Stanford Gets a Fifth Act

by Glenn on December 3, 2015

A Fifth Act for the Stanford Cardinal Women’s Volleyball Team begins tonight as their performance this season earned them a place in the NCAA tournament. This is not unusual for them. In fact, this is the 35th consecutive post-season appearance for the Cardinal, which shares that record with Penn State. Most teams (270 out of the 334 NCAA Division I teams) do not make the post season, so the curtain is down and the play is over.

I can’t imagine how complicated your feelings would be at this point. If you are not in the tournament, are you discouraged about your team’s performance this season or relieved that you can focus on your studies as finals are coming up? Maybe it’s both. If you are in the tournament, you would have to hope that your team can win it all, but for every player/team that is saying right now, “I know we can win,” only one team will be able to say, at the end, “We knew we could win.”

Which makes winners great motivational speakers. Because they won, they can look back at what they did to win and then tell you what you can do (or “have to do”) so that you can win. I would argue that there are great coaches and great players who have not won it all.

As a fan of Cardinal WVB, the end of the season was largely satisfying. Out of their last twelve matches, they lost only one, on the road at higher-ranked Washington on a night when the extraordinary Hayley Hodson sat out the match for an “undisclosed” practice injury. She was back for the next match. On the season, Stanford and Washington were 1-1.

The most exciting match of Act IV was the last of the regular season, on the road against UCLA. Stanford won the first set and then dropped the next two. That was tough to watch. But it is so gratifying to see your team come from behind to win. They were tenacious. (It’s pretty demoralizing the other way, when your team loses an advantage on its way to losing a match.)

It was the last conference match for the three seniors, Madi Bugg, Jordan Burgess, and Brittany Howard. For this last conference match of her collegiate career, Howard had a career-high 22 kills with just one error at an efficiency rate of .404. What a fabulous way to finish your college career. Bugg, of course, was her setter, making it all look very routine. And while Burgess didn’t have sky-high offensive numbers, we were reminded of what a phenomenal “six-rotation” player she is as she accumulated 18 digs (second only to the libero, Halland McKenna).

Three lasting impressions from that match from last Friday:

1. If Howard can perform like that again, it rebalances the offensive load in a fantastic way. That bodes well for the post-season. What if she hasn’t peaked? How great will that be!

2. It was great to see the Cardinal start the match well. We’ve seen a number of matches this season where they heated up as the match proceeded, but it’s not always possible to do the come-from-behind thing—perhaps moreso in the finals.

3. In beating UCLA, the Cardinal beat the team that beat USC. (The Cardinal lost a five-set match to USC, their only meeting this year … so far.) In the last (November 30) AVCA Coaches Ranking, USC was ranked number two. I don’t know if there are “confidence boosters” in sports, but it seems like this would fit.

* * *

There are two ways into the NCAA tournament. 32 teams get in because they are the winners of their particular conference. (Who knew there were so many conferences?) In some conferences, the winner is determined by overall record (see list below for conferences marked below with an “*”). The other conferences have a tournament and the winner of the tournament is the conference champion.

The winning teams from the 32 conferences are not necessarily the 32 best teams in NCAA Division I volleyball. The remaining 32 spots go to teams from any conference as determined by a selection committee. (This is how Stanford earned a place.) The Big Ten (B1G), which actually has twelve teams just to make things completely nonsensical, has nine of its teams included in the tournament.

I often read people arguing an unanswerable question: Which conference is better: B1G or Pac-12? This year it looks like the B1G has that locked in.

Additionally, the committee decides, based on several factors, who they believe are the Top 16 teams, which provides a little help to those teams, especially in the opening couple of rounds. The general idea is that the higher ranked teams have “easier” opponents—a reward for being excellent throughout the season—but every match is a win or lose thing at this point and I expect at least some seeded teams will be defeated by unseeded ones. If you win six matches, you win it all. 63 teams will end their season with a loss.

Will Stanford play one, two, three, four, five, or six matches?

The first and second rounds take place this weekend, either on a Thursday-Friday schedule or a Friday-Saturday schedule. These rounds are hosted by the Top 16 teams if they choose to be hosts—one team, Creighton, is the 16 seed, but will be playing their first and, if they win, second round on the road.

And then it’s a math thing. 64 teams play in Round One, 32 play in Round Two. At the end of this weekend, only 16 teams are still playing.

Rounds two and three are “regional” contests the following weekend, where four teams each head to four locations around the country (Lexington, San Diego, Austin, Des Moines) to reduce 16 teams down to four.

The semi-finals and final tournament come the following weekend after that. A bracket is available here. I would fill one out, except I don’t know enough about other teams to make rational guesses.

What I do know is that Stanford’s path forward means they face New Mexico State tonight and, if they win, they face the winner of Colorado State and Loyola Marymount. The Cardinal have never lost in the first round, but I don’t think history has a lot of predictive power here—if they win, it will be because they kept the ball of the floor on their side and managed to get the ball on the floor on their opponents’ side.

There is much kvetching on on the volleyball site I read about how the tournament is set up and how “unfair” it is to certain teams who have “a harder path” to the final four. The reality is that if you are a ranked team that makes it through the first and second rounds, you could be facing another ranked team. (The number one- and number sixteen-ranked teams are both in the top 5% of teams.) In Stanford’s case, they could be playing USC in a rematch.

Here is a unofficial list of the conferences and the teams that are playing in the tournament. Haven’t done a thorough fact-checking.


America East
New Hampshire

American Athletic*

Atlantic 10

Atlantic Coast*
Louisville (15)
North Carolina
Florida St.
Miami (Fla.)

Atlantic Sun

Big 12*
Texas (3)
Kansas (9)
Iowa State
Kansas State

Big East
Creighton (16)

Big Sky
Northern Arizona

Big South
Coastal Carolina

Big Ten* (B1G)
Minnesota (2)
Nebraska (4)
Wisconsin (6)
Penn State (7)
Ohio State (12)
Michigan State

Big West*

Colonial Athletic Association

Conference USA
Western Kentucky

Horizon League
Cleveland State

Ivy League*

Metro Atlantic Athletic
Fairfield University


Mid-Eastern Athletic

Missouri Valley
Wichita State University
Missouri St
Southern Illinois University
University of Northern Iowa

Mountain West*
Colorado State

Robert Morris

Ohio Valley

Southern California (1)
Washington (5)
Stanford (8)
UCLA (14)
Arizona State

Patriot League

Texas A&M (10)
Florida (11)


Texas A&M—Corpus Christi

Southwestern Athletic
Jackson State

Summit League

Sun Belt
Arkansas State

West Coast*
BYU (13)
Loyola Marymount
Santa Clara
San Diego

Western Athletic
New Mexico State