Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Deb's Top-5: Previews + Predictions

by Deb Kniffin

Noteworthy: Four undefeated programs sit atop the AVCA rankings for the second consecutive week—No. 1 Stanford, No. 2 Texas, No. 3 Washington and No. 4 Florida State. Every other team in this week’s top-10 has suffered a least one loss this season. Can anyone identify an undefeated team outside the top-10 rankings? 

Top-5 Recap:

My Pick: Lipscomb def. Florida Gulf Coast in three
Reality: Lipscomb def. Florida Gulf Coast in four

My Pick: UCLA def. Oregon State in four
Reality: UCLA def. Oregon State in five

My Pick: Ohio def. Ball State in three
Reality: Ohio def. Ball State in four

My Pick: Ohio State def. Purdue in five
Reality: Purdue def. Ohio State in five

My Pick: North Carolina def. Duke in four
Reality: North Carolina def. Duke in three

Last Week’s Record: 4-1
Overall Record: 23-12

There is an exciting match to watch every single day this week, starting with Nebraska vs. Minnesota on Wednesday and ending with Texas A&M vs. Kentucky on Sunday. Don’t miss this exciting week of volleyball! 

No. 14 Nebraska @ No. 25 Minnesota
Wednesday, October 22, 7:30pm ET
TV: Big Ten Network

Nebraska and Minnesota are both struggling. Now, I realize struggling is relative. An emerging program or mid-major program probably wouldn’t include winning records and top-25 rankings in their descriptions of a struggling season. But for these two annual powerhouses, their performances are disappointing at best. The Cornhuskers and Gophers will both attempt to redefine the course of their season with a strong showing on Wednesday.

Record: 11-6 overall, 5-3 in conference
Conference: Big Ten

The Cornhuskers run a 5-1 offensive system with Mary Pollmiller (Sr., S). Three primary hitters—Kadie Rolfzen (So., OH), Alicia Ostrander ( ) and Amber Rolfzen (So., OH)—lead the offense, with Kadie being the go-to in most situations. Justine Wong-Orantes (So., L) does an ample job playing defense behind a line of weak/inexperienced blockers.  

Gopher Athletics
Record: 13-6 overall, 3-5 in conference
Conference: Big Ten

The Gophers run a 5-1 offensive system with Katie Schau (So., S). All five hitters contribute, mainly because no hitter is consistent enough to lead the squad on their own. Daly Santana (Jr., OH) and Sarah Wilhite (So., OH) are set a ton of balls whether or not they are producing. The Gophers’ erratic back row performance makes it tough to consistently set the remaining three hitters when they are executing. Hannah Tapp (So., MH) and Paige Tapp (So., MH) redeem the defensive effort with their 1.38 and 1.31 blocks per set, respectively.

I think this match will be a turning point. Someone has to win. If it’s Minnesota, they’ll be instilled with the confidence they’ve lacked all season.  If it’s Nebraska, they’ll have learned how to rebound and respond to losses. These teams have similar struggles: neither plays great defense and neither terminates third contacts. 

Thus, I think the controllable factors will determine the outcome of this contest. Strong serving and passing will create more in-system opportunities to involve other players and remove pressure from the pins. I anticipate a ping-pong match, but I think Nebraska is slightly better in those two categories.

My Pick: Nebraska in four

Loyola Marymount @ No. 12 BYU
Thursday, October 23, 9pm ET

Loyola Marymount has not beaten BYU since 1999. This may be their year to finally topple the West Coast frontrunner considering Loyola Marymount has spent time in the top-25 and are beating other strong programs.
Loyola Marymount
Record: 17-3 overall, 5-3 in conference
Conference: West Coast

Loyola Marymount runs a 5-1 offensive system with veteran Hannah Tedrow (Jr., S). She’s led her team to a .289 hitting efficiency this season. Caitlin DeWitt (Sr., OH), Sarah Sponcil (Fr., OH) and Litara Keil (Jr., OH) are consistently terminal weapons and lead all scorers. Loyola Marymount is a strong blocking and serving team. Keil leads all players in those categories as well.

BYU Athletics
Record: 16-3 overall, 7-1 in conference
Conference: West Coast

Camry Willardson (Jr., S) runs the Cougars’ 5-1 offensive system. BYU is a very strong blocking team. Amy Boswell (So., MH), Jennifer Hamson (Sr., OPP) and Whitney Young (So., MH) are chalking up over 1.32 blocks per set.  Hamson also leads all scorers along with Alexa Gray (Jr., OH). The Cougars’ back row performance isn’t at the level of their net play, but it hasn’t gotten them into too much trouble this season. 

I think BYU will have their hands full with the balanced Loyola Marymount offense. Two reasons. First, Loyola Marymount has lots of players capable of putting the ball away. Despite being blocking savants, BYU isn’t used to that many weapons firing at once. It can confuse responsibilities and cause all sorts of problems. Two, Loyola Marymount is also a strong blocking team, so they are used to facing sizable blocks and finding ways to score every day in practice. If Loyola Marymount uses their tough serve to knock BYU into predictable offensive patterns, they’ll be in good position to post the upset. Problem is, that will be tough in the Cougars’ home gym given the altitude.

My Pick: BYU in five

No. 18 Arizona State @ No. 11 Oregon
Friday, October 24, 7pm ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks

These Pac-12 programs are two of teams in the AVCA top-25 ranking. They currently hold third place (Oregon) and sixth place (Arizona State) in the conference. 

Arizona State
Record: 14-6 overall, 4-4 in conference
Conference: Pac-12

The Sun Devils run a 5-1 offense with Blanca Arellano (Jr., S). Macey Gardner (Jr., OH) has emerged as Arizona State’s top hitter, but BreElle Bailey (So., OH), McKenzie Willey (So., OH) and are still set frequently and contribute a solid chunk of offense production. Mercedes Binns (Jr., MB ) has started to score more on offense in recent games, a nice complement to her existing defensive contributions—she leads all blockers.

Record: 15-3 overall, 5-3 in conference
Conference: Pac-12

Ashey (Sr., S) and Maggie Scott (Fr., S) continue to share setting duties in the Ducks’ 6-2 offensive system. Side note: Oregon is one of the only top programs running a 6-2. It is working well for them—the squad is collectively hitting .285. A balanced offense, lots of players see attempts each match. Liz Brenner (Sr., OH) and Martenne Bettendorf (Jr., OH) lead the charge. Amanda Benson (So., L) continues to compensate for the Ducks’ weak blocking, which is slowly improving as the season progresses. 

I think Arizona State will push Oregon—they have arms that can score points and decent defense—but I don’t think they will win. My reason is this: Arizona State and Oregon are very similar teams in terms of strengths and weaknesses (i.e. they are balanced on offense with one or two key hitters, they don’t block great and they play decent back row defense). Thus, they win matches in very similar ways (i.e. they win rallies and stay low error). They play very similar games. The problem for Arizona State is that Oregon plays the game better. The Ducks are a little bit more volleyball savvy and a little bit more physical. That’ll be the difference in this match.

My Pick: Oregon in four

Louisville @ Pittsburgh
Sunday, October 26

These two programs are worthy noting. Pittsburgh is drawing national attention and receiving votes in the AVCA poll, while Louisville is consistently competing with top programs (they beat Minnesota and hung with Florida State and Kentucky).  

Record: 13-7 overall, 5-3 in conference
Louisville Athletics
Conference: ACC

Katie George (Jr., S) sets the Cardinals’ 5-1 offensive system, and loves using the crafty arms of Maya McClendon (So., OH) and Janelle Jenkins (So., OH/MH). The duo combines for almost half of the team’s kills. Newcomer Tess Clark (Fr., MH/OPP) is mainly on the court for blocking purposes—she leads all players with 1.13 blocks per set—but she’s proven to be an efficient hitting option when used and has added a nice dimension to the offense.   Roxanne McVey (Jr., L) paces the Cardinals’ average-to-good (not great) back row performance.

Record: 17-2 overall, 5-1 in conference
Conference: ACC

Pittsburgh runs a 6-2 offensive system with setters Lindsey Zitzke (Sr., S) and Jenna Jacobson (Jr., S). They’ve led their squad to a .257 hitting efficiency this season and send most balls toward Jessica Wynn (Sr., OH) and Maria Genitsaridi (So., OH). Wynn and Genitsaridi spin all six rotations, adding consistency to the court and stabilizing the 6-2 offense. Pittsburgh relies on back row play—namely Delaney Clesen (Sr., L)—to pace their defensive efforts.

I think this match will be worth watching for a couple reasons. First, Pittsburgh has started to receive national attention. Head Coach Dan Fisher and his staff have done a nice job revamping the program, and the Panthers have started to receive national attention. Louisville is a program that’s been on the radar if not topping charts the past few seasons. Both teams have some arms. Consistency and third-contact termination and low-error decisions will be the key to winning this match. Pittsburgh has the edge in that realm as far as I’m concerned.

My Pick: Pittsburgh in four

No. 16 Kentucky @ No. 24 Texas A&M
Sunday, October 26, 12pm ET
TV: SEC Network

This is the second meeting of the season for these SEC foes. Thinking that this might be the year for Texas A&M to finally defeat Kentucky, I analyzed this matchup last time around. My prediction was wrong, but I was right about Texas A&M having a shot at victory this season. I know. I know. Kentucky swept A&M in straight sets. But the scores were really competitive. The final two frames were decided at 28-26 and 30-28.

Record: 17-3 overall, 7-1 in conference

Morgan Bergren (Jr., S) leads the Wildcats 5-1 offensive system and runs an outside-heavy offense featuring Shelby Workman (Jr., OH), Anni Thomasson (So., OH) and Lauren O’Conner (Sr., OH). Kentucky’s defense is steadily improving over the course of the season—Thomasson and Workman continue to stay in all six rotations, and their defensive production nicely compliments that of back row specialist Jackie Napper (Sr., L).

Texas A&M
Record: 9-3 overall, 1-0 in conference
Conference: SEC

Texas A&M runs a 5-1 offensive system with Stephanie Aiple (Fr., S). She took sole position of the role earlier this season and has led the Aggies to a respectable .251 hitting efficiency. A weak defensive team, Texas A&M is forced to set most balls to the pins—specifically Angela Lowak (Jr., OH). This is unfortunate, because their best performers are actually their middles, Jazzmin Babers (So., MH) and Shelby Sullivan (Jr., MH). In addition to providing consistent and efficient offensive production, Babers and Sullivan also contribute strong blocking.

Last time around, Kentucky did a great job siding out against Texas A&M. They stayed disciplined with their passing and created opportunities to take terminal swings. The Wildcats also stayed low-error in rallies and did a great job of staying patient until they could take a terminal swing.  Finally, they served Texas A&M off the court. The Aggies were aced nine times. That’s significant, especially in a match that was decided by extra points in two of three sets. Texas A&M kept the match close behind standout performances from both middles along with Lowak, who hit an uncharacteristic .476. Strong defense allowed for this to happen. If Texas A&M wants to squeak out a win this week, they’ll need to do a better job of containing Kentucky’s serve and block for points…along with doing all the things they did well the first time around. It’s possible, but probably not likely. I’d be floored if this was decided in straight sets again.

My Pick: Kentucky in five

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Deb's Top-5: The Battle for Tobacco Road

Noteworthy: The USA Volleyball Women’s National Team won gold at the FIVB World Championships. Subsequently, everyone is #Karching.

Top-5 Recap:

My Pick: West Virginia def. Oklahoma in four
Reality: Oklahoma def. West Virginia in four

My Pick: Ohio State def. Northwestern in five
Reality: Ohio State def. Northwestern in four

My Pick: Long Beach State def. Hawaii in four
Reality: Long Beach State def. Hawaii in four

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

My Pick: Creighton def. Seaton Hall in three
Reality: Seton Hall def. Creighton in five

Last Week’s Record: 3-2
Overall Record: 19-11

Lipscomb @ Florida Gulf Coast
Friday, October 17
TV: America One Sports, 6pm ET

Lipscomb has not lost to Florida Gulf Coast since 2008. That was a long time ago (as I wrote that line, I realized that 2008 was also my first year of college, and now I’m feeling old) (Editor's note: that's NOT old).  Anyway. I digress. The Eagles’ are looking strong so far this season and have yet to drop a conference match. They won’t go down to Lipscomb without a fight. At least, I don’t think they will.

Record: 11-6 overall, 5-0 in conference
Conference: Atlantic Sun

Lipscomb runs a 5-1 offense with Kayla Ostrom (So., S).  Her crunch-time hitters are outside Lauren Ford (Sr., OH) and middle Molly Spitnagle (Jr., MH). Brittay Estes (Jr., OH/OPP) also takes a lot of swings, but she isn’t terribly good at putting the ball away, especially when it matters. This team isn’t awesome at any one skill—their serving and blocking are both solid, not standout—but they don’t have any obvious holes either. They are effectively decent across the board, tough to beat.

Lipscomb Athletics

Florida Gulf Coast
Record: 11-7 overall, 5-0 in conference
Conference: Atlantic Sun

Gigi Meyer (Sr., S) runs the Eagles’ 5-1 offensive system. Masterful defensive play, paced by Whitey Masters (Sr., L), allows Florida Gulf Coast to run their most effective front-row weapon, Olivia Mesner (Sr., MH). When Mesner is able to take a lot of swings and score a lot of points, she frees up space along the net for her less-savvy outside counterparts—Eleonora Kazarian (Jr., OH), Jessica Barnes (RS Sr., OH) and Vanessa Benke (Jr., OH)—to experiment with shots and ways to put the ball down. This is not a strong blocking team—they instead rely on serving to slow down their opponents’ top hitters. 

Lipscomb and Florida Gulf Coast both feature upperclassmen-heavy rosters. That means these players are very familiar with the faces on both sides of the net. I think that gives an advantage to Lipscomb. First, history is on their side.  There’s a lot to be said for walking into battle with confidence in the outcome. Second, they are a better blocking team than Florida Gulf Coast. Their awareness of the Lady Bisons’ offensive flow and tendencies will only accentuate that factor. Aggressive serving from Lipscomb will seal the deal, as Florida Gulf Coast needs to be able to set the middle to win matches.

My Pick: Lipscomb in three

Oregon State @ No. 19 UCLA
Friday, October 17

UCLA caught my attention early on this season (along with the attention of every other college volleyball fan). But Oregon State has caught my attention in recent weeks. Not because they are doing anything that’s incredibly standout. They are losing to top-ranked teams and beating middle-of-the-road teams. They are just playing really aggressive volleyball—even in the losses and pushing some good programs. I think they are on the brink, and I definitely think they are worth watching, especially against this red-hot UCLA program.

Oregon State

Record: 13-4 overall, 3-3 in conference
Conference: Pac-12

Oregon State runs a 5-1 offensive system with Tayla Woods (RS Sr., S). All five of her starting hitters boast a .233 hitting efficiency or higher. Katelyn Driscoll (RS So., OH), Arica Nassar (Sr., MH), Laura Schaudt (RS Sr., OH) and Amanda Brown (Sr., MH) are set a similar amount all have between 107 and 127 kills. In her debut season, Mary-Kate Marshall (Fr., OH) has established herself the Beavers’ go-to hitter. She finds a way to put the ball down even though opposing blockers and defenders know she’ll be taking a lot of swings.  This team is solid on offense, but their biggest strength is their block. They’ve posted 2.83 per set as a squad (paced by Nassar’s 1.49 blocks per set).

Record: 12-5, 3-3 in conference
Conference: Pac-12

Karsta Lowe (RS SR., OH) started the season on fire and hasn’t cooled off at all in the first weeks of conference play. I think she’s actually picking up steam. She’s responsible for nearly 40% of the team’s kills and has maintained a .343 hitting efficiency. She’s UCLA’s primary weapon, but their works-in-progress are coming along nicely. Freshman Reily Buechler (Fr., OH, Under Armour All-American) and Olga Strantzali (Fr., OH) provide depth and variety to UCLA’s offense that didn’t exist earlier this season. Zoe Nightingale (Jr., MH, Under Armour All-American) rounds out this formidable front line with her blocking prowess.  This team is capable of executing every skill at a high level. Their loss to Colorado was a reminder that capability alone isn’t enough; consistent execution needs company.  

UCLA Athletics
These teams are both successful at the net. Their offense is solid, and their blocking is strong. I think they will effectively wash each other out in these two categories. Both will score points. Both will get big blocks. A bit more on that before I spell out my key-to-the-match: I think it would be a mistake to claim UCLA is better on offense than Oregon State. Lowe is a veteran standout and thus more recognizable, but Marshall is an emerging weapon. Moving on. The key to this one is the back row performance. Oregon State is not a strong passing or defending team, and their serving is just okay. Their hitters are good at scoring when there is opportunity, but their defenders aren’t great at providing that opportunity. UCLA is a strong passing and defending team, and their serving is more than okay. That tips the scale.

My Pick: UCLA in four

Ball State @ Ohio
Friday, October 17

Ball State had a bit of a rough start this season, but started pulling the pieces together a few weeks ago and playing better volleyball. They are currently on a four-match winning streak. Ohio navigated a tough pre-conference slate that featured losses to Hawaii, Arizona State, Texas A&M and Northwestern and a victory over now-ranked Ohio State. The Bobcats may have suffered a few losses, but they gained a ton of growth. They’re blazing through conference play and are currently on a seven-match winning streak.

Ball State Daily
Ball State
Record: 11-8 overall, 5-1 in conference
Conference: Mid American

Ball State runs a 5-1 offensive system with Jenna Spadafora (Jr., S).  Her setting decisions haven’t been the greatest this season, and her team is only clipping a .192 hitting efficiency. This is partially a function of Ball State’s below-average first touches, and partially a function of inefficient hitters in key roles, namely Sabrina Mangapora (RS Fr., OH) and Mackenzie Kitchel (RS So., OH). These two are set a lot of balls, but only produce .163 and .129 hitting efficiencies respectively. Kills leader Hayley Benson (RS Jr., MH/OPP) has been set with similar frequency, but produces a .354 hitting efficiency. Kelly Hopkins (RS Jr., MH/OPP), who is second on the team in kills with a .274 hitting efficiency, has started to see more sets thanks to improved passing/defense and setting decisions. Things are definitely moving in the right direction for Ball State.

Record: 13-4 overall, 6-0 in conference
Conference: Mid American

The Bobcats run a 5-1 offensive system with Abby Gilleland (Jr., S). Strong blocking and scrappy defense—cue Karin Bull (Jr., MH) and Meredith Ashy (Jr., L)—have set Ohio apart this season, allowing them to create long rallies and generate scoring opportunities. Top hitters Kelly Lamberti (Sr., OH) and Jaime Kosiorek (Fr., OH) are the key players on this developing Ohio squad. They are neither ridiculously productive nor terribly inefficient.  They are just steady. That applies to their hitting, blocking and serving alike. Lamberti’s influence extends to the back row, where she has notched the second-most digs on the team behind Ashy. 

I think both teams bring some heat when their best hitters are firing. The problem for Ball State will be getting the ball to their best hitters. Ohio is strong at the service line, which will make it hard for Ball State to set their middles. That will force their pin hitters to step up and find ways to score, which will be challenging given Ohio’s solid blocking and scrappy defense. I think Ball State has been figuring things out on defense, so we may see a better performance from the back row that results in more middle sets and a tighter match. But I don’t see this one falling the Cardinals’ way, no matter how good the back row play.  

My Pick: Ohio in three

No. 22 Ohio State @ No. 14 Purdue
Saturday, October 18
TV: BTN Plus, 7pm ET

Ohio State is on the brink. They’ve knocked off three top-25 programs (Northwestern, Illinois and Nebraska) in the past two weeks and are on a four-match winning streak in the Big Ten. That’s no easy feat. The Buckeyes will participate in their first match as a ranked program against another ranked program when they face Purdue on the Boilermakers’ home court.

Ohio State
Record: 13-5 overall, 4-2 in conference
Conference: Big Ten

Elizabeth Campbell (Jr., OH), Katie Mitchell (Jr., OH) and Erin Sekinger (Sr., OH) continue to shine in the Buckeyes’ 5-1 offensive system. They are so good at finding ways to put the ball down, and shine in out-of-system situations. Taylor Sherwin (Sr., S) does such a good job of maximizing each hitter’s effectiveness by creating good looks and situations in which they can swing for the fences. Taylor Sandbothe (So., MH) continues to score points at the net with her blocking and efficient hitting, and strong defense from Valerie Leon (So., L) makes this team-effort offense possible.

Record: 16-2 overall, 6-0 in conference
Conference: BigTen

Purdue Athletics
Val Nichol (Sr., S) continues to set the Boilermakers’ 5-1 offensive system. She loves to turn and swing when she is in the front row, which is reminiscent of her time as a hitter last season. She’s led her team to a .293 hitting efficiency this season and uses four of her five hitters as role players. Annie Drews (Jr., OH) continues to shine in her new go-to hitter role, taking the most swings and producing at a high level. The remaining hitters are used as role players; Nichols doesn’t force the ball to them, setting them all a similar number of times and reserving their attempts for situations in which she feels they can score.

I think this one comes down to the blocking and defense game. Both teams can score at the pins and in out-of-system situations, so perfect serve-receive passing isn’t needed, and siding out should happen pretty organically on both sides of the net. But the team that can extend rallies with scrappy defense and generate multiple opportunities to swing will be in good shape. On the flip side, strong blocking will thwart the opposing side’s attempt to create those long rallies. I think that both teams can play defense at a high level. I just don’t know how to pick against Leon when she’s been slowing down the likes of Nebraska and Illinois, when Purdue is still untested against Big 10 firepower.

My Pick: Ohio State in five

No. 11 North Carolina @ No. 21 Duke
Sunday, October 19
TV: ESPNU, 1:00pm ET

These two programs are competitive with each other every season, at least in recent memory (which is much more reliable thanks to Both teams head into this contest on winning streaks. North Carolina has strung together four wins, while Duke boasts an impressive nine consecutive victories. With streaks on the line, this should be an exciting contest to watch.

North Carolina
Record: 13-2, 4-1 in conference
Conference: ACC

Strong blocking, aggressive serving and steady defense characterize North Carolina’s 2014 squad. The Tar Heels are absolutely huge at the net: three players—Victoria McPherson (Jr., MH), Paige Neuenfeldt (Jr., MH) and Chaniel Nelson  (RS Sr., OPP)—have notched over one block per set this season. That’s a little bit ridiculous. In addition to blocking, aggressive serving and steady defense have set this squad apart.  Ece Taner (Sr., L) paces North Carolina in both of these categories.

Courtesy: Jeffrey A. Camarati

Record: 14-3 overall, 6-0 in conference
Conference: ACC

Kelsey Williams (Sr., S) has taken over sole setting responsibilities in the Blue Devils’ 6-2 offensive system. After starting the season in a 6-2, Duke has found consistency in this new offense with Williams is on the court all six rotations. A strong defensive team, the Blue Devils’ rely on Sasha Karalov (So., L) to keep them in-system. Outsides Jeme Obeime (Sr., OH) and Emily Sklar (Jr., OH) currently lead all scorers, but every hitter is used in Duke’s balanced offense.

North Carolina is looking good, especially now that Neuenfeldt is back to playing like her All-American self. I think that North Carolina’s blocking, serving and defense will complimentary be able to contain Dukes’ big hitters (Obeime and Sklar) and slow down their other hitters. The Tar Heels should be able to serve tough enough to create one or two-option scenarios for Duke’s setter, thus making it easier for their already-efficient blockers to get into a good position and shut down Dukes’ hitters. Taner should be able to handle anything that sneaks past the block.

My Pick: North Carolina in four

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Deb's Top-5 Predictions

by Deb Kniffin

Noteworthy: No. 3 Penn State fell to No. 8 Nebraska. Then No. 8 Nebraska fell to unranked Ohio State. Subsequently, Penn State has since dropped to No. 5, Nebraska has maintained their No. 8 ranking, and Ohio State received votes. This is further proof of parity in the Big Ten and across the board.

Top-5 Recap:

My Pick: Illinois def. Minnesota in four
Reality: Illinois def. Minnesota in three

My Pick: Stanford def. Oregon in three
Reality: Stanford def. Oregon in four

My Pick: Penn State def. Nebraska in four
Reality: Nebraska def. Penn State in four

My Pick: Texas A&M def. Kentucky in five
Reality: Kentucky def. Texas A&M in three

My Pick: Northern Iowa def. Wichita State in three
Reality: Northern Iowa def. Wichita State in four

Last Week’s Record: 3-2
Overall Record: 16-9

Oklahoma @ West Virginia
Wednesday, October 8
TV: Mountaineer TV Video Player

Since transitioning to the Big 12 in 2012, West Virginia has yet to defeat Oklahoma. As the Mountaineers continue to acclimate to the elevated level of play in their new conference, they continue to improve. They recently pushed No. 2-ranked Texas to five sets and boast a winning record thus far in 2014. Oklahoma, a program on the fringes of the top-25, is hanging with the best of them, but not beating the best of them. I will be court-side on Wednesday to watch these two developing programs spar in Morgantown.
Record: 11-4 overall, 2-0 Big 12

Julia Doyle (Jr., S) continues to run the Sooners’ 5-1 offensive system. Two of her hitters have earned Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week honors—Madison Ward (RS So., OH) and Kierra Holst (Jr., OH)—speaking to the well-rounded offense that has become Oklahoma’s staple this season. This is not a strong blocking team, but they make up for it at the service line. The three starting pin hitters—Ward, Holst and Kimmy Gardiner (So., OH)—have blasted 15 or more aces this season, and the team collectively out-aces opponents 83-66.

West Virginia
Record: 11-6 overall, 1-2 Big 12

The Mountaineers run a 5-1 offense with Lamprini Konstantinidou (Fr., S). She leads her squad to a .236 hitting efficiency. Six-rotation outside Jordan Anderson (So., OH) has been key to West Virginia’s success. She’s not just capable of putting the ball away; she’s capable of doing it consistently—note her 275 kills on 694 swings for a .259 hitting efficiency.  That’s huge for a developing program. Subsequently, other players are starting to shine in their roles, including Evyn McCoy (Sr., MH) and Nikki Attea (Jr., OPP). McCoy doesn’t do much on offense, but she’s notched a team-high 1.19 blocks per set along with 12 aces. Attea has developed into an effective pin hitter, notching the second-most kills and aces on the team, along with the third-most blocks.

The Matchup
I think Oklahoma is probably better than West Virginia position-by-position, but that doesn’t mean I think this match automatically goes their way. The Sooners aren’t a great team on the road historically, and I like the system that the Mountaineers are using this season that highlights their strengths and fits their personnel. I love a rounded offense, but there is something to be said for having an obvious go-player who gets it done even when everyone knows the ball is heading her way. It takes pressure off other players, which is awesome on a developing team where roles are being learned, boundaries are being pushed and players are exploring their potential. 

My Pick: West Virginia in four

No. 24 Northwestern @ Ohio State
Saturday, October 11
TV: Big Ten Network

These two programs traditionally haven’t drawn much national attention and hang out around the bottom of Big Ten rankings. However, that is all changing this season. Northwestern finally climbed into the top-25 rankings after defeating Minnesota last week, and Ohio State turned heads when they took down Nebraska. It’s fitting that these emerging programs face off a week after toppling the powerhouses.

Record: 13-2 overall, 3-1 Big Ten

Taylor Tashima (Fr., S) has set the Wildcats to a .273 hitting efficiency this season and relies on a trio of high-scoring, efficient pin hitters—Symone Abbott (Fr., OH), Kayla Morin (So., OH/OPP) and Yewande Akanbi (Sr., OH)—to lead the offensive charge. This team doesn’t put up a jaw-dropping block, and they don’t pick teams apart from the service line. They do play scrappy defense—paced by Caroline Niedospial (RS Jr., L)—and keep the ball alive. The longer the rally, the better they get.

Check out the highlights from Northwestern's victory over then-No. 18 Minnesota:

Ohio State
Record: 11-5 overall, 2-2 Big Ten

The Buckeyes’ recent hot streak has been nothing short of a team effort. Their three pin hitters—Elizabeth Campbell (Jr., OH), Katie Mitchell (Jr., OH) and Erin Sekinger (Sr., OH)—each tabbed 19 or more kills in the five-set victory over Nebraska. Taylor Sherwin (Sr., S) sets the team’s 5-1 offensive system and is a savant at creating good looks for her hitters—evidenced by five players with 100 plus kills on the season and the team’s collective .226 hitting efficiency. Taylor Sandbothe (So., MH) shines in the middle, leading the team in blocks and third on the team in kills. Her performance is a crucial part of this team’s success because she draws blockers and frees up space for the pins to swing away.

Shocking as it was, I don’t think Ohio State’s big win was a flash-in-the-pan thing. This team has the pieces to be a serious Big Ten contender. They block well and have capable pin hitters and an efficient, high-scoring middle. As long as their defense can keep up with the offensive firepower of their Big Ten opponents—and given the Nebraska match, I think it can— this Buckeye squad will start competing with (and beating) top teams down the stretch. Northwestern will provide a great test of that theory.

My Pick: Ohio State in five

No. 21 Hawai'i @ Long Beach State
Saturday, October 11

john ewalt / Ka Leo O Hawai‘i
Hawai'i has met expectations this season. They’ve beaten the teams they should beat (anyone not in the top-25 rotation) and lost to teams they should lose to (anyone in the top-25 rotation). Long Beach State falls into the same category. They’ve lost to top-25 teams and beaten everyone else. These two are currently atop the Big West rankings, so this match is huge.

Record: 12-3 overall, 4-0 Big West

Hawai'i continues to run a 5-1 offensive system with Taylor Higgins (So., S). When passing permits, Higgins loves to force the ball to dominant middle Olivia Magill (Jr., MH). That frees up heavy-armed outsides Tai Manu-Olevao (Jr., OH) and Kalei Greeley (Fr., OH) some space to swing and score. Given Hawai'i’s need to run a lot of middle, defense is critical to their success. Sarah Mendoza (Sr., L) does a nice job in that realm.

Long Beach State
Record: 13-4 overall, 3-0 Big West

Long Beach State runs a 5-1 offensive system with transfer Jenelle Hudson (Jr., S). They are led offensively by Alex Reid (Jr., OH). She’s a solid all-around player who spins six rotations and brings a lot of consistency to the court. Reid’s all-around consistency is complimented by the front-row prowess Bre Macke (Sr., OH). In my opinion, Macke is the player who takes over matches. She is terminal on offense and adds a team-high 1.20 blocks per set to the front line as well.

If Long Beach State can pass okay, craft smart shots that keeps Hawai'i out-of-system and block a lot of balls, they’ll win this battle. On the flip side, if Hawai'i can put together a strong defensive showing (both at the net and in the back row), keep their middle involved and capitalize on Long Beach State’s weak serving by passing nails and staying in-system, they will hold the upper hand. I think Long Beach State’s blocking, passing and shot making are strong enough to get the job done. If they can serve tough enough, this one is theirs.

My Pick: Long Beach State in four

No. 3 Washington @ No. 11 Oregon
Sunday, October 12
TV: Pac-12 Networks

Oregon heads into this Pac-12, top-25 bout with a 13-1 record. Their only loss was a four-set scramble with an unstoppable Stanford squad. Aside from besting two middle-of-the-pack Big Ten teams in pre-conference play (Michigan and Michigan State), Oregon hasn’t taken down any prestigious opponents. Washington, on the other hand, boasts a perfect record and has toppled the likes of BYU, Wisconsin, USC and UCLA. This is a big match for the Ducks as they look to prove the can beat the best, and a big match for Washington as they look to maintain their perfect record.

Red Box Pictures
Record: 15-0 overall, 4-0 Pac-12

The Huskies continue to dominate behind the play of Krista Vansant (Sr., OH). She has a slew of effective shots ranging from crafty, off-tempo attacks to hard-driven, heavy-armed attacks. Katy Beals (Jr., S) and Bailey Tanner (RS Fr., OH/S) share duties in Washington’s 6-2 offense. It’s not easy to keep a pulse on the flow of the match when you are only on the court half the time (as these two are). They appear unaffected by this variable and run a very smooth offense, characterized by a .341 team hitting efficiency and lots of sets to the pins.

Record: 12-1 overall, 3-1 Pac-12

Not much has changed since last week. The Ducks still run a 6-2 offensive system with Shellsy Ashey (Sr., S) and Maggie Scott (Fr., S). They still hit for a high efficiency as a squad (.295). They still spread the ball around and get a lot of hitters involved. Liz Brenner (Sr., OH) and Martenne Bettendorf (Jr., OH) are still the terminal attackers with their hard hits and smart shots. The Ducks still struggle blocking, and Amanda Benson (So., L) is still solid in the back row.

Oregon might have fallen to Stanford, but they did a lot of things really well and definitely didn’t roll over without a fight. They showed serious glimmers of what they were capable of as different hitters started generating offense—cue Kacey Nady (So., MH) and Serena Warner (Sr., MH).  I think this contest will come down to whether or not Oregon can stay in the match. Washington will score. A lot. There is no one on Oregon’s roster that can slow down Vansant. But Oregon is capable of scoring, too, as we saw against Stanford. If they can best Washington in the serve and pass game and generate kills from all their hitters, they have a legitimate shot. Unfortunately, I think consistency of Washington will prove frustrating for Oregon and their newly emerging offensive weapons will crumple under the pressure.

My Pick: Washington in five. 

Creighton @ Seton Hall
Friday, October 10

These two programs currently sit atop the conference rankings, each boasting a perfect 5-0 record. Creighton lost to Seton Hall at home and fell to them on the road, thus splitting their two meetings of the 2013 season. As these two fight to stay atop the conference, winning on the road against other elite teams will be crucial. This is a great test and reference point for both. 

Record: 12-6 overall, 5-0 Big East

Creighton is doing a lot of nice things this season, but I want to focus on their all-star.  Kelli Browning (Sr., MH) is absolutely one of my favorite mid-major program players to watch. She has a great volleyball IQ and does a lot of really nice things on the court that aren’t reflected in her impressive stat line. She sees the game really well, which means she isn’t just staying low-error on offense, she’s figuring out ways to put the ball down nearly half the time. Her court vision also makes her a top blocker. She gets high-quality touches and channels the ball to her defenders even when she isn’t chalking up stuff blocks. She does that, too, for the record; 1.29 per set to be exact.

Steven Branscombe
Seton Hall
Record: 15-3 overall, 5-0 Big East

Shelbey Manthorpe (Sr., S) sets the Pirates’ 5-1 offensive system. She sets a lot of balls to her sister, Stacey Manthorpe (Sr., OH/OPP), but also takes a ton of swings herself. I don’t mean a few. I mean a ton. She’s notched over 100 kills this season (1.66 per set). Stacey, despite being the most-set hitter, is a bit of a loose cannon. It is the consistent production of other hitters that keep this Seton Hall squad grounded and playing at a high level. A solid blocking team, Ashani Rubin (Sr., MH) and Amanda Hansen (Jr., MH) have tallied 1.28 and 1.17 blocks per set, respectively. For reference, more than one block per set is considered good in the power conferences.

Here’s the deal. Browning is ridiculously good, and her supporting cast does an admirable job of letting her shine and lead them to success. Their passing is crisp, and their setting is smart. Unless Seton Hall starts serving bullets at the international level, I think Creighton’s back-row will be able to handle whatever they send across the net, and Creighton will be able to pump a lot of balls to the middle. And I have no doubts Browning will be able to terminate. Add in her ability to stuff a lot of balls and frustrate Seton Halls’ already high-error, go-to outside (Manthorpe), and I think this one goes to Creighton. 

My Pick: Creighton in three

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Deb's Top-5: Previews + Predictions

by Deb Kniffin

Noteworthy: UCLA ousted UCS in an authoritative three-set victory. Most people didn’t see that coming. It was awesome. Karsta Lowe was a beast and subsequently earned her third consecutive Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week honor. And I would like to take this moment to gloat and pretend my gusty prediction was more than just a lucky shot-in-the-dark.

Top-5 Recap:

My Pick: UCLA def. USC in five
Reality: UCLA def. USC in three

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

My Pick: North Carolina def. Florida State in four
Reality: Florida State def. North Carolina in three

My Pick: Kansas def. Oklahoma in four
Reality: Oklahoma def. Kansas in five

My Pick: Purdue def. Michigan State in three
Reality: Purdue def. Michigan State in four

Last Week’s Record: 3-2
Overall Record: 13-7

No. 18 Minnesota @ No. 16 Illinois
Wednesday, October 1 at 6:30pm CT
TV: Big Ten Network

This match hits home for me. Here are the small-world reasons why.

Katie Stadick (my little sister) is a sophomore middle blocker for Illinois. Sarah Wilhite is a sophomore outside hitter for Minnesota. Our parents attended Wheaton College together (a small school in Chicagoland).

Katie’s club director at Milwaukee Sting was Colleen Houk. Colleen’s soon, Matt Houk, is the new assistant coach at Minnesota.

Allison Palmer is a setter for the Illini. Her older sister, Alexandra Palmer, was a setter at Minnesota from 2012-2013.

Small world, huh?

Record: 11-2 overall, 1-1 conference
Conference: Big Ten

Two Gopher setters have seen court time so far this season: transfer Erica Handley (So., S) and Katie Schau (So., S). In their latest matches, Schau seems to have gotten the nod. Santana Daly (Jr., OH) and Sarah Wilhite (So., OH) are the Gophers’ all-everything rock stars. Daly is their top hitter, top server and second-best defender. Her only weakness is blocking. Wilhite is their second-best hitter, second-best server, best defender and a strong blocker. These two win matches for the Gophers.

Record: 10-3 overall, 2-0 conference
Conference: Big Ten

The Illini run a 6-2 offensive system with Alexis Viliunas (Jr., S) and transfer Allison Palmer (So., S). A lot of balls are set to Jocelynn Birks (Jr., OH) and Liz McMahon (Sr., OPP). Birks has a really nice arm, and leads the team in both kills and aces. Defensively, newcomer Brandi Donnelly (Fr., L) has done a nice job keeping the Illini in-system and able to run their offense, while Anna Dorn (RS Sr., MH) and Katie Stadick (So. MH) are touching a lot of balls and have notched 50 and 52 blocks respectively this season.

This is a home match for the Illini. Their student section, the Spike Squad, really fuels the atmosphere. This makes home-court advantage, well, an actual advantage for the Illini. I think that environment will prove intimidating for Minnesota’s younger players and potentially throw them off their rhythm. A strong defensive showing by Donnelly should put the Illini in position to win this battle.

My Pick: Illinois in four

No. 11 Oregon @ No. 1 Stanford
Friday, October 3 at 7pm PT

Oregon and Stanford both boast perfect 12-0 records as of now, but only one squad will walk away from this Pac-12, top-25 showdown with that perfect record intact. The Ducks have not toppled the Cardinal since 2011 but have pushed them to extra sets in two of the last four meetings.

Record: 12-0 overall, 2-0 in conference
Conference: Pac-12

The Ducks run a 6-2 offensive system with Shellsy Ashey (Sr., S) and Maggie Scott (Fr., S). The duo has led their squad to an impressive .295 hitting efficiency. I would describe their offense as well rounded. Four players—Liz Brenner (Sr., OH), Martenne Bettendorf (Jr., OH), Frankie Shebby (Fr., OH) and Naya Crittenden (So., OPP)—have all contributed over 95 kills this season and taken a comparable number of swings. This team doesn’t put up a great block, but they dig a lot of balls—cue Amanda Benson (So., L) and her team-high 178 digs.

Record: 12-0 overall, 2-0 in conference
Conference: Pac-12

David Bernal,
Stanford is scary. That’s about all there is to it. They run a 5-1 offensive system with Madi Bugg (Jr., S), and all five hitters are capable of scoring points efficiently. In my opinion, their star player is Inky Ajanaku (Jr., MH). The girl can flat out play volleyball. She’s leading the team in kills and clipping a jaw-dropping .510 hitting efficiency as a middle (a testament to Stanford’s strong defensive play). And she’s blocking 1.4 balls per set, which is ridiculously good. I really can’t say enough about this girl. I am not trying to downplay Stanford’s slew of elite players. It’s just that Ajanaku is at a whole different level. 

I think this is the first season in awhile that Oregon could legitimately compete with Stanford. The problem is that this is the first season in awhile that Stanford could legitimately blaze their way to a national title. I think Ajanaku is more than most teams can handle, especially if their block isn’t great. Benson is good on defense, but I think that with four hitters firing at her and not much ball funneling going on at the net, she will struggle to keep balls off the floor. And we all know that letting balls hit the floor is not ideal in this game.

My Pick: Stanford in three

No.  3 Penn State @ No. 8 Nebraska
Friday, October 3 at 7pm CT
TV: Big Ten Network

Nebraska has already accumulated three losses this season, falling to Florida State, Stanford and Texas. That being said, they have yet to prove themselves against another top program this season. This match is their chance.

PSU Athletics
Penn State
Record: 14-1 overall, 2-0 in conference
Conference: Big Ten

The Nittany Lions continue to be propelled to success by all-star setter Micha Hancock (Sr., S). She just garnered her third-straight Big Ten Setter of the Week accolade, as well as Sports Imports/AVCA National Player of the Week. In addition to her usual setting and serving prowess, Hancock has started to terminate on second balls. She chalked up a career-high nine kills on 12 attempts against Wisconsin last week. If she’s on fire, her team wins. That’s about all there is to it.

Record: 8-3 overall, 2-0 in conference
Conference: Big Ten

The Cornhuskers run a 5-1 offensive system with Mary Pollmiller (Sr., S). Nebraska relies heavily on underclassman go-to hitter Kadie Rolfzen (So., OH). She leads all hitters, is second on the team in digs and puts up a solid block. She doesn’t play like an underclassman; she plays like a seasoned veteran. While not all hitters are set equally, they all produce at a high level. Collectively the team hits a .253 efficiency. 

I think that Nebraska will have a tough time pulling out this win. Position-by-position, Penn State is more talented and more experienced. And even if the Nittany Lions are not playing their best volleyball, Hancock is good enough that she can compensate for under-achieving teammates.  I think Penn State’s tough serving and slew of offensive weapons will be more than Nebraska can handle with their very average defense and blocking.

My Pick: Penn State in four

No. 21 Texas A&M @ No. 13 Kentucky
Sunday, October 5 at 6pm ET
TV: SEC Network

Since joining the SEC, Texas A&M has yet to topple Kentucky. In fact, three of four meetings have resulted in straight-set losses for the Aggies. This match is huge for Texas A&M as a program. Especially as they strive to solidify their top-25 slot.  

Texas A&M
Record: 9-3 overall, 1-0 in conference
Conference: SEC

Texas A&M runs a 5-1 offensive system with Stephanie Aiple (Fr., S; 2013 Under Armour All-American). A balanced offense features five players who have taken 200 or more swings so far this season (all of which have tabbed 80 or more kills). Throughout pre-conference play, Shelby Sullivan (Jr., MH) emerged as the Aggies’ go-to hitter. She’s athletic, smart and knows the game. Her specialty is crafting shots and making herself available. She’s hitting a .386 hitting efficiency and has tabbed 51 blocks, second only to fellow middle Jazzmin Babers (So., MH).

Record: 12-2 overall, 2-0 in conference

The Wildcats are best described as steady this season. They are led by a consistent setter—Morgan Bergren (Jr., S)— and have a handful of consistent, efficient hitters—such as Shelby Workman (Jr., OH), Anni Thomasson (So., OH) and Lauren O’Conner (Sr., OH). Sketchy serving and low blocking numbers are the kryptonite of this Kentucky squad. They don’t put up a strong block, and their service errors are a bit out of control.

Unfortunately for Kentucky, I think strong serving and blocking is key to success against this A&M squad. The Aggies rely on their middles, namely Sullivan, to score points. An aggressive serve could knock A&M out of system and keep them from running Sullivan, or a strong block could slow down Sullivan and contain her offensive production. But Kentucky has neither. That will prove problematic, despite the Wildcats’ ability to score points.

My Pick: Texas A&M in five

Wichita State @ Northern Iowa
Friday, October 3 at 7pm ET
These Missouri Valley squads may not be contending for titles, but they quietly make the NCAA Tournament most seasons. Wichita State is off to a 3-1 start in conference play, while Northern Iowa is 3-0.

Wichita State
Record: 9-5 overall, 3-1 in conference
Conference: Missouri Valley

Emily Heibert (RS Fr., S) leads the Shockers’ 5-1 offensive system. As a squad, their hitting efficiency is not great (.208), but key players know how to put the ball down, including Missouri Valley Freshman of the Week Abbie Lehman (Fr., OH). Katie Reilly (Jr., OH) has second-most kills on the squad, takes the third-most swings and boasts a .347 hitting efficiency. Unfortunately, kills-leader and most-set hitter Mikaela Raudsepp (Fr., OH) only puts up a .144 hitting efficiency, while second-most-set hitter MaryAshton Floyd (Jr., OH) only produces a .179 hitting efficiency. That doesn’t seem quite right to me. I think that setting decisions need some work for this squad to truly contend, but they are definitely heading the right direction.

Wichita State Athletics
Northern Iowa
Record: 8-6 overall, 3-0 in conference

The Panthers run a 5-1 offensive system with Kinsey Caldwell (Jr., S). Her even offensive distribution helps keep opponents from commit blocking and frees up space for her hitters to create shots and score.  To run this offensive system, defensive excellence is necessary. Five players—Haley Wandrey (Jr., DS), Amie Held (So., L), Caldwell, Eryca Hingtgen (Sr., OH) and Ashlee Sinnott (So., OH)—have all notched over 125 digs this season. Held paces all defenders with 254.

Northern Iowa is a pretty savvy squad this season. I think they do a nice job making solid setting decisions and playing to their strengths—an area I think Wichita State struggles. I think that if the Panthers can maintain their strong defensive efforts and spread out their offense, Wichita State will struggle to keep up and generate rallies. Northern Iowa isn’t a particularly dominant blocking squad, but I think they should be able to handle the Shockers’ relatively readable offense.

My Pick: Northern Iowa in three