She’s fast, versatile, and was a game-changer for Nebraska this season. Their other middle, Kayla Caffey, a transfer from the University of Missouri, has also been a surprise to many teams. A short middle, standing at 6 feet, her vertical is unreal for her height. Her kills and blocks always have great timing, and her plays pick up the momentum for the team when needed.
There is also some promising young talent at Nebraska, as always. Madi Kubik and Kenzie Knuckles, both sophomores, live up to the Cornhusker standard and will go on to lead this team in the future. Freshman Keonilei Akana, a defensive specialist, leads her team in aces this season and is reassuring to have in the back row. Nebraska’s right side, Jazz Sweet, left-hander, also plays a crucial role in this team. Overall, this team has the passing, setting, hitting, and blocking needed to make it to the national semifinals. Teams this year need to watch out for not only their strong players individually, but the entire team as a whole. When they work as a team, they play their best.
In the top-right bracket, my regional winner pick is Minnesota’s Golden Gophers. This team is incredibly strong this year, even after losing their setter, Kylie Miller, and their outside, Alexis Hart after graduation. Seeded third, this team turned out to be second in the Big 10 overall, going 15-2. Their offense is definitely their strong side; however, their defense balances it out perfectly for this team to be nearly unstoppable when playing well. This team is on the younger side compared to all of the teams they have played this season, which might eventually hurt them when they face better opponents.
Freshmen Melani Shaffmaster, Taylor Landfair, and Jenna Wenaas have all been in the starting lineup this season, putting up impressive numbers for this team. Shaffmaster, their new setter, has a great sense of who to set and when to set them. She also is an outstanding defender in passing and blocking. For a 6’3 setter, she’s mobile and averages about 9.61 assists per set. She’s great at feeding her hitters and slowing down the offense when out of system. She made the All-Freshman team for the Big Ten this year, along with her outside, Taylor Landfair. Landfair is a powerhouse swinger. She doesn’t even need to jump, and she can still find a way to tool the block or find empty space on the court. If someone is there behind her swing, it’s tough to handle. Being 6’5 has its perks! She averages 3.00 kills per set, even though she only plays front row. If she’s doing this well when she’s a freshman, she’ll be an asset to the team when she’s older.
The older members of the team, Stephanie Samedy, CC McGraw, Regan Pittman, and Adanna Rollins all have been delivering since the start of their Minnesota careers. Stephanie Samedy, Big Ten Player of the Year, leads the Big Ten in kills per set with 4.11. Not to mention getting voted in the All-Big Ten first-team unanimously. She can crush the ball from the front row and the back row, no problem. Her vertical combined with her powerful swing means she can get a kill whether she’s in system, on the outside, on the right side, or on the pipe. She is an incredibly versatile player and has been outshining more than ever this season. CC McGraw, junior libero, is fast and scrappy. She’s everything a college libero wants to be! She’s been out a little bit for this season, but she’s back and ready to cover the back row with her life. Regan Pittman, who also made the first-team All-Big Ten unanimously, has been tremendous for the Gophers. She gets up high to prevent the opponents from getting a kill and taking crazy swings. She is definitely one of their necessities in general and plays as a veteran should. She is so versatile, she even leads the team with 22 aces this season. Have you ever seen a middle blocker do that? If she can develop a slightly better connection with Shaffmaster, her attacks will be near impossible to stop, even against the best teams in the nation.
This team, much like Wisconsin and Nebraska, has what it takes to make it to the national semifinals, if not the finals. They made it last year, they can do it again. With the younger players stepping up and getting that team chemistry with the veterans, this team can and will go above and beyond.
My final prediction may be surprising since this is an all Big Ten Final Four, but I think the Purdue Boilermakers will pull off the upset. In the bottom right bracket, this was a tough decision. I predict the regional final will be a great game between Purdue and Kentucky. Even though Kentucky is the number two seed and consists of great players like Madison Lilley, Alli Stumler, and Gabby Curry, who have been huge this season, I still think Purdue will pull away with a victory. They beat Kentucky last year and have shown immense growth through players like Caitlyn Newton, Hayley Bush, and Jena Otec.
Jena Otec, defensive player of the year for the Big Ten, is absolutely incredible in the back row. Averaging 4.64 digs per set, she is leading her conference as one of the best liberos in the country. She covers her section of the court and others’ section uniquely well, a perfect example of a libero. Hayley Bush is also an outstanding setter, much like the other teams in the Final Four. She has a lot of experience with her team and can adjust to newcomers easily. She finds the connection between hitters in a snap and puts the ball right where it needs to go even when out of system. She also is an asset defensively, second in her team for digs per set. The most impressive connection is between her and Caitlyn Newton, the unstoppable hitter on the left pin. Caitlyn Newton has the most points overall in the Big Ten, and you can see the way she leads the team when watching her play. She can find her way around the block and even over it, no matter what kind of set she gets. Newton truly stands out when watching a game with Purdue involved, and it’s exactly the boost Purdue needs to beat out the teams in their bracket.
The Boilermakers tend to catch teams on their heels and can bring the heat. They make teams nervous, and I think even with a strong Kentucky team in their region, they can take them down in an eventful 5-setter.
If you’re interested in watching the regional finals to figure out if I’m correct or not, check out the NCAA Women's Volleyball Official Bracket. All matches will be on ESPN and end up on ESPN+ and YouTube. Leave your predictions/thoughts in the comments below!