Stanford Women’s Volleyball | Looking Back and Forward

by Glenn on August 15, 2019

The NCAA Women’s Volleyball season begins soon. It’s a three-act play:

Act I: Pre-Conference. Figuring things out with your team and setting the stage for the main action that follows.*
Act II: The Conference Season. League play, the goal of which is to be one of the 64 teams that earn a place into Act III.**
Act III: Post-Season Tournament. Win or you’re out (single elimination) and just one team wins it all.

I am a fan of the Stanford Cardinal.

Last year was a phenomenal season for them, ending with the National Championship, the second in three years. They lost only one match last year, a 5-set battle with Brigham Young University in pre-season play. There was both symmetry and redemption to the season as Stanford met BYU again in the tournament and this time it was a three-set blow-out for Stanford, although you are tempted to place an “*” next to this win because one of BYU’s best players suffered a season-ending injury near the end of league play. You certainly don’t wish ill for other players. While you want your team to win, the more satisfactory win is against a great and not an ailing team.

Last December’s National Championship match is (currently) available online:

There is a kind of unwarranted triumphalism that can be associated with “the defending national champions”, whoever they might be.

One of the hard things about sports is that that it doesn’t matter what kind of victory you have, at the end of the day it’s all binary—there’s a winner and a loser, no matter how close the contest. In the case of NCAA Division I volleyball, there is one National Champion and (in 2018) more than three hundred losers. This is the nature of sports.

The problem is the championship match was very close. When I watched it again, recently, I was impressed by how perilous the whole things was. In the end, one point overall separated these two teams.

Stanford Nebraska
Game 1 28 26
Game 2 22 25
Game 3 25 16
Game 4 15 25
Game 5 15 12
Total 105 104

What was intriguing about the match was the pattern of the five games. We had two competitive games (1 and 2), two blow-outs (3 and 4), and then the final edge to Stanford.

I’ve found two assessments of the match which were helpful: one by Alan Reifman and another by Joe Trinsey.

A couple of factors helped Stanford overcome Nebraska. One, Stanford exhibits a preternatural calm on the court. You can see some anxiety in individual players from moment to moment, but you don’t see it as a team. As far as on-court emotion, the approach seems to be not too high, not too low. And their coach, Kevin Hambly, is not a screamer.

Second, Stanford appeared to be the better team that night. Arguably, the best player on the court that night did not play for Stanford. It was Michaela Foecke from Nebraska, who was unbelievable. But while Stanford may not have had the best player on the court that night (Stanford’s two-time National Player-of-the-year, Kathryn Plummer, had a very slow start and never dominated the match the way she can) they didn’t appear to have the weakest player on the court that night. This was, in my opinion, Nebraska’s Lexi Sun, who struggled on both offense and defense.

I don’t know if this a true maxim, but based on this match, you might say that to win a volleyball match you don’t necessarily have to have the best player, but you don’t want the worst player, either. Or perhaps another way to think about it was that Stanford was simply the better team that night. But you can’t get too carried away with any of this. They won, but as noted just barely.

There was one close call near the end of the fifth set. A Stanford serve was called out. Stanford challenged the call and after review it was ruled in giving Stanford match point. I thought the ball was in, but it may be that I was influenced by being a Stanford fan.

In the aftermath of Deflategate, I remember hearing studies that said that you thought Tom Brady was guilty or not based on whether or not you were a Patriots fan. As I recall, it was roughly an inverse relationship. In other words, most non-Patriots fans think Brady cheated where most Patriots fans think he didn’t. The conclusion was that our perceptions are biased.

This could be possible, here. The one thing we know for certain is that volleyballs do flatten when they hit the ground. And if any part of the volleyball touches the line, it’s considered in. It appeared to me that the ball flattened and hit the line. What I see in the still image is that the white leather of the ball is blending in with the line. Therefore, the ball is in. Still, that was just one point, although it certainly would have tightened things up at the end of the deciding game for the match.

You might have been tempted to think that Nebraska, with its six losses heading into this match, was an inferior team. During the season they had lost to teams that were ranked higher than them, but then they faced and prevailed against two of them—Minnesota and Illinois—during the tournament. When you compare the seasons of the two teams, Stanford obviously had the better record and, similarly, was more efficient with more three-game matches.

Stanford Nebraska
3-game matches 22 17
4-game matches 10 13
5-game matches 3 6
season record 34-1 29-7

It’s only fair to say that in 2018, the B1G Conference appeared to be more competitive than the Pac-12. Nebraska finished fourth in their conference, tied with Wisconsin with five conference losses. Two other teams, Minnesota and Illinois, had better conference records. Meanwhile, Stanford dominated their competition in the Pac-12, finishing the season with a perfect conference record of 20-0. Their nearest competitors were Oregon and USC, both with seven conference losses.

The question for this championship match was which team was more prepared. Was it better to have faced more longer matches during the season or do those longer matches begin to wear on you? I’m not sure this is an easy question to answer. I think the fear for Stanford was that since they hadn’t been tested as much as Nebraska, would they fold under the pressure.

For me, the championship match was won on service aces and Holly Campbell. Both teams had eight service errors, but Stanford had nine aces to Nebraska’s two. That seemed to make the difference in the first set. Campbell had a good freshman season, hitting .292, but she was an attacking machine in this match  with a .483 efficiency. Perhaps Nebraska was so focused on Kathryn Plummer that they allowed this freshman to have a spectacular night.

There was a hunger in Stanford to get back to the finals. Their final four loss to Florida in 2017 was disappointing, to say the least. For the players it stung enough to drive them not to let it happen again. I wonder if Plummer’s less-than-stellar performance in this year’s final will push her to want to get back to the championship, not for the team glory so much as for personal redemption?

Stanford is the odds-on favorite to win again this year. Of the nine players who played in last year’s final, eight are back this year:

Jenna Gray | Setter
Audriana Fitzmorris | Opposite
Kathryn Plummer | Outside Hitter
Meghan McClure | Outside Hitter
Tami Alade | Middle Blocker
Holly Campbell | Middle Blocker
Morgan Hentz | Libero

Kate Formico | Defensive Specialist
Sidney Wilson | Serving Specialist

Tami Alade was graduated and will not be back with the team this fall. In the meantime, Stanford has picked up some remarkable new students. Madeleine Gates, a graduate student who transferred from UCLA with one year of eligibility remaining, could easily replace Tammy Alade, who was an excellent blocker but was less of an offensive threat because she didn’t have a slide attack. Gates was very solid with UCLA last year averaging almost 9 kills per match at .313 and nearly 4 blocks per match.

It gets better. Stanford may have the number one recruiting class this fall.

This means that there will be plenty of competition for playing time as well as game preparation. I feel hopeful and am hoping that this remarkable group, including the four seniors (Gray, Plummer, Fitzmorris, and Hentz) who in 2016, as freshman, also won the National Championship, will do it again this year. 3 out of 4 wouldn’t be bad?

But it’s not that easy, is it? You won, but it wasn’t like the other teams didn’t try. And the problem about being king of the hill is that everyone is trying to take you out.

The thing I love about Stanford athletes is that they are not just superb players but they are bright students. The greatest athlete in high school can’t get into Stanford without a solid academic performance. I suspect there may be some allowances for Stanford athletes in terms of academic performance as compared to the general student population at Stanford, but not so much. Here are these athletes who are in the top percentile in both athleticism and intelligence (or, at least academic work ethic). That’s something worth seeing and celebrating.

Much will be made of the fact that Stanford is the reigning National Champion. But there’s enough parity in sports that there is no guarantee that Stanford will outlast the others again. On the one hand it does seem possible that they can. If they don’t, it does appear that it’s a highly finite number of teams that could.

Over the last fifteen years only six teams have won the National Championship (source: here): Penn State (6 times), Stanford (3), Nebraska (3), Texas (1), UCLA (1), Washington (1). Here are the top four teams (based on tournament results) from the last fifteen years:

Year Champion 2nd Place Semi-Finalist Semi-Finalist
2018 Stanford Nebraska BYU Illinois
2017 Nebraska Florida Penn State Stanford
2016 Stanford Texas Minnesota Nebraska
2015 Nebraska Texas Kansas Minnesota
2014 Penn State BYU Stanford Texas
2013 Penn State Wisconsin Texas Washington
2012 Texas Oregon Michigan Penn State
2011 UCLA Illinois Florida State USC
2010 Penn State California Texas USC
2009 Penn State Texas Hawa'i Minnesota
2008 Penn State Stanford Nebraska Texas
2007 Penn State Stanford California USC
2006 Nebraska Stanford UCLA Washington
2005 Washington Nebraska Santa Clara Tennessee
2004 Stanford Minnesota USC Washington

These are elite programs in college volleyball.

There is intense competition to win it all, but for the most part this competition has been limited to a handful of teams. In the last fifteen years, out of 336 teams in NCAA Division I volleyball, only 1.8% have won the National Championship. Penn State, Nebraska, or Stanford have won 80% of the time.

Thirteen teams have played for the National Championship. That is 3.9% of the total teams. In the last fifteen years, Penn State, Nebraska, or Stanford have competed 70% of the time. Just 20 of the 336 teams, or 6% have made it to the Final Four.

Which is why we celebrate winning from two perspectives: first, the odds of winning are so small; but second, a handful of teams routinely do it.

I do like Stanford’s opportunities this fall. They are in a great position to repeat. But injuries can happen. God forbid. And every other team in the nation would like to bump Stanford off their throne.

The Stanford Volleyball Season begins on the road, Friday, 30 August 2019 at 4pm (PT) at College of Charleston.

____________________

*There seem to be a couple of ideas about pre-conference play. One idea is that teams from distinguished programs (stronger teams) will often play teams of less renown (weaker teams). This, arguably, helps both teams. The stronger team benefits from an easier opponent early on. They can ease into their season and not have to expend as much energy while still assessing their ability to perform under pressure. The weaker team benefits by seeing really strong competition early in the year and gaining valuable help to their Rating Percentage Index (RPI). See here and here regarding RPI in Volleyball. But these contests can be lop-sided.

The other idea for pre-season is that you find opponents who will challenge you. What do you do if you are a team from a distinguished program? You attempt to find other distinguished teams.

This year, Stanford is looking to challenge themselves with elite teams. Their opening two matches are against weaker, but not weak opponents. Though unranked, they are according to RPI, top 20% teams. And the rest of their pre-season contests are against the best 5%, including the No. 2, 3, and 4 teams according to the AVCA pre-season poll. This will be trial by fire.

Stanford Pre-Season Contests
College of Charleston (63 RPI for 2018)
Duke (44 RPI for 2018)
Florida (18 RPI for 2018 | No. 10 in AVCA poll)
Texas (3 RPI for 2018 | No. 4 in AVCA poll)
Penn St. (12 RPI for 2018 | No. 8 in AVCA poll)
Minnesota (4 RPI for 2018 | No. 3 in AVCA poll)
Nebraska (11 RPI for 2018 | No. 2 in AVCA poll)
Brigham Young University (5 RPI for 2018 | No. 9 in AVCA poll)

 

**64 teams participate in the post-season tournament. There are two ways to get in. The winners of each of the 32 leagues enter the tournament automatically. Depending on the league this is accomplished either by league record or a tournament at the end of league play. The remaining 32 spots are “at-large” teams chosen by the tournament committee to participate in the tournament.

ACC | Pitt, Duke, Syracuse, Florida St., Louisville
America East | Stony Brook
American | UCF, Cincinnati
Atlantic Sun | Florida Gulf Coast
Atlantic 10 | Dayton
Big 12 | Texas, Baylor
Big East | Creighton, Marquette
Big Ten (B1G) | Minnesota, Nebraska, Penn St., Purdue, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin
Big Sky | Northern Arizona
Big South | High Point
Big West | Cal Poly, Hawaii
CAA | Hofstra
C-USA | Rice
Horizon | Green Bay
Ivy League | Yale
MAC | Eastern Michigan
MAAC | Iona
MEAC | Howard
MVC |Northern Iowa, Illinois State
MWC | Colorado St.
NEC | Bryant
OVC | Murray St.
Pac-12 | Stanford, Washington St., Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, USC
Patriot | Navy
SEC |Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, South Carolina, Florida
SoCon | Samford, East Tennessee State
Southland | Stephen F. Austin
Summit League | South Dakota, Denver
Sun Belt | Texas St.
SWAC | Alabama St.
WAC | New Mexico State
WCC | BYU, Loyola Marymount, Saint Mary’s, San Diego, Pepperdine

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