Big Ten set for top conference battles

Five teams in the Top 25 gives Big Ten a plethora of hard-hitting competition.

Aleutian Calabay

The head of the pack Penn State (12-0) The No.1 Nittany Lions âÄî two-time defending national champions âÄî only continue to prove they are in a league of their own. Coming into the Big Ten season, Penn State has not only gone without losing a match, but they havenâÄôt lost a single set . At the helm for the Nittany Lions is Russ Rose . Rose, entering his 30th season as Penn State head coach, has been named the American Volleyball Coaches Association coach of the year the past two seasons. Leading the way for Penn State on the court is senior outside hitter Megan Hodge. SheâÄôs coming off a 2008 season in which she was named a first team All-American and was named the NCAA Championship most outstanding player. In 2009, Hodge is averaging an impressive 4.65 kills per set. Michigan (12-1) No. 8 Michigan is coming off a 26-9 campaign in 2008. The Wolverines made a Sweet 16 run in the NCAA tournament, eventually losing to Nebraska. The Wolverines began grabbing attention early this season when they claimed revenge against then-No. 3 Nebraska by beating them in straight sets. Michigan then went on to drop then-No. 22 Kansas State 3-1 to open the season. Michigan, who opened the season ranked No. 16, had ascended to No. 6 as they remained undefeated until a home loss to unranked Oregon State in straight sets. Minnesota (9-3) The No. 9 Gophers have had arguably the toughest schedule to this point. Their three losses have been to then-No. 3 Nebraska, then-No. 3 Washington, and then-No. 12 Oregon. The reason Minnesota still finds itself amongst the elite teams is because theyâÄôve also beaten some top-ranked competition, including then-No. 22 Kansas State and then-No. 13 Iowa State. The Gophers have also only played a total of three games at home. The road experience and high level of competition certainly give the Gophers something to build on as they move into conference play. The contenders Illinois (8-1) Like Michigan and Purdue, No. 15 Illinois is coming off a Sweet 16 run in the 2008 NCAA tournament. The Illini return six starters from a season ago and appear poised to make another postseason run. Illinois started the season ranked No. 10 but failed to earn a defining victory. A three-set loss to the unranked Florida State set the Illini back, but a week later they got the uplifting win they had been seeking in defeating then-No. 16 St. Louis. The Illini feature the top outside hitter in the Big Ten in junior Laura DeBruler , averaging 5.34 kills per set. Michigan State (12-0) The No. 16 Spartans find themselves as the only other undefeated team in the Big Ten besides Penn State. The Spartans made the volleyball world take notice early in the season when they knocked off then-No. 12 Southern California. They continue to build momentum going into the Big Ten season. Michigan State is coming off a learning season in 2008 finishing 15-16 overall (7-13 Big Ten). But that young team is back with experience in 10 returning players. Purdue (8-3) The Boilermakers lost several key components from their Sweet 16 team last year, including first team All-American Stephanie Lynch . Purdue is trying to remain competitive despite only three returning starters . The Boilermakers are coming into conference play winning three straight games including a win over then-No. 21 Kansas State. Ohio State (12-1) Ohio State is finding itself in a similar situation to Michigan State. The Buckeyes are coming off a poor performance in 2008 in which they finished the season 12-20 and just 3-17 in the Big Ten . This year, the Buckeyes have six returning starters, but remain young overall. The experience appears to be paying off as the team continues to win. Ohio StateâÄôs one loss was in five sets to Colorado State. Since then the Buckeyes have won eight matches in a row. THE BOTTOM FEEDERS Indiana (11-3) The Hoosiers feature the youngest line-up in the Big Ten with seven freshmen. Indiana has been playing well as of late, winning eight of nine including four straight to win the Hampton Inn Invitational. Northwestern (9-3) Coming off an 8-23 overall (2-18 Big Ten) season, the Wildcats look forward in 2009 as 11 players return. Senior Kate Nobilio has already made her mark on the Northwestern record books by becoming the all-time digs leader with 1,863 . ThatâÄôs also good for ninth in Big Ten History. Iowa (8-4) The Hawkeyes are another team with a high turnover percentage, losing a number of key seniors after last season. Iowa opened 2009 with six straight wins but have since cooled off, losing four of its last six matches. Wisconsin (5-4) The Badgers are in the midst of a change-over after a disappointing 2008. They have eight newcomers and only two seniors . Despite having the worst pre-conference record in the Big Ten, Wisconsin is coming off a pair of three-set wins over New Mexico State and UW-Green Bay.