Stanford Volleyball: Now the real work begins

by Glenn on December 1, 2014

It was delight and dismay as Stanford’s volleyball season ended.

Stanford’s final two home games of the regular season were phenomenal 3-0 performances. On Friday, 21 November they tied their record from 1991 of 27 wins before a loss as they beat Utah. (Someone pointed out that the last time Stanford had such a start to a season, none of their current players were born.) The next day, against Colorado, they beat the record. They were 28-0.

And then the wheels came off. Or, one hopes, just got a little wobbly for a moment.

Stanford had two more opportunities this past week to continue their undefeated tear (although it was much better to lose a game this week than next, when the NCAA tournament begins). While they only lost one of these games, there were elements in both that were a portent. The loss at Washington on 26 November ended the winning streak but, more importantly, provided an opportunity to see how Stanford would fare against first-rate competition. Stanford took Thanksgiving off and while they beat Cal Friday to finish 29-1, winning the Pac-12 championship outright, it was, in a way, an unsettling performance.

So, in the last four games we had two fairly routine wins versus lesser-ranked opponents, a discouraging loss, and a troubling win.

I want Stanford to win the NCAA championship. I like the coach. I like the team.

John Dunning, in his 14th season as head coach brings a thoughtful approach to leading his team. He keeps theatrics off of the sidelines. No tantrums. No whining. No outbursts. He plays it cool, though there is no lack of engagement with the game. And I like his story. If what I’ve read is correct, Dunning wasn’t always a volleyball guy. He was teaching math at Fremont High School and some girls asked him to be their coach for a new volleyball team. Later, he learned, he was their third choice. He did well at Fremont and, later, at University of the Pacific, and his analytical approach seems to be working well at Stanford.

I enjoy watching Stanford play. Their offense is balanced. Can I say their players are unselfish? There are go-to competitors for sure—middle blockers Inky Ajanakou and Merete Lutz have exceptional kill efficiency ratings of .446 each on the season. But the outside hitters, Jordan Burgess and Brittany Howard, and opposite hitter Morgan Boukather are all involved in the offense. This balanced approach, led by setter Madi Bugg, means different players shine each night and the scoring is never dominated by any one player. This tells me that for these players (or at least the coach with some level of buy-in from the players) the team victory matters more than individual statistics.Take a look at the top four Stanford scorers in the eight games preceding their loss.

Stanford vs. Colorado
21 November

Player kills KEff
J. Burgess 37.1% 13 .542
M. Boukather 25.7% 9 .263
I. Ajanakou 20.0% 7 .400
M. Lutz 17.1% 6 .333
total 35
spread 7
avg. 8.75 .406

Stanford vs. Utah
20 November

Player kills KEff
M. Boukather 34.2% 13 .440
I. Ajanakou 26.3% 10 .444
J. Burgess 26.3% 10 .207
M. Bugg 13.2% 5 .625
total 38
spread 8
avg. 9.5 .404

Stanford vs. UCLA
13 November

Player kills KEff
I. Ajanakou 37.8% 17 .481
M. Lutz 22.2% 10 .714
B. Howard 22.2% 10 .450
J. Burgess 17.8% 8 .167
total 45
spread 9
avg. 11.25 .470

Stanford vs. USC
12 November

Player kills KEff
M. Lutz 31.7% 13 .667
I. Ajanakou 31.7% 13 .364
M. Boukather 22.0% 9 .292
J. Burgess 14.6% 6 .094
total 41
spread 7
avg. 10.25 .405

Stanford vs. Arizona
7 November

Player kills KEff
J. Burgess 43.5% 27 .375
B. Howard 25.8% 16 .226
I. Ajanakou 16.1% 10 .200
M. Boukather 14.5% 9 .167
total 62
spread 18
avg. 15.5 .278

Stanford vs. Arizona St.
5 November

Player kills KEff
I. Ajanakou 36.4% 20 .457
J. Burgess 29.1% 16 .279
M. Lutz 20.0% 11 .360
M. Boukather 14.5% 8 .077
total 55
spread 12
avg. 13.75 .331

Stanford vs. Oregon
2 November

Player kills KEff
J. Burgess 34.9% 15 .371
M. Boukather 25.6% 11 .625
I. Ajanakou 25.6% 11 .348
M. Lutz 14.0% 6 .214
total 43
spread 9
avg. 10.75 .408

Stanford vs. Oregon St.
2 November

Player kills KEff
I. Ajanakou 31.6% 18 .469
B. Howard 24.6% 14 .364
M. Boukather 24.6% 14 .357
M. Lutz 19.3% 11 .421
total 57
spread 7
avg. 8.75 .406

In every one of these games Stanford “outkilled” their opponents, which is to say that even on the two occasions where a single player on the other team had more kills than any of the Stanford players (Karsta Lowe had 21 kills for UCLA and Macey Gardner had 21 for ASU), the whole for Stanford was always greater than the sum of its parts.

There is one aberration on this list, the five-set match against Arizona where Jordan Burgess uncorked with 27 kills. (Wish I had seen that.) That was the exception that proves the rule for how Stanford normally plays.

Stanford has had to work this season. Of their 29 victories, while 15 were won in three sets, nine took four and five went five. I appreciate how Stanford manages to stay poised throughout the match. Their post-point routine stays consistent whether they are winning or losing. Points earned get celebrated enthusiastically but appropriately, without taunting. When they lose a point (or a set), they hunker down without getting down. It’s inspiring to watch.

In this brief window between the end of the season and the NCAA tournament, I want to look at the Anatomy of a 3-Set Victory, put my concerns about the Washington loss into words, and share why I found the final victory so troubling.

Anatomy of a 3-Set Victory

I was intrigued by how similar the victories were against Utah (20 November) and Colorado (21 November). To describe one is, in a way, to describe them both. Let’s just look at the Utah win, which was closer (at least in terms of final score).

You need 75 points to win three sets. Here’s how Stanford did it:

Stanford Utah
Offense
+10 45 Kills 35
2 Aces 2
Defense
+2 8 Blocks 6
Gifts from Opp.
+11 14 Attack Errors (Less Blocks) 3
-1 Opponent Ball Handling Errors 1
-3 6 Opponent Service Errors 9
75 TOTAL 56

1. Stanford scored 45 points of their points with kills, ten more than Utah. On this particular night, Morgan Boukather was the high scorer with 13. Inky Ajanakou and Jordan Burgess scored ten each, Madi Bugg (nice when your setter is a high-percentage offensive threat) and Merete Lutz five each, and Brittany Howard finished with two.

In my previous post on Stanford volleyball, I noted that the spread between the top four Stanford scorers tends to be narrower than their opponents. This match was an exception. The top three Stanford strikers each outhit Utah’s best. Very impressive.

Stanford

Player kills KEff
M. Boukather 34.2% 13 .440
I. Ajanakou 26.3% 10 .444
J. Burgess 26.3% 10 .207
M. Bugg 13.2% 5 .625
total 38
spread 8
avg. 9.5 .404

Utah

Player kills KEff
C. Schofield 30.8% 8 .000
S. Dalton 26.9% 7 .222
C. Trueman 23.1% 6 .333
M. Moea'i 19.2% 5 .200
total 26
spread 3
avg. 6.5 .175

2. The two service aces—1 each for Madi Bugg and Meghan McGehee—were a wash, but it was encouraging, because Stanford’s 116 aces on the season doesn’t even put them in the top 50 teams, although they have a high .929 serving percentage. What helps is that opponents have only earned 87 aces on them. They normally are a very good receiving team.

3. Stanford was only slightly better on blocks, eight versus Utah’s six, but outscoring is good and here were two more points toward the 75 required.

4. The last three categories of scoring I call gifts. Basically, you are benefitting, for the most part, from mistakes the other team makes. While normally it’s more blessed to give than to receive, in competitive volleyball you want to keep those gifts coming. Utah made eleven more attack errors than Stanford. They hit the ball into the net or hit it long, wide, or outside, or hit the net as they attacked. Needless to say, without these attack errors, the score would have been much closer.

(Note: For the purposes of my chart I deduct blocks from attack errors so that we can see the value of blocking.)

What was extraordinary in this game is how few errors Stanford made. While Utah made 14 mistakes on attack, Stanford did it only three times. Remarkable. As I recall there was a bad set, which accounts for the ball handling error. And while Stanford missed their serve nine times, Utah did six times. Nearly a wash, but this was a bit of a harbinger, I think, as Stanford had eleven service errors against Washington.

While it’s great to earn points from the mistakes of others, you can’t really count on that, can you? It’s not really a coaching strategy to say, “Hey, gang, we can win this game if they make a lot of mistakes and let us win!” You can, however, keep a team off balance and out of system so that they make mistakes.

One of the complexities I enjoy about volleyball is the fact that when you talk about how a volleyball team plays, you really are talking about how six volleyball teams play. As the teams rotate and/or players are subbed in and out, you get very different teams on the court. I tried to map this out based on the recent game with Colorado, but I think Stanford has been fairly consistent with their rotations. (“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”) I probably need to go back and look at this with fresh eyes because Rotation 5 didn’t always make sense—it wasn’t clear to me where Madi Bugg was playing. I’m still trying to get a handle on rotations. (And Stanford’s is one of the simpler ones, I think.) But this is how it looked to me:

Stanford Volleyball Rotations

Four players are on the court throughout the match: Madi Bugg, setter; Jordan Burgess, outside hitter; Brittany Howard, outside hitter; and Morgan Boukather, opposite hitter.

Kyle Gilbert, libero, is on the court most of the time, but when Inky Ajanakou comes off the floor, she does too, briefly, to let Megan McGehee serve. If Megan loses her serve, Gilbert comes right back in. The middle blockers, Inky Ajanakou and Merete Lutz basically take turns. One of them is always in the front row.

One of the things you want to analyze as a coach (or someone with apparently too much time on their hands), is how well do these rotations do versus the other team. My unfact-checked notes say that the rotations with Morgan Boukather and Madi Bugg serving were each five points better than their Utah counterparts. Meghan McGehee (Stanford’s best server) and Kyle Gilbert’s serving rotations were each up three points. The serving rotations of Brittany Howard and Jordan Burgess were up just one point. You can’t really complain about anything there, though. Each Stanford rotation was better than Utah’s.

I don’t know exactly to do with this information, but apparently Washington Coach Jim McLaughlin did.

A Concerning Loss

The match versus Washington was going to be a good test for Stanford. There were a number of things in play. Washington had recently experienced two embarassing losses, which ended their hopes for an undefeated season. Instead of two undefeated and top-ranked teams going at what could have been a national championship of sorts, Stanford was taking on a team that was probably more than a little mad and hungry, playing at home with 8,646 fans, “the largest crowd ever at a Pac-12 venue.”

Stanford and Washington are very different teams. While Stanford is about balanced scoring from multiple threats, Washington unapologetically rides the efforts of their superstar, Krista Vansant. Look at the end of season stats for the top five scorers for these two teams:

Stanford Top 5 kills Washington Top 5 kills
Inky Ajanakou 383 Krista Vansant 512
Jordan Burgess 342 Kaleigh Nelson 262
Morgan Boukather 265 Tia Scambray 242
Merete Lutz 256 Lianne Sybeldon 195
Brittany Howard 228 Melanie Wade 152

No one player on Stanford comes close to Vansant’s scoring, but I imagine for each coach it’s all about getting the most kills in the most efficient way possible. Dunning likes to work his middles (Ajanakou and Lutz) and move out, McLaughlin uses his outside force of nature as much as he can (nearly two times more than his next most productive hitter).

While the two teams have different styles of play, it seemed like the two teams were pretty evenly matched. Through November 23, Stanford was hitting 14.8 kills per set at .317 efficiency to Washington’s 14.1 at .313.

When they played, however, they didn’t look like evenly matched teams. Washington finished the match with 60 kills at .331 efficiency while Stanford had 52 kills at .265. Stanford outblocked Washington 10-6, but then Washington had nine service aces to Stanford’s four.

Mike Hebert in Thinking Volleyball says that as a coach you need to listen to the match. This means volleyball matches will have a certain character to them. Broadly speaking, you can have two teams play well against each other. One team will eke out a win, though it could have gone the other way. You can also have two teams play poorly against each other, also resulting in a potentially close win. The third kind of match is how this one felt: one team (Washington, in this case) plays well while the other (Stanford) doesn’t.

I was happy to see Stanford come out of the break to win the third set. (I wish I had recorded the game so that I could try and figure out what, if any, adjustments Stanford made.) They had a bit of momentum into the fourth set, but then Washington took over again.

Stanford Washington
Offense
-8 52 Kills 60
-5 4 Aces 9
Defense
+4 10 Blocks 6
Gifts from Opp.
-5 6 Attack Errors (Less Blocks) 11
Opponent Ball Handling Errors
+1 12 Opponent Service Errors 11
84 TOTAL 97

I was pretty distracted by work while it was on, but it seemed like Washington did three things to make this a tough night for Stanford:

1. Hard, difficult-to-handle serves, especially from Cassie Strickland. (Interestingly, though, when you look at the stats with the emotion of the game in the past, Washington’s serving wasn’t that much better. With one more service error than Stanford, the five-point differential on aces is only a four-point advantage, although in the moment it felt like Washington’s service game was just so much better.)

2. Lots of dinking over the big Stanford block to earn kills—Stanford, playing deep for big hits, was scrambling to pick up frequent chip shots.

3. Targeted double-blocks against Stanford’s middle attack, especially Inky Ajanakou.

In the end, when you don’t score as much as your opponent and make more errors than your opponent, you don’t win.

I am certain that Stanford is not a team of emotional lightweights, rattled by this game as they head into the postseason. I see this game as a kind of refining fire. Morgan Boukather after the record-tying 27th win on 21 November made this comment to The Stanford Daily: “Our record is perfect, but our play is not perfect… We have to get so much better to be where we need to be.” This discouraging loss proved the point.

A Troubling Win

Stanford California
Offense
+11 45 Kills 34
+3 3 Aces 0
Defense
+3 6 Blocks 3
Gifts from Opp.
+11 18 Attack Errors (Less Blocks) 7
Opponent Ball Handling Errors
-2 2 Opponent Service Errors 4
76 TOTAL 48

Rather than try to follow rotations, for Stanford’s final game against Cal I kept a simple tally of how scores were made for both teams. I divided a page in two and wrote down points as they accrued for each side, with an accompanying note for how each point was earned. I was happy to see Stanford win their final game of the regular season, but there were two things that were concerning about this match:

1. The slow start. It was rough. On the positive side, Stanford was true to their style of play with the first four kills delivered by three players, including their two middle blockers: Merete Lutz (1), Inky Ajanakou (2), and Jordan Burgess (1).

But out of their first seven points, three came from Cal errors, one blocking and two service. And with a 7-7 tie, Cal scored three in a row before Coach Dunning took a time out. Out of their first ten points, Cal had six on kills and four on attack errors by Stanford.

The great thing is that Stanford turned it around. Mike Hebert says every team needs a closer and Stanford has one in Jordan Burgess. She brought in half of their last ten points to close out the set. (Inky Ajanakou brought the hammer in to close out the second set.) But it seems like your top-ranked team in the Pac-12 should be more dominant out of the gate against the team with the second-worst record.

In contrast, I watched Penn State play Nebraska last night. Micha Hancock started strong with fierce game face and back-to-back aces. It’s a remarkable serve. It unsettled Nebraska right from the start and they could never really get back into the match.

(Aside: Is it me or is the Big 10 a little more severe in demeanor than the Pac-12? Could be the weather.)

2. The lack of extra attack points. In the second set, out of Stanford’s first thirteen points, eight were Cal hitting errors. Defense certainly played a role in those hitting errors, but it seems strange to be so dependent on your opponent’s poor play.

45 points off attacks puts Stanford too close to their average of 14.7 kills/set. I suppose you take the points as they come—a win is a win, after all—but you’d think your attack should be better, not just average, against a lesser team.

Epilogue

Well, the regular season has ended for Stanford. This evening we learned that Stanford is seeded #1 for the tournament.

As the postseason was being announced on ESPNU, Coach Dunning was interviewed by phone. He said something like, “The team that keeps getting better has the best chance of winning.”

After an incredible 29-1 season, here’s to what I hope will be a 6-0 NCAA championship run for Stanford. One game at a time, though. And here’s to getting better for this coming game, Friday, 5 December 2014 at 7:00 pm as Stanford (#1) takes on Cal State Bakersfield.