DigNittany Q&A: Who Should be Big Ten Freshman of the Year?

With the Big Ten season just past the half-way point, we’ve decided to throw caution to the wind, and settled on four contenders for Big Ten Freshman of the Year — Illinois’ 5-9 L/DS Jennifer Bonilla ,  Michigan’s 6-4 MB Jennifer Cross , Penn State’s 6-1 OH Deja McClendon  and Minnesota’s 6-0 OH Ashley Wittman.  Before we get into our Q&A with three volleyball fans who kindly agreed to share their thoughts about which of these four talented players will win the award, we freely acknowledge three things: 

  1. We’re leaving out lots of deserving candidates, like Northwestern’s 6-1 OH Stephanie Holthus (who won Big Ten Freshman of the week on October 11th), Wisconsin’s 6-5 OH Elise Walch, Minnesota’s 6-3 MB  Tori Dixon, and Michigan State’s 6-3 MB Alexis Mathews , to name just a few;
  2. An award like Big Ten Freshman of the Year doesn’t necessarily reflect the best player, or player who is most valuable to their team; and
  3. These are all great players, who are invaluable to their teams.  There are no bad choices here. 

So relax and take a few minutes to look at the stats, read the analyses, and come to your own conclusion.  Either way, you can register your opinion by voting in our poll.  


The Candidates

Jennifer Bonilla ,  5-9 L/DS, Illinois.

Jennifer Bonilla has won four Big Ten Freshman of the week awards, most recently for the week ended October 25th.  She was ranked No. 60 in the country her senior year by prepvolleyball.com (which also named her to its “Team of the Decade” and a “Defensive Dandy” ) and was named the best libero at the 2008 NORCECA Youth Continental championship.

Jennifer Cross , 6-4 MB, Michigan. 

Jennifer Cross  was named Co-Big Ten Freshman of the Week on October 18th.  According to former Ohio State great (and Cannuck) Audrey Flaugh, every great team must have a Canuck.  Fans of this Canuck from  Scarborough, Ontario, believe Jennifer Cross proves the rule.  Cross won Female Athlete of the Year three times, while leading her team to four straight Toronto City Championships.

Deja McClendon , 6-1 OH, Penn State

Deja McClendon has received the Big Ten Freshman of the Week award three times, most recently on October 25th.  Prepvolleyball.com named McClendon the  #7 player in the country her senior season.  She also earned a spot as an UnderArmour All-American, was named Miss Kentucky Volleyball and Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year, was a 2009 USAV Youth National Team Invitee and a four-time AAU All-American.  Russ Rose said during the pre-season that he believed Deja was going to be “one of our key offensive players this year and into the future. She hits high and hard and has a variety of shots. I think her game is suited to step in and make contributions at the net as soon as we start going. She blocks and hits well. Usually young players do one or the other.”

 Ashley Wittman , 6-0 OH, Minnesota. 

Ashley Wittman, who also has won three Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards, most recently on September 27th), enrolled early so she could benefit from practicing with the Gophers during spring season, and has played in all 87 sets this season.  Wittman was named Co-Big Ten Player of the Week on Sept. 13th, leads the Gophers with 59 blocks, and is second on the team in kills( 293, 3.37 kps) and digs (3.17 digs/set).  PrepVolleyball.com named her National Junior of the Year in 2008, and as the No. 8 player in the nation in her senior season.  Wittman was also the 2009 National Gatorade Player of the Year and a two-time Gatorade Minnesota Volleyball Player of the Year, a two-time Minneapolis Star Tribune Player of the Year, and won First Team All-State honors three times.

The Opinions

MaskedFan (a Penn State fan):  Bonilla, as a freshman, already is an excellent libero. With Lauren DeBruler out for the season, her role has increased to the point that she is THE defensive leader for Illinois in the back row. She is depended upon to help replace the passing and defense that the team lost with that particular injury and, so far, she’s doing extremely well. I’ve always been impressed by how easily she makes some very difficult things look. Illinois had a lot of expectations on them this season and they haven’t seemed to affect her at all.

Cross has been the most surprising freshman to me. She’s not hitting for some ungodly percentage, but she’s getting the job done for Michigan. Together with McElheny and Hunt, Cross gives Michigan a legitimate triple threat in the front row. That is key – because taking some of the offensive responsibility off of Alex Hunt enables Michigan to run its offense much more successfully. Cross has helped make that possible by being so effective at the net. She leads her team in blocking and is second in points. Without her, Michigan would be in big trouble.

McClendon  may be the most impressive of all (though I’m admittedly a Penn State fan). Unquestionably she benefits from having two First-Team All-American players on her team to draw the opponent’s attention, her offensive performance still stands out — really stands out.  She’s hitting with impressive efficiency on the outside (as of Monday, her .321 attack percentage placed her 11th in the Big Ten ) and she’s a primary passer. When in the back row, she’s often one of only two passers (a la Megan Hodge?) and that’s no easy task for a freshman who considers passing/defense to be her weakest skill. Her passing is helping Penn State lead the conference in hitting percentage. Being a go-to player as a freshman is no easy task and she’s hit the ground running. To me, Penn State goes as she does. If she’s having a good game, look out.

Wittman is also very, very impressive. Although not as offensively talented as McClendon, Wittman excels in her passing and defense. Wittman is the only player in the NCAA to average at least 3.00 kills per set and 3.00 digs per set… AS A FRESHMAN. That’s extremely impressive. She’s a primary passer for Minnesota and a go-to attacker and considering all of the injuries that the Gophers have had to weather, her steady, strong all-around game is one of the reasons that her team has still been successful despite losing their best player, Cowles, and their First-Team All-American, Gibbemeyer.

As for a ranking, I have to give the top spot to Deja McClendon.  The mental fortitude she has displayed is completely amazing. She has suited up for the three-time defending national champions, and handled all of the expectations with grace and skill. If she isn’t an All-American this year, it certainly looks like she’ll be one next year. The pressure on any freshman trying to step into a major college program as a starter is enormous — there’s a lot to adjust to as a freshman in college, and athletics is just part of the equation. And taking over for Megan Hodge/Darcy Dorton (depending on your point of view) at Penn State, with its success over the past three seasons, is, in many ways, even harder. It’s not simply a matter of adjusting to the physical game a mental adjustment as well, and Deja’s ability to make both of those transitions has been key for Penn State so far . If it turns out that Penn State makes another run through the tournament in December, you can be certain that Deja McClendon’s performance will have been one of the keys.

MaskedFan’s Picks:

3. Jennifer Cross (tie)
3. Jennifer Bonilla (tie)
2. Ashley Wittman
1. Deja McClendon 

Smiley (an Illinois fan):

The constants when people talk about good teams losing matches are lack of ball control, bad passing, out of system, receiving errors, etc.  It’s hard to score points if you don’t dig the ball and pass it well.  Jennifer Bonilla  is the type of player who does both of those things well — very well, actually, and if the setter is the one who makes the dig, Bonilla is someone who can make a variety of sets. That combination is really rare for a true freshman.

It’s also rare that a player not only lives up to the hype, but surpasses it. That’s what Jennifer Bonilla has done, but her biggest problem is that she’s about as unflashy as she can be — she makes spectacular plays look easy. She’s rarely diving to the floor or going into contortions to make a play because she’s anticipated where the ball is going and is already there. Watching her play she looks like a wily veteran. She very seldom makes mistakes, not even the typical freshman mistakes. To the best of my knowledge, she’s never had a bad set, let alone a bad match.

Having said all that, the problem for Jennifer Bonilla is that despite how valuable and essential her position is, the only real stat she can point to is digs. And fans like to see gaudy hitting percentages and kills and it’s her job to stop them. I imagine my pick of Jennifer Bonilla is going against the mold, but she’s my pick.

Now to the three hitters. I will admit that my exposure to them is less than Bonilla and limited to seeing them at Huff and on tv and what I’ve read about them here. All three seem to be exceptional offensive players so I’m NOT going to pay a whole lot of attention to stats.

My second pick goes to Ashley Wittman mainly based on her back row ability. She seems to be the best all around player of the hitters. With the injuries Minnesota has had I doubt they would have done as well without her all around play.

Next I’d go with Deja McClendon, who while a very good hitter is mainly a front row player, at least when I’ve seen her. As a LS she’s had to take a lot of swings and has been important to her team.

Lastly, of the four, I’d go with Jennifer Cross because, frankly, I’m the least familiar with her. I don’t doubt that she’s a good player but from what I do know I don’t see her matching the others.

One final thought on my first choice. I’ve seen Bonilla play a lot more than I’ve seen the others, yet I’ve never seen her play like a freshman. Despite having seen the others much less I’ve seen freshman play from all of them. 

Smiley’s Picks:

4. Jennifer Cross
3. Deja McClendon
2. Ashley Wittman
1.  Jennifer Bonilla  

(R)uffda! (a Minnesota fan): This is a difficult task, much more difficult than I expected it to be when I agreed to participate. That’ll teach me. It’s like asking me to compare Earth with Saturn, Neptune and Venus (not that I really know that much about my own planet). I have seen Ashley Wittman play many matches and have only seen Jennifer Bonilla  play one match; I have not yet seen Deja McClendon or Jennifer Cross play at all, except for a couple of TV matches. What to do? Rank them anyhow, of course!

Illinois basically returned their entire 2009 team, with the notable exception of libero Ashley Edinger, who, prior to a season-ending injury, averaged just over 4 digs per game. I would argue, therefore, that an efficient libero was the Illini’s biggest need coming into this season, even greater than a second outside hitter, which was filled nicely anyhow by the transfer of Colleen Ward from Florida (a godsend now that Laura DeBruler is out for the year).  Bonilla , at just shy of 5 digs per game, has been better than efficient, and has to be considered one of the major reasons Illinois has been a top ten team all year and currently leads the Big Ten.

Likewise, McClendon has been a blessing for Penn State after the graduation of Megan Hodge and the injury to Darcy Dorton.  Just when any reasonable observer would think the Lions might be in trouble, along comes yet another Freshman of the Year candidate to pull them through. There is just no ignoring a .321 hitting percentage from an outside hitter; it gets one’s attention.

To continue this theme, Wittman has had to take on a larger role than expected with Minnesota after Hailey Cowles’s season-ending injury. She was already projected as a starter, but this injury meant she needed to become a primary passer and play through the back row. She has responded to this challenge, leading the team in serve receptions – in short, she has become the primary primary passer.

Cross is the exception here in that she has not replaced a departing Michigan player but has actually supplanted a returnee. The fact she leads the Wolverines in blocking and is hitting .337 gives us a good indication as to how this happened. As a matter of fact, her 1.01 blocks per game is half of the team’s 1.99 per game average. Yes, I know that’s not a strictly accurate interpretation of that stat, but it is still significant, especially since blocking is not one of Michigan’s strengths.

(R)uffda!’s Picks:

Which leads me to how I would rank them in regards to the Freshman of the Year award. Well, my first impulse is to refuse, but I’ll give it a go:

4—Jennifer Cross. I think she has made Michigan better, but I don’t think she plugged a leak in the team’s ship in the way the other three players did.
3—Deja McClendon. I could give you some better reasons, but this is the truth: It’s about time another team won this award.
2— Jennifer Bonilla . I would be happy if she were named FOY. Liberos are too often taken for granted and this is a great opportunity to recognize their contributions.
1—Ashley Wittman. I know, it’s the homer pick. Her hitting percentage in the Big Ten is now under .200 and this should not be ignored. But, similar to my feelings regarding liberos, all-around skills are too often overlooked. A very quick look at the Big Ten stats shows that her 731 serve receptions leads the conference, by far. There are some liberos with 500-600 receptions, but no outside hitters. Add to this her 3 digs per game, her solid blocking numbers, and her 756 swings, and I can’t help but think we have our leading FOY candidate.

DigNittany’s Wrap

First, thanks so much to MaskedFan, Smiley and (R)uffda! for taking the time (on virtually no notice) to share their thoughts with us. 

What jumps out at us from this exercise is that there really is an incredible amount of young talent in the Big Ten this year.  Like (R)uffda!, if asked to choose among these four, our first impulse would be to refuse.  If we were to assign 4 points for a first place vote, three for a second, two for a third and one for a fourth, the votes from our three participants would give Wittman the award (10 points), with Bonilla second (8.5 points), McClendon third (8 points), and Cross fourth (4.5 points).  Personally, we’d probably go for Co-Big Ten Freshmen of the Year, with McClendon and Wittman.

Of course, it’s still only just past the half-way point for the season.  There’s still alot of volleyball to be played.  We’ll see. 

The Statistics

The following tables show statistics for Bonilla McClendon , Wittman , and Cross  in selected categories through 11-1-10.  We should point out that these statistics are for the entire season, and our understanding is that Big Ten FOY is based on Big Ten statistics only. 

As to the tables themselves, click on the player’s name to go to their write-up on their team’s roster. The tables are sortable — to re-order a column, click on the arrows at the top. 

2010 Big Ten FOY Candidates - Attack Leaders (minimum 2.00 kills/set)

Name SchoolHeightPositionSets
McClendon, DejaPenn State6-1OH762633.4675586.321
Wittman, AshleyMinnesota6-0OH872933.37104756.250
Cross, Jennifer Michigan6-4MB831912.3049421.337

2010 Big Ten FOY Candidates: Set-Serve Leaders

Name SchoolHeightPositionSets
Bonilla, Jennifer Illinois5-9L/DS87770.89190.2228

2010 Big Ten FOY Candidates - Blocking Leaders

Name SchoolHeightPositionSets
Cross, Jennifer Michigan6-4MB831671871.05
Wittman, AshleyMinnesota6-0OH872237590.68
McClendon, DejaPenn State6-1OH76546510.67

2010 Big Ten FOY Candidates: Recept/Dig Leaders

Name SchoolHeightPositionSets
Bonilla, Jennifer Illinois5-9L/DS8713531.9764304.94
Wittman, AshleyMinnesota6-0OH8720731.9732763.17
McClendon, DejaPenn State6-1OH7616363.9561612.12