Stanford Volleyball: Two Down, Four to Go

by Glenn on December 7, 2014

Football is ubiquitous on television these days. It’s unavoidable. If it is a night of the week, somebody’s playing football, although I’ve noticed that we must be heading into a shoulder season because basketball now seems to be replacing it much of the time.

In a way, you can’t not follow football. It’s always on and as a nation we’re obsessed.

My appetite for football is pretty sated at this point. Teams that have no chance of winning must still compete, and while I can enjoy a well-played contest, how many injuries can you watch (both the obvious ones we see stop play as well as the more latent effects of brain-altering collisions that are a known, accepted, and, I believe, under-reported fact of football games) without feeling like you are complicit in the demise of another human being’s physical health (e.g. last weekend two players were hospitalized: Tennessee Titans’ Justin Hunter with a ruptured spleen and the Cleveland Browns’ Miles Austin with an injury to his kidney.)

My sport of choice, though certainly not because it’s easy to find, is NCAA women’s volleyball. If you want to watch volleyball, then you are searching for streaming opportunities because in spite of 8,000 satellite channels, not much of it is broadcast until the final games of a too-short season.

Volleyball is every bit as athletic and competitive and there’s an elegance to the sport that just isn’t there for me with football.

I know that volleyball players push their bodies hard and the sliding and rolling on the floor to keep balls in play has to take a toll. Yet somehow self-sacrifice feels more noble than plowing someone else into the ground. Volleyball is competing hard to earn a victory. Football seems like a battle of attrition. I’ve watched volleyball teams play matches two days in a row. Football? That would be cruel if it were even possible or advisable. Bodies can only absorb so much punishment.

Stanford Wins

Anyway, while most of the sports world is thinking about NFL playoffs and college bowl games, the NCAA Division I volleyball tournament, flying well beneath the radar, began this weekend. The no. 1 seed Cardinal has won two of the six it needs to become national champions. The Cardinal’s 2nd round playoff victory over Michigan State last night sends them to regionals in Ames, Iowa next weekend.

It was a great match if you’re a Stanford fan, although outside hitter Jordan Burgess, in a post-game interview, called it “a nail biter.”

After an initial 1-1 tie in the first set, Stanford led most of the way. There was a 16-16 tie later in the game but with Madi Bugg serving, Michigan St. made three hitting errors and trailed the rest of the way.

The second set was a little nerve-wracking. Down 11-8 Michigan St. scored four in a row (Kill Fitterer, hitting error Stanford, and two aces Michigan St.) putting them up 12-11. Stanford tied on a service error, then committed a service error of its own followed by a hitting error putting Michigan St. up 14-12. The two teams tied at 15 and then 16, but seven kills, one block, and a Michigan St. hitting error later, Stanford won the second set, 25-22.

Michigan St. came out of the interval hitting hard. At the television time out for Set 3 (not that you could find this game on an actual television—you had to stream it), they were up 15-7. They had ten kills, a block, and four points from  Stanford errors (one service and three hitting). Michigan St. had made three of its own errors but Stanford only had four kills. Michigan St. had simply outplayed Stanford.

Stanford dug deep, played aggressively, and had lovely 5- and 3-point point runs which got things close (17-15), but Michigan St. managed to stay out in front. By the end, I thought Michigan St. had lost the momentum of the set but Stanford ran out of time.

Following a Jordan Burgess kill to open the fourth set, Michigan St. committed a rotation violation. Any emotional lift they had gained from the previous set seemed to have been lost in that moment. While Michigan St. kept it close, Stanford never trailed in the fourth set, winning 25-23.

Here is how the two teams earned their points.

Stanford Michigan St.
-1 59 Kills 60
-3 4 Aces 7
+4 10 Blocks 6
Gifts from Opp.
+8 17 Attack Errors (Less Blocks) 9
2 Opponent Ball Handling Errors 2
-1 6 Opponent Service Errors 7
75 TOTAL 60

Obviously the offensive and defensive efforts cancelled each other out statistically. But I want to point out three critical factors to Stanford’s success last night which were keys to their phenomenal season (and, one hopes, will carry them to a championship):

1. They make fewer mistakes than their opponents. A few games ago, I found this troubling, like it was bad they were winning games because their opponents were making more mistakes than they were. It seemed too passive to include as part of an overall strategy. But there’s something to be said for and great value in playing error-free ball.

Here are some stats for the top five hitters for each team last night:

Michigan St. kills KEff Stanford kills KEff
Allyssah Fitterer 15 .343 Jordan Burgess 15 .324
Chloe Reinig 15 .070 Inky Ajanakou 13 .458
Alyssa Garvelink 13 .346 Brittany Howard 12 .281
Taylor Galloway 11 .154 Merete Lutz 10 .450
Jazmine White 5 .286 Morgan Boukather 8 .091
TOTAL 59 .234 TOTAL 58 .335

And so, yes, Stanford had one less kill than Michigan St., but they didn’t need more kills when they were so much more efficient. When your KEff is low, you kill yourself. And that’s what happened to Michigan St. last night.

2. Stanford’s middles are unbelievably powerful, both on offense and defense. The .458 from Inky Ajanakou and the .450 from Merete Lutz, meant there was always a front-row attack available that would work nearly half the time. These numbers are not one-game aberrations. On the season, these young ladies hit .440 and .447, respectively. Ajanakou was interviewed after the game. You can tell she had a good time playing last night. On defense, Ajanakou and Lutz were major parts of the ten Stanford blocks.

3. Volleyball is a simple game, really. A ball comes over the net, albeit usually at high velocity, and you have three hits (four if your team tips it as it comes over) to send it back over the net with either high velocity of your own and/or excellent placement. And it’s a routine. You try to do this every time. (This is what is called “playing in system.”) The first player to contact the ball is supposed to pass it to a predetermined location near the net where a setter (normally Madi Bugg for Stanford) sends it up for one of the hitters to send over the net.

What I noticed last night was how routinely and expertly Stanford was able to accomplish this. You have to be utterly fearless to dig some of the balls that come flying over the net. Kyle Gilbert, the libero, is great and had 12 digs last night. Morgan Boukather had 10. But what I noticed was Jordan Burgess and Brittany Howard, the two outside hitters who are positioned opposite of each other. One of them is always in the back row attempting to pass the ball to Madi Bugg. Last night Burgess had 18 digs and Brittany Howard had 10.

Burgess was phenomenal as a striker last night. Many of her hits had what has to be a deeply satisfying “pop” sound. And while that’s pretty exciting to watch (and hear), it only happens because of the two hits that come before it.

Stanford and Michigan St. both had 61 digs, which meant they were both working hard to keep the ball off the floor. I didn’t try to record the game, otherwise I could go back and check my hypothesis: Stanford passed better, which meant Bugg was able to set better, which meant Stanford’s hitters could be more efficient by .100.

Going Forward

Sixteen teams are left in the NCAA Division 1 volleyball playoffs. 328 Division I schools sponsor women’s volleyball. 64 teams made the playoffs. That’s 19.1%. If you play volleyball in Division I of the NCAA your odds of making the playoffs this year were just one in five.

This makes the Pac-12 pretty extraordinary. Ten of its teams made the final 64 and all of those made it through the first round. Of the 32 teams in the second round, nearly one in three was a Pac-12 school.

The second round saw the demise of five Pac-12 schools:
1. Arizona State lost to No. 2 seed Texas (3-0).
2. Colorado lost to No. 15 Colorado St. (3-2).
3. USC lost to No. 7 North Carolina (3-1).
4. No. 11 Arizona lost to BYU in an upset (3-1).
5. In an extraordinary five-set match, Utah lost to No. 14 Nebraska. (Utah lost the first two sets, then battled back. It was exciting to see at least part of this game. Utah was determined and resilient.) An article can be found here.

From 328 teams to 64 to 32 to 16—4.8% of the competitors are. These are the sixteen teams that are playing in regional matches next weekend that will determine our final four:

Ames, Iowa
Stanford (1) vs Oregon State
Illinois (9) vs. Florida (8)

Louisville, Kentucky
Penn State (5) vs. UCLA (12)
Ohio State vs. Wisconsin (4)

Minneapolis, Minnesota
Texas (2) vs. Colorado St. (15)
North Carolina (7) vs. Oregon (10)

Seattle, Washington
Florida St. (6) vs. BYU
Washington (3) vs. Nebraska (14)

It’s fascinating how predictive the seeding was. Of the sixteen seeded teams, 13 are still there. (Perhaps that home-court advantage is really significant for those seeded teams, although only ten seeded teams made it to regionals last year.)

Kansas (16) was eliminated by the University of Arkansas Little Rock in round 1 before being sent home by Oregon St. in round 2. BYU took out Arizona (11) and Ohio State took out Kentucky (13) in the second round.

The one thing about the regional matches that seems odd is one of the four teams has been given something of a home-court advantage since Washington gets to play in Seattle. If I were the Stanford, Texas, or Wisconsin coach, I might be a little bent out of shape.

Actually, I think the coaches that should be bent out of shape are BYU, Florida St., and Nebraska who will be on the road while Seattle more or less plays at home. At least with the other three regional contests, all the teams are dealing with the inconvenience of travel. Seems like a leveler playing field.

Traveling takes a toll, even, I have to believe, on college students. Here are the distances each team will be traveling (road mileage) to their regionals:

To Ames, Iowa from:

school mileage
Illinois 326
Florida 1262
Stanford 1867
Oregon State 1904
TOTAL 5359
AVG 1340

To Louisville, Kentucky from:

school mileage
Penn State 525
UCLA 2298
Ohio State 206
Wisconsin 444
TOTAL 3473
AVG 868

To Minneapolis, Minnesota from:

school mileage
Texas 1172
Colorado St. 892
North Carolina 1192
Oregon 1838
TOTAL 5094
AVG 1274

To Seattle, Washington from:

school mileage
Washington 0
Florida St. 2819
BYU 884
Nebraska 1678
TOTAL 5381
AVG 1345

In order of distance traveled:

school distance
Washington (3) 0
Ohio State 206
Illinois (9) 326
Wisconsin (4) 444
Penn State (5) 525
BYU 884
Colorado St. (15) 892
Texas (2) 1172
North Carolina (7) 1192
Florida (8) 1262
Nebraska (14) 1678
Oregon (10) 1838
Stanford (1) 1867
Oregon State 1904
UCLA 2298
Florida St. (6) 2819

 Stanford vs. Oregon St.

We saw Stanford beat Oregon St. 3-1 Halloween weekend and have no doubt they will perform as well again this coming weekend. Hmmm, they play at 3:00 pm this Friday on ESPN3. We’ll have to see about streaming this game at the shop. Not sure I can get away with closing early. After all, this isn’t a football game.