Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Deb's Top-5: The Final Week of the Regular Season

by Deb Kniffin

Notable News: Happy Holidays! This is a great time of year for so many reasons. Think turkey and cranberries, color-changing leaves, crisp mornings, the conclusion of conference play and the NCAA Tournament Selection Show. Does it get any better? Well. Yes. The NCAA Championship + holidays combination is pretty above average too. So let’s enjoy this and eagerly anticipate that. Anyway. This week, I’m giving thanks for awesome matches to follow in this last week of the regular season play--along with a  lot of other things.

Top-5 Recap:

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

My Pick: Long Beach State def. UC Davis in five
Reality: Long Beach State def. UC Davis in three

My Pick: Illinois State def. Missouri State in four
Reality: Illinois State def. Missouri State in five

My Pick: Iowa State def. Kansas in five
Reality: Kansas def. Iowa State in four

My Pick: Virginia def. Pittsburgh in five
Reality: Pittsburgh def. West Virginia in four

Last Week’s Record: 2-3
Overall Record: 35-24

No. 1 Stanford @ No. 5 Washington
Wednesday, November 26 - 8pm ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks

This is the battle of undefeated vs. the recently undefeated. Stanford has navigated a grueling pre-conference and PAC-12 schedule without suffering a single loss. That’s even more impressive right now than it was a few weeks ago when two other top-5 teams (Florida State and Washington) also boasted undefeated records. So obviously, Washington is the recently undefeated mentioned above.  These top-5 teams meet for the first time in their second-to-last conference meeting of the season.

Stanford Athletics
Record: 28-0 overall, 18-0 in conference
Conference: PAC-12

I don’t know what to tell you. Stanford is ridiculously good. They do everything really, really well. Tough serving—paced by Megan McGehee (Jr., MH)—along with ridiculous backcourt defense—led by Kyle Gilbert (Sr., L)—make this team not only really tough to score runs against, but tough to score on period . They, however, have no problem scoring on opponents, no matter how top-tier. The Cardinal have survived PAC-12 play with a .317 hitting efficiency. All five primary hitters have 200+ kills on the season. Two of those five—Inky Ajanaku (Jr., MH) and Merete Lutz (RS Fr., MH) have posted .446 and .451 hitting efficiencies and notched 1.14 and 1.19 blocks per set, respectively. I think that probably makes them the best middle hitter tandem in the country. Yikes. Yikes. Yikes. Who’s voting they win it all?

Record: 27-2 overall, 16-2 in conference
Conference: PAC-12

Team Vansant was close—SO close—to going undefeated heading into this much-anticipated Stanford match. Darn those dead average teams that suck you down to their level. Against both Utah and Colorado, the Huskies faltered in just one area: offensive performance. Normally one of their strengths, the Huskies really struggled with getting the ball to the right hitters in the right situations. Vansant added extra attempts to her already heavy load and subsequently had an off night. Lianna Sybeldon (Jr., MH) and Kaleigh Nelson (Sr., OH) were hitting .323 and Crissy Jones (Fr., OH/MH) was hitting .533, .323 and .250 respectively, but wasn’t getting enough attempts to change the flow of the match in the final two frames. If the set distribution was a result of below-average passing, we don’t have to worry about Washington being back on track heading into the final stretch. After her performances against Arizona and Arizona State, Cassie Strickland earned a PAC-12 Defensive Player of the Week award.

Do. Not. Miss. This. Match. These are final-four caliber teams. This could serve as a nice preview of a later-round NCAA tournament matchup, depending on how the bracket lines up. Stanford and Washington are similar in that they are very physical. They block well and are smooth lateral movers along the net. They pass well and are agile in the back row. They serve well and put pace and movement on the ball. They both have great hitters in every position and can put the ball down at a high level. Their biggest difference is the location of that one game-changer and how much they are relied upon. Vansant is a pin-hitter and carries the team. Ajanaku is a middle and can carry the team, but has a supporting cast that oftentimes steps up to do it for her.

My Pick: Stanford in four

No. 10 Nebraska @ No. 11 Illinois
Wednesday, November 26 - 8pm ET

I was torn between previewing this match or the Nebraska vs. Penn State match. Both are intriguing: Penn State fell to Nebraska earlier this season, and Nebraska fell to Illinois earlier this season. But. I thought it would be more valuable to pay attention to the Nebraska vs. Illinois match as we head into the NCAA tournament. Here’s why: Relative to past seasons, Nebraska has struggled with handled big moments this season. I want to pay close attention to how the Cornhuskers respond to the pressure of being on the road and trying to avoid the sweep at the hands of the Illini. I think it’ll be telling of how deep they advance in postseason play.

Record: 20-7 overall, 14-4 in conference
Conference: Big Ten
It’s hard to be a team with a high ceiling and lots of potential. When expectations aren’t met, people tend to react with a sigh of disappointment. When expectations are met, people tend to react with unimpressed acknowledgement (no matter how lofty the expectation). Nebraska is definitely that team this season. They’ve got tons of potential--cue the Kadie (So., OH) and Amber (So., OH) Rolfzen and Kelsey Fien (Jr., OH)—along with lofty expectations and enough losses under their belt to get a critical eye from almost everyone. Including me. That might not be fair, but it’s part of being a top-tier team. And learning to play under that pressure paves the way to championships. I think senior leadership in a few key position—I’m thinking specifically of Mary Pollmiller (Sr., S)—will help this Nebraska squad keep steady as conference play winds down and they prepare for playoffs. 

Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Media Relations

Record: 22-7 overall, 14-4 in conference
Conference: Big Ten

After kicking off the season in a 6-2 offensive system, Illinois has locked into a 5-1 for the second half of conference play. It seems to have helped their offensive consistency—Alexis Viliunas (Jr., S) is very comfortable setting heavy-armed pin hitters Jocelyn Birks (RS Jr., OH) and Liz McMahon (Sr., OPP). Their defense has also improved over the course of the season as newbie libero Brandi Donnelly (Fr., L) adjusts to the speed of Big Ten volleyball.  Like Nebraska, this Illinois squad has combated the high-ceiling thing (literally—their opposite McMahon is 6-6), but as they continue to learn how to handle the pressure of potential, they’re improving and competing with top teams.

Illinois controlled the side-out game when they downed Nebraska on the Cornhuskers’ home court. They passed well in serve receive, spread out their offense enough to avoid well-formed blocks and were effective at finding holes on the court with their attacks. Besides that slight side-out advantage, the matchup was pretty even across the board. Both teams hit pretty well, blocked well, played okay defense and served pretty averagely. At this late date in the season, I still think these two teams are evenly matched player-for-player. That being said, I think the side-out battle once again decides this contest. I think Illinois’ side-out game will stay strong on their home court, whereas I can see Nebraska struggling to stay composed in a rowdy Huff Hall crowd.

My Pick: Illinois in five

No. 21 Duke @ No.  7 North Carolina
Wednesday, November 26 - 2pm ET

The ACC has three flagship teams: Duke, North Carolina and Florida State. All three are top-25 programs, and all three should make the NCAA tournament. With one game of separation between each team in conference standings and the only automatic bid going to the conference victor, this match is a big one.

Record: 21-6 overall, 13-3 in conference

Duke is a very physical team, and a significant amount of that physicality (as if it’s a measurable thing) is wrapped up in the middle. Alyse Whitaker (So., MH) and Jordan Tucker (So., MH) are strong blockers and really force opponents to mix up their shots. And while Emily Sklar (Jr., OH) has led the team all season offensively, it was Whitaker and Tucker who stepped up big against North Carolina earlier this season and kept the team in the match. They notched 15 and 14 kills respectively and shared a .393 hitting efficiency. 

Duke Athletics

North Carolina
Record: 24-2 overall, 15-1 in conference
Conference: ACC

North Carolina has some athletes in the front row that move really well laterally despite being tall--check out Paige Neuenfeldt (Jr., MH) and Victoria McPherson (Jr., MH) in specific. They’re absolutely shutting down opposing hitters and combining for an average of 2.95 blocks per set. The athleticism of this squad doesn’t stop at the block: pin hitters Chaniel Nelson (RS Sr., OPP) and Lauren McAdoo (Sr., OH) and Leigh Andrew (Jr., OH) are all really physical as well, but more importantly, they’re volleyball players. They know when to swing hard and when to take off some heat. I really like the way they play and patiently wait for the right time to rip away.

For a team that traditionally relies on physicality at the net, it was rattling for Duke to be so authoritatively out-blocked. The Tar Heels bested them 11.5 to 3.0 at the net last time around. Not shocking, given the presence of McPherson and Neuenfeldt on the Tar Heels side. I think their dominant performance really rattled Sklar and knocked her off her game. But it didn’t seem to affect Whitaker and Tucker. If the Blue Devils can get all three guns--Sklar, Whitaker and Tucker--firing at once, they’ll be in this match. If they can pick up their blocking and thwart the Tar Heels offensive efforts, they just might win. And this is where homecourt advantage comes into play. I’m not sure North Carolina will be rattle-able (new word) at home. I actually expect them to be more fired up than usual.

My Pick: North Carolina in four

No. 14 Arizona @ No. 22 Arizona State
Friday, November 28 - 9pm ET
TV: PAC-12 Arizona

Arizona and Arizona State kicked off conference play against each other, and they’ll end conference play the same way. Yes, I’m covering two PAC 12 matches this week. And yes, I previewed this exact meeting earlier in the season. And yes, I think it’s just as riveting this time around, if not more so. These are top-25, evenly matched, in-state rivals battling over Thanksgiving break on the home court of the squad that was bested last time around. I mean, come on people. This is good stuff right here. Tune in.
Record: 22-8 overall, 11-7 in conference
Conference: PAC 12

Team Kingdon hit some road bumps mid-season. After a blazing-hot start that featured wins over UCLA and Arizona State, the Wild Cats tallied as many losses as wins throughout the bulk of conference play. A late push gave them three wins in a row, which guaranteed them a .500 record (at least) in conference. In case the above reference alluded you, Madi Kingdon (Sr., OH) continues to carry this squad. When she’s able to hit her stride, the team wins. She’s the top scorer, a strong server and digger and a capable blocker. Oh, and she competes. For Kingdon to hit her stride and do her thing, her team needs to play solid defense and produce just enough offense from other positions (middles and opposite) to keep opposing blockers honest.

Arizona State
Record: 18-2 overall, 8-10 in conference
Conference: PAC-12

If Arizona is Team Kingdon, Arizona State is Team Gardner. While they thrive at the pins behind the play of Macey Gardner (Jr., OH) they struggle at the net when it comes to blocking. No player has tabbed more than .84 blocks per set. That’s just not going to cut it in PAC-12 volleyball. Halle Harker attempts to compensate for the weak blocking, but that’s a tough uphill battle as a back row player. There’s only so much you can do when the ball’s coming with serious pace and not being funneled to a specific zone on the court. Harker’s strong serve along with the strong serving of setter Bianca Arellano and Gardner are the only things making Harker’s job any easier. When their serving is on, it can knock opponents into more predictable offensive patterns and thus help out the defense.

In their conference opener, Arizona bested Arizona State 21-25, 25-22, 25-21, 25-27, 15-13. Honestly, I don’t know what more Arizona State could have thrown at Arizona. The Sun Devil’s star player, Gardner, had 30 kills on 60 swings and hit .350. My shoulder is sore just reading that stat line. I think the one area Arizona State needed to be better was with their blocking--they successfully slowed down Kingdon and held her to a .066 hitting efficiency, but pretty much left the other hitters alone. That strategy works great if the other hitters can’t figure out how to carry the team. In this case, Arizona’s Halli Amaro (Jr., MH) and Ashley Harris (So., OH) stepped up big, and Arizona State couldn’t figure out how to slow them down on-the-fly. I think they’ll do better with those “other gals” next time around. The disheartening part in all this is that “slowing Kingdon down” still meant she chalked up 20 kills. Homecourt advantage might give the Sun Devils a boost, but I just don’t think they’ll be able to stop Arizona without some serious smoke and mirrors.

My Pick: Arizona in five

No. 6 Florida @ No. 3 Texas
Saturday, November 29 - 2:30pm ET
TV: Longhorn Network

This non-conference matchup is well timed for both programs. After blazing through their conference slates, they no doubt needed a refresher course on playing at a high level before diving into the NCAA tournament next week. Texas has strung together straight wins, while the Gators are on an 18-match winning streak.

UF Athletics
Record: 23-3 overall, 17-0 in conference
Conference: SEC

The Gators have two primary and three secondary hitters. Alex Holston (RS So., OH) and Rhamat Alhassan (Fr., MH) make up the primary group and have amassed almost half the team’s total kills this season. They’re both volleyball players: they’ve got great court vision and know how to put the ball down (note their .351 and .462 hitting efficiencies for reference). Simone Antwi (Jr., MH), Carli Snyder (Fr., OH) and Gabby Mallette (Jr., OH) make up the secondary tier of attackers. All are used. All are essential to this very successful offensive system. Get them all firing at once, and this team could be really tough to beat down the stretch. Especially given their strength at the service line and in the back row.

Record: 22-1 overall, 14-1 in conference
Conference: Big 12

A single hiccup mars the Longhorns’ conference record. Oklahoma somehow got the better of this super-tough Texas squad. Other than that, the Big 12 powerhouse is pretty ridiculous this season. They’ve made quick work of most opponents, including the likes of Arizona and Nebraska. Haley Eckerman (Sr., OH) is the best arm in the Longhorn gym. She’s leading all hitters and is absolutely vicious from the service line. Along with Eckerman, Khat Bell (Sr., MH/OH) adds a solid chunk of offense along with Amy Neal (Jr., OH). Chiaka Ogbogu (So., MH) and Molly McCage (Jr., MH) are kind of the sneaky secret weapons of this high-flying squad. They aren’t very loud on offense, but they put the ball down at a high level when they are set and are incredible blockers. I think they surprise some teams because they aren’t perceived as go-tos.

Texas got the best of Florida in their pre-conference meeting. And they get to host this NCAA tournament-preparation match in their home gym--which I happen to know can get a little rowdy and intimidating for opponents this time of year. I think that collectively, Texas is the more physical squad. Eckerman’s arm is really, really good, but Florida has some great arms in their gym, too. Both sides will score points on awesome swings, essentially neutralizing the impact of any big hitter. The trick will be to handle the junk (read: don’t let fluff balls score and make them earn their points) and win the serve/pass game (read: side out quickly and run points from the endline). I think Texas is more poised to perform in those categories.

My Pick: Texas in four

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

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