In Praise of Stanford Volleyball

by Glenn on November 16, 2014

Just days ago, three teams remained undefeated in NCAA Division I volleyball: Stanford, Florida St., and Washington, ranked 1, 2, and 3 respectively on the November 10 NCAA Women’s Volleyball RPI. (Note: They are ranked 1, 3, and 2 in the November 10 AVCA Coaches poll.)

Florida St. suffered two defeats in two days, to #27 Duke on Thursday and to #6 North Carolina last night. The Washington Huskies lost to #29 Colorado on Thursday night and last night lost a five-set thriller to #47 Utah.

This means Stanford, with wins this week over #14 USC and #17 UCLA, is now the only undefeated Division I team. It will be interesting to see how the rankings beneath Stanford change next week, though I doubt neither Florida St. nor Washington will fall too far or lose prime spots in the coming NCAA tournament.

Stanford has four games left in the season, playing #47 Utah (who, one imagines, would like to knock down another top-ranked team) and #29 Colorado at home and #3 Washington and #107 California on the road. One hopes they can have an undefeated season, but more important is an undefeated post-season. If Stanford wins the championship (for the seventh time), for which there is no inevitability, certainty, guarantee, etc., it will be tough not to speak of a sense of destiny for this team which won the NCAA championship in 1994 and 2004. It seems they win at least every ten years. They are performing just right to remain on schedule.

If they do win, it will be because they fought hard and earned it. NCAA Division I volleyball is incredibly competitive.

Over the last two years I have become a fan of the Stanford volleyball team. Two weekends ago, when Stanford volleyball took an Oregon road trip, we did, too, and enjoyed watching their matches vs. Oregon State on October 31 and Oregon on November 2.

I have absolutely no connection to Stanford except that as an adult I’ve acquired a bit of college envy, wishing I had been smart enough to qualify for and aware and ambitious enough to consider attending Stanford.

My own participation in volleyball was limited to summer camp and church league. I enjoyed it, but for reasons I suppose of temperament and competing interests and priorities (and an inordinate desire to watch television) I never connected with competitive play.

I love watching volleyball. Football gets all the hype and coverage. And this time of year, if it’s a night of the week, there seems to be a game on TV, plus the endless parade of games all day Saturday (college) and Sunday (NFL). It’s exhausting and I feel conflicted watching a sport where it seems every game includes career-ending and/or life-diminishing injuries.

Volleyball you have to hunt for. Select games may be found on ESPNU, BTN, and the Pac-12 network, but most of the time you are searching for a live stream.

I enjoy the intimacy and refinement of volleyball. Two teams of six each on a side of a smallish court. It certainly is an athletic event, but there is an aesthetic element about it, too. A good team has rhythm and there is a kind of choreography to winning a point that is great fun to experience. The game requires energy, but most players take a relaxed and understated approach in their exertions. Esprit de corps is important but so is avoiding the extreme of appearing excessively and needlessly amped up. Volleyball players are strong and move well. It’s an aggressive and physical game, but there’s no intentional contact between players. And while the concept is simple—hit a ball over a net into your opponent’s side of the court and prevent them from hitting it into yours—the sophistication of offensive and defensive tactics is stunning. The more you understand what’s going on, the more exciting it becomes.

I’m about halfway through Mike Hebert’s Thinking Volleyball: Inside the game with a coaching legend (Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics, 2014). This is a helpful book for understanding some of the strategy and tactics involved in high-level play.

In chapter 6 Hebert addresses “Drawing a Blueprint for Offense.” He instructs, “You need to determine who your scorers are.” To do so, he refers to a term he calls KEff, the “kill efficiency” of each player. (There’s another thing to love about volleyball—this is a non-violent sport that records player “kills.”) “The formula for calculating KEff is (Kills-Errors)/Total Attempts.” This is a figure included on player stats as “pct” (percentage), for example here with Stanford outside hitter, Jordan Burgess.

In that first game vs. Iowa State, Burgess had 15 kills – 3 errors = 12/48 attempts to kill, for a .250 percentage.

Hebert explains, to determine your scorers you need to look at the team you wish to beat. For example, Penn State won the NCAA tournament last year (beating Stanford along the way—payback anyone?) and over the course of the season had a KEff of .305, fifth best in the nation. See here for my source.

Hebert explains that one of the things you are doing in practice is determining who can score better than the other team. Then you design your offense around her/them. Does Stanford have any weapons to beat a .305 hitting percentage? Yes. Stanford’s two middle blockers/hitters are seriously dominant (see here for their stats):
Merete Lutz (.454)
Inkay Ajanaku (.447)

Interesting, though, in their 2013 championship game vs. Wisconsin, Penn State only hit at .206.

So if you are looking to beat the Penn State team that played in that championship game, your scorers only need to be hitting at least .206. Stanford has five players who do that:
Merete Lutz, middle blocker (.454)
Inkay Ajanaku, middle blocker (.447)
Morgan Boukather, opposite hitter (.286)
Jordan Burgess, outside hitter (.258)
Brittany Howard, outside hitter (.209).

My sense is that teams are either unbalanced or balanced in their offense. An unbalanced team (“unbalanced” is meant to be more descriptive than pejorative) has one or two main scorers and the offense is designed to flow through them. In other words, one or two people score most of the points. One example of this unbalanced scoring is the University of Washington Huskies. They have an outstanding hitter named Krista Vansant. On the season she has nearly twice as many kills (444) as Kaleigh Nelson (232), the next most productive scorer on the team.

One of the things I love about Stanford as a team is that their offense is very balanced. If you think about it, they’ve got six players on the court. One is their defensive specialist (aka libero, Kyle Gilbert) and another (Madi Bugg) is their setter. That leaves four other players at any one time who can be potential offensive weapons.

This is extraordinary to have so many choices. And I guess I’ll put a value judgment in here and say that given the choice, I’d probably prefer to have more weapons than fewer.

I’ve been thinking about Hebert’s book and Stanford’s team and decided to play with an idea I’m calling “kill spread.” Since you have four potential scorers on the court, what is the difference in range between your number one and number four scorers. I made Stanford VB Stats for the last six games Stanford has played. Two things are worth noting:

First, with the exception of Oregon, the range between the first and fourth scorers is narrower, often much narrower. For example, Karsta Lowe of UCLA had more kills (21) than any Stanford player in their match, but she made over half of Washington’s kills while 20 percentage points was all that separated Stanford’s Inky Ajanakou (17) from Jordan Burgess (8).

Second, Stanford’s balanced scoring is always changing. In those six games the four players who score the most kills are never the same and are never in the same order.

What is most impressive about Stanford players, though, is the unique combination of athletic ability and academic prowess.

Take Inky Ajanakou. She can elevate high above the net, delivering emotionally-devastating kills on her opponents and she is a human biology major who, I have read, plans to be a surgeon. When Ajanakou graduates, will she play volleyball or go to medical school? Good for her that she has options. I imagine she is simply an exemplar for the rest of the team. These are exceptional people.

I admire a school that is so exclusive yet can produce a team that is so competitive.

Russ Roberts of the Econtalk podcast does a fantastic interview with Roger Noll on “The Economics of Sports.” Their discussion touches on college sports and some of the special challenges for elite schools. The interview takes place on the Stanford campus so they spend some time discussing Stanford athletics, especially the challenge of recruiting. Noll says, “the Stanford recruiting problem is to identify a very small fraction of the kids who are going to play at the highest level of intercollegiate sports who also are serious academics.” This discussion is great listening. You sort of feel sorry for Stanford, which is odd.

I have just two complaints about Stanford. Only one is about their playing, which is that they don’t seem to have a “lights out” server.

Take a look at Micah Hancock of Penn State.

And here is USC’s Samantha Bricio.

Stanford seems to play a finesse game with their serve.

My other complaint is their team name. Am I right in thinking they are they the only school whose mascot is not an animal or person? Huskies (University of Washington), Seminoles (Florida St.), Banana Slugs (UC Santa Cruz),  Fighting Artichokes (Scottsdale Community College)—these are all plural. Each member of the team is an individual Husky or Seminole or Banana Slug or Artichoke and when they come together they become a plurality. But with Stanford it’s “the Cardinal.” Singular. And the color, not the bird, because the Stanford mascot I think is a tree. Which means there is an interesting grammatical thing that comes up when you write about or discuss the Cardinal. (Doesn’t that sound weird.)

For example, here’s Ashley Westhem of Stanford Daily writing about a recent Stanford Cardinal victory:

“A seemingly easy three-set sweep quickly devolved into a hard fought, five-set battle for the Stanford’s women’s volleyball team (23-0, 13-0 Pac-12) against Arizona State on Wednesday night at Maples. The Cardinal, however, were still able to maintain their perfect record and defend their No. 1 ranking with the win over the No. 20 Sun Devils.” (emphasis added)

“The Cardinal … were …” I read that and feel like I do when I bite into the piece of aluminum foil I missed when I eat a baked potato. Ouch.

If I understand correctly, when you are speaking of the collective Stanford volleyball team, then you say, “The Cardinal is a fantastic team.” If you are talking about the individual players, then you say, “I am impressed by how well the Cardinal are playing.”

Anyway, good luck to the Cardinal as they finish their season:
• Fr1 21 November, 8:00 pm • Utah @ Stanford • Pac-12 Network
• Sat 22 November, 7:00 pm • Colorado @ Stanford • Live Stream
• Wed 26 November, 5:00 pm • Stanford @ Washington • Pac-12 Network
• Fri 28 November, 3:00 pm • Stanford @ Cal • Pac-12 Network