Everyone loves an underdog story during the postseason — especially when you’ve been saying since the start of the year that it was the team to watch.
With the regular season set to start this week, there are the likely favorites to reach the Final Four. BYU, UC Irvine, Stanford and UCLA are the favorites from the MPSF, while Ohio State and Loyola are favorites in the MIVA and Penn State is the favorite in the EIVA.
However, there are several dark horse teams from each conference that could crash the Final Four this year.
Below are the top four dark horse teams to watch this year that could make a postseason run to the Final Four in May.
FINAL FOUR DARK HORSE TEAMS TO WATCH IN 2012
Penn State has been the dominate EIVA team in recent years — winning 13 consecutive EIVA titles. However if Penn State doesn’t win the EIVA this season, George Mason would be the team to accomplish the feat. The Patriots were the last team to beat the Nittany Lions in a conference match — during the 2008 season. George Mason was picked to finish the conference in second place in the EIVA Preseason Coaches Poll. In addition, George Mason has four starters returning for the upcoming season, including All-EIVA outside attacker Mark Jones.
The Flyers have not reached the Final Four since their NCAA sanctions in 2004 but this could be the year Lewis breaks through and wins the MIVA. Lewis last season reached the MIVA Tournament semifinals for the fourth consecutive season and finished ranked No. 12 in the coaches poll. Coach Dan Friend has six starters returning for the upcoming season, including Preseason All-American outside attacker Jay Petty. Lewis will likely be in contention with the defending-NCAA champions Ohio State and its crosstown rival Loyola for the MIVA championship and the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
LONG BEACH STATE
The 49ers were projected to finish the MPSF in sixth place in their conference’s preseason coaches poll. Long Beach State ended last season in sixth place and upset Stanford in the MPSF Tournament quarterfinals. Coach Andy Read has a majority of his starters returning for the upcoming season, including Preseason All-American outside attacker Taylor Crabb. In addition, Crabb, setter Connor Olbright and outside attacker Jim Baughman each represented the United States in international tournaments during the summer.
It’s tough to think that USC can be considered a dark horse when it reached the 2011 Final Four. After losing four senior starters from last season, though, the Trojans will have a new-look in 2012. Among the players returning for USC includes All-American outside attacker Tony Ciarelli — who several MPSF coaches this preseason called the best outside attacker in the conference. An addition for USC also will be freshman setter Micah Christenson. Christenson was among the nation’s top high school recruits and was the United States’ starting setter at the World Championships in August. The Trojans were projected to finish the MPSF in fifth place in the conference’s preseason coaches poll.