If volleyball pundits had any doubts about how Purdue would fare this season, longtime coach Dave Shondell wouldn’t have faulted them. Shondell had questions, too.
His uncertainty was understandable given that he graduated, essentially, all six starters from last season’s team that reached the NCAA Tournament round of eight and defeated a program-record seven ranked teams. Among that group were three first-team All-Big Ten selections: outside hitters Caitlyn Newton, and Grace Cleveland and setter Hayley Bush.
But after the completion of the Boilermakers’ pre-conference schedule, Shondell has fewer questions. No. 11 Purdue enters Friday’s Big Ten opener against No. 8 Minnesota at 9-1, with the only loss coming against second-ranked Louisville, a national semifinalist last season.
“I just didn’t know how quickly they could come together and become a unit and confidence and those types of things,” said Shondell, in his 20th season. “I like the way this team is coming together. The leadership has been very good.”
Purdue again looks to be a force thanks to some transfers, some veteran program holdovers and one outstanding freshman.
Shondell knew Hannah Clayton well from watching her stuff would-be kills during her four seasons at Iowa. Clayton, in fact, ranks ninth in Hawkeyes history in blocks with 328.
Now she’s doing those same things for the Boilermakers, averaging 1.03 blocks per set. But, Shondell said, she has been a lot better offensively than he anticipated, averaging nearly two kills per set and hitting .352.
Just as important, Shondell said, are the intangibles she brings.
“She’s just such a spiritual leader on our team,” he said, “and I mean that from a standpoint that she’s always positive. She’s always communicating with every other player.”
And there’s this …
“We’ve got so many nice young women on our team,” he added, “but we’ve got to develop some ‘nasty.’ And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean people who compete, people who fight, people who get angry. And I think she brings that.”
Freshman Eva Hudson also brings some “nasty” to the court But a lot more on her later.
Defensive specialist Emily Brown joined the program in the spring after spending two years at Missouri. Brown is a native of Indiana, and her mother is employed at Purdue and Shondell said Brown felt better about being home.
Her game didn’t warm to the home cooking as quickly.
“Last spring she came in, and she just wasn’t very good,” Shondell said. “I think she was a little tentative. She didn’t cover a lot of ground. She didn’t see things like a really good defensive player needed to see them.
“Then, all of a sudden … we come in this fall, and she’s a different person. Much more athletic, much more aggressive, much more confident.”
Brown is averaging 1.75 digs per set while sharing backcourt time with senior holdover Ava Torrance, who averages 1.50 digs per set.
The Boilermakers also got valuable depth at setter with the addition of Grace Balensiefer, who spent her first four years at Northern Illinois. She ranks fifth in NIU history with 3,911 assists.
The Boilermakers might have graduated the lineup’s six mainstays, but there were plenty of players left who had seen their share of action. The difference is, this season, they are being asked to take on starring roles.
Sophomore Ali Hornung is one. Her older sister, Marissa, graduated last season and was a regular in Purdue’s lineup for four years.
Ali, a defensive specialist who also can slot in at outside hitter, Shondell said, seemed content to take a backseat to her sister last season.
“She came in and just wasn’t the same person that we had watched play club and high school where she took over every match,” he said. “And the adjustment of being just a defensive specialist, I think she had a difficult time adjusting to that situation.
“But, wow. What a difference we have seen with her, just her whole mentality, her behavior, her vocal-ness. She’s just so much more assertive.”
She averages 2.47 digs per set, second on the team to senior DS Maddie Schermerhorn (4.53), a seasoned Purdue veteran who entered the season with 86 matches of experience.
Redshirt-junior setter Megan Renner probably could have been starting for most programs in the country the past two years. It just so happened she was stuck behind Bush, a third-team VolleyballMag.com All-American last season who ranks third all-time in program history with 4,900 assists.
After playing in only 19 sets over the past two seasons, Renner has broken out in her first action as a regular, averaging 9.64 assists per set.
“In preseason, we had some questions about her because she wasn’t taking charge and doing some of the things we thought she needed to do,” Shondell said. “But each week, she got better and better, and then you could just see the confidence swell in her.”
Sophomore middle Raven Colvin was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team last season, and she has picked up right where she left off. She is averaging more than two kills per set (hitting .322) and leads the team with 1.38 blocks per set.
And there is a lot of depth at outside hitter with seniors Emma Ellis, Madeline Koch and Maddy Chinn. Each, Shondell said, has experience in critical matches, including the NCAA Tournament.
“All three of them have just catapulted their game, and that was badly needed,” Shondell said.
In her youth, Eva Hudson fancied herself a soccer player. But as she grew taller — and, she said, her peers didn’t — she got steered toward volleyball. It was a natural choice, though, she said, her father had hoped she would choose basketball. Her mother, the former Stacey Mondino, played right side hitter for the Boilermakers from 1992-96.
So by age 12, Hudson was focused on volleyball, and her star rose quickly. That ascent hasn’t stopped in college. At 6-foot-1 with a long reach and deceptive athletic ability — she can touch 10-6 — Hudson has emerged as a force and “the best (freshman) we’ve had in a long time,” Shondell said.
She leads the Boilermakers and ranks eighth in the nation with 4.85 kills per set while hitting a robust .323. She also has 12 aces, averages 1.79 digs per set and has 20 total blocks.
“I still have to get the confidence part down, especially as a freshman,” she said. “But the girls and the team have been so welcoming and so awesome. They definitely have helped that aspect of my game. I just think the goal is to continue to get better and grind at practice and see where we can end up in the postseason.”
One thing she doesn’t have to learn, Shondell said, is how to score.
“She’s able to hit all the shots,” he said. “She sees the block as well as any player we have on our team, and that’s something that sometimes never happens. … She was born seeing the block. She wakes up every day and understands what the block is trying to do. And she has every shot in the book.
“Offensively, she’s a machine.”
In her first college match, Hudson had 18 kills and hit .444 in a three-set win over Bowling Green. Twice she has posted 21 kills in a match — both four-setters — against Tennessee and Milwaukee. Against No. 2 Louisville, she had 17.
She has reached double-digit kills in all 10 matches. And, three times in the season’s first four weeks, she earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week accolades.
About that “nasty” she plays with, she said that comes from her days with the Munciana club.
“Our practices were pretty brutal but in a good way brutal,” she said. “Just overall it has taught me to have passion for the game, and that brings that competitive edge and that ‘nastiness’ on the court.”
Hudson said she still is working on certain aspects of her game, notably defense and blocking. Shondell anticipates big things as she gains more college experience and her overall game becomes more well-rounded. He compares her to USA national team member Kelsey Robinson and believes Hudson, too, can achieve that height.
First, there’s the matter of navigating her first Big Ten gauntlet. The Boilermakers might be ranked 11th, but they are only sixth among Big Ten teams with Nebraska (3) Wisconsin (6), Ohio State (7) Minnesota (8) and Penn State (9) ahead of them.
Shondell said he was asked in his weekly news conference about how Hudson might fare now that Big Ten foes have 10 matches of video on her to study.
“Well,” he said, recalling his response to assembled media, “they’ll have plans … Our players look at her every day and see what shots she has and doesn’t have, and we’re not stopping her.
“There will be some tough nights for her in the Big Ten. There’s no doubt about that because it’s just one tough match after another. But mostly, it’s her vision, her competitiveness and the fact that, for somebody who’s not super big, she plays really high above the net.”
Said Hudson: “Obviously, there are some nerves, as with every big game. But I think practices have prepared us physically and mentally, and it’s more excitement getting to play in the Big Ten.”
The match against Minnesota, which will take place Friday night at Purdue, also will be the first Big Ten test for Shondell’s revamped lineup. He said he is not worried about any of his players being intimidated by the atmosphere or the competition because they all have at least some experience with it.
This group also can play without pressure because, he said, at least for now, it isn’t being looked at as one that can contend for the conference title.
Hudson said she is OK with that. The former role players who now are taking on the bulk of the responsibility are eager to show their mettle and show Purdue hasn’t missed a beat.
“I think it gives us a little underdog edge, which is always great and takes the pressure off us,” she said. “It allows us to play with confidence, and I think the friendships we have off the court add to the chemistry on the court.
“Since we lost basically all our starters, our first goal is to prove ourselves, that we are better than most people think. I think we just want to show our talent, especially the seniors. They’re ready to go and win.”