Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Deb's Top-5: Previews + Predictions

by Deb Kniffin

Noteworthy: The undefeated Washington Huskies dealt the Wisconsin Badgers their first loss of the season in a five-set home-court victory. Until last weekend, neither team had dropped a match since being eliminated late in the 2013 NCAA tournament (Washington fell in the semis while Wisconsin fell in the finals). Last week, the question was who could stop the Badgers. This week, the question is who can stop the Huskies.

Top-5 Recap:

My Pick: Wisconsin def. USC in five
Reality: Wisconsin def. USC in four

My Pick: Texas def. Nebraska in five
Reality: Texas def. Nebraska in five

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

My Pick: BYU def. Utah in five
Reality: BYU def. Utah in three

My Pick: Missouri def. Miami-FL in three
Reality: Miami-FL def. Missouri in four

Last Week’s Record: 4-1
Overall Record: 10-5 (11-5 by today's post)

No. 19 Arizona State @ No. 18 Arizona
Wednesday, September 24
TV: Pac-12 Arizona

Another pair of in-state, Pac-12 rivals will go toe-to-toe in the conference opener. Historically, the Sun Devils hold a 48-44 edge over the Wildcats. Arizona is off to an 11-1 start and has strung together five consecutive wins. Arizona State is 10-2 with their most recent loss coming to a red-hot Colorado State squad.

Record: 11-1
Conference: Pac-12

Some setters might be intimidated by constantly going to the same hitter, but not Penina Snuka (So., S). She continues to feed almost every ball to Madi Kingdon (Sr., OH), and with good reason. Kingdon (Sr., OH) is apparently not just a flash in the pan. After taking a ton of swings (and scoring a ton of points) early in the season, she hasn’t slowed down or faltered as the Wildcats’ go-to hitter, top blocker and solid defender.

Arizona Athletics
Arizona State
Record: 10-2
Conference: Pac-12

The Sun Devils run a 5-1 offense with Blanca Arellano (Jr., S). Three hitters see the majority of sets for Arizona State—Macey Gardner (Jr., OH), BreElle Bailey (So., OH) and McKenzie Willey (So., OH). Gardner leads all hitters and servers, making her a serious offensive threat. Willey does not have the best hitting efficiency (.188), but she has come on strong in recent contests. Defensively, the Sun Devils rely on their block, which is paced by Bailey (slightly unexpected as she is a pin hitter) and Mercedes Binns (Jr., MH).

History dictates a Sun Devil win in this contest, but I just don’t see that happening. Kingdon will undoubtedly face the best blockers she has seen all season in Arizona State’s Bailey and Binns, but I think she has the shots needed to score regardless. The Wildcats will need strong back row play to contain the offense of the Sun Devils’ Gardner and Willey. Considering the Wildcats have three defenders with 100 plus digs this season, I don’t think that will be a problem.

My Pick: Arizona in four

No. 12 North Carolina @ No. 6 Florida State
Friday, September 26

The Seminoles head into conference play on an 11-match winning streak, marking the program’s best start to a season since 1997.  North Carolina continues to slowly climb the rankings with their consistent play and commendable victories over respectable programs (such as Oklahoma, Kentucky, Michigan State and Michigan).

Florida State
Record: 11-0
Conference: ACC

Florida State continues to stand out on defense. Katie Mosher (RS Sr., L) needs just 73 digs to claim FSU’s All-Time Career Digs record (currently 1,787) while Sarah Burrington (RS SO., MH) has accumulated nearly half of the team’s total blocks with 59. This defensive pair provides a nice platform for the squad’s offensive guns—ACC Player of the Week Katie Horton (So., OH) and heavy hitter Nicole Walch (So., OH)—to do their thing.

North Carolina
Record: 9-1
Conference: ACC

Earlier this season, the Tar Heels had a number of “go-to” hitters. In recent matches, Lauren McAdoo (Sr., OH) has broken away from the pack and stolen the show. An upperclassman, she plays with maturity and confidence that’s propelling her team to success. McAdoo is not a strong blocker, but her teammates pick up the slack and still manage to collectively out-block opponents 110-73. Leading that campaign with 53 total blocks is Victoria McPherson (Jr., MH).

I expect this match to be a defensive grind. Both of these teams are very strong in the back row. The week before Horton’s distinction, North Carolina’s Ece Taner (Sr., L) was named ACC Player of the Week for her defensive prowess.  The big pin hitters on both squads will need to play with patience. Long rallies are inevitable. Staying low-error and swinging away when the time is right will be vital to success.  It is there that I see North Carolina holding the edge. 

My Pick: North Carolina in four

No. 23 Kansas @ Oklahoma
Saturday, September 27

Kansas will hit the road for Oklahoma in this Big 12 conference opener.  Last season, these teams split. Each squad won on their home court and lost on the road, with neither meeting going more than four sets.

Record: 12-2
Conference: Big 12

John Young/
Senior experience and freshmen fire highlight this Kansas team. The Jayhawks continue to run a 5-1 offensive system with Ainise Havili (Fr., S). Her set distribution is balanced, and four hitters—Chelsea Albers (Sr., OH), Sara McClinton (Sr., OH), Kayla Cheadle (Fr., MH) and Madison Rigdon (Fr., OH)— have notched 100 plus kills this season. The Jayhawks are strong on defense with scrappy digs and physical blocks. 

Record: 9-4
Conference: Big 12

The Sooners run a 5-1 offensive system with Julia Doyle (Jr., S). She’s led the team to a .261 hitting efficiency and does a nice job spreading out the offense among her five primary hitters. Kierra Holst  (Jr., OH) leads all hitters, followed closely by Kimmy Gardiner (So., OH), Madison Ward (RS So., OH) and Marion Hazelwood (Fr., MH).  Micaela Spann (So., MH) is a viable scoring option as well, but her primary responsibility is to block a lot of balls. She leads the team with 44 (of 92 total). 

These squads both run very balanced offensive systems. I think balanced offenses are a little bit more common in the Big 12 than in the Pac-12 or Big Ten. If someone has a theory as to why that might be, or thinks it is inaccurate, chime in! I have theories of my own, of course. Anyway. I think Kansas will win this match based on their superiority on defense. Looking at personnel, they have the better defenders in both the front and back row. And they won’t be thrown off by Oklahoma’s balanced offense featuring multiple hitters taking swings and scoring because it is what they see every day in practice.

My Pick: Kansas in four

Michigan State @ No. 15 Purdue
Saturday, September 27
TV: BTN Plus

Michigan State will face Indiana and Purdue will face Michigan the night prior to Saturday’s bout, so both teams will not be entirely “fresh” for the contest. A fun Purdue crowd should create a great environment for this Big Ten opening weekend match. 

Michigan State
Record:  7-4
Conference: Big Ten

Rachel Minarick (Fr., S) continues to run Michigan State’s 5-1 offensive system. Allyssah Fitterer (So., OPP) and Chloe Reinig ( So., OH) have emerged as the Spartans’ go-to players. They are consistent on offense (.229 and .287 hitting efficiencies, respectively) and strong on defense (as a squad they’ve out-blocked opponents 101-67). The grounding force and key to success for this young squad is back-row dandy Kori Moster (Sr., L).

Record: 10-2
Conference: Big Ten

After serving as Purdue’s do-it-all player last season as a hitter and setter, standout Val Nichol (Sr., S) has taken full responsibilities in the Boilermakers’ 5-1 offensive system this season. Fear not: she still swings at a ton of balls and has notched 42 kills (.344 hitting efficiency). Annie Drews (Jr., OH) has stepped up her offense this season and leads all hitters. It looks like she has really found her confidence and taken on a leadership roll—at least from the stands. As a squad, Purdue serves aggressively. Four payers have tallied 10 plus aces this season (Nichols leads with 12).

Charles Jischke
There isn’t much question in my mind that Purdue wins this one. Their home-court advantage is significant as they have an active student section, and Michigan State has struggled finding their rhythm so far this season. I think Purdue’s aggressive serve makes this match a done deal. While Moster is good on defense, she’ll have multiple aggressive servers blistering balls at her all night. I think it’ll be more than she and the other passers can handle.

My Pick: Purdue in three

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Special Deb's Pick: USC vs. UCLA

by Deb Kniffin

Pac-12 conference play starts with a bang as these cross-town rivals battle on the Trojans’ home court. Both programs have only fallen to other ranked opponents so far this season, with USC dropping matches to Wisconsin, Florida and Texas A&M and UCLA dropping matches to Loyola Marymount and Penn State. Needless to say, this one will be worth watching. 

TV: Tuesday, 9/23 at 8pm PT on Pac-12 Networks

Record: 7-3
Conference: Pac-12

USC is a very strong serving team. They have chalked up 67 aces so far this season compared to their opponents’ 26 aces. Actually, let me rephrase. USC’s Samantha Bricio (Jr., OH) is a very strong server. She has chalked up 37 aces (of the team’s 67 aces) so far this season compared to her opponents’ 26 aces. On top of being a serving stud, Bricio leads all attackers, is second on the team in digs and puts up a solid block.

Check out a breakdown of Bricio's serve:

Record: 9-2
Conference: Pac-12

The Bruins head into conference play on a six-match winning streak. Their recent success has instilled the team with confidence, and players other than super star Karsta Lowe (RS SR., OH) are starting to find their rhythm and contribute. Claire Felix (So., MH/OH), Reily Buechler (Fr., OH) Olga Strantzali (Fr., OH) and Lowe all notched double-digit kills in the Bruins’ three-set victory over Yale. Their most recent contest saw .357 and .412 hitting efficiencies from Buechler and Strantzali respectively (along with a .387 hitting efficiency from Lowe).

Both of these squads are primarily led by a do-it-all, six-rotation outside hitter (Bricio for USC and Lowe for UCLA). USC has one standout server (Bricio), where UCLA has two pretty good servers (Lowe and Strantzali). So what tips the scale? I think UCLA’s supporting players (i.e. everyone who isn’t Lowe) will propel the Bruins to victory. The front line is doing a nice job staying low error, and their offense is gradually becoming more balanced, which gives Lowe more room to terminate. Having two tough servers keeps constant pressure on the Trojans as well.

My Pick: UCLA in five

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

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

by Deb Kniffin

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

Top-5 Recap:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Record: 8-0
Conference: Big Ten

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

Record: 6-2
Conference: Pac-12

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

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

My Pick: Wisconsin in five

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

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

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

Record: 7-2
Conference: Big Ten

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

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

My Pick: Texas in five

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

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

Record: 8-2
Conference: Big Ten

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

Iowa State
Record: 5-3
Conference: Big 12

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

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

My Pick: Iowa State in four

Utah @ No. 12 BYU 
Friday, September 19

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

Record: 9-0

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

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

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

My Pick: BYU in five

Missouri @ Miami-FL
Saturday, September 20

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

Record: 8-4
Conference: SEC

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

Record: 5-4
Conference: ACC

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

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

My Pick: Missouri in three

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

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

by Deb Kniffin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Record: 3-2
Conference: Pac-12

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

UCLA Athletics
Record: 4-2
Conference: Big West  

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

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

My Pick: Hawai’i in five

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

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

Record: 5-1
Conference: Big 12

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

Record: 3-2
Conference: Patriot

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

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

My Pick: Kansas in three

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

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

San Diego
Record: 5-1
Conference: West Coast

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

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

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

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

My Pick: San Diego in three

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

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

Record: 6-0
Conference: Pac-12

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

Record: 4-0
Conference: Big 12

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

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

My Pick: Texas in three

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

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

Record: 5-1
Conference: ACC

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

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

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

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

My Pick: Stanford in four