Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Deb's Top-5: Big Mid-week Showdown

by Deb Kniffin

Noteworthy: Wisconsin beat the Nebraska for the first time since 1978 when they swept the Huskers in front of a sell-out crowd at the UW Field House. Wow. Just wow. I can’t even imagine how cool that must have been for the players and die-hard Badger fans alike.

Top-5 Recap:

My Pick: Nebraska def. Minnesota in four
Reality: Nebraska def. Minnesota in five

My Pick: BYU def. Loyola Marymount in five
Reality: BYU def. Loyola Marymount in three

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

My Pick: Pittsburgh def. Louisville in four
Reality: Pittsburgh def. Louisville in four

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

Last Week’s Record: 3-2
Overall Record: 26-14

No. 4 Wisconsin @ No. 13 Purdue
Wednesday, October 29, 7:30pm ET
TV: Big Ten Network

The Badgers continue to dominate, but I guess that’s kind of the expectation when you return arguably the best setter in the nation and a veteran cast from your NCAA Finals squad. In another Big Ten battle, Purdue will attempt to topple this re-emerged powerhouse and improve their position in conference.  

Record: 18-2 overall, 9-1 in conference
Conference: Big Ten

Lauren Carlini (So., S) runs the Badgers’ 5-1 offense and continues to dominate—she just earned her first Big Ten Player of the Week honor. Taylor Morey (Jr., L) took over libero duties this season and is more than earning her keep. She was just named Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Week (an accolade she happened to share with my sister, Katie Stadick). The Badgers’ hitter thrives in her role—the middles block a ton of balls and stay low-error on offense, while the pins swing away and score a lot of points.

Wisconsin State Journal

Record: 18-4 overall, 8-2 in conference
Conference: Big Ten

Val Nichol (Sr., S) continues to set the Boilermakers’ 5-1 offensive system. Her team is clipping a .275 hitting efficiency this, and she does a nice job getting hittable balls to go-to Annie Drews (Jr., OH). Drews leads all hitters by a long shot with 329 kills—the rest of the hitters have between 100 to 200 kills. Nichol doesn’t force them the ball and reserves their attempts for situations in which she feels they can score.

I’m not sure Wisconsin can be stopped right now. Purdue’s main advantage will be competing on their home court. But position-by-position, the Badgers outshine the Boilermakers. With the way Wisconsin is passing and playing defense lately, Carlini will be able to run the court however she wants. That’s a little bit scary since she’s got the savvy and decision making capabilities of a fourth-year player already.

My Pick: Wisconsin in four

No. 2 Washington @ No. 16 UCLA
Friday, October 31, 9pm ET

If you didn’t watch this match last time around, you missed out. Don’t worry. This is your chance at redemption. Do. Not. Miss. This. Match. Last time it was a five-set battle of epic proportions (wow- apparently I’m feeling dramatic today). UCLA fell to Washington in 205 points worth of intense, high-level volleyball. Two all-star players (UCLA’s Karsta Lowe and Washington’s Krista Vansant) and their talented programs will be showcased.

Red Box Pictures
Record: 21-0 overall, 10-0 in conference
Conference: Pac-12

Krista Vansant (Sr., OH) is the all-star on this squad, but I want to take a look at the other hitters. The team is collectively hitting a .332 hitting efficiency. That means players in every position are thriving in their roles. This is largely due to the smart, consistent setting of Katy Beals (Jr., S) and Bailey Tanner (RS Fr., OH/S). Crisp defense—compliments of Cassie Strickland—also makes this low-error, efficient offense a reality. And then there’s the hitters themselves who just flat out get it done when called upon to do so.

Record: 15-6 overall, 6-4 in conference

Julie Consani (Sr., S) sets the Bruins’ 5-1 offensive system, and it’s no surprise that her primary gun is Karsta Lowe (RS SR., OH). The veteran player has dominated throughout pre-conference and conference play and carried the team to success. On the other end of the age/experience spectrum we have the underclassman duo of Reily Buechler (Fr., OH) and Olga Strantzali (Fr., OH), who are doing lots of nice things on the court. 

Both of these teams have a huge outside hitter that is often times relied on to carry the team. I think that Washington has a stronger and more experienced supporting cast of players, but UCLA’s role players have developed nicely over the course of the season and we really don’t know what their ceiling looks like—given their age they could still make significant strides this season. The deciding factor in this battle will be the defense game. Vansant and Lowe will both chalk up jaw dropping, sport-court shaking kills. Slowing them down rather than stopping them is the goal. But as they are slowed down, it is imperative that other hitters aren’t allowed to go off and start scoring. That means crisp defense all night long will be needed to win this one. And a lot of times, crisp defense comes down to focus and fire. Raw ability paired with home court advantage paired with the sting of a five-set loss earlier this season gives the edge to UCLA.

My Pick: UCLA in five

No. 7 Colorado State @ UNLV
Saturday, November 1, 10pm ET

Colorado State is a big fish in a small pound these days. Just two Mountain West programs—Utah State and UNLV—have forced the top-10 ranked Rams to extra sets through conference play. UNLV hosts Colorado State this weekend and will attempt to snap the Ram’s 17-match winning streak. 

Colorado State
Record: 22-1 overall, 10-0 in conference
Conference: Mountain West

Since battling onto the scene in 2013, this squad has not slowed down. Colorado State runs a 5-1 offensive system and collectively hits a .295 hitting efficiency. Their insane level of offensive production and their impressive team record is a testament to the skill and savvy of their veteran lineup.  Three redshirt seniors—Deedra Foss (RS Sr., S), Marlee Reynolds (RS Sr., OH) and Kelsey Snider (RS Sr., MH)—hold key roles on the court along with returning starters Adrianna Culbert (Junior, OH/OPP) and Jaime Colaizzi (Jr., L).

Record: 19-5 overall, 7-2 in conference
Conference: Mountain West

UNLV runs a 5-1 offensive system with Alexis Patterson (Fr., S). The Rebel’s cornerstone player is Daryn Glenn (Sr., OH), a six-rotation hitter who has posted the most kills and second-most digs on the team this season. Fellow outside Alyssa Wing (So., OH) adds another strong arm to the pins, while Bree Hammel (RS So., MH) provides a quick, efficient attack in the middle that keeps opposing blockers honest. Hammel also contributes over half of the team’s total blocks.

UNLV hung with Colorado State in their first meeting of the season. When the Rebels host the Rams and defend their home court this weekend, I only see the match getting closer. I think that if UNLV passes and defends at a high level, they have a chance at stealing this match. Strong back row play will allow them to set hittable balls to Hammel. This is key, because she needs to draw blockers for Glenn and Wing so they can go off and take over the match. Fortunately for UNLV, Allison Davies (Sr., L) is more than capable of chalking up a lights-out back row performance.  

My Pick: UNLV in five

Belmont @ Eastern Kentucky
Saturday, November 1, 2pm ET
TV: OVC Digital Network

Belmont and Eastern Kentucky are currently ranked No. 2 and No. 3 (respectively) in the Ohio Valley conference. Eastern Kentucky stole a five-set win in their first meeting of the season. I expect another brawl. Belmont will be looking to maintain their No. 2 ranking, while Eastern Kentucky will be fighting for a share of second place heading into the final stretch of conference play.

Record: 12-12 overall, 8-2 in conference
Conference: Ohio Valley

The Bruins (not to be confused with UCLA) run a 5-1 offensive system with Emma Price (RS Fr., S). This team thrives on low-error performance. Their hitters are all smart and efficient. I like how they play within themselves and don’t try to do more than they are capable. It makes for a strong team. Primary hitters are Scarlet Gable (Sr., OH) and Alex Martin (Sr., MH). Both post hitting efficiencies above .400, which is pretty solid at any level. Brie Lewis (Fr., MH/OPP) adds another viable scoring option to the mix and puts up a solid block. Defense is the bread and butter of the Bruins, and they rely on good passing to generate those quality looks for their hitters.

Belmont Athletics

Eastern Kentucky
Record: 17-10 overall, 7-3 in conference
Conference: Ohio Valley

Abbey Cvelbar (Sr., S) runs Eastern Kentucky’s 5-1 offensive system. She’s not necessarily a great setter—the team is only hitting .196 collectively—but she does find ways to get her team wins. One of her biggest assets is Rachel Vick (Jr., MH). She’s chalked up the second-most kills on the team along and is by far and away the most reliable hitter with her .322 hitting efficiency. Alexis Plagans (Sr., OH) and Celina Sanks (Fr., OH) take more swings than Vicks, but are hitting just .184 and .164 respectively. Plagans has taken two times more swings than Vick and Sanks—which is likely a function of weak passing and poor setting decisions.

Belmont will win this one. I feel pretty confident. They are a better team. They are very low-error and play as a cohesive unit, staying within themselves and chipping away. I think Eastern Kentucky is winning conference matches because they find ways to win, not because they are incredibly talented. I think they won the first match because they got crafty and some players caught fire in an unbelievable way. Their first meeting was the conference opener, and this time around Belmont will know what is coming. It’ll be harder to catch them off guard, and they will have had time to prepare.

My Pick: Belmont in five

New Hampshire @ Binghamton
Sunday, November 2, 1pm ET

This is a big week for New Hampshire. The American East frontrunner will face No. 2-ranked Binghamton and No. 3-ranked Albany as they battle to stay atop the conference rankings. That will be no easy feat. Earlier this season, Albany handed New Hampshire their sole conference loss, and Binghamton forced New Hampshire to five sets.

New Hampshire
13-11 overall, 6-1 in conference
Conference: American East

The Wildcats run a 5-1 offensive system with Taylor Dunklau (Sr., S). Her offense is best described as steady and logical. Every hitter swings in the .185 to .239 hitting efficiency range. Every hitter has over 100 kills. The most-set player has the most kills, the second-most-set player has the second-most kills and so on down the line for all the starting hitters. The logic is a little bit astounding. While it is, well, logical, that’s not normally how it works out. Thus, my assessment of this team is steady. Everything they do is okay, from passing to setting to hitting to serving to blocking to digging. They don’t shine. They just get it done.

Record: 7-16 overall, 5-2 in conference
Conference: American East

Amanda Dettmann (Sr., S) runs Binghamton’s 5-1 offensive system. The Bear Cats set a lot of balls to pin hitters Allison Hovie (So., OH) and Kristen Hovie (Sr., OH), who can put the ball down but sometimes struggle to terminate. It has to be a pretty perfect scenario for them to score. Dettman relies on Megan Burgess (Jr., MH/OH) when she needs a player to put the ball away. Binghamton is a decent blocking team and is led by the strong net play of Bianca Anderson (So., MH/OH) and her one block per set.

The Bearcats really pushed the Wildcats in their last meeting and just barely walked away with the loss. I think these teams play a pretty similar game—both aren’t particularly efficient and both make a lot of offensive errors. That means the match will come down to staying low-error. Patience is a huge factor in that endeavor. It is easy to really want a kill, feel pressure and swing for the fences at a trap set. A good hitter can slow herself down, know when to go for it and really wait for the right moment. I think that veteran hitters like the Hovie sisters and Burgess will have the patience to pull this off and really put together strong showings. That should give Binghamton the edge and upset.

My Pick: Binghamton in four

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Deb's Top-5: Previews + Predictions

by Deb Kniffin

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

Top-5 Recap:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Pick: Nebraska in four

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Pick: BYU in five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Pick: Oregon in four

Louisville @ Pittsburgh
Sunday, October 26

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Pick: Pittsburgh in four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Pick: Kentucky in five