Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Deb's Top-5 Matches of the Week

by Debbie Kniffin

Welcome to the final week of regular-season competition. In this post, we’re highlighting big-time squads playing big-time matches as they prepare for the 2015 NCAA DI Women’s Volleyball Tournament. While all of these teams should make the tournament, several still have a shot at hosting the first and second rounds if they finish strong. So there’s more on the line than bragging rights even at this late point in the season.

No. 7 Penn State @ No. 5 Nebraska
Saturday, November 28

Penn State
Record: 25-4 overall 14-4 Big 10
Streak: W1
Last outing: fell to Michigan (1-3), defeated Maryland (3-0)

Potential weakness: getting rattled in serve receive and performing under pressure
Perceived strengths: scoring effectively from multiple positions and blocking lots of balls
Game changers: the hopefully steady passing of Megan Courtney (Sr., OH)

Record: 24-4 overall, 15-3 Big 10
Streak: W8
Last outing: defeated Indiana (3-0) and Michigan (3-1)

Potential weakness: high-risk, high-reward attempts from the service line
Perceived strengths: all things defense and executing when it matters
Game changers: the bullet-like serving of Annika Albrecht (So., OH)

Nebraska won their first encounter against Penn State in five sets. It was a physical spectacle as both teams blocked the living daylights out of the ball, but as a result, neither team hit very well. When the dust settled, the match truly came down to the serve-pass game. While the Huskers can be volatile with their serve, they did a good job putting the pressure on and hitting their zones. And they sided out when it mattered. I think this one will be another Nebraska win: the Nittany Lions head to the hostile Husker home court fresh off a pair of losses to Minnesota and Michigan. Needless to say, they’re still struggling to perform under pressure. And Nebraska continues to find ways to win. 

Nate Olsen/Nebraska Communications

My Pick: Nebraska in five

Iowa State @ No. 12 Colorado State
Saturday, November 28

Iowa State
Record: 18-9 overall, 11-5 Big 12
Streak: W1
Last outing: fell to Kansas State (0-3), defeated Texas Tech (3-1)

Potential weakness: average-not-awesome blocking
Perceived strengths: excelling at the serve and pass game
Game changers: the attacking excellence of Jess Schaben (Fr., OH)

Colorado State
Record: 25-3 overall, 18-0 Mountain West
Streak: W18
Last outing: defeated UNLV (3-1) and Fresno State (3-0)

Potential weakness: volatile serving
Perceived strengths: strong blocking and defense
Game changers: the dominant blocking of Acacia Andrews (RS Jr., MH) and Alexandra Poletto (So., MH)

Iowa State travels to Colorado State for one of the few cross-conference matches taking place this final weekend of regular-season play. The Rams, fresh off an eighth-consecutive Mountain West title, continue to impress with their polished defense and productive offense. They are prone to roller coaster performances from the service line, but are steady otherwise.  Iowa State has found success behind the stellar offensive play of league newcomer Schaben. Like any freshman, she’s prone to ups and downs. But the consistent defensive play Caitlin Nolan (Sr., L) has helped Schaben—and the team—start to level out and hit their stride. I think that both teams are poised to do well in the NCAA tournament, but the Rams should walk away with this win.  

CSU Athletics

My Pick: Colorado State in four

No. 13 UCLA @ No. No. 1 USC
Wednesday, November 25

Record: 22-6 overall, 13-5 PAC 12
Streak: L1
Last outing:  defeated Arizona State (3-2), fell to Arizona (2-3)

Potential weakness: staying patient and low-error when pressured
Perceived strengths: serving sniper-like balls and scoring at the pins
Game changers: the rock-solid all-around play of Jordan Anderson (Jr., OH)

Record: 29-1 overall, 17-1 PAC 12
Streak: W7
Last outing: defeated Arizona (3-1) and Arizona State (3-2)

Potential weakness: getting sloppy on both front and back-row defense
Perceived strengths: scoring at the pins
Game changers: the all-star, never-mess-up Samantha Bricio (Sr., OH)

This one should be a win for USC. Why? The Trojans play better under pressure, hold home-court advantage, have Bricio on their roster and won last time around even though she wasn’t on her A-game. Yes. USC can be volatile on defense. But how often has that really hurt them and turned the tide of the match (hint: it can’t be more than once)? UCLA will try to pick apart USC from the service line and keep them from firing on all cylinders offensively. And USC will respond by passing well enough and still finding ways to score. Which will likely force UCLA into a situation where they start trying too hard, force serves and attacks and make unforced errors.

My Pick: USC in three

RV Arizona State @ No. 23 Arizona
Friday, November 27

Arizona State
Record: 19-10 overall, 8-10 PAC 12
Streak: L2
Last outing: fell to UCLA (2-3) and USC (2-3)

Potential weakness: staying efficient on offense
Perceived strengths: blocking up a storm
Game changers: the stabilizing defense of Whitney Follette (Sr., MH) and Halle Harker (So., L)

Record: 18-12 overall, 8-10 PAC 12
Streak: W1
Last outing: fell to USC (1-3), defeated UCLA (3-2)

Potential weakness: slowing down balls at the net
Perceived strengths: running a smart, balanced and efficient offense
Game changers: the opportunity-creating play of Penina Snuka (Jr., S)

A lot has changed since September when Arizona State defeated Arizona in the conference opener. After a smashing start to the season, the Sun Devils lost all-everything gamer Macy Gardner (Sr., OH) to a season-ending injury. They’ve struggled ever since.  Arizona ruffled some feathers during conference play, but hasn’t consistently hung with the top dogs. As these teams prepare for the NCAA Tournament with this rivalry matchup, watch for Penina Snuka (Jr., S) to keep her squad in long rallies with smart setting and savvy defense (she is almost libero-like in the back row). Arizona State will weather their offensive woes—read: volatile attackers—with strong defense at the net and in the back row. I think Arizona’s ability to execute in long rallies gives them the edge. 

Stan Liu/Arizona Athletics

My Pick: Arizona in five

No. 18 Illinois @ RV Michigan
Saturday, November 28

Record: 19-10 overall, 10-8 Big 10
Streak: W1
Last outing: fell to Wisconsin (2-3), defeated Indiana (3-0)

Potential weakness: making smart shots and staying low-error
Perceived strengths: scoring from the pins and blocking for points
Game changers: the court-running ability of Jordyn Poulter (Fr., S)

Record: 18-11 overall, 8-10 Big 10
Streak: L1
Last outing: defeated Penn State (3-1), fell to Nebraska (1-3)

Potential weakness: volatile, minimum-impact serving
Perceived strengths: scoring when it matters
Game changers: the attacking abilities of Abby Cole (Jr., MH) and Caroline Knop (So., OH)

These Big 10 middle dwellers are both starting to hit their stride late in conference play. Michigan just notched a pair of huge wins against Ohio State and Penn State, and pushed a tough Nebraska squad to extra sets. Knop looked formidable in all three matches. Illinois finally lived up to their potential in a high-level, point-for-point, five-set battle against top-ranked Wisconsin. Their defense has much improved in the past few weeks, and they should be able to handle even Knop’s best offensive performance. Plus, Poulter should be able to get her Illinois hitters firing away—Michigan’s talented back row doesn’t get much defensive help from their servers or blockers, which makes it hard to contain a strong opposing offense. 

Illinois Athletics

My Pick: Illinois in five

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Family Matters: Kevin Hambly & Chris McGown

By Kinda S. Lenberg

Men have served as sport coaches since the early 19th century, beginning circa 1830, when the term “coach” was coined at Oxford University. Women, on the other hand, have been coaches of various sports only since the early 20th century.  In fact, before the passage of Title IX in 1972, which was intended to increase women’s opportunities in sport, women coached a whopping 90 percent of female collegiate teams.

Today, that number has changed dramatically. In the 21st century men coach 57 percent of women’s collegiate sports teams and a large number of women have dropped out of the coaching ranks. Of course, many argue that balancing work and home responsibilities is the main impetus.

However, that is now not the case for the women only.

In the progressive 21st century, male coaches now also have to deal with many of the work-life balance issues women have struggled with for decades. “Since 1965, fathers have tripled the time they spend with their children,” (Marche, July/August 2013, In fact, with 66 percent of families in the United States boasting dual incomes (Hodge and Lundeen, 2013), men are having to take on some of the “traditional female” roles of child-rearing and housework, while also meeting the demands of the unforgiving coaching profession.

“According to Census data, average workloads for female coaches are 2,400 hours a year and 2,600 for male coaches, which are both well above the national average for full-time workers” (Rosner and Shropshire, 2011).

How are the males of the species, who have become more direct caregivers within the family dynamic, dealing with the work-life balance?

Just like the women in the coaching profession have –– one day and one step at a time.

And for two of the AVCA’s most successful male coaches, there are both innovative –– and some might say radical –– ways to balance the home-work life.

For Kevin Hambly, head women’s volleyball coach at the University of Illinois and the current AVCA president, it has been a matter of tweaking his coaching philosophy. For Chris McGown, former head men’s volleyball coach at BYU, it was a matter of simply walking away.

Hambly has spent the majority of his life on the volleyball court as both a player and a coach. He was an AVCA First-Team All-American at BYU, played professionally in France after graduation, and was an assistant coach with the U.S. Olympic Men’s Volleyball Team at the 2004 Games in Athens before coming to Illinois, first as an assistant and then as the head coach. Hambly says he is truly indebted to his wife, Mary, and his two daughters, Quinn (9) and Maura (7), for actively keeping him out of the gym.

“I am actually thankful for my wife and kids because I would probably work all the time. I DID work all the time before [I had a family] and so it has given me some perspective and balance. But I also think –– I know –– when I have to make decisions about things with the team, I always ask myself how I would want a [particular situation] handled with my daughters. I think it helps to have two girls.
I am not sure I thought about it that way before.

“I think it keeps things in perspective; this is just volleyball.”

Indeed, for Hambly now, the emphasis is more about how he treats his players. He, like the majority of coaches, truly believes volleyball creates an opportunity for young women to grow and mature both emotionally and physically. Since becoming a husband and father, he has discovered winning isn’t everything. There are far more important lessons to learn.

“[At Illinois], we are [definitely] competitive,” Hambly explains, “but [I have found] it is not the most important thing in the overall scheme of things.”

Hambly’s approach to coaching has evolved since his daughter, Quinn’s, diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome (an autism spectrum disorder) last year. Hambly says he focuses more on the positive in coaching now. Children with Asperger’s respond very well to positive feedback, and Hambly has transferred that attention to using mostly positive feedback to working with his players, as well. 

“[With children with Asperger’s], research has shown if you give positive feedback you are more likely to get the results you want. I now reinforce the positive instead of focusing on the negative with my players.”

Indeed, another thing Hambly does is try to separate the stress of coaching from the pressures he feels at home. 

“I really try to compartmentalize both of them to keep them separate.”

And if the work-life balance comes with some sacrifices, so be it.

“I don’t really know if [my life] is balanced,” Hambly laughs. “I try to give on both as much as possible. With this job and the traveling, I try to make as much time for the family as I can. So the one thing that I do, especially during the season –– which is the hardest time [for my wife Mary and the kids] –– is I wake up at 3 or 4 a.m. and I work during that time and get a lot of stuff out of the way. Then if I can, I go back and try to take a nap until around 6 for about an hour and then wake up with the kids and have breakfast with them and hang out. 

“I always try to get home for dinner and then we do some things together as a family after dinner so I always have those times with the kids.”

For Chris McGown, who recently stepped down as the head men’s volleyball coach at his alma mater, BYU, there was the more “radical” approach of simply walking away from the stress––both mental and physical––of trying to balance home and career.  (For a more complete look at McGown’s journey, please refer to the previous Family Matters blog.). Indeed, the pressure placed on an NCAA Division I head coach is high, and McGown took matters into his own hands and decided to take control of his own destiny –– and that of his family (wife Sarah and daughters Presley [9] and Stella [7]).  He simply asked himself, “Am I living life in a way that I want? Is it bringing me joy and satisfaction?”

“I kept thinking, ‘This [head coaching] commitment is taking these things from me.’ To a large degree, it was about me personally and to some degree, it was about my family. I want the story of our family to unfold in a certain way and I want my relationships to be the kinds of relationships that I want to have. [My life] story wasn’t a bad story the way it was going but it just wasn’t unfolding the way I wanted it to.”

And what he wanted most out of life at this point in his journey was to have more experiences with his two girls, before they were up and out on their own.

To be sure, both Hambly and McGown have taken the right approach to the problem of the intricate work-life balance. And they are not alone. In late October of this year, two of the country’s most powerful men both took their personal and family needs to heart when making career decisions.

“In case you missed it, Wisconsin Republican Representative Paul Ryan, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, laid down some conditions for seeking the position of House Speaker –– and one of them was that his caucus accept that he would be spending less time on the road because he needs to spend time with this three young children. Then, vice president Joe Biden announced that he will forego a third try at the presidency, in part because he and his family had needed time to recover from the death of his son, Beau” (Martin, Oct. 25, 2015).

It’s about time both men and women realize it is perfectly acceptable to take time to care for their families––and ultimately themselves––first! Not only is it acceptable, but often essential.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Deb's Top-5 Matches of the Week

No. 3 Minnesota @ No. 15 Purdue
Saturday, November 21

Record: 23-3 overall, 15-1 Big 10
Streak: W14
Last outing: defeated Penn State (3-0)

Potential weakness: offense that relies almost exclusively on one player
Perceived strengths: serving and blocking for points
Game changers: the team-carrying play of Daly Santana (Sr., OH)

Record: 20-7 overall, 11-5 Big 10
Streak: W3
Last outing: defeated Northwestern (3-1)

Potential weakness: volatile serving
Perceived strengths: scoring from the pins
Game changers: the potential of Sam Epenesa (Sr., OH) and Danielle Cuttino (So., MH)

Teams like Penn State, Illinois and Wisconsin seemed like the power teams earlier this season—but it’s the Golden Gophers who have quietly and consistently dominated the Big 10 conference. While Santana shines as Minnesota’s big arm, it’s actually blocking that sets apart this driven squad. Three players—Paige Tapp (Jr., MH), Hannah Tapp (Jr., MH) and Molly Lohman (So., MH) have each notched more than one block per set this season.  They should be able to slow down Purdue’s go-to hitter—Annie Drews (Sr., OH)—which will put a wrinkle in the Boilermaker’s super predictable offense and force less savvy players to find ways to score. Purdue needs big nights from Epenesa and Cuttino to pull this one out. That big Minnesota block makes this unlikely. 

Minnesota Athletics

My Pick: Minnesota in four

Southern Illinois @ Wichita State
Friday, November 20

Southern Illinois
Record: 22-7 overall, 13-3 Missouri Valley
Streak: W8
Last outing: defeated Illinois State (3-0) and Indiana State (3-1)

Potential weakness: all aspects of the serve and pass game
Perceived strengths: blocking for points
Game changers: the six-rotation contributions of Andrea Estrada (RS So., OH)

Wichita State
Record: 23-7 overall, 14-2 Missouri Valley
Streak: W4
Last outing: defeated Loyola Chicago (3-2) and Bradley (3-0)

Potential weakness: putting the ball down when it counts
Perceived strengths: strong back row and net defense
Game changers: the efficient attacking of Abbie Lehman and Katie Reily

Wichita State Athletics

Wichita State might set all their attackers, but their offense is really a two-woman show. Keep the middle-blocking duo of Lehman and Reily from taking swings, and you’re in good position to take down the Shockers. The Salukis did exactly that last time around. They didn’t chalk up a ton of aces, but they kept the Shockers off-balance and unable to run a lot of middle. This allowed Southern Illinois to commit blockers and put pressure on the other Wichita State attackers, who did score a lot of points but also made a lot of errors. I think that aggressive serving on the road will be tough for Southern Illinois to maintain, and Wichita State will be able to get their middles firing again.

My Pick: Wichita State

Santa Clara @ No. 12 BYU
Thursday, November 19

Santa Clara
Record: 21-6 overall, 12-3 West Coast
Streak: W3
Last outing: defeated Loyola Marymount (3-0) and Pepperdine (3-0)

Potential weakness: sporadically sloppy serve receive and ball handling
Perceived strengths: efficient, consistent blocking and defense
Game changers: the all-around play of Nikki Hess (Jr., OH)

Record: 23-3 overall, 13-2 West Coast
Streak: W5
Last outing: defeated Portland (3-1) and Gonzaga (3-2)

Potential weakness: grinding out tough matches
Perceived strengths: blocking everything and serving bullets
Game changers: the team-leading play of Alexa Gray (Sr., OH)

With three regular-season matches remaining, the top four teams in the West Coast Conference are separated by just two games—and play each other to close out the regular-season. No. 1 BYU must face co-No. 2 Santa Clara and No. 4 Loyola Marymount, both of which defeated the Cougars last time around. Pressure’s on. Santa Clara pulled off the upset with persistent defense and steady offensive performance. They didn’t shut down Gray, or any of BYU’s attackers—they just contained them and kept balls off the ground.  And Santa Clara’s Hess did a nice job of waiting for her perfect swing, then going for the fences. I think Santa Clara wins this one despite the Cougars’ significant home-court advantage. It’ll keep them focused and more motivated than they already are. 

Santa Clara Athletics

My Pick: Santa Clara in five

Syracuse @ Pittsburgh
Friday, November 20

Record: 20-7 overall, 11-5 Atlantic Coast
Streak: W3
Last outing: defeated Duke (3-1) and Wake Forest (3-0)

Potential weakness: below-average backrow defense
Perceived strengths: not-at-all average front row defense
Game changers: the tide-turning blocks of Leah Levert (So., MH) and Santita Ebanqwese (Fr., MH)

Record: 21-7 overall, 11-5 Atlantic Coast
Streak: WI
Last outing: fell to North Carolina (0-3), defeated NC State (3-2)

Potential weakness: sometimes sloppy ball handling and
Perceived strengths: scrappy defense and dominant offense
Game changers: the efficient production of Kadi Kullerkann (fifth year, OH/OPP)

Pittsburgh and Syracuse are part of a three-way tie for No. 4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Goes without saying that this match matters. The Panthers defeated the Orange in their first brawl of the season. Kullerkann was a big part of that success.  She absolutely tore it up offensively, allowing other hitters to play loose and swing hard as well. Syracuse actually out-blocked Pittsburg and held them to a lower hitting efficiency—they just couldn’t score offensive points themselves and really struggled siding out and keeping balls off the ground. I think their sub-par back row play will hurt them again—Kullerkann is smart enough not to hit into the middle of the block.  

Pittsburgh Athletics

My Pick: Pittsburgh in four

No. 14 Florida @ No. 25 Texas A&M
Sunday, November 22

Record: 20-5 overall, 12-4 SEC
Streak: W2
Last outing: defeated Alabama (3-0) and Tennessee (3-0)

Potential weakness: roller-coaster serving
Perceived strengths: blocking and attacking at a very high level
Game changers: the steady serve receive of Amy Nettles (So., L)

Texas A&M
Record: 19-6 overall, 12-2 SEC
Streak: W10
Last outing: defeated Ole Miss (3-2) and Mississippi State (3-0)

Potential weakness: playing at a slightly lower level than the top dogs
Perceived strengths: consistent performances from most positions
Game changers: the point-scoring of Rhamat Alhassan (So., MH) 

Florida made quick work of Texas A&M earlier this season—which didn’t really shock anybody. Since then, the Aggies have yet to drop a match, but the Gators dropped a what-were-they-thinking match to Auburn. Oops. We can expect a better showing for Texas A&M this time around—they’ve got home court advantage—but I don’t expect them to win this one. Here’s why: The Aggies didn’t do anything wrong in their first meeting with the Gators—they just weren’t as good. Florida serves tough, generates a lot of swings, blocks for points and puts the ball down at an incredibly high clip. If Texas A&M can improve their serve and pass performance, they may pick off a set or two. It might happen. 
UF/Jim Burgess

My Pick: Florida in four