Four down, two to go for the Cardinal

by Glenn on December 17, 2014

What a great weekend to be a Stanford volleyball fan. The Cardinal faced Oregon St. in the third round on Friday and won.

Then they took on Florida in the fourth round Saturday for another victory.

The trial of the postseason is that to play you have to win. You lose and you’re out. Happily, Stanford is now 4-0. This is exciting.

Not sure how long either game will be available, but if you have ESPN access, a replay of the Oregon State game can be found here, and the Florida game is found here.

It took four sets for the Cardinal to defeat Oregon State. It was a shutout against Florida.

Oregon St. and Florida must be disappointed, yet if there is any consolation to be found, they have to feel good about some things.

For Oregon St., this was their first ever appearance in the NCAA tournament. Hard to imagine they’ve never been one of the 64, but when you are in the (now) Pac-12 and have a Stanford team that is so consistently dominant (for example, the Cardinal has never not been in the tournament), in a closed economic system like this (see table below, which shows two teams with excellent records, two teams with the inverse, and quite a crowd in the middle), if Stanford is winning, someone is losing (this year, actually, everyone they played, except Washington). Kudos to Oregon St. coach Taras Liskevych who transformed an 0-20 Pac-12 performance in 2013 (9-22 overall) to 9-11 (21-13 overall) this year. In the disappointment of their loss, one hopes they feel good about the way they’ve improved as a team.

Pac-12 Final Standings

Team Conference Overall
Stanford 19-1 33-1
Washington 18-2 31-3
Arizona 12-8 24-10
Oregon 11-9 23-10
UCLA 11-9 22-12
Colorado 11-9 20-14
Utah 9-11 20-12
Arizona State 9-11 20-14
Oregon State 9-11 21-13
USC 8-12 16-16
California 2-18 10-20
Washington State 1-19 10-22

For Florida St., I can only imagine the letdown. Until this match, they were on a 23-game winning streak. Leading up to the game, the ESPNU studio hosts mentioned how under-rated Florida was as a team (in their opinion they should have been seeded higher) and how they were likely to give Stanford some trouble. They didn’t, really, but that wasn’t their fault. Florida played really well. It’s just that Stanford was unconscious. I don’t know which scenario is worse—do you want to play well and come up short or play poorly and lose? It seems to me that losing sucks however it happens, but at least if you perform well yet find yourself outplayed, at least you have some dignity. I’m probably not competitive enough to muse about such things.

Here are some stats for the top five hitters plus the team totals in the Florida game:

Stanford kills KEff Florida kills KEff
Morgan Boukather 12 .455 Alex Holston 18 .533
Jordan Burgess 12 .417 Gabby Mallette 14 .414
Merete Lutz 9 .438 Carli Snyder 7 .375
Inky Ajanakou 9 .412 Rhamat Alhassan 4 .182
Brittany Howard 6 .312 Shainah Joseph 3 .222
TEAM Total 50 .410 TEAM Total 47 .343

If you ignore the Stanford numbers for a moment, the .343 hitting by Florida is quite good. Their season average was .319. They were above average in this match. During the season, Florida held their opponents to .172 hitting. Well, this is where things went awry. Stanford hit a phenomenal .410. (During the season, Stanford hit .316 and held their opponents to .178. Remarkably similar to Florida’s season averages.)

In the first set, Stanford had exactly one error. So, if you watch the game, in that opening set, Florida makes some great scores. But Stanford is playing near perfection. There were many times where the Stanford player on defense didn’t have to move to make the dig. They had read the hitting lanes so well they were in the right place to get the ball. On offense, Stanford had 15 kills on 25 attempts for a .560 average. Wow.

Florida’s two big hitters had great numbers. Alex Holston and Gabby Mallette were exceptional. But Stanford has five big hitters any of whom can uncork any given moment and take over a match. Until Jordan Burgess came out strong as the closer and earned her final two kills to tie, I thought Morgan Boukather would be the high scorer for Stanford. I didn’t know if this was intentional or not, but since Boukather was the only Stanford player not to be in double-digits the previous night versus Oregon State, I wondered if there was some intentionality to having her come out with the first two kills and be the high scorer.

The egalitarian play of Stanford’s stellar five is inspiring. I’ve noted this before, but look at the distance between the first- and fifth-highest hitters for both teams. The gap is six for Stanford, fifteen for Florida. I don’t think a team has to have such even scoring from so many players. It seems like most teams have one or two players they go to very consistently. BYU, the one unseeded team in the final four has two hitters (Jennifer Hamson and Alexa Gray) both of whom have roughly twice as many kills on the season as the next productive hitter on the team. I think that’s pretty normal. It’s probably unusual to have the Stanford situation with so many players who can score. It seems to me Stanford has much more flexibility with its game plan.

(Note: Penn State has a similar style to Stanford. They have many scorers. You wonder how Stanford is preparing for the match. Are they keying on shutting down one or two hitters or just asking the middles to be extra active? Micha Hancock is pretty crafty as a setter and has to be guarded. This won’t be an easy victory for Stanford.)

Here’s where the scoring came from in the Stanford/Florida game.

Stanford Florida
+3 50 Kills 47
+4 4 Aces 0
-1 4 Blocks 5
Gifts from Opp.
+3 7 Attack Errors (Less Blocks) 4
0 Opponent Ball Handling Errors 0
+6 9 Opponent Service Errors 3
75* TOTAL 60

*Stanford’s numbers actually add up to 74 when you figure it this way. It’s one of the vagaries of the record system that you may be off one or two points when you try to account for the scoring by breaking the plays into categories like this.

I think John Dunning made a subtle but, ultimately, important shift in his rotation for this match. When Stanford played Michigan St., the rotations looked like this:

The six rotations Stanford used against Michigan St. on Saturday, 6 December 2014.

In the match with Florida, Dunning moved everything over, so that Rotation 2 became number one.

The six rotations for Stanford vs. Florida.

It would be interesting to hear why this change was made. It seems minor, but Burgess is an excellent defender, so perhaps it was to have Kyle Gilbert and Burgess in the back row from the first to defend. I’m sure there was some kind of attempt to match things up better. Was this the key to the victory?

Well, the excitement of the win has passed. (Isn’t it great, though, when your team wins.) Now it’s time to think about tomorrow’s match against Penn State. Time to fire up the clichés: It doesn’t get any better than this. Both teams match up well and will come to play because it’s win or go home. They’re taking this one game at a time, one play at a time. Nothing comes easy in this sport and both teams have great work ethics and unbelievable chemistry. You can’t say enough about the job the coaches have done. At this level, though, both teams have to step up and make plays. Each team controls its own destiny. They have to play their game, take care of the ball, and leave it all out there on the court. It may come down to who wants it more.

Best sports cliché cartoon:

Enough of that.

In preparation for the game Stanford produced some team notes available here.

Go Cardinal.