INDIANAPOLIS -- Milwaukee, winner of the regular season Horizon League volleyball title eight of the past nine years, has been pegged as the preseason favorite in the 2012 conference race. Milwaukee received seven first place votes to earn the top spot in a preseason poll of the league’s eight head volleyball coaches. Coaches were not allowed to vote for their own team in the poll.
The Panthers, who received 49 points in the poll, return four starters and seven letterwinners from last season’s squad that won the Horizon League regular season and tournament title. All-League The Panthers will be led in 2012 by junior Rachel Neuberger, who paced the conference in hitting percentage (.327) and blocks (124) last season, senior Elizabeth Egerer, the 2011 conference tournament MVP, and sophomore Kayla Price, the 2011 Horizon League Freshman of the Year.
Cleveland State came in second in the preseason poll with 43 points. The Vikings return four starters from last season’s 21-8 squad that finished runner up in the conference with a 13-3 league mark. Kara Koch is the top returnee for CSU. The senior ranked second in the league last season with 428 kills and set a Horizon League Tournament record when she recorded 34 kills in CSU’s five-set victory over Butler in last year’s semifinal match.
Valparaiso was third in the coaches’ poll with 36 points. The Crusaders return four starters and their libero - two-time Defensive Player of the Year Taylor Root - this season. Valpo enters the 2012 season as one of just 12 teams in the nation to have won at least 20 matches in each of the last 10 seasons.
With 29 points, UIC narrowly edged Green Bay (26) for the fourth spot in the poll. The Flames return everybody from the 2011 team as last year’s squad did not have a senior on it. Leading the way for the Flames is senior Kelsey Safranek. The two-time All-League selection led the Horizon League in kills last season with 466.
Green Bay returns 10 players from last year’s team, led by seniors Brittany Groth and Carmen Leitermann. Groth ranked ninth in the NCAA last season when she averaged a school-record 5.78 digs per set. Leitermann ranked among league leaders with 302 kills last season.
Loyola (21), Wright State (11) and Youngstown State (9) round out the poll. The Ramblers return their top-three hitters, led by 2011 All-Newcomer selection Laura Purcell. Junior Heidi Splinter, who ranked among league leaders in kills, digs and aces, is the top returnee for new head coach Susan Clements at Wright State. Youngstown State also has a new coach for 2012, Mark Hardaway is in his inaugural season with the Penguins and his first YSU team will be led by junior Missy Hundelt, who ranked third in the conference in kills last season after posting 20 or more kills in a match five times and recording double-digit kill totals in 18 matches.
The volleyball season for all eight teams starts Friday, Aug. 24. The Horizon League Tournament will feature the top six teams in the league and will run from Nov. 16-18, with all matches played at the venue of the No. 1 seed.
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