Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Deb's Top-5: Who can slow down the Badgers?

by Deb Kniffin

Noteworthy: Things are heating up down in Texas. And for once, we aren’t talking about the weather (or the Longhorns). Texas A&M has strung together five straight wins, including a win over No. 6 USC and culminating with an upset over No. 13-ranked San Diego.

Top-5 Recap:

My Pick: Hawai’i def. UCLA in five
Reality: UCLA def. Hawaii in three

My Pick: Kansas def. American in three
Reality: Kansas def. American in four

My Pick: San Diego def. Texas A&M in three
Reality: Texas A&M def. San Diego in four

My Pick: Texas def. Arizona in three
Reality: Texas def. Arizona in three

My Pick: Stanford def. Duke in four
Reality: Stanford def. Duke in four

Last Week’s Record: 3-2
Overall Record: 6-4

No. 4 Wisconsin vs. No. 10 USC
Thursday, September 18 - 5:30pm PT
TV: Pac-12 Networks

The Badgers haven’t slowed down since their post-season run last year that landed them in the national championship match. The Trojans are coming off a rough weekend, having fallen to then-No. 10 Florida and unranked Texas A&M. They butt heads on neutral court this week.

Record: 8-0
Conference: Big Ten

This is a feisty, personality-packed squad. Courtney Thomas (Sr., OH) and Ellen Chapman (Sr., OH) lead Wisconsin’s hitters. They both have a swing-for-the fence, get-it-done demeanor. Lauren Carlini (So., S) runs the Badgers’ 5-1 offense, but contributes one kill and three digs per set as well and leads the team in aces. She is as good, if not better, than everyone predicted during her prep career. Taylor Morey (Jr., L) finally got her shot and took over the roll of starting libero this season. Apparently not one to squander an opportunity, she has been doing a really nice job and has definitely earned her keep.

Record: 6-2
Conference: Pac-12

The Trojans are running a 6-2 offensive system, showcasing their plethora of talented, physical hitters. Surprisingly, newcomer Lauryn Gillis (Fr., OH) isn’t just in the mix of offensive options. She has taken the second-most swings and tallied the second-most kills of any player. Leading the way is Samantha Bricio (Jr., OH), which isn’t surprising. Both outsides spin all six rotations and contribute on defense as well.

USC runs a 6-2. Wisconsin runs a 5-1. USC has the advantage of three front-row attack options at all times, which is great for them because they have tons of firepower and two solid setters. Wisconsin has the advantage of one person driving the boat (read: consistency), which is great for them because Carlini is a more-than-able driver and wills that team to win. While there is no “right” offensive system, I do think Wisconsin runs theirs better. 5-1 for the win in this one.

My Pick: Wisconsin in five

No. 2 Texas @ No. 9 Nebraska
Saturday, September 20

Last season, these former Big 12 rivals met for the first time since Nebraska left the conference and joined the Big Ten in 2011. They sparred twice; one meeting was planned (pre-conference) and one wasn't (NCAA tournament). Both times, Texas was the victor. In this third meeting as cross-conference foes, Nebraska will have home-court advantage.
Record: 7-0
Conference: Big 12

The Longhorns are running a 5-1 offensive system featuring Nicole Dalton (So., S). Making the most of her physical front line, Dalton literally uses every single hitter. Five hitters—Haley Eckerman (Sr., OH), Amy Neal (Jr., OH), Khat Bell (Sr., MH/OH), Molly McCage (Jr., MH) and Victoria Pillar (Jr., OH)—have all notched 35-plus kills this season, while two—Chiaka Ogbogu (So., MH) and Paullina Prieto Cerame (So., OH)—have contributed 31 and 27 respectively.  As if seven guns blazing weren’t tricky enough to defend, the team is collectively hitting .307, leaving opponents without any obvious commit block options. 

Record: 7-2
Conference: Big Ten

Nebraska runs a 5-1 offensive system with Mary Pollmiller (Sr., S). The transfer has been an incredible grounding force for this wet Cornhuskers squad. She’s fluid and has control over the court, making it much easier for young players to acclimate and thrive. Her go-to hitters are Kelsey Fien (Jr., OH) and the Rolfzen twins, Kadie (So., OH) and Amber (So., OH).  All other hitters would fall into the “roll player” category, but do a nice job of staying low-error/consistent and step up when needed.

Both teams are physical, both serve aggressively, both play scrappy defense. Despite the fact both of these teams have huge pin hitters, I think this match will be won on defense and middle play.  The pin hitters will score points. But the pin hitters on the side of a middle that’s also converting, and subsequently drawing blocks, will score more points. That being said, solid defense will be needed to run an adequate amount of middle to establish that attack option.

My Pick: Texas in five

Iowa @ Iowa State
Saturday, September 20
TV: Cyclones.TV

Iowa Athletics
I have three reasons for selecting this matchup, two of which are personal. First, Iowa Head Coach Bond Shymansky left a successful Marquette University program (after putting them on the map) to take on the struggling Big Ten bottom dwellers this season. He already led the team to an 8-2 record, with the two losses coming to now-ranked programs. Obviously interested in following this program. Second, I played for Iowa State, and the Cyclone/Hawkeye rivalry is a lifelong investment. Third, My sister plays for Illinois (#12), thus Iowa is on the “never lose to” list.

Record: 8-2
Conference: Big Ten

The Hawkeyes are off to an impressive start behind the standout offensive play of Alex Lovell (Sr., OH). She carries a ton of the offensive load and stays in for all six rotations. Iowa’s 6-2 offense features Alyssa Klostermann (So., S) and Kaylee Smith (Fr., S). Strong defense at the net (compliments of Mikaela Gunderson’s 36 blocks) and in the back row (compliments of Michelle Fugarino’s 150 digs) give the Hawkeyes sturdy legs to stand on as they build and mold this squad.

Iowa State
Record: 5-3
Conference: Big 12

The Cyclones are off to a slower start than the Hawkeyes, but have shown flashes of their potential early this season. Suzanne Horner runs the 5-1 offense, and funnels most balls to outside hitters Ciara Capezio (So., OH) and Victoria Hurtt (Sr., OH). These two play a very different game. Capezio’s offense is hot-and-cold, whereas Hurtt is a little bit steadier.  Defensively, Capezio does a nice job in the back row but struggles blocking, whereas Hurtt is a significantly stronger blocker but plays virtually no back row.

This is an in-state rivalry match that is played every season as part of the Cy-Hawk series. Hilton Coliseum will be hopping with fans, making it a very imposing environment for the traveling Hawkeyes. I think Iowa will compete with Iowa State, but I don’t think they’ve reached the level where they can beat them. This match next year: different story. Looking at things right now, though, Capezio may be hot-and-cold, but that means she can get hot. That gives the Cyclones two terminal outsides to Iowa’s one terminal outside. I also think that the Cyclones best Iowa defensively.

My Pick: Iowa State in four

Utah @ No. 12 BYU 
Friday, September 19

Utah heads into this in-state rivalry match on an impressive nine-match winning streak, while BYU is already off to a strong start this season and living up to their No. 12 ranking. The Cougars haven’t lost to the Utes since 2010, but last year’s five-set battle nearly ended BYU’s winning streak. 

Record: 9-0

Utah is besting teams in every stat category: they are out-scoring, out-setting, out-serving and out-blocking opponents. Their 6-2 offensive system is run by Kalee Kirby (Sr., S) and Kendal Cygan (Jr., S). Go-to outside—Chelsey Schofield (Sr., OH)—is clipping a .277 hitting efficiency, which is pretty good for a player that’s fed almost every set.  Defense is a team effort for the Utes as seven players have notched 30 + digs so far this season.
Record: 7-2
Conference: West Coast

Camry Willardson (Jr., S) runs the Cougars’ 5-1 offensive system, and her go-to hitter Jennifer Hamson (Sr., OPP) has already notched 112 kills. That’s two times the number of kills tallied by any other hitter. Hamson also serves tough and blocks aggressively, making her a cornerstone player on this BYU squad. The Cougars are consistently besting opponents at the net this season with 115 total blocks compared to their opponent’s 60.5 total blocks. Amy Boswell (So., MH) leads that charge with 54 blocks.

This one will be interesting. I’d be inclined to say BYU will blow it out of the water, but Utah gave BYU a run for their money last season and return many of the same players. Both teams are good at defense: the Utes are strong back row, while BYU is strong at the net. The Utes create a lot of opportunities to make shots and are used to taking lots of swings before scoring. That patience will be necessary against BYU’s strong block. I think Hamson will find ways to score despite the Utes defense, whereas Schofield might struggle against a bigger block than she’s used to seeing.

My Pick: BYU in five

Missouri @ Miami-FL
Saturday, September 20

If you recall, Missouri went on a ridiculous winning streak last season. Though not off to quite the start they had last year, the Tigers are on a four-match winning streak heading into this contest. Miami-FL has potential this season, but isn’t performing at a consistent level yet and has suffered some “oops” losses.

Record: 8-4
Conference: SEC

The Tigers run a 6-2 offensive system, but don’t distribute the ball at all. Emily Wilson (Sr., OH) is Missouri’s second go-to hitter. Though Wilson has taken 139 fewer swings than kills-leader Carly Kan (So., OH), she is much more terminal. She’s just 35 kills behind Kan and clips a .285 hitting efficiency compared to Kan’s .210.  Missouri’s biggest strength so far this season is their blocking. Six players have tallied double-digit blocks with middles Emily Thater (So., MH) and Whitney Little (Sr., MH) collectively accumulating 91.

Record: 5-4
Conference: ACC

Haley Templeton (Fr., S) runs the 5-1 offensive system and has led Miami-FL to a .249 hitting efficiency this season. Savanah Leaf (Sr., OH) most sets and Emani Sims (Sr., MH) are the heart and soul of this squad. Leaf leads in kills and boast a .248 hitting efficiency, leads in digs and is third in blocks.  Sims is one of the team’s more effective hitters (.413), is third in kills and leads in blocks. Between these two, they keep the Hurricanes rolling.

Both of these teams have a dominant outside hitter. And both have a hitter that is set way too often (given their offensive production). For Missouri, it’s Kan; for Miami-FL, it’s Kelsie Groot (RS So., OH). I think this match will be a battle of the over-set hitters. Whichever can put together a decent outing, find ways to score and stay low error will give their team the edge. I think Missouri’s supporting cast is stronger, and will give Kan a platform from which she can potentially go off.

My Pick: Missouri in three

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Deb's Top-5: New Teams Crack the Top-25

by Deb Kniffin

Noteworthy: Two previously unranked teams earned spots on the AVCA Coaches’ Poll this week. Kansas entered at No. 24 after stringing together four nice wins over quality programs, while UCLA entered at No. 25 after knocking off Illinois (then No. 9).

Top-5 Recap: Despite missing two picks last week, North Carolina’s victory over Michigan State was the only outcome that really surprised me.  I didn’t think North Carolina had a chance, whereas the Penn State/Stanford match was expected to be a slugfest. 

My Pick: Florida State def. Florida in four
Reality: Florida State def. Florida in five

My Pick: Michigan State def. North Carolina in three
Reality: North Carolina def. Michigan State in three

My Pick: Penn State def. Stanford in four
Reality: Stanford def. Penn State in five

My Pick: Washington def. BYU in four
Reality: Washington def. BYU in five

My Pick: Wisconsin def. Colorado State in four
Reality: Wisconsin def. Colorado State in three

Last Week’s Record: 3-2
Overall Record: 3-2

No. 24 UCLA @ No. 22 Hawai’i
Friday, September 12 - 7:30 pm
TV:  OC Sports (Channel 16)
Radio: ESPN AM 1420

UCLA and Hawai'i will have their work cut out for them at the Outrigger Resorts Volleyball Challenge. All four teams attending boast top-100 Pablo rankings (No. 11 Hawai’i, No. 25 UCLA, No. 66 Utah State and No. 72 San Francisco). We will quickly see how the rebuilding process is going for Hawai’i and if UCLA deserves their newly earned No. 25 slot on the AVCA Top-25 Coaches’ Poll.

Record: 3-2
Conference: Pac-12

Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week Karsta Lowe (Sr., OH) is without question the driving force and key to success for this Bruin squad. Her arsenal of shots makes her tricky to defend, and she can terminate from the front and back row alike. In addition to leading the team in kills and aces, she is third on the team in digs and second in blocks. Julie Consani (Sr., S), who sets the Bruins’ 5-1 offensive system, has set Lowe 70 more times than any other player this season, and for good reason. Lowe can flat out play volleyball.

UCLA Athletics
Record: 4-2
Conference: Big West  

Taylor Higgins (So., S) runs the Rainbow Wahine’s 5-1 offensive system and sets most balls to Olivia Magill (Jr., MH), Tai Manu-Olevao (Jr., OH) and Kalei Greeley (Fr., OH)   The three have combined for over half of Hawaii’s kills this season. Magill is also Hawaii’s top blocker with 36 so far on the season. Fellow middle Kalei Adolpho (Sr., MH) has tabbed 24. Sarah Mendoza (Sr., L) leads the defensive efforts with her 92 digs. 

The Matchup
It’ll be interesting to see how things develop at the net. Hawai’i is a much stronger blocking team than UCLA and has a number of offensive weapons at their disposal. I think Hawai’i will likely commit blockers on Lowe and try to force UCLA’s other hitters to step up and make plays. On the flip side, I think UCLA will try to use their tough serve to keep Magill from taking too many swings from the middle. Containing Magill allows UCLA’s blockers and defenders to focus on Hawaii’s terminal outsides. If Hawai’i can slow down Lowe, contain the other Bruin attackers and pass well enough to run some middle, I think this one is theirs.

My Pick: Hawai’i in five

No. 25 Kansas vs. American
Saturday, Sept 13 - 10 am

Last year, American earned the program’s first-ever NCAA tournament appearance and advanced to the Sweet 16 with wins over Georgia and Duke. Talk about a Cinderella story. They failed their first two legitimate tests of the season, falling to Marquette and Florida State, but will have a shot to redeem themselves this week. For Kansas, this duel caps off a grueling four-match week. If the Jayhawks can power through and take care of business, they should maintain their top-25 rank.

Record: 5-1
Conference: Big 12

Frank Weirich/KANSAN
The Jayhawks run a 5-1 offensive system with Ainise Havili (Fr., S). High-scoring outsides—Chelsea Albers (Sr., OH) and Sara McClinton (Sr., OH)—and efficient middles—Kayla Cheadle (Fr., MH) and either Janae Hall (So., MH) or Tayler Soucie (So., MH) give Havili plenty of offensive options. Cheadle has chalked up almost half of the team’s 51 blocks with 24, and Cassie Wait paces the defense behind the ten-foot line. 

Record: 3-2
Conference: Patriot

American runs a 5-1 offensive system and has an interesting dilemma, which is probably contributing to their inability to compete with top teams so far this season. Monika Smidova (Sr., S) sets a lot of balls to Allison Cappellino (Jr., OH), who is hitting .194 so far this season. Sarah Katz (Jr., OH) and Kelly McCaddin (Sr., MH) are taking the third and fourth-most swings and clipping .362 and .386 hitting efficiencies (respectively). Maybe Cappellino is just taking awhile to get going this season and truly should be the go-to. Maybe passing and defense is forcing sets to the outside. Either way, I think a shift in the total-attempts stat line or Cappellino’s hitting percentage is necessary for American to start winning.

The Matchup
I think Kansas takes this match. American has a lot to figure out in terms of how to use their different players and maximize their impact. I think Kansas has enough firepower to score a lot of points, and I think their block will cause American serious headaches as they figure out go-to hitters, roles and how to efficiently score.

My Pick: Kansas in three

No. 13 San Diego vs. Texas A&M
Friday, September 12 - 6:30 pm

San Diego emerged as a legitimate program last season, and their squad has maintained momentum thus far in 2014.  Texas A&M continues to linger on the periphery of the top-25 rankings, as they have for the past few seasons. They are off to a strong start this year, despite an unexpected loss to a very medium Texas-San Antonio team. These two programs meet for the first time since 2008 on neutral court. Time to prove who deserves a number in front of their name.

San Diego
Record: 5-1
Conference: West Coast

USD Athletics
Jianna Bonomi (Sr., S) and Kristen Gengenbacher (Fr., S) share duties in the Toreros’ 6-2 offensive system. The upside of that particular system is that it allows for more offensive players to be on the court. San Diego takes full advantage of that and does a really nice job involving all their hitters. As a team, they are hitting .267. Other strengths are their defense and serving. Both are tenacious. Both are frustrating to opponents.

Texas A&M
Record: 5-1
Conference: SEC

Texas A&M runs a 5-1 offensive system with one of two setters: Kaysie Shebeneck (So., S) or Stephanie Aiple (Fr., S). Despite the fact that Angela Lowak leads the team in kills and total attempts, she’s actually not the Aggie’s grounding force on offense; she’s only producing a .166 hitting efficiency. When passing permits, Texas A&M’s crunch-time hitters are actually Shelby Sullivan (Jr., MH) and Emily Hardesty (So., OH). The problem is that passing doesn’t always permit.

I think that San Diego is the hands-down favorite in this matchup for good reason. They are efficient, they serve tough and they don’t let the ball drop. Texas A&M struggles to get balls to their most efficient hitters, which will prove more problematic than normal when up against tough serving and relentless defense. Unless Lowak has the night of her life or the Aggie’s defenders go off, I think San Diego takes this one.

My Pick: San Diego in three

No. 21 Arizona @ No. 2 Texas
Friday, September 12 - 7 pm
TV: Longhorn Network

These two teams have faced off just two times: once in 1999 and once in 2002. Both times, Arizona was the victor. That’s surprising given the current volleyball landscape where Texas reigns supreme. Will history repeat itself, or will Texas continue in their recent winning ways? 

Record: 6-0
Conference: Pac-12

I actually let out a gasp when I read Arizona’s stat line. Anyone who watches the Wildcats knows that Madi Kingdon (Sr., OH) is a fantastic player and an undeniable go-to player for Arizona. But she’s scored 40% of the Wildcat’s points, swung on 41% of their sets and maintained a .329 hitting efficiency. She’s way more than their backbone; she’s their heartbeat.  And she’s thudding away match after match.

Record: 4-0
Conference: Big 12

It’s another par-for-the-course year in Longhorn land. Texas is once again big, physical and experienced. Chloe Collins (So., S) and Nicole Dalton (So., S) set the Longhorns’ 6-2 offensive system and have led the team to a .314 hitting efficiency. For the most part, all hitters are engaged in the offense. Slightly more balls are set to pin hitters Victoria Pillar (So., OH) and Haley Eckerman (Sr., OH), but that’s normal since passing isn’t always conducive to running the middle.

Arizona is doing a lot of nice things this season [read: Kingdon is doing a lot of nice things this season]. I just don’t see them [read: her] overpowering Texas. Kingdon is good, but she doesn’t have the support around her it would take to topple this Texas dynasty. And, to critique strictly position-by-position, I don’t think she’s better or more physical than Pillar or Eckerman. All said, I’m going with Texas.

My Pick: Texas in three

No. 20 Duke @ No. 1 Stanford
Friday, September 12 - 7 pm

Duke is hot off a win over Michigan State and sits at No. 20 in this week’s poll, while Stanford took over the No. 1 spot after ousting Penn State and Illinois in a pair of five-set, Pac-12/Big Ten showdowns. As ridiculously good as Stanford is this season, there’s a reason the game is played. Duke has a shot at dethroning the Cardinal if all their cards fall perfectly into place.

Record: 5-1
Conference: ACC

Duke has risen above the competition in a couple main categories so far this season. They play tough defense paced by Sasha Karalov (So., L), they hit for a high efficiency thanks to the tag-team setting efforts of Kelsey Williams (Sr., S) and Maggie Deichmeister (Sr., S) and they make sure all their hitters are engaged and contributing. Basically, Duke plays system volleyball and plays it well. 

Stanford Daily
Record: 4-0
Conference: Pac-12

Madi Bugg  (Jr., S) sets the Cardinal’s 5-1 offensive system. All five hitters are used and are efficient at putting the ball away. Stanford is strong at every offensive position, and all five hitters take swings and execute at a high level. Jordan Burgess (Jr., OH) is a strong all-around player that contributes on both sides of the ten foot line. Where the Cardinal squad really stands out is their middle attack. Inky Ajanaku (Jr., MH) leads the team in kills (54), hitting efficiency (.474) and blocks (20).

These two teams have a lot of similarities. They use all their hitters, play tough defense and don’t make a lot of mistakes on offense, but I don’t think the similarities give Duke any type of edge. In fact, I think the opposite. They are similar, but Stanford out-talents Duke position-by-position. I think that will make it tough for Duke to hang with Stanford.

My Pick: Stanford in four

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Deb's Top-5: Previews + Predictions

by Deb Kniffin

Notable News: Nebraska was the only team of the five I previewed as potentialtrophy hoisters to walk away from opening weekend with a loss. Stanford, Penn State, Texas and USC all went undefeated. Nebraska dropped from a No. 7 ranking to a No. 12 ranking after falling to No. 13 Florida State (now clocking in at No. 8).

No. 11 Florida @ No. 8 Florida State
Thursday, September 4: 6pm ET
These in-state rivals have been butting heads since 1999. The Gators hold the decisive 14-2 overall record over the Seminoles. However, Florida State’s two career wins over Florida came in 2012 and 2013, and the Seminoles won the most recent contest—a five-set battle to reach the regional finals of the NCAA DI Women’s Volleyball Tournament.

Record:  3-0
Conference: SEC

Gabriella Nicholas / Alligator
The Gators are running a 5-1 offensive system with Mackenzie Dagostino (Jr., S). She is doing a nice job of involving all her hitters and distributing the ball, making it hard for opponents to key on any specific hitter. Subsequently, four Gators have tabbed 20 + kills and are averaging over two kills per set, including SEC Freshman of the Week Rhamat Alhassan (Fr., MH).

Florida State
Record:  2-0
Conference: ACC

The Seminoles are running a 6-2 offensive system again this season with Hailey Luke (So., S) and Sarah Wickstrom (Sr., S).  Nicole Walch (Jr., OH) currently leads the offensive charge, which is no surprise after her breakout sophomore campaign. Slightly surprising is the performance of Ohio University transfer Katie Horton (So., OH). She put together a nice debut weekend and is currently second on the team in kills and third on the team in blocks.

The Matchup
Florida State is outside heavy, while Florida is more balanced in their attack. A balanced attack can be a definite advantage, especially if at least one of the players can terminate and take over. It’s a little too early to see if any Gators are capable of consistently filling that role. Additionally, Florida State’s big match of the week is Florida. Florida’s big match of the week is Texas. That will dilute the Gators’ preparation, and potentially give the Seminoles the edge. Especially when paired with Florida State’s home-court advantage.

My Pick:  Florida State in four

No. 20 North Carolina @ No. 14 Michigan State
Friday, September 5: 7pm ET

Michigan State and North Carolina have sparred just two times, and the Spartans won both bouts. The most recent contest was in 2009, and the fifth set was decided at 15-9. It’s always fun to play new competition, especially at this elite top-20 level. These two teams will undoubtedly be fired up for the match and ready to put on a show.

North Carolina
Record:  2-1
Conference: ACC

North Carolina is running a 5-1 offensive system with Abigail Curry (So., S) and is led by a slew of returning players. Leigh Andrew (Jr., OH) and Lauren McAdoo (Sr., OH) and Chaniel Nelson (RS Sr., OPP) are currently North Carolina’s go-to hitters, making the Tar Heels incredibly strong at the pins. Ece Taner (Sr., L) is doing a nice job on defense. Victoria McPherson (Jr., MH) is leading the team in blocks from the middle. AVCA Honorable Mention All-American Paige Neuenfeldt (Jr., MH) is off to a slow start this season. I think when she starts clicking, this North Carolina squad has the capability of competing with the top teams in the nation.  Thus, she’s a key factor in this week’s match against the Spartans. 


Michigan State
Record:  4-0
Conference: Big Ten

This Michigan State squad is Y-O-U-N-G. Five underclassmen hold key rolls in the offense. The Spartans are running a 5-1 offensive system featuring Rachel Minarick (Fr., S). A quartet of underclassmen—Allyssah Fitterer (So., OPP), Holly Toliver (Fr., OH), Chloe Reinig (So., OH) and Alyssa Garvelink (Fr., MH)—currently pace the Spartans’ offense. Garvelink also leads the team in blocks. I’m excited to watch these four compete in a high-stakes, top-20 match and see what they’ve got in big moments. 

The Matchup
Michigan State has been rolling through teams this season, whereas North Carolina has already dropped a match (to No. 9 Illinois). That being said, the Spartans haven’t faced any legitimate competition heading into this match, while the Tar Heels have already faced two quality programs and top-10 competition. It’ll be a battle. Assuming Neuenfeldt takes another match or two to start producing at her usual level, I’m going with youth in this one.

My Pick:  Michigan State in three

No. 1 Penn State @ No. 2 Stanford
Friday, September 5: 6pm PT
TV: Pac-12 Networks

This face-off could very well be a preview of the 2014 NCAA Championship match. Penn State and Stanford are currently tabbed No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation. The match is being played on Stanford’s home court. Volleyball doesn’t get much better than this.

PSU Athletics
Penn State
Record: 3-0
Conference: Big Ten

Led by the potent play of Micha Hancock (Sr., S), arguably the best setter in the nation, the Nittany Lions are once again running a 5-1 offensive system. Ali Frantti (Fr., OH), Megan Courtney (Jr., OH) and Alyana Whitney (RS Jr., OH) are generating more than half of Penn State’s offense from the pins and are currently clipping .482, .500 and .395 hitting efficiencies respectively. That’s pretty impressive for a slew of outsides. Frantti and Courtney are also playing six rotations and doing a nice job on defense. Penn State is just a hard team to play and a hard team to beat. Their weak spots are few and far between.

Record: 2-0
Conference: Pac-12

Madi Bugg (Jr., S) is running Stanford’s 5-1 offensive system so far this season, while Kyle Gilbert (Sr., L) returns to the libero position. Jordan Burgess (Jr., OH) is getting set a lot of balls early on in the season and leads the team in kills, while Inky Ajanaku (Jr., MH) is posting big numbers from the middle with her .512 hitting efficiency and 10 blocks. With veteran players in these key positions, the Cardinal are already looking smooth and seasoned.

The Matchup
I don’t think I can bring myself to pick against Hancock. She’s a leader. She gets it done. She’s got more offensive options than Bugg, and she’s got a blistering jump serve. As a team, the Nittany Lions have posted 1.11 service aces per set compared to Stanford’s .67 service aces per set. I think that stat may be the deciding factor in this contest because tough serving will keep Stanford’s middles from firing on all cylinders. 

My Pick: Penn State in four

No. 5 Washington @ No. 10 BYU
Friday, September 5: 7pm MDT

This West Coast battle features two top-tier programs in Washington and BYU. Despite the fact these two historic programs are on the same half of the country, they’ve only played twice since 2001, with BYU claiming victory in both contests. I think things might go differently this time around.

Red Box Pictures
Record: 3-0
Conference: Pac-12

Washington is running a 6-2 offensive system with Katy Beals (Jr., S) and Bailey Tanner (RS Fr., OH/S).  Despite having six hitting options, the setters primarily channel the ball to outsides Kaleigh Nelson (Sr., OH) and Krista Vansant (Sr., OH).  The Huskies have thrived at the service line so far, out-acing opponents 16-8. Cassie Strickland (Sr., DS) leads the way with six service aces already this season.

Record: 3-0
Conference: Big West

BYU is running a 5-1 offensive system with Camry Willardson (Jr., S) and primarily using two hitters: Alexa Gray (Jr., OH) and Jennifer Hamson (Sr., OPP). They take most of the Cougars’ swings and lead all scorers. BYU appears to be a strong blocking team early in the season. Three players—Willardson, Whitney Young (So., MH) and Amy Boswell (So., MH) have all posted double-digit, and collectively, the team has out-blocked opponents 36-16.

The Matchup
Washington approaches this third meeting fresh off an impressive 2013 season and with the nation’s best player (Krista Vansant) on their roster.  And she isn’t even the top scorer for Washington so far this season. She and Nelson have 42 and 43 kills and are hitting for .434 and .514 efficiencies respectively. I think these two guns will find ways to score despite BYU’s dominant net presence.

My Pick: Washington in four

No. 4 Wisconsin @ No. 13 Colorado State
Saturday, September 6:  7pm MDT
TV: Mountain West Network

These two teams turned heads last season, so it’s fitting that they meet for the first time ever this weekend. Last season, Wisconsin earned its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2007 and advanced to the title match. Talk about storming back into national prominence. Colorado State quietly went undefeated for the majority of the 2013 season, finally falling to San Diego State in their second-to-last conference match.

Record: 3-0
Conference: Big Ten

Lauren Carlini (So., S), a contender for best setter in the nation along with Hancock of Penn State, runs the Badgers’ 5-1 offensive system. Most of Wisconsin’s offense is funneled through go-to hitter Ellen Chapman (Sr., OH), who leads the team in kills. The rest of the Badgers’ hitters are taking an even number of swings and producing similar offensive numbers, making for a relatively balanced attack. Taylor Morey (Jr., L) stepped into the libero role this season, and didn’t miss a beat. She earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week accolades last week and has notched 5.17 digs per set (31 total).

Greg Anderson/UW Athletic Communications

Colorado State
Record: 3-0
Conference: West Coast  

The team that didn’t lose last season is back to their winning ways in 2014. The Rams’ feisty setter—Deedra Foss (RS Sr., S)—returns to set their 5-1 offensive system. Her front line is currently averaging 14 kills per set and tabbing a .310 hitting efficiency. Apparently, she likes to take a few cracks at the ball herself. Foss has already amassed 12 kills this season on a .500 clip. She’s got a solid front row to work with and distributes her sets relatively evenly. Strong at the net, the Rams have out-blocked opponents 31-12, and Kelsey Snider (RS Sr., MH) has notched 1.56 blocks per set. 

The Matchup
I think that looking at these two teams position-by-position, Wisconsin holds the edge. Morey is passing really well, giving Carlini a lot of offensive options. I don’t think Colorado State will be able to slow down the Badgers’ hitters, and I don’t think Colorado State’s hitters have the firepower to consistently put balls away against Wisconsin’s physical front row.  The Badgers may take some time getting used to the altitude, but I think ultimately this one is theirs.

My Pick: Wisconsin in four