Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Deb's Top-5: From a week that was to a week of what will

by Deb Kniffin

Notable News: Washington finally fell. And so did Florida State. Colorado handed the previously undefeated Huskies their first loss of the season, while Duke took down the Seminoles. That leaves Stanford as the sole undefeated top-25 program.

Top-5 Recap:

My Pick: Michigan def. Wisconsin in five
Reality: Wisconsin def. Michigan in three

My Pick: Loyola Marymount def. Santa Clara in five
Reality: Loyola Marymount def. Santa Clara in three

My Pick: Washington State def. Utah in five
Reality: Utah def. Washington State in four

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

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

Last Week’s Record: 2-3
Overall Record: 33-21

Iowa State @ Kansas
Wednesday, November 19, 7:30pm ET

This Big 12 showdown features a battle of the birds (yes, the Cyclone mascot is a bird who’s name happens to be Cy). When Iowa State and Kansas met earlier this season (about one month ago), the result was a five setter that ultimately favored the Jayhawks. Since then, the Cyclones have gotten hot. They took down a strong Oklahoma squad a few weeks back, and a win over Kansas could push them back into the top-25 ranks. Kansas also storms in with momentum having just defeated in-state rival Kansas State. Both teams are receiving votes and looking for that elusive top-25 ranking as they head into post-season play.

Iowa State
Record: 15-9 overall, 7-6 in conference
Big 12

The Cyclones run a 5-1 offensive system with Suzanne Horner (So. S), who’s led the squad to a .211 hitting efficiency on the season. In the Cyclone’s big win over Oklahoma, four hitters tallied double-digit kills: Ciara Capezio (So., OH), Victoria Hurtt (Sr., OH), Morgan Kuhrt (RS So., OH) and Alexis Conaway (Fr., OH/MH). Iowa State has become known for their defense, and this year is no exception. Caitlin Nolan (Jr.,L), who’s also pretty lethal from the service line, has done a nice job in her first year at the helm as starting libero. 

ISU Athletics Communications

Record: 19-7 overall, 7-5 in conference
Big 12

The Jayhawks have a slew of tough servers, including Madison Rigdon (Fr., OH) and Ainise Havili (Fr., S). They also play some feisty defense—compliments of back row rock star Cassie Wait (So., L) and the blocking of Tayler Soucie (So., MH). They run a 5-1 offensive system with Havili, and run a fairly balanced offense that favors Chelsea Albers (Sr., OH) and Sara McClinton (Sr., OH).

I think that defense and group effort will be key to a Cyclone victory. Their success against Oklahoma was a collective, efficient offensive effort with lots contributing players. They didn’t rely on one player to carry the load, and subsequently their errors went way down. On the flip side, a Kansas victory will require keeping the pressure on the Cyclones and forcing their traditional top-scorers, namely Capezio, to carry the load (it’s not her strong suite). Tough blocking and defense will be needed to rattle the Cyclone front line and knock them off their groove. They definitely have the personnel to make that happen. But I think the Cyclones will be motivated to pick up the W, given the fact they host a regional this year and will want to lock in a higher seed for rounds one and two. 

My Pick: Iowa State in five

San Diego @ Gonzaga
Thursday, November 20, 9pm ET
TV: http://thew.tv/live

This is a huge match for San Diego. While the No. 1 and No. 2 slots a lock in the West Coast Conference (BYU and Santa Clara respectively), No. 3 is up for grabs. The three teams in contention (Loyola Marymount, San Diego and Pacific) each have three matches remaining, with at least one “toss-up” match in the mix. San Diego must get past No. 4 Gonzaga—it took them five sets to do so earlier this season (21-15, 25-20, 23-25, 25-18, 17-15). Pacific must get past Loyola Marymount and Gonzaga. Loyola Marymount must get past Pacific and BYU.

USD Athletics
San Diego
Record: 16-10 overall, 9-5 in conference
Conference: West Coast

The Toreros run a 6-2 offense with Jianna Bonomi (Sr., S) and Kriste Gengenbacher (Fr., S). Primary hitter Alaysia Brown (Sr., MH/OH) is essentially a hitting specialist for this squad—she’s not a great blocker and doesn’t play back row. Those two campaigns are spearheaded by Lauren Schad (So., MH/OPP) and Hunter Jennings (So., L) respectively. 

Record: 16-9 overall, 7-7 in conference
Conference: West Coast

The Zags (what a cool mascot) run a 5-1 offensive system with Lauren Joseph (Jr., S).  Savannah Blinn (RS Jr., OH) is a potent offensive weapon. She’s far-and-away the best hitter on this squad and does a nice job staying low-error and putting the ball away despite the predictability of the offense.  McKayla Ferris (So., OH) is another key hitter who spins six rotations and contributes to the Zags’ strong defensive play in the back court. She, Nikki Leonard (Fr., S) and Joseph have all notched nearly 200 digs on the season.

Back in September, these two matched up pretty evenly. The difference-maker was the un-statted skill of grinding.  Both teams started off strong and ended strong. Gonzaga posted a .533 hitting efficiency in set one, and both teams hit over. 300 in the deciding set. But as the match progressed, and the teams started to wear each other down with their similar styles of play, the Zags started to falter. By the fourth set, they were hitting .000. Gonzaga, on the other hand, kept grinding. It wasn’t pretty necessarily, but they kept grinding. I think the Zags have learned this skill over the course of the season. Watch out, San Diego.

My Pick:  Gonzaga in five

No. 18 Long Beach State @ UC Davis
Thursday, November 20th, 10pm ET

Long Beach State is in positing to clinch their first-place finish in the West Coast conference. They’ve done a nice job of running the table and taking advantage of Hawaii’s “down year.”  UC Davis started slow, but got going as they acclimated to new leadership—Head Coach Dan Connors is in his first season with the Aggies and comes from the University of Illinois, where he coached my sister last season). They are hitting their stride and currently hold the No. 2 slot in conference.

LBSU Athletics

UC Davis
Record: 14-11 overall, 9-3 in conference
Conference: Big West

The Aggies are strong serving and blocking team. It’s how they are winning matches this season. Three players—Kaylin Sguyres (Jr., OH/MH), Allie Wegener (So., OH) and Erika Conners (RS Fr., S)—have tabbed 30+ aces this season. At the net, Katie Quinn (Sr., MH) and Aima Eichie (RS Fr., MH) both contribute over one block per set. UC Davis runs a 6-2 offense with Connors and Sophia Mar (So., S). The team isn’t hitting for a high efficiency on the season (.192), but they are playing good defense and scoring points at the service line. 

Long Beach State
Record: 20-4 overall, 10-0 in conference
Conference: Big West

Long Beach State runs a 5-1 offensive system with transfer Jenelle Hudson (Jr., S). Alex Reid (Jr., OH) continues to stand out as the 49ers’ stabilizing player. She’s got an all-around game and spins six rotations, bringing a lot of consistency to the court. Bre Macke (Sr., OH) is more of a front-row specialist. She’s got a great arm and can really take over a match.  She doesn’t like to lose, and you can tell. She’s intense and gets it done. In addition to her top-notch offensive play, she’s a defensive leader on the squad and posts 1.16 blocks per set to the front line as well.

Long Beach State is the better team.  They’ve got savvier players who have been getting it done all season. But there’s a lot to be said for momentum. And a lot to be said for the intoxicating feeling of finally tasting success. UC Davis has that going for them. Their last match against Long Beach State went four sets, but as UC Davis is coming off a five-match winning streak, UC Davis will be a much harder team to face. I still don’t think they have the firepower to win, but I expect a really strong showing as they defend their home court against the 49ers with the best team they’ve fielded in awhile.

My Pick: Long Beach State in five

Missouri State @ Illinois State
Friday, November 21, 8pm ET

Illinois State has yet to drop a match in conference play and currently sits at No. 1 in conference, while Missouri State has dropped five matches and holds No. 4 in conference. This is a big one as the season winds down and tournament berths are on the line, specifically for Illinois State.

Missouri State
Record: 18-10 overall, 11-5 in conference
Conference: Missouri Valley

This team thrives at the service line and in the backcourt, but is not particularly effective blocking. They are led by Kinsey McCarter (Jr., S), who runs the 5-1 offensive system. As a squad, they are hitting a .246 hitting efficiency. Their leading scorer, Lily Johnson (Fr., OH), contributes four kills per set and has notched 424 kills this season. Maddy Hogan (Sr., DS) is an absolute stud in the back row. She’s notched a team-high 455 digs on the season and keeps the Bears in-system much of the time.

Missouri State Athletics

Illinois State
Record: 22-5 overall, 16-0 in conference
Conference: Missouri Valley

Kaitlyn Early (Sr., S) sets Illinois State’s 5-1 offensive system. Go-to hitter Ashley Rosch (Jr., OH) is also six-rotation player, and along with Early, really stabilizes this squad. Rosch leads all hitters, while Jaelyn Keene (Fr., MH/RS) and Stacey Niao (Sr., OH) contribute a good chunk of offensive themselves. Keene leads the strong service effort of the squad with 17 aces on the season, while Emily Orrick (Sr., DS) sets the tone in the back court.

Both of these teams control opponents from the service line and with their back court play, so a large part of this meeting will come down to who better executes in those areas. Both are okay blocking teams, but not overly impressive. Both teams have a few big hitters who can terminate. I expect Illinois State to win this battle because I think their defense is a touch better than that of Missouri State. They should be able to slow down Missouri State’s arms with strong defense and control their serve with strong passing. 

My Pick: Illinois State in four

Pittsburgh @ Virginia
Sunday, November 23, 1pm ET

A battle of the ACC middle-of-the-roaders, this matchup features two teams striving to finish the season strong. They currently rank No. 5 (Pittsburgh) and No. 6 (Virginia) in conference with just one game of separation. This is their first meeting of the season.

Record: 21-6 overall, 9-5 in conference
Conference: ACC

Pittsburgh runs a 6-2 offensive system with setters Lindsey Zitzke (Sr., S) and Jenna Jacobson (Jr., S). Most of their offense is channeled through Jessica Wynn (Sr., OH) and Maria Genitsaridi (So., OH). Wynn and Genitsaridi spin all six rotations, and do a nice job of keeping balls off the court in addition to putting them down. Defender Delaney Clesen (Sr., L) is a grounding force on defense and helps this developing squad compete at a high level. 

Record: 15-12 overall, 8-6 in conference
Conference: ACC

Lauren Fuller (Jr., S) sets the 5-1 offensive system, and loves to feed lots of sets to top hitters Tori Janowski (Sr., OH) and Jasmine Burton (So., OH). The squad is great at staying in rallies and not making lots of errors—they’re hitting a .244 hitting efficiency on the season. An okay defensive team, Natalie Bausback (Jr., MH) and Morgan Blair (Sr., MH) both put up a decent block while five players have notched 200+ digs on the season.

These are two pretty good teams who are looking for breakout moments. They are currently ranked No. 5 and No. 6 in conference standings, with just one match of separation. Pittsburgh and Virginia have not yet faced off this season, so this is kind of unusual for an end-of-season match. I think that Pittsburgh has a slightly stronger defense and slightly more terminal/potential-packed hitters (in my opinion). I think in general, Pittsburgh is probably the “better” team, but whether they win against a team they’re facing for first time that has potential to knock them off their game—that’ll be the interesting part. Virginia will put on pressure with their block. They’d need a great blocking night to win in my opinion, but it could happen.

My Pick: Virginia in five

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Deb's Top-5: Heading Down the Stretch

by Deb Kniffin

Notable News: The Pac-12 is chock full of big-name volleyball programs. Think Stanford, Washington, UCLA, USC and so on. Utah is not one of them. But last week, this Pac-12 bottom dweller toppled USC and UCLA in one weekend. Props, Utah. Props. If you are curious about the Utes, see preview below.

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

My Pick: Pacific def. San Diego in five
Reality: San Diego def. Pacific in four

My Pick: Long Beach State def. Hawa'ii in five
Reality: Long Beach State def. Hawai'i in five

My Pick: Texas def. Kansas State in four
Reality: Texas def. Kansas State in four

My Pick: Purdue def. Nebraska in five
Reality: Nebraska def. Purdue in three

Last Week’s Record: 3-2
Overall Record: 31-19

Michigan @ No. 4 Wisconsin
Wednesday, November 12 - 7:30pm ET
TV: Big Ten Network

After dropping the first match of conference play to Penn State, Wisconsin has absolutely blazed through their conference schedule. Until last Friday. You are probably wondering what happened last Friday. Let me refresh your memory. Michigan pushed Wisconsin to five sets before falling 14-16 in the fifth. That’s right. The Wolverines not only snapped the Badgers eight-match streak of straight set victories, they almost beat them.

Record: 11-13 overall, 6-8 in conference
Conference: Big Ten

The Wolverines run a 5-1 offense with Lexi Dannemiller (Sr., S), who was named Big Ten Setter of the Week after her performance against the Badgers. Abby Cole (So., MH) is Michigan’s player-to-watch  this season. She’s hitting .384 on the season, leads all scorers and does a nice job blocking to boot. Another key player on this squad is Caroline Knop (Fr., OH/DS), who is a top scorer as well, but really makes her mark in the back row. Along with libero Tiffany Morales (Jr., L), Knop  keeps the Wolverines in rallies and generates a lot of looks for the front line.

Record: 22-2 overall, 13-1 in conference
Conference: Big Ten

Badgers Athletics
The Badgers continue to run a 5-1 offensive system, which is probably the right idea given their all-star setter, Lauren Carlini (So., S). She has the ability to take an okay or below-average pass and turn it into a quality look for her hitter. Pair that with above-average passing, and that’s a dangerous situation for Wisconsin’s opponents. Aside from setting, the Badgers do a lot of things well this season. Their serving is tough enough, their block is daunting, their defense is tenacious and their hitting is efficient. Most importantly, they are steady. They are confident. They don’t spook easily. They find ways to win. I haven’t seen them get terribly rattled yet this season--until last Friday.

Last Friday, typical go-tos for the Badgers (Chapman and Bates) hit abysmal .194 and .107 efficiencies respectively. The Wolverines did a nice job of containing these two and forcing other hitters to step up and score. I think if Michigan can dig a few more balls this time around and continue to contain Chapman and Bates, Wisconsin’s other hitters won’t be able to win the match. Digging a few more balls on target would allow for a better offensive performance from the Wolverines as well. Cole tallied 20 kills on 42 swings for a .310 efficiency along with a solo block and three block assists. Setting her more would be lovely since she seems to never miss a step. If that’s not an option, Michigan needs better production from Adeja Lambert (Fr., OH). She took a ton of swings last weekend, and she wasn’t do a very good job of executing. I think if she has a slightly better offensive performance, Cole maintains her offensive pace,and defense kicks it up one more notch, the Wolverines have a nice shot.It could happen. And I’d be lying to say I didn’t want it to happen. So with that...

My Pick: Michigan in five

Loyola Marymount @ No. 25 Santa Clara
Thursday, November 13 - 9pm ET

Last year, our Big West teams-to-watch were BYU, San Diego and Saint Marys. This season, Santa Clara is the team making their case.  The Broncos earned their first top-25 ranking of the season after stringing together a four-match winning streak that included wins over BYU and San Diego. Santa Clara currently holds sole possession of second place in the Big West (behind BYU).

Loyola Marymount
Record: 20-5 overall, 8-5 in conference
Conference: Big West

Loyola Marymount Athletics

Loyola Marymount has the talent to be a top-25 team, but they struggle to consistently perform at a high level. See their wins/losses column for details. The Lions score a lot of points at the pins with big guns Caitlin DeWitt (Sr., OH), Litara Keil (Jr., OH) and Sarah Sponcil (Fr., OH). While DeWitt and Sponcil are key players on this squad, it is Keil who really sets the tone each match. In addition to offensive production, she’s the top blocker and top server.

Santa Clara
Record: 20-7 overall, 10-4 in conference

Aggressive serves and frequent digs are the bread and butter of this Santa Clara squad. They are led at the end line by Sabrina Clayton ( So., OH), who has chalked up 44 of the team’s 171 total service aces this season. Top defender Danielle Rottman  (Jr., OH) has tallied 444 digs, best on the team and second-best in the West Coast conference. Kirsten Mead (Fr., S) runs the 5-1 offensive system and loves to set Nikki Hess (So., OH) and Clayton--not shocking as they’ve combined for nearly half of the teams’ total kills.  

In their first meeting of the season, Santa Clara defeated Loyola Marymount in five sets (16-14 in the final frame). The match wasn’t close on accident. I think that talent-wise, these are very evenly matched teams. Both teams are strong at the service line and have pin hitters capable of taking over matches. I think Loyola Marymount has the personnel to win the blocking battle, while Santa Clara’s back row defense really sets them apart. The team that embraces and executes their competitive differentiator--i.e. blocking or defense-- will win this match.

My Pick: Loyola Marymount in five

Washington State @ Utah
Thursday, November 13 - 10pm ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks

Utah is on fire. Last weekend, they toppled Pac-12, top-25 programs USC and UCLA. That’s pretty huge for this under-the-radar squad. While you may not find it interesting to check out the Utes match against Washington State, be informed that Washington State’s sole conference win came over Utah in straight sets earlier this season. So this will be an interesting one to follow. Furthermore. By the transitive property, Washington State could beat a top-25 team. Ah, parity.

Washington State
Record: 10-16 overall, 1-13 in conference
Conference: Pac-12

The Cougars run a 5-1 offensive system with Haley MacDonald (So., S). The team doesn’t swing for a very high percentage (.200), which isn’t shocking given their conference landscape.Think about how hard it would be for a team like Washington to put the ball down consistently. The No. 1 through No. 8-ranked teams in the Pac-12 are all top-25 programs as well; there just aren’t many matches where they play similar-level teams.  The Cougars do a pretty nice job from the service line--they’ve bested opponents in that category all season (impressive for the same reason their hitting efficiency is understandable). Chelsey Bettinson (Sr., MH)  puts up a nice block and rakes in 1.44 blocks per set, but as a team Washington State’s block is just okay.  

Washington State Athletics
Record: 14-11 overall, 4-10 in conference
Conference: Pac-12

The Utes’ 5-1 offensive system is led by Kalee  Kirby (Sr., S). The veteran has led her team to a .236 hitting efficiency this season. Chelsey Schofield (Sr., OH) boasts the team-high kill count, but is actually the most volatile of the starting hitters. The consistent producers are Shelby Dalton (Sr., OPP), Adora Anea (Fr., OH/OPP), Bailey Bateman (Sr., MH) and Eliza Katoa ( Fr., OH), who all boast .281 hitting efficiencies or higher and have notched 115 or more kills this season. While I wouldn’t call this offense balanced in terms of set distribution, every hitter is used and contributes.

Nathan Sweet/Deseret News
From a talent standpoint, the Utes should have this one in the bag. Schofield may not be the most consistent hitter, but she can put the ball down in big moments. And the team’s passing is good enough to run other hitters when the errors mount. The thing that’s intriguing about this match is the roller-coaster aspect. Utah just won two huge matches. That’s an emotional high like none other. Pair that with a match against the one team who beat them that shouldn’t have beat them, and there will be a lot of emotion tied up in this one. I wouldn’t be shocked if Washington State pulled something out of their bag of tricks and won either. In conclusion, eh.

My Pick: Washington State in five (oh buddy…)

No. 3 Florida State @ No. 8 North Carolina
Friday, November 14 - 7:30pm ET

Their AVCA top-25 rankings are close, but their conference rankings are closer. Florida State currently sits at No. 1 in the ACC, just one game ahead of No. 2 North Carolina.  Since conference champions receive automatic bids to the NCAA tournament, this match is obviously a big one for both programs. Yes. Both teams are in position to earn at-large bids based on RPI and record, but winning conference outright and claiming the automatic bid is the ideal situation. If only for bragging rights and seeding.

North Carolina
Record: 20-2 overall, 11-1 in conference
Conference: ACC

North Carolina is a strong defensive team this season. Three players have chalked up over one block per set, which is pretty outstanding at this level.  Additionally, Ece Taner (Sr., L) is tearing it up in the back row. She’s a fun player to watch--she’s got a never-give-up mentality that allows her to make some really big plays.The result: setter Jordyn Schnabl (Jr., S) is able to run an effective offense and evenly distribute sets to her primary hitters Chaniel Nelson (RS Sr., OPP), Lauren McAdoo (Sr., OH) and Leigh Andrew (Jr., OH).

Florida State
Record: 24-0 overall, 12-0 in conference
Conference: ACC

Florida State’s hot hitters are Nicole Walch (So., OH) and Katie Horton (So., OH).  But this underclassman duo does more than put up big offensive numbers. They are six-rotation players and contribute strong back row play in addition to front row dominance. It’s fun to watch the Seminoles use their strong defense to slowly pick apart and disarm opponents over the course of a match. With two strong blockers--Sarah Burrington (RS So., MH) and Mercedes Vaughn ( RS Jr., MH)--along with a ridiculously good libero--Katie Mosher (RS Sr., L)--Florida State is able to force opposing hitters to make uncomfortable/unideal shots and really knock them off their groove.

I previewed this exact same matchup at the end of September, and I think a lot has stayed the  same in terms of what each team brings to the table. Neither team is doing anything all that differently. Thus, I think this will be another defensive grind. Both teams shine in that realm, and I think that playing another strong defensive team will just amp up the defensive performances. I expect long rallies, patient swings from the hitters and big plays from the defenders. I think Florida State’s collective defense is stronger (North Carolina really relies on Taner, while Florida State has a number of capable back row players). I also think that their hitters, though younger, are a little bit more volleyball savvy. They know when to swing away and when to wait for their moment. 

My Pick: Florida State in four

No. 7 Florida @ No. 15 Kentucky
Sunday, November 16 - 12pm ET
TV: SEC Network

Florida has blazed their way through SEC play with a perfect 13-0 record and currently rank No. 1 in conference. But this will be their first meeting against No. 2-ranked Kentucky. The Wildcats dropped two unnecessary matches to LSU and Texas A&M but are otherwise rolling through conference play and should give Florida a run for their money, if not their first loss of conference play.

UF Athletics
Record: 19-3 overall, 13-0 in conference
Conference: SEC

The Gators run a 5-1 offensive system with Mackenzie Dagostino (Jr., S). She’s athletic, quick and sees the court well. All she really needs to see, though, is that plenty of balls make it to the wheelhouse of Alex Holston (So., OPP).  In addition to leading all hitters, the opposite is blasting a .359 hitting efficiency, putting up a big block , serving tough and digging balls. She’s pretty average (comment dripping with sarcasm). Other key players include Rhamat Alhassan (Fr., MH) and Simone Antwi (Jr., MH), who are both offensive go-tos and top blockers.

Record: 22-4 overall, 11-2 in conference
Conference: SEC

The Wildcats run a 5-1 offensive system with Morgan Bergren (Jr., S ). Three primary hitters--Lauren O’Conner (Sr., OH), Shelby Workman (Jr., OH) and Anni Thomasson (So. OH)-- carry most of the offensive load. Of the three, O’Conner is the best crunch-time performer in my opinion. She’s pretty even keel, and knows when she’s needed to take the gutsy swing. This team’s biggest strength is their back row play. Jackie Napper (Sr., L) does a great job of keeping the ball alive and, more importantly, putting it in a position where Bergren has lots of room to work the court.

These are two really good programs. Obviously I’m not the only one that thinks that given their top-25 rankings. But seriously. I think either one of these teams could go pretty far in the NCAA tournament next month. Watch for it. Back to the matchup now… I think Florida is a little bit more athletic position-by-position than Kentucky. Holston is a game-changer. She really can do it all, and she very rarely has an off night. But. I think that Kentucky does a nice job of making each player shine in her role. They have a number of different players who can step up and win matches with their arms. I think they will push Florida hard, but  the key to this match will be to contain Holden, and I’m not  sure Kentucky has the block to do it. Unless Napper and Kaz Brown (Fr., MH) both play out-of-their-minds defense...I think this one goes to Florida.

My Pick: Florida in five

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Deb's Top-5: Can Stanford be Beaten?

by Deb Kniffin

Notable News: Still sitting at No. 1, Stanford is one of three undefeated teams in the top-25 rankings along with No. 2 Washington and No. 3 Florida State.

My Pick: Wisconsin def. Purdue in four
Reality: Wisconsin def. Purdue in three

My Pick: UCLA def. Washington in five
Reality: Washington def. UCLA in three (it was bad)

My Pick: UNLV def. Colorado State in five
Reality: UNLV def. Colorado State in four

My Pick: Belmont def. Eastern Kentucky in five
Reality: Eastern Kentucky def. Belmont in three

My Pick: Binghamton def. New Hampshire in four
Reality: New Hampshire def. Binghamton in four

Last Week’s Record: 2-3
Overall Record: 28-17

Stanford Athletics
No. 20 Arizona State @ No. 1 Stanford
Wednesday, November 5 - 7:30pmPT
TV: Pac-12 Networks

Stanford is the team to beat this season. They have maintained a No. 1 ranking since the second week of competition and have amassed an impressive 22-0 record. No. 2 Washington and No. 3 Florida State are the only other undefeated top-25 teams.

Record: 22-0 overall, 12-0 in conference
Conference: Pac-12

Stanford runs a 5-1 offensive system with Maddi Bugg (Jr., S). Inky Ajanaku (Jr., MH) continues to shine in this slew of ridiculously talented, ridiculously athletic hitters. Defensive effort continues to be a strength of this Cardinal squad--they boast two blockers with over one block per set, and their back row play is more than good. Just look at how frequently and effectively they are able to set the middle for reference. That charge is led by defensive savant Kyle Gilbert (Sr., L).

Arizona State
Record: 16-8 overall, 6-6 in conference
Conference: Pac-12

The Sun Devils are led by a trio of talented outsides--Macey Gardner (Jr., OH), BreElle Bailey (So., OH) and McKenzie Willey (So., OH)--who know how to put the ball down when it matters. They are patient hitters with good arms and smart shots. Mercedes Binns (Jr., MH), however, is the player who’s really come through in the clutch for the Sun Devils. She had a slow start to the season offensively, but her connection with setter Blanca Arellano (Jr., S) has improved by leaps and bounds. She’s starting to see the court really well and has become a lethal offensive option as well as dominant blocker.

The Sun Devils have turned into an efficient offensive team, their block continues to dominate and their court defense is decent enough to win big matches. The common problem with teams that face Stanford is not that they aren’t good teams. I mean, we are talking about top-25, really talented programs, Arizona State included. The problem is that Stanford is unquestionably the best there is right now. Their players are better, their system is stronger and they (obviously) don’t lose. No knock on their opponents. Stanford is just at a whole nother level.

My Pick: Stanford in four

No. 12 Purdue @ No. 13 Nebraska

Wednesday, November 5 - 6:30pm CT
TV: Big Ten Network

Nebraska has been ping-ponging between wins and losses since the beginning of October. They are so hot-and-cold right now that it’s a little hard knowing what team will be stepping out on the court each night. Purdue is just sort of hanging in there. They beat all the should-beats (including but not limited to Iowa, Rutgers and Maryland), beat some of the could-beats (including Ohio State and Northwestern)--they just haven’t beaten one of the top dogs (such as Penn State, Illinois or Wisconsin). If they can knock off Nebraska, they’ll be feeling pretty good. 
Bob Devaney Sports Center - Home of Nebraska Volleyball

Record: 19-5 overall, 9-3 in conference
Conference: Big Ten

The Boilermakers’ 5-1 offensive system continues to be led by the veteran all-star Val Nichol (Sr., S). She’s doing a really nice job putting balls in hittable positions, and she’s been instrumental in helping Annie Drews (Jr., OH) step into a go-to hitter role this season. Drews, who is an athletic, tall, long-limbed athlete, leads all hitters. She’s still honing her skills, and I think that’s part of why the Boilermakers are not winning big matches just yet. But she’s got a calm, cool and collected demeanor that makes her a prime candidate for growth throughout the season. Read: don’t be surprised when Drews starts getting hot this season.

Record: 14-7 overall, 8-4 in conference
Conference: Big Ten

The Cornhuskers continue to run a 5-1 offensive system with Mary Pollmiller (Sr., S). Three primary hitters—Kadie Rolfzen (So., OH), Alicia Ostrander (Jr., OH) and Amber Rolfzen (So., OH)—lead the offense, but it is Kadie that needs to execute for this team to win. She’s been hit-or-miss lately, and her youth and inexperience (PT does NOT equal maturity) is starting to show through in her court demeanor. When/if she figures it out, Nebraska gets tough to beat again. 

I know Purdue was just swept by Wisconsin and I just wrote about them last week. But everyone is struggling against Wisconsin this season, and I still like this Purdue squad. I think they are capable of beating Nebraska. Here’s why: they are a good serving team, put up big blocks, play scrappy defense, are led by an authoritative setter, rely on a steady outside hitter and can score from other positions when passing permits. I just like the way they play. They aren’t winning big matches because they’re asking new players in key roles to step up. That takes time. On the flip side, Nebraska is also young, but they don’t have that steady feel to their growth. It feels more frantic to me--as if unideal match outcomes are so jarring they don’t quite know how to recover. That being said, look for Purdue to give Nebraska a rough time and serve/block them off the court.

My Pick: Purdue in five

Pacific @ San Diego
Thursday, November 6 - 7pm PT
TV: thew.tv

It took San Diego five sets to best Pacific in their first meeting of the season. Both have had similar levels of success in conference play, and I think they are pretty evenly matched in terms of raw skills position-by-position. This should be a fun one to watch.

Record: 19-5 overall, 8-3 in conference
Conference: West Coast

Pacific runs a 6-2 offensive system with Kimmy Witson (Jr., S) and Andie Shelton (Fr., S). They set a lot of balls, and I mean a LOT of balls, to Lexi Elman (So., OH). She’s a six-rotation player with an okay block, solid back-row play and a nice arm. This is a very strong blocking team. Two players in specific provide a dominant presence--Gillian Howard (Sr., MH) and Alicia Wilk (So., OH). Rounding out the admirable defense of this squad is Katrin Gotterba (Fr., L). 

Pacific Athletics/Keith Sanpei

San Diego
Record: 15-9 overall, 8-4 in conference
Conference: West Coast

San Diego is a great defensive team. I love their aggressive approach to that aspect of the game. They have consistently bested opponents at the net--Lisa Kramer (RS So., MH) leads the blocking charge--and in the back row--Hunter Jennings (So., L) shines at libero. Jianna Bomoni (Sr., S) and Kristen Gengenbacher (Fr., S) run the 6-2 offense and do a great job keeping their team low-error. All hitters contribute and have a role in their balanced offense, thanks to the smart setting and tenacious defense.

Assuming you read the blurbs above, this may sound redundant. But these two teams are really good at defense. They both put up strong blocks and are scrappy in the back row. they both have patient outsides who wait for their opportunities to score. Last time around, Pacific pushed San Diego to a two-point-decision in the fifth set, but Elman only hit .093 on the night. Aside from her performance, both teams operated pretty much as expected (read: solid defense and okay offense). That being said, I think Elman is the game-changer this time around. She’s young and still figuring out her game, so she can be pretty hot-and-cold. But if the girl is on, she’s tough to slow down.

My Pick: Pacific in five

No. 23 Long Beach State @ Hawai'i
Friday, November 7 - 7pm HST

De ja vu? Should be. Long Beach State and Hawai'i played each other less than a month ago, and the 49ers walked away with a semi-unexpected five-set victory over the Rainbow Wahine. I previewed the match (accurately), and you can read my commentary here. This time around should be just as exciting, and just as worth watching. Especially since Long Beach State is still undefeated in conference play.

Record: 16-5 overall, 8-2 in conference
Conference: Big West

Olivia Magill (Jr., MH) continues to dominate out of the middle for the Rainbow Wahine. She’s a smart hitter and sees the court really well. Even when she isn’t terminating, she’s forcing her opponents out-of-system and giving her team a chance to end the rally with a strongly developed block or dig the ball and take another swing. My other favorite player on this squad is Tai Manu-Olevao (Jr., OH), who I’d describe as a “goes-about-her-business” player that gets it done in an unflashy, humble manner. She’s fun to watch.

LBSU Athletics
Long Beach State
Record: 19-4 overall, 9-0 in conference
Conference: Big West

Long Beach State’s 5-1 offensive system is run by Jenelle Hudson (Jr., S), who does a nice job spreading the ball around and knowing who to set when. Offensive leader Alex Reid (Jr., OH) is a six-rotation player (like Hudson), and thus carries a lot of defensive weight along with her offensive responsibilities. She does a nice job under pressure, so she  should have a good night against Hawai’i. Bre Macke (Sr., OH) is another go-to for the 49ers, and like Reid is a key part of the defensive effort. Her contribution comes from at the net with her team-high blocking numbers.

Last time around, neither team really got going on offense.Both teams were held to sub-.200 hitting efficiencies. The difference was defense. Hawai’i struggled getting the ball to Magill. It’s not like Long Beach State was blasting them from the service line. The 49ers just kept the pressure on, and Hawai’i crumpled. Manu-Olevao had a tough time with Long Beach State’s block and couldn’t put the ball down. I think we see Hawai’i come out with better defense this match. They are better than what they showed last time. And that strong passing and defense will let them get balls to Magill, which frees up all sorts of things for other hitters and pressures Long Beach State’s block. That being said, I think Long Beach State wins this one. The easiest thing to control is serving and unforced errors, and those are the two categories they struggled most with last time--and still won. They didn’t do a great job at the service line (lots of errors) and Reid had an awful night (.000 hitting efficiency). I think they come out clicking and win.

My Pick: Long Beach State in five

No. 22 Kansas State @ No. 5 Texas
Friday, November 7 - 7pm CT
TV: Longhorn Network

The Longhorns continues to sit in the top-5 of the AVCA rankings, but they suffered an unexpected loss at the end of October. Oklahoma defeated Texas 26-24, 26-24, 26-24 on the Longhorns home court. I bet that was fun… anyway, the Longhorns run into a heating-up Kansas State squad this week, and I’ll be interested to see how they fair in their first test since the meltdown against the Sooners. They handily defeated Kansas State last time around, but the Wildcats are improving and I wouldn’t count them out of this one  (they did just beat Oklahoma, after all..).

Record: 16-1 overall, 8-1 in conference
Conference: Big 12

This physical Texas squad is led by the offensive duo of Haley Eckerman (Sr., OH) and Khat Bell (Sr., MH). Strong defensive play allows the Longhorns to force a lot of sets to the middle, which in turn draws blockers and frees up other hitters. Chloe Collins (So., S) and Nicole Dalton (So., S), who set Texas’ 6-2 offensive system, do a nice job taking advantage of good passing and defense and forcing the ball to the middle. Molly McCage (Jr., MH) and Chiaka Ogbogu (So., MH) provide formidable blocking to the front line and don’t make errors on offense (they’ve got the highest hitting efficiencies of all starters).


Kansas State
Record: 20-3 overall, 7-2 in conference
Conference: Big 12

Katie Brand (RS So., S) sets the Wildcats’ 5-1 offensive system and primarily dishes to Kylee Zumach (Fr., OH) and Brooke Sassin (So., OH). Despite their youth, these two have maintained composure and stayed low-error. They lead the team in kills and put up solid (not great) blocking numbers. A strong serving team, Kansas State relies on Chelsea Keating (RS Sr., OH) and Kersten Kober (So., L) to knock opponents out-of-system and create better blocking/defending scenarios.

Texas is bigger, stronger and more talented. But they have holes. They can fall apart in serve receive and make a lot of hitting errors. I think that Kansas State has the potential to keep pace...IF they are executing at the service line. And IF they stay within themselves. It’s easy to get caught up in the hoopla against big opponents. It’s easy to start swinging harder or trying to make different shots. Kansas State can win if they play within themselves and force Texas out of their groove. Not saying it’s likely that they win, per say, but I think they could give the Longhorns a match.

My Pick: Texas in four