7-2 | Cardinal Trap Bears on the Road to Open Conference Season

by Glenn on September 25, 2015

A successful season has three acts:
Act I consists of pre-conference matches;
Act II, the regular conference season; and
Act III is the post-season tournament, with the big proviso that no team is guaranteed a spot in the post-season tournament. Last year 334 Division I schools had women’s volleyball teams, but only 64 made it into the NCAA Tournament, which I think is something like a 19–20% success rate (or 80–81% failure rate). In other words four out of five teams will not have a third act to their season.


There appears to be room for a coaching philosophy to determine the sort of pre-conference games you have. How hard a challenge do you want? and How many games do you want to play? and How much do you want to play on the road? Some coaches seem to look for lightweight opponents to ease into their season. It’s a good way to build confidence. Other coaches look for adversity.

Something to bear in mind is that the level of difficulty of your opponents is a factor in ranking your team, which might not matter all that much at the beginning of a season but it certainly plays a role in determining the post-season. More about that in a moment.

I’m not sure it’s that critical that Stanford or any other teams in the Pac-12 or the B1G conferences go looking for hard pre-season battles before conference play begins. These conferences are loaded with great teams who will encounter each other all season long. But if you are a good team in a weak conference, the pre-season is your one opportunity to gauge the level of the competition you might face in the tournament and establish how your team compares to the rest of the nation.

The Stanford Cardinal finished it’s pre-conference play with a 6-2 record. They get points for taking on some challenging teams, including Penn State (was #1 and remains #1), North Carolina (was ranked #7, though has fallen out of the top-25), Illinois (was #8, now is #9), and Duke (which was ranked #25), all of whom were top-25 ranked teams. Minnesota wasn’t in the top-25 before the season, but is now #21, and Pacific is now #23.) So Stanford’s losses to Penn State and North Carolina are nothing like season-enders. You want to beat the #1-ranked team because then you can claim to be #1 and you certainly don’t want to lose to a team that isn’t in the top-25 (the top 7.5% of teams), but at this stage of the game, it’s not hurting you irreversibly. Coach Dunning certainly chose the way of adversity for his team.

(Note: Rankings are based on the American Volleyball Coaches Association Poll. The pre-season rankings may be found here. The AVCA Division I Coaches Week #4 Poll: September 21, 2015, may be found here.


Conference (or league) play simply means you play the teams in your conference (or league). The 334 Division I schools are organized into something like 32 different athletic conferences/leagues. Your season basically consists of a round robin where everyone plays everyone at least once. I’m not sure you have much control over your schedule, except that I notice that coaches try to be smart about scheduling. For example, when Stanford plays the two Oregon teams on the road, they will play them within a couple of days of each other. (Last year we had a very enjoyable weekend where we watched Stanford play Oregon St. on a Friday night, drove down to Ashland to watch a couple of plays on Saturday, and then watched Stanford play Oregon on Sunday.) And I think Oregon and Oregon St. will try to hit the Bay Area around the same time so they can play Stanford and Cal alternately.

Post-Season Tournament

Do well in your conference or have a high enough RPI* and you will qualify for the post-season tournament. I think this is right: a disproportionate number of Pac-12 and B1G teams (as compared to other conferences) will make it into the the tournament where all but one team will end their season with a loss. The tournament is not really a feel-good, unless you’re, you know, Penn State.



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Stanford’s second act began Tuesday night with a road victory (should probably put road in quotes because the trip from Stanford to UC Berkely is only 45 miles, which in California terms is not far) over the Cal Bears. This was an exciting match. I remember watching Stanford play Cal last year in the final match of the regular season. It was a little depressing. As I recall, Cal’s offense was pretty unbalanced, going on attack primarily through Lillian Schonewise. Last night, Schonewise had the third highest number of kills for the Bears. Nice to see the team, even if they are off to a rocky 6-6 start, playing well against their rival, Stanford. They were very scrappy on defense. I remember one rally where it seemed like Jordan Burgess took a number of hard swings but every time someone for Cal got an up. Cal actually had more kills than Stanford (56-54). But, happily, Stanford came out on top. How did Stanford win?

Stanford California
-2 54 Kills 56
+3 6 Aces 3
+6 11 Blocks 5
Gifts from Opp.
+2 14 Attack Errors (Less Blocks) 12
0 Opponent Ball Handling Errors 0
-3 8 Opponent Service Errors 11
75 TOTAL 53

Some impressions from the match:

1. Watching the match it didn’t seem like we were blocking that well, although you look at the numbers and see we definitely outblocked Cal. In the post-game interview, Madi Bugg talked about the poor timing they had in their blocking, where two players would not leap at the same time, leaving holes for the Cal hitters to take advantage of.

2. Madi Bugg had the most digs for the Cardinal, which I think can be a problem. Generally you want your setter taking the second hit after someone (anyone) else has passed the ball.

3. Hayley Hodson was hitting well (18 kills at .343) and you can’t ask for better from Brittany Howard (14 kills at .462). The back row attack from both Hodson and Howard is a new addition this year. I like it. Merete Lutz and Jordan Burgess were not where you expect they will be (8 kills at .200 and 7 kills at .185 respectively). Let’s hope for quick recovery from injuries.

4. There was a moment that I thought was going to be positively decisive. Coach Dunning had the same rotation in sets 1 and 2, with Madi Bugg starting things off from the service line. It seemed like there must have been some locker room discussion of match-ups because Stanford mixed things up for the third set and Halland McKenna served first and rattled off five points in a row. You thought, “What a genius move,” but then after a side-out to Cal, they got four points in a row from their service line to tie things up at five each. The Cardinal lost the third set at which point they went back to Madi Bugg as the starting server.

On the subject of serving, I tracked the Stanford serve for this match. I often try to take some form of notes when I watch a match. Last night I decided to track service performance. For each service rotation I wrote down the net gain or loss each time it served. The worst outcome is a -1, which indicates an immediate side-out. A 0 indicates that one point was scored before a side-out, resulting in neither a gain or loss. The best outcome is any sort of positive number.






Here are the percentages for an immediate side-out:
Set 1 | 14/19 = 74%
Set 2 | 6/18 = 33%
Set 3 | 5/11 = 45%
Set 4 | 6/8 = 50%

It’s interesting to see how much side-out volleyball was part of the first set for the Cardinal. The 45% in the third set seems pretty good except that Stanford let Cal have a number of point streaks and lost that set.

Stanford’s best serving rotation was with Kelsey Humphreys at the line. I haven’t looked at previous games, but I’ve had the feeling that the rotation with Sarah Benjamin serving was doing pretty well, but that was certainly not true in this game, where it resulted in a side-out every time.


Next Sunday, the Cardinal play USC. This is going to be a fascinating game. the Trojans appear to be “the real deal” this year. They are ranked #3 this week and were 12-0 through last weekend. Last night they took out UCLA rather handily in spite of their star player, Samantha Bricio, having an off night (10 kills at .152).


*Rating Percentage Index, which ranks your team based on the strength of your schedule. In 2014, Oregon State had a losing 9-11 regular season record but made it into the NCAA tournament while the Purdue Boilermakers, who finished with a 12-8 league record did not.