1-0 | Cardinal Plays Well The Hand They Are Dealt

by Glenn on August 29, 2015

The Stanford Cardinal had a phenomenal team last year. With two effective middle blockers, three outside hitters any of whom could have had a big night, an excellent setter, and reliable defensive specialist (libero), they went 33-2 on the season and of those 33 wins, only five matches went to five sets. They were dominant.

What Stanford had going last year was an incredible balance. Perhaps there were individual players on the opposing team who were better than individual Stanford players, but the Cardinal whole was greater than the sum of its parts and on 33 occasions they bettered their opponents.

On any one night, Burgess, Howard, or Boukather could uncork and take over a game from the outside. (Or perhaps it was more tactical than that. Weaknesses in the other team could have been exploited efficiently because there were so many offensive weapons.) Regardless, it was beautiful to watch.

In my opinion, the team’s one weakness (a relative term because this was such a good team) was both serving and service return. The Stanford serve did not consistently get its opponents out of system. And I wonder to what extent inconsistent service return was the only thing keeping Stanford out of the NCAA finals last year.

If I recall correctly, the Cardinal loss in the semi-finals to Penn State had a lot to do with Micha Hancock’s serving which, to be fair, was difficult for most teams to handle. (It was also a bit of a high-wire act, too. I just went back and checked the statistics for that Stanford semi-final loss and Hancock had five service errors. But when it wasn’t an error, her serve could very well be an ace or generate a poorly handled ball. Bottom line, she was unsettling, creating concerns for players and coaches. Further, there was a palpable emotional component to her serving—it was loud and flashy with a sort of performance art aspect to it.)

The video above is beautiful to watch. Penn State’s movement following the serve at the slower speed is so fluid. Here is Hancock discussing her serve and the nature of serving.

But I digress …

Stanford was poised to have another fabulous season this year with five of the seven floor regulars (Bugg, Burgess, Howard, Ajanaku, and Lutz) returning and a highly touted freshman (Hayley Hodson) coming on board. The only unknowns seemed to be who would fill the libero position and who would be designated as the opposite hitter.

The two teams Stanford lost to last year—Washington and Penn State—graduated their star player (Krista Vansant) and lynchpin (Hancock) respectively, and so it seemed like Stanford was going to be in a very good place this year with respect to other major teams.

But the nature of teams is that they are dynamic and as I sat down last night to watch Stanford’s first match of the season vs. Texas A & M (I was slightly, but only slightly, conflicted because the daughter of good friends is now a freshman Aggie), I wondered how Coach Dunning would handle some significant changes:

1. Inky Ajanaku is out for the season after a knee injury suffered this summer with the national team. She is red-shirting for the season so she should be back next year. That will be helpful since Burgess and Howard are graduating.

2. Merete Lutz has some sort of injury to her hand. She is awaiting a doctor’s release to play again. One hopes that will come before the conference season begins. As a red-shirt freshman last year, she was terrific, and you imagine that she will only be better this year.

3. Jordan Burgess had one leg heavily taped up.

So what happened?
Well, “we” won 3-0 (25-19, 25-19, 25-15).1

It’s always great when your team wins, except when your team is the U.S. Women’s National Team and they are playing Algeria in the World Cup. That was kind of sad, I think. But last night was great. I am hoping to watch a lot of Stanford volleyball this season.

Here’s what I learned last night—in no particular order:

1. Brittany Howard looks a lot stronger than she did last year. Last year, her defense seemed pretty solid which is why she was on the floor for six rotations, but her hitting seemed to be of the off-speed variety a lot of the time. Last night she was hitting hard.

2. Whatever may be ailing Jordan Burgess, it didn’t seem to affect her play last night. She was hitting hard, too. Still, injuries are always a threat and are a reminder that teams are made up of individual people who are not machines, even though humans can learn to perform with machine-like precision and there is an elegance to refined human movement.

3. Hayley Hodson is remarkable. Volleyball Magazine ranked her as the number one college recruit for this year. She is fierce and fearless and lives up to her press. One imagines her on the 2020 U.S. Women’s Olympic Team, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What was great is to see how strong her defensive play is in addition to her obvious offensive capabilities.

4. Positions seem to be a little fluid at least in this first game.

Last year, Stanford ran a very traditional offense that was easily explainable: Two outside hitters opposite of each other next to two middle blockers (replaced in the back row by a libero) next to setter and opposite hitter—it was a 5-1 offense with Madi Bugg as the full-time setter. Kind of like this:

Last night, the lineup was a little confusing, but since the first games of the season are a bit like “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”, where “everything’s made up and the points don’t matter” (see UPDATE2)—I wasn’t excessively careful in my documentation. I got the feeling that Coach Dunning was both trying to win the game (the whole point of an athletic contest after all) but needing to try some things out because of all the change he is dealing with and because he has to be thinking about how to win not just individual games, but the whole season. So that when Stanford plays Minnesota tomorrow, it could be a whole new thing. But this is how I think it looked last night in the six rotations:

Stanford vs. Texas A&M

In these rotations there were some interesting things:

a. When Kelsey Humphreys came in to serve in the #6 rotation, it meant Madi Bugg could be a hitter. Her four kills were twice as many as Alade and Vanjak combined, although one should remember that Alade is a freshman and Vanjak, I think, is normally an outside hitter.

b. Someone on a volleyball posting message board3 noted that

There were some (experimental?) variations in the lineup. The first half of the match, Benjamin played back row for Vanjak and Halland played back row for Alade. Toward the end of the match Benjamin played back row for Burgess and Halland played back row for both middles. Hodson passed when Burgess was out. Hodson also passed in some rotations and Howard did not, and they even had a few rotations where they had 4 passers (I don’t know why–the A&M serving wasn’t particularly challenging).

c. It seems like it’s a toss-up whether Howard or Hodson will be the opposite. I saw both of them hit on both sides, while they kept Burgess on the left side.

***

It will be interesting to see how the season unfolds.

Discouraging:

1. Everything middle at this point, at least in terms of attack. Will be great to see Merete Lutz come back and to see whoever is her opposite develop.

Encouraging:

1. Stanford is so strong “at the pins,” as they say. Burgess, Howard, and Hodson should be extraordinary this year.

2. Serving seems so much stronger than last year. (Or Texas A&M’s reception was pretty weak. Hoping for more of the former.)

3. Passing seemed pretty good.

I suspect the Minnesota game on Sunday will be more of a test.

Here’s how the teams earned their points (date from here):

Stanford Texas A&M
Offense
+6 41 Kills 35
+1 3 Aces 2
Defense
+5.5 11 Blocks 5.5
Gifts from Opp.
+4 8.5 Attack Errors (Less Blocks) 4.5
+1 1 Opponent Ball Handling Errors 0
+4 10 Opponent Service Errors 6
75 TOTAL 53

Here is Jordan Burgess in a post-game interview:

 

1I say we, but full disclosure is that I have no connection to Stanford other than a favorite preacher of mine was a Stanford grad, Carly Fiorina—my favorite presidential candidate—is a Stanford grad, Condoleeza Rice was the Stanford Provost, I know one family whose son is a Stanford student, and I sometimes wish I had been smart and/or ambitious enough to have been a Stanford student.
I do like John Dunning’s story and coaching style.
And there’s a quirkiness to Stanford that I find endearing. Everything is excellent but slightly offbeat. They refer to their campus as “The Farm.” Their mascot is a tree. Their team name, the Cardinal, refers, I guess, to the color, but definitely not the bird—i.e. it’s not the Stanford Cardinals. Their cheerleaders piroutte. Their pep band is, well, unconventional. (I think I hear some of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and was that the theme from “Top Gun” there at the end mixed in with Free’s “All Right Now” as performed below by their marching band?)

2UPDATE: I think I am wrong about these preseason games both in calling them “preseason” and according little importance to them. If volleyblogseattle is correct, it’s not so much that these games don’t matter, but that various coaches make a decision about how important they are to their team. Some coaches want to ease into a season, others, like Stanford’s, look for some early-on challenges. Playing tougher opponents early on could influence the Rating Percentage Index (RPI), which could have implications down the road as we prepare for the NCAA tournament.

3So far I am only a reader on this message board. I learn a lot but I’m a little afraid of it because there’s a wild west feeling to it.