Five burning questions for 2011 season

1. Déjà vu for Penn State?

Last year as a freshman phenom at Penn State, Deja McClendon always heard this voice on the volleyball court that was giving her directions.

Don't get the wrong idea … the voice wasn't in her head, all the Nittany Lions could hear it. The advice was coming from Alyssa D'Errico, libero/defensive specialist and all-around helpful chatterbox.

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Penn State sophomore Deja McClendon will have to assume more of a leadership role if the Nittany Lions are to make it five in a row.

"Alyssa would talk every second, so we knew what was going on at all times," McClendon said of D'Errico, who finished her college career last year with her fourth NCAA title. "Now, I'm trying my hardest to become more vocal, because that's what I think our team needs.

"The thing that's really different about this year's squad is we don't have as much volleyball IQ. But I think how we make up for it is having a lot of energy."

Gone from last year's team are D'Errico and five other seniors, including 2010 first-team All-Americans Blair Brown and Arielle Wilson. Thirteen of the 17 on Penn State's 2011 roster are underclass players.

So this will be a rebuilding year for the Nittany Lions, right? Sure, whatever. Believe that if you want to. But there was the thought before last season, too, that Penn State was vulnerable after losing stars such as Megan Hodge and Alisha Glass from the 2009 title team.

To a degree, the Nittany Lions did "stumble" a bit in 2010. Their epic winning streak was snapped at 109 matches by Stanford in September. Then Penn State lost four times in Big Ten play. But once the NCAA tournament started, it was the same as 2007, '08 and '09: Penn State was unstoppable.

The Nittany Lions did have the advantage of being in State College, Pa., for their first four NCAA contests last year, and their 94-match home winning streak remains intact. But once in Kansas City for the national semis and final, they steamrolled, too, beating Texas and Cal both 3-0.

McClendon became just the second freshman to win Final Four most outstanding player honors; Stanford great Kerri Walsh was the first. Now McClendon, a thunderous outside hitter who was national freshman of the year, hopes to improve the other aspects of her game that coach Russ Rose stresses so much: passing and defense. Those are the things that win championships.

All contenders have big hitters. But Penn State's most lethal weapons in its remarkable run of titles have been its abilities to stay in system with exceptional passing and to wear down other teams' resolve with its maniacal blocking and digging.

"I really need to work on defense and becoming a solid passer," McClendon said. "I didn't know what I was doing at all last year; Alyssa helped me out a lot. Because she talked so much, I felt really secure passing. But my passing is still jagged; I want to be a more fluid passer."

McClendon's father, Roger, was a basketball standout at Cincinnati in the 1980s. The oldest of four children, Deja said she got interested in sports "about the time I started walking" and can always turn to her dad for advice.

"He's always there as a calm, level-headed person to get me through any rough moments," she said. "But his success helps push me, too; I want to be as good as him and accomplish what he's done."

The Nittany Lions have done what no other women's volleyball team has by four-peating. In fact, they were in previously unchartered waters when they won three titles in a row. And they are again ranked No. 1 in the AVCA preseason poll.

Junior setter Kristin Carpenter will have her hands full quarterbacking this year's youthful group. Rose, entering his 33rd season at Penn State, and the rest of the Nittany Lions staff will have a lot of teaching and encouraging to do.

But it's still Penn State. And McClendon hopes that means the same thing it has the last four years: a national championship.

2. The big, big, big Big Ten

Last season, the Big Ten sent eight teams to the NCAA tournament, where their combined record was 18-7. Minnesota got to the Sweet 16, Purdue to the Elite Eight. So how can the Big Ten possibly get bigger in 2011?

By adding Goliath from another conference. Nebraska's move to the Big Ten was football-generated, of course, but it has a major impact on volleyball. The three-time NCAA champion Huskers basically had dictator status throughout most of their stay in the Big Eight/Big 12. Only Texas really challenged the Huskers as a national power; there were league foes such as Kansas that never won a match against Nebraska in a series that dated back to the 1970s.

The Huskers hoped they'd end their 2010 season flooding nearby Kansas City in a sea of red at the Final Four. But they fell in a contentious Sweet 16 match on Washington's home court, after which Huskers coach John Cook and Huskies counterpart Jim McLaughlin nearly engaged in a WrestleMania bout over a disputed call.

It was Nebraska's earliest exit from the NCAA tournament since going out in the regional semifinals in 2003. But with All-Americans Brooke Delano (first team) and Hannah Werth (second team) back; a return to a single-setter system; a stellar freshman class entering; a new, $35,000, state-of-the-art vinyl home floor; and the excitement of going to a different conference, last season is already dim in the Huskers' rearview mirror.

Now how will the drive into the Big Ten be for them? They fully expect it to be very tough. Nebraska is No. 5 in the AVCA preseason poll; also ranked from the league are No. 1 Penn State are No. 8 Illinois, No. 12 Minnesota, No. 13 Purdue, No. 21 Ohio State and Michigan, which is tied for No. 24.

How will the Huskers open Big Ten play? Against Penn State, of course, on Sept. 21 in Lincoln, Neb., in perhaps the most eagerly anticipated match of the regular season.

3. Now what in the Big 12?

The Queen is gone … long live the new queen? Texas, which won an NCAA title in 1988 and was national runner-up in 1995 and 2009, is clearly alone atop the Big 12 totem pole with Nebraska's departure. There are actually just nine schools now in Big 12 volleyball (Oklahoma State doesn't field the sport.)

The Longhorns lost a painful five-set NCAA championship match to Penn State in 2009 then were swept by the Nittany Lions in the 2010 Final Four. Texas lost one first-team All-American to graduation, outside hitter Juliann Faucette, but brings back another, middle blocker Rachael Adams.

Texas is No. 4 in the AVCA poll and would like nothing better than to end this season in nearby San Antonio with another appearance in the Final Four. The Longhorns' top challengers in the Big 12 will be No. 16 Oklahoma and No. 18 Iowa State.

It will seem plenty weird in the Big 12 without Nebraska, and the Longhorns will miss playing the Huskers as preparation for the postseason. But perhaps Nebraska's absence will help the ascent of some other Big 12 programs that never could get past that Big Red roadblock.

4. Meanwhile, out West …

Geez … all this talk about the middle of the country for volleyball? The also-expanded Pac-12 says, "Hey, look at us now." How could you not?

The only other teams besides Penn State that got preseason votes for No. 1 were No. 2 USC and No. 3 Cal. They met in the Final Four last year, with the Bears prevailing.

Cal graduated setter and AVCA National Player of the Year Carli Lloyd, but brings back all its other starters, led by first-team All-American outside hitter Tarah Murrey.

USC lost Falyn Fonoimoana, last season's Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, for 2011 as she was declared ineligible. But led by the senior trio of setter Kendall Bateman, middle blocker Lauren Williams and outside hitter Alex Jupiter, three-time NCAA champion USC is picked to win the Pac-12 … which is akin to being considered a Final Four front-runner. Jupiter, like Cal's Murrey, was also on the All-American first team in 2010.

Denny Medley

USC's Kendall Bateman believes the Trojans' difficult opening weekend will prepare them for their Pac-12 slate.

Six-time NCAA champion Stanford is No. 6 in the preseason national poll, followed by No. 7 Washington and No. 11 UCLA. The Huskies (2005) and Bruins (1984, '90, '91) are also past NCAA champions. Yeah, you get the idea; it's a brutal league.

"If you think you can go 3-0, 3-0 some weekends … that's definitely not the case," USC's Bateman said of the relentlessly high caliber of play. "Every team is competitive; it makes every weekend fun. You have to be ready and focused every time."

Meanwhile, West Coast Conference power San Diego (No. 20) and Big West favorite and three-time NCAA champion Long Beach State (No. 22) are also ranked in the preseason poll.

The furthest western powerhouse in women's volleyball is Hawaii. And watch out for the Rainbow Wahine this season, their last in the Western Athletic Conference before they rejoin the Big West in 2012.

Hawaii has won three NCAA titles, but none since 1987. The program's most recent Final Four appearance was in 2009. Led by senior first-team All-American hitter Kanani Danielson and with the advantage of hosting an NCAA regional at the Stan Sherriff Center -- Hawaii regularly leads the nation in attendance -- the Rainbow Wahine could have a big year in coach Dave Shoji's 37th season at the helm.

5. Also on the radar

• Florida hasn't won an NCAA title, but the Gators continue to be the class of the SEC and maybe one of these days …

Well, we will see. Florida went 29-2 last season, losing in the regular season to Penn State and in the NCAA Sweet 16 to Purdue.

First-team All-American Kelly Murphy, the multitalented setter/hitter, is back for her senior season for No. 9-ranked Florida.

• Duke was the only team to take a set off Penn State in the 2010 NCAA tournament. That was in the Blue Devils' Elite Eight loss to the Nittany Lions; they were trying to become the first ACC team to advance to the women's volleyball Final Four. The 2011 ACC favorite, Duke is ranked No. 17.

• Reigning Conference USA champion Tulsa gave in-state rival Oklahoma quite a battle in the NCAA second round last season. After upsetting LSU, the Golden Hurricane went five sets before falling to the Sooners.

No. 23 Tulsa brings back most of its top players, including junior outside hitter Tyler Henderson. She was one of four underclass players to make the All-American second team last season, along with Penn State's McClendon, Nebraska's Werth and Hawaii's Brittany Hewitt.

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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