Stanford Cardinal Act 3: Getting better all the time

by Glenn on November 1, 2015

Two wins this weekend for my Stanford Cardinal brings this season’s third act to a close. (Originally, I was thinking of their season as a three-act play—pre-season, conference, and post-season—but I’ve decided that it’s more like five acts.) It’s going okay. It could be better, but if total world domination isn’t possible, then we’ll just have to accept a 15-5 record as we head into the fourth act and the end of the conference season.

Act I was a pre-season schedule that ended with a 6-2 record. Stanford began with a No. 2 AVCA ranking but the not-the-end-of-the-world loss to Penn State moved Stanford to No. 3 and the disappointing loss, a sweep, to North Carolina brought Stanford down to No. 8. The theme of Act I was “What kind of team do we have?” Coach Dunning, to his credit, takes on challenging opponents in the pre-season so that his team’s strengths and weaknesses become immediately clear. It doesn’t seem like human nature to actively seek adversity, but success in competitive sports sometimes has that Nietzschian “that which does not kill me makes me stronger” aspect to it. A life of ease does not engender strength.

The start of the conference season marked a second act of four matches spent mostly on the road. The Cardinal beat unranked Cal across the Bay, lost a five-set nail biter with No. 3 USC at home, then headed to the desert where they beat No. 14 Arizona but lost to No. 6. Arizona State. This was a rough opening to conference play with this 2-2 performance and an 8-4 record overall. Inexplicably, in spite of the loss to Arizona State the Cardinal moved from a No. 8 ranking to No. 7. I think the conventional wisdom was that this was kind of a year of destiny for Arizona State and they weren’t ranked high enough. In fact, they would be ranked No. 5 on the October 5 coaches poll and had a couple of nominations for a No. 1 ranking. They were undefeated at that point.

But then Arizona St. went to Washington where their star, Macey Gardner, was injured and is now out for the season. Beginning with the UW match, ASU lost four out of six and has moved steadily downward in the coaches poll to No. 10 (Oct. 12), No. 13 (Oct. 19), and now No. 14 (Oct. 26).

On October 5 RPI came into play. The Rating Percentage Index is not a poll but a calculation to determine ranking based on a team’s wins and losses as well as the strength of its schedule. If Wikipedia is correct—and you’re reasonably certain, but never quite sure—25% is based on a team’s winning percentage, 50% on their opponents’ winning percentage, and 25% on the winning percentage of the opponents’ opponents.

Stanford was ranked No. 7 on the RPI Index on October 5. There were (many) teams with better records, but Coach Dunning’s pre-season approach, including a match against Penn State, which began the season as the team to beat, sure seems like wisdom at this point in the season. I’m not sure there is a team to beat anymore. Penn State lost to Nebraska and Northwestern, formerly undefeated USC lost to Washington, and Texas was beat by TCU last Wednesday. It will be interesting to see both the coaches poll and the RPI tomorrow.

Anyway, the theme of Act 2 was “It’s going to be harder this time.” Last year, Stanford dominated. This year, they are adjusting and simply trying to find a way to win. Opponents who weren’t a challenge last year can beat Stanford. In fact, it’s probably best to say that every team they face will be a challenge. More on that later.

Act 3 consisted of eight games, two at home, two away, and four back home. There was only one loss—it’s the only game I wasn’t able to see because we were traveling—to Colorado. Stanford Women’s Volleyball is in my Twitter feed, so I watched the sad stream of reports as we stood in line to board our flight. I don’t know what happened to Stanford in that match, but it hurt both their AVCA ranking, dropping from No. 6 to No. 11, and their RPI, from No. 14 down to No. 22.

But then came Washington. No. 11-ranked Stanford was playing No. 4 ranked Washington, one of only two teams that was able to beat Stanford last year.

Volleyball is a game where well-matched teams must exploit small advantages to win. For sure, there are lopsided contests where one team wins by a significant margin over an underpowered or poorly skilled opponent (or an opponent having a bad night). But often, volleyball matches are won by just a few points. Mostly it’s back and forth with an occasional burst of two or three points in a row, which often is all it takes to win. Once one team has any sort of lead, it’s uncommon for that team to lose.

Which makes Wednesday’s Stanford Cardinal performance against the University of Washington Huskies remarkable.

Stanford and Washington split the first two sets. Then Washington won the third. In the fourth set, Washington was up 15-10. Normally, that’s a significant enough advantage to seal the deal.

What happened next was extraordinary. Stanford scored three in a row to get closer (14-16) and after some side out volleyball which made the score 16-19, Stanford scored 9 of the last 10 points including Hayley Hodson scoring two of her service aces.

I don’t watch an inordinate amount of volleyball, although I try to catch all the Stanford matches. I did manage to catch part of the Nebraska vs. Penn State match a few weeks ago while I was waiting for a Stanford game to begin. That was probably the most astounding thing I’ve ever seen. Penn State won the first two sets. Nebraska, playing at Penn State came back to win the next three sets. Remarkable. I tend to cheer for the underdog (unless Stanford is in the contest), so I guess I was pulling for Nebraska. But it’s B1G volleyball, so you more or less cheer for them all to destroy each other so that your favorite Pac-12 team can have a higher seed in the post-season tournament.

All this to say that I can’t say that Stanford’s end of match surge was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen on a volleyball court, but it was pretty great none-the-less. And because they are my team, it was really inspiring to see them come from behind and win. Stanford has struggled this year to dominate their opponents. Last year they seemed to play with all kinds of economy of motion and only lost twice. It’s fun to watch your team take others apart, but that isn’t how it is for Stanford this year. Plus, there’s something special about a team that can come from behind, that plays with poise no matter the score, that never gives up.

Someone on a volleyball message board put some numbers together for the Washington match and pointed out that the Huskies out-hit and out-blocked the Cardinal.

Hitting Percentage
Washington: .309
Stanford: .242

Hitting Errors (based on the same number of attacks for each team—149)
Washington: 21
Stanford: 27

Washington: 15
Stanford: 10

The difference in this match was at the service line. Interestingly, both teams had the same number of aces (4). But then there were those Service Errors:
Washington: 12
Stanford: 4
I haven’t watched much Washington volleyball. Their libero, Cassie Strickland, has a pretty intense jump serve, but it wasn’t working for her that night. She had half (6) of those service errors.

One other factor helped Stanford.

Ball Handling Errors:
Washington: 4
Stanford: 1

One bright spot for Washington was the play of Lianna Sybeldon who had 19 kills on .720 hitting percentage. That’s beyond efficient. The Stanford block was not working against her. In a couple of weeks, Stanford will be on the road playing the Huskies at home. I’m sure they’ll be after a bit of retribution.

So, the loss to Colorado was disappointing, but what a boost this was.

The theme of Act 3 was Hayley Hodson who appears to be the real deal and portents good things for the Cardinal over the next few years. She had some remarkable numbers of her own. Against the Oregons, she was unconscious. Versus Oregon State, she had 16 kills with one error on 23 attempts for a .652 hitting percentage. Against Oregon she had 22 kills with one error on 33 attempts for a .636 hitting percentage. Pretty sure that was one of the weeks she earned Pac-12 Freshman-of-the-Week honors. One play in particular that has been effective for Hodson (and a great boost to Stanford) has been a back-row attack from the right side. Some teams don’t even try to block it. They count on the back row to try and dig it out with mixed results.

The rotation with Hodson serving appears to be the strongest for Stanford.

Stanford Best Rotation.001

I haven’t spent a lot of time crunching numbers, but the notes I made in the Arizona match last Friday had her rotation scoring the most points. She had three of Stanford’s four aces, though as an attacker, it was an off night for Hodson who had 15 kills with eight errors on 50 attempts for a .140 hitting percentage, but the Stanford ideal is balanced scoring and Brittany Howard had 13 kills (.308), Merete Lutz had 12 (.391), and Ivana Vanjak had seven (.308). Jordan Burgess also had seven kills, but it was hard work for her to get them with three errors on 29 attempts for a .138 hitting percentage. (Last season she hit .264.) The good part for her is she is serving again and, one hopes, is getting healthier and stronger as we head into Act 4 and the conference season end. She is a six rotation player and her defense is excellent. In last week’s rematches, against Arizona State (Oct. 28) she had 10 digs and against Arizona (Oct. 30) she had 9.

When top 25 teams play, it may appear that a team’s rank matter’s significantly, so that when No. 4 Washington played No. 11 Stanford, you thought, “Wow, Washington is seven teams better than Stanford.” But that isn’t the right way to think about it. There are actually 334 teams playing NCAA Division I volleyball. The top 25 teams represent the top 7.4%, which means that when any two Top 25 teams face off, anything can happen. In the Washington vs. Stanford match, these teams were in the top 3% of teams. On any given night, anything can happen. I’m just happy that it all came together for Stanford.

It appears that things have settled in for Stanford. Act 3 was good. This next Act, the end of conference play, determines whether there will be a final act for Stanford. The road contests won’t be easy. I am hoping we can see Stanford in Corvallis for the Oregon State game.

11.5  @ Oregon
11.8  @ Oregon State
11.12 @ Washington
11.15 @ Washington
11.19 Colorado
11.20 Utah
11.25 California
11.27 UCLA

The point of the season, of course is to make it into the NCAA tournament. 334 teams are competing to be among the 64 that compete in the final tournament. As the season goes along it becomes more and more clear which teams have a chance and which do not. For four out of five teams, their season will end when the conference season ends. It’s a pretty exclusive club that makes it into the tournament. RPI is a big determiner of who these teams are and how they are seeded.

Then, for all but one of the 64 teams that make it into the tournament, their season will end in defeat.