by Deb Kniffin
NOTABLE NEWS: The unseeded BYU Cougars pulled off a pair of upsets and punched their ticket to the 2015 NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championships being held December 18 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Good jumping gee willikers.
REGIONAL RECAP: I batted .500 in my regional predictions. Upsets and heading into the final weekend of play, my record is 66-38 (scroll down to bottom of article for recaps).
Texas vs. BYU
Thursday, December 18 @ 7:00 PM ET
Texas and BYU have met just 15 times in program history. The all-time series record slants in BYU’s favor (9-6), but Texas has won the two latest matchups (2001 and 2008). Going into this NCAA Semifinals matchup, they’re the better team this season, both on paper and in practice. But the underrated Cougars proved they don’t just hang with top-tier programs; they beat them in big moments. I’ve got no idea what to expect from this one. I know what my gut tells me. But my gut also told me BYU would get smashed way before reaching the Final Four.
Record: 27-2 overall, 15-1 in conference
Conference: Big 12
This weekend, the Longhorns will compete in their third-consecutive NCAA Semifinals. As a program, they boast 10 Final Four berths, including six in the last seven years. Can you say dominant? The Longhorns’ all-star cast is led by Haley Eckerman (Sr., OH) and Khat Bell (Sr., MH/OH). They’re physical hitters that contact the ball well above the tape and know how to swing for points. In addition to their power-packed offense, Texas has another point-scoring tool in their arsenal. Their defense doesn’t just provide opportunity for additional swings. Their defense scores points directly. Against North Carolina, Chiaka Ogbogu (So., MH) and Molly McCage (Jr., MH) combined for 13 blocks.
Record: 29-4 overall, 16-2 in conference
Conference: West Coast
The Cougars advance to their second-ever NCAA Semifinals (the last trip was in 1993). BYU competes in an okay-but-not-great conference and subsequently flew largely under-the-radar all season. Yes, they were ranked. But no one (including me) really had them in the conversation of potential semifinals squads. I’ve described them as sneaky good in the past. As they prepare to compete on college volleyball’s biggest stage, I’d say they’ve officially graduated out of the sneaky phase. Jennifer Hamson (Sr., OPP) lends her cannon of an arm and 6-7 frame to the cause—she’s killing it on offense and tearing it up behind he service line. Her counterpart, Alexa Gray (Jr., OH), contributes a solid chunk of offense as well. Like Texas, BYU can score points with their block—Amy Boswell (So., MH), Hamson and Whitney Young (So., MH) have amassed 1.67, 1.35 and 1.92 blocks per set this season. The Cougars actually lead the nation with a collective 3.87 blocks per set.
Like I said, these are two very proficient blocking teams. While Texas is traditionally considered one of the most physical teams in the nation, BYU has the size to keep up with and potentially neutralize the high-flying Longhorns. Texas has very few chinks in the armor, but they do exist (note: Oklahoma and Florida)—mainly in the form of chemistry and composure. BYU will need their unabashed confidence, why-not-us attitude and nothing-to-lose mentality soundly in place if they hope to expose these chinks. It’s tough to say whether that’ll be present when they run into the semifinal-savvy Longhorns. If it is, BYU could play with reckless abandon, start strong, rattle Texas and extend the match to extra sets (I see no scenario where they sweep). If BYU does all that and throws in some career-best performances, it will put them in position to pose the upset, but it doesn’t guarantee an outcome. Texas is that good. And if BYU doesn’t come out with all guns blazing, the match could quickly get away from them.
My Pick: Texas in five
Stanford vs. Penn State
Thursday, December 18 @ 9:30 PM ET
These top-10 programs faced off during pre-conference play, and Stanford claimed the five-set victory. But Penn State had a slow start to the season. They’ve gotten progressively better over the course of the season and are playing really high-level volleyball right now. Stanford has not gotten worse this season, but they didn’t significantly improve over the course of the season either. In fact, they started showing signs of mortality toward the end of Pac-12 play. I expect this match to be even tighter than the pre-conference bout. That’s saying something.
Record: 33-1 overall, 19-1 in conference
This year marks Stanford’s 19th trip to the NCAA Semifinals, most recently advancing in 2008. The Cardinal claimed the title in 2004 and will look to repeat history ten years later. Stanford spent most of the 2014 season ranked No. 1 in the nation. Stanford—led by lights-out hitters Inky Ajanaku (Jr., MH) and Jordan Burgess (Jr., OH)—is one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country (ranked No. 3 behind Penn State and Florida). This is just a savvy team. Yes, they’re big. Yes, they touch high. Yes, they scramble in the back row. But more importantly, they make volleyball plays.
Record: 34-3 overall, 18-2 in conference
Conference: Big Ten
The defending national champions know what it takes to win. As they’ve improved and hit their stride throughout conference play, they’ve sharpened their skills and subsequently figured out a ton of ways to score points. They’re deadly serving and efficient offense top the charts nationally. Micha Hancock (Sr., S) is a key player in that success—she set her team to a .348 hitting efficiency and produced 124 service aces this season. A fierce competitor, Hancock shined in last season’s title match. I expect her to really lead her squad this weekend. She’s got the pieces to succeed—Ali Frantti (Fr., OH) and Aiyana Whitney (RS Jr., OH) are more than capable of carrying the offense, while Dominique Gonzales (Sr., DS) holds her own in the back row.
This matchup will add fire to the season-long debate over which conference reigns supreme in 2014. Early-on, the Pac-12 seemed to boast the best volleyball. In the NCAA tournament, more Pac-12 teams made the cut (though Purdue should have made the cut over some of them in my opinion). But when the field whittled down to 16 teams, the conferences were equally represented. With just one team left standing from each conference, bragging rights are on the line in addition to a championship berth. I doubt that dynamic is on either team’s mind right now, though. So. Moving on. While they’ve got size and athleticism, neither team really scores points with their block. Expect both teams to bury some balls on offense. I think that this is a great matchup—these teams are ridiculous on offense, volleyball savvy, experienced in big moments, okay at blocking and scrappy on defense. I think if Penn State gets Stanford into longer rallies and knocks them out of rhythm with their serving, they’re in good shape to win.
My Pick: Penn State in five (and probably extra points).
Last week recap:
My Pick: Stanford def. Oregon State in four
Reality: Stanford def. Oregon State in four
Recap: This one went exactly as expected. Stanford continues to look like a championship program as they head into the final stretch.
My Pick: Illinois def. Florida in five
Reality: Florida def. Illinois in five
Recap: The No. 8 Gators and No. 9 Illini were as evenly matched as expected--Illinois didn’t fall till 16-14 in the fifth set. What a match.
*****Elite 8: Stanford def. Florida in three
My Pick: Washington def. Nebraska in five
Reality: Nebraska def. Washington in four
Recap: Injury played a role in this upset. I feel for Krista Vansant & Co. They had the talent to win it all, but unfortunately talent isn’t the only factor at play when it comes to winning the final match of the season.
My Pick: Florida State def. BYU in four
Reality: BYU def. Florida State in four
Recap: BYU’s “why not us” approach to postseason play apparently paid off. They played fearless volleyball. Florida State crumpled under the pressure.
*****Elite 8: BYU def. Nebraska in three
My Pick: Penn State def. UCLA in four
Reality: Penn State def. UCLA in three
Recap: This Penn State team is playing like they’ve got a title to defend. They barely missed a beat against a very strong UCLA squad.
My Pick: Wisconsin def. Ohio State in three
Reality: Wisconsin def. Ohio State in five
Recap: Wisconsin chalked up two authoritative wins over Ohio State during conference play but lost their composure last weekend and barely escaped with the win.
*****Elite 8: Penn State def. Wisconsin in four
My Pick: Oregon def. North Carolina in five
Reality: North Carolina def. Oregon in four
Recap: Seniors Chaniel Nelson (OPP), Ece Taner (L) and Lauren McAdoo (OH) weren’t ready for the Tar Heel’s history season to end. And they played like it.
My Pick: Texas def. Colorado State in three
Reality: Texas def. Colorado State in three
Recap: The Longhorns blazed through their first three playoff matches without dropping a set.
*****Elite 8: Texas def. North Carolina in four