Who doesn’t enjoy an underdog team making a surprise postseason run — especially when you have been the person since the start of the season saying they were the team to watch.
With the regular season starting this week, there are the likely favorites to reach the Final Four. BYU, UC Irvine, Stanford and Pepperdine are the early favorites from the MPSF, while Lewis is the favorite in the MIVA and Penn State is the favorite in the EIVA.
However, there are several teams in each conference that have lower preseason expectations but could still crash the Final Four by the end of the 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 2013
It has been almost a foregone conclusion every year that Penn State will win the EIVA and reach the Final Four. The Nittany Lions have won 14 consecutive EIVA championships and have not lost a conference match since 2008. If those streaks are to come to an end this season many pick George Mason to achieve the feat, but not to be overlooked is Princeton. The Tigers last season came within one point of defeating the Nittany Lions in the regular season. In addition, EIVA Newcomer of the Year outside attacker Cody Kessel returns for his sophomore season after finishing in the nation’s top 10 for kills per game average. If Princeton can bring along its new starting setter, the Tigers could be in the Final Four hunt come April.
The defending conference champs Lewis is the favorites to repeat, and its cross-town rivals Loyola is the first likely team to upend Lewis for the MIVA championship. However, the far-west wing of the MIVA is the team to keep an eye on come April. Grand Canyon returns a majority of its starters from last season, including Preseason All-MIVA outside attacker Ben Ponnet. The Antelopes last season after being picked in the preseason to finish in last place ended with their first 15-win season in program history and in fourth place in the MIVA. Grand Canyon following exceeding expectations last season was projected to finish this year in fourth place in the conference preseason coaches poll.
This is probably the first time in the NCAA history that anyone has listed UCLA as a Final Four dark horse — 19 NCAA championships will do that to a program. UCLA has two returning starters, Off the Block Preseason All-American outside attacker Gonzalo Quiroga and libero Evan Mottram. In addition, the Bruins were picked in the preseason polls to finish the MPSF in fifth place after reaching the MPSF Tournament quarterfinals last season. One of the biggest things not to under-estimated with this team, though, is the coach John Speraw factor. Speraw is in his first year with UCLA after turning around a struggling UC Irvine program and leading it to three national titles. Speraw — much like his mentor, former UCLA coach Al Scates — also has a history of his teams peaking right at the postseason.
LONG BEACH STATE
Coach Alan Knipe was one-year removed from taking Long Beach State to the Final Four when he left the 49ers to coach the U.S. Men’s National Team. Three-years later with Knipe now returning from the international game to the college sidelines, Long Beach State’s four-year Final Four drought could come to an end. Among the three starters returning for Knipe and Long Beach State this season is Off the Block Preseason All-American outside attacker Taylor Crabb. In addition, setter Connor Olbright returns after being among the MPSF leaders last season with a 10.40 assists per game average. If the 49ers continue to develop under Knipe, this team picked to finish the MPSF in sixth place in the preseason polls could pull some upsets in the conference tournament.