Start with the good news. Denver is returning to the court this season with a loaded roster. Now, the bad news. So is defending Summit League champion, South Dakota. While Omaha and UMKC are also likely to make noise this season in conference play, this may be the most competitive volleyball season ever for the Summit League title.
Two goals are clear for this season’s squad, win the Summit League conference tournament (in Vermillion, S.D.) and win at least one match in the NCAA Tournament. With trips to the dance in six out of the last seven years, Denver still needs a solid regular season and tournament run to be mentioned consistently as a top 25-50 program. It is even possible, though still a long shot, considering the strength of conference schedules, that two teams could make it to the NCAA tournament from the Summit League. More than ever, non-conference records will be as critical as Summit League records.
Denver will be bolstered with the return of four impactful graduate students. Rock-solid team leader Tina Boe will be at the net again for the Pioneers. Alongside Boe, outside hitter Lydia Bartalo, perhaps the best all-around player on the Denver roster, is back. Setter Ellie Anderson, the best server on the team, provides stability in the middle with steady defensive play while setting up the offensive attack. Outside hitter Ari Winters, perhaps the most improved player last season, needs to continue her progression at the net if Denver is to achieve their goals this season.
Junior setter Lorrin Poulter, sister of Olympic gold medal-winning Jordyn, is one of head coach Tom Hogan’s top players. Hogan told VolleyballMag.com “I’ve told this to Lorrin and I’m honest when I’m saying this, but I tell her ‘You have just as much potential or more than your sister.’ And everyone always looks at me like I’m crazy when I say that.”
Hogan and his staff will be banking on graduate outside hitter Erica Andrich to continue to grow and develop in her second season at DU by providing critical scoring and defense at the net. Andrich has a big upside and needs to gobble up the production lost with the graduation of Katarina Marinkovic.
If there is one question mark on the roster, it is at the libero position. With the transfer of starting libero Macy Carrabine to Texas A&M, can sophomore Gianna Bartalo step into the void and quarterback the Denver squad? One of Colorado’s best prep players, she only played in 13 sets last season so her workload will be increased dramatically this season. Sophomore Ryen Wilkens is backing up Bartalo and possesses raw but unproven talent at the collegiate level.
South Dakota’s top 11 players are all returning so the slight advantage goes to the Coyotes, at least during the regular season. The Coyotes also have an edge playing the Summit League tournament at home. Even if the talented Pioneers come up short, likely against the Coyotes in the Summit League finals, Denver should still have a chance to earn an at-large NCAA Tournament berth as long as they play up to expectations in the regular season. Either way, it should be a battle royale between the two sides all season long.
As usual, expect Denver to play fast and deep into their roster and play by committee as opposed to South Dakota’s style of running their system through one of two outstanding players, Sami Slaughter and Elizabeth Juhnke. The season is likely to come down to a contrast in styles. South Dakota has the edge in stars and athleticism while Denver has the advantage in overall depth, adaptability, and team play.
Denver won the regular-season Summit League title last season but due to conference-driven COVID protocols, Denver will still have to travel to Vermillion, South Dakota this Fall for the Summit League conference tournament.
Denver starts the non-conference portion of their schedule this weekend against Cal State Northridge, USC, and Campbell University at the Trojan Invitational in Los Angeles. DU’s first home match is next Thursday, September 2nd against Northern Colorado at Hamilton Gym.
Photo of Tina Boe courtesy of Denver Athletics