Sunday, November 13, 2011

Top Women's College Teams Fall in Weekend of Upsets

The nation's top-ranked teams in last week's AVCA poll took it on the chin this weekend.

After taking the two opening games (sets) Friday night on the Oregon Ducks' home court, No. 1 UCLA dropped the final three and rather decisively at that, 25-15, 25-18, and 15-9 (box score).

Whichever team compiles a higher side-out rate (winning points on the opponents' serve) wins the game. Thus, it is not which team had the better side-out rate that is noteworthy, but rather the margin by which the higher team did so. Here's a graph I made of the UCLA and Oregon side-out rates by game.

By Game 2, UCLA's siding-out proficiency had begun to slide, and slide it did for the rest of the match. Siding out in the percentage range of the 40s to the low-50s is not going to win a team many matches.

Also, in a previous posting, I noted a tendency for UCLA to suffer a decline in hitting percentage after the post-Game 2 intermission. That's what happened against the Ducks. After hitting.286 and .226 in the first two games, the Bruins fell all the way to .000 (11 kills with 11 errors, on 43 swings) in Game 3, as Oregon climbed back into the match.

Alaina Bergsma carried the hitting load for the Ducks, taking 62 attempts and achieving 25 kills with only 7 errors, for a .290 evening. Milica Krstojevic (.571), Savannah Paffen (.429), and Ariana Williams (.333) also had strong hitting nights for Oregon, albeit on far fewer attempts. 

No. 2 Nebraska's loss at No. 10 Purdue was quick and decisive, 25-19, 25-19, and 25-16. What stood out to me from the box score was Purdue's microscopically low rate of hitting errors: only 6 miscues in 105 attempts (with 49 kills) for a team hitting percentage of .410 for the match. Nebraska recorded only 1 total team block. Three Boilermakers hit at clips of .500 or higher: Catherine Rebarchak (.625), Kierra Jones (.625), and Tiffany Fisher (.500). Cornhusker setter Lauren Cook, who had been suspended for her traffic-related legal problems, played in this match.

No. 11 Washington, which came into the weekend with five losses in its last eight matches, rose to the occasion Friday night with a five-set win over No. 3 Stanford (box score). Stanford outhit (.215-.193) and outblocked (16-8.5) Washington. However, the Huskies had two games, the fifth (.333) and the first (.326), in which their hitting percentages exceeded any game-specific percentage by Stanford. Another area is which U-Dub had the edge was its fewer service errors than Stanford (6 vs. 15). An error-free hitting night by Morgan Boukather (10-0-22, .455) led the Cardinal, whereas a near-error-free night from Bianca Rowland  (11-1-22, .455)  paced the Huskies.

No. 4 USC was the highest-ranked team to go unscathed this weekend, sweeping both of the Oregon schools. The Trojans have now won 17 of their last 18 matches.

No. 5 Cal swept the two Washington schools. Last year's star outside hitter Tarah Murrey has struggled for the Bears in some of their big matches this season; against the Huskies last night, she registered another lackluster hitting line (17-13-65, .062). Shannon Hawari (12-2-18. .556) and Correy Johnson (11-2-22, .409) were able to provide Cal with some firepower, however. The aforementioned Bianca Rowland capped off an outstanding weekend for the Huskies with a .435 hitting performance against Cal (12-2-23). 
No. 7 Illinois, which came into the weekend with three losses in its last five matches, swept No. 9 Penn State in a tight match Friday night, 25-21, 25-23, 28-26 (box score).With the win, the Illini have taken both matches from the Nittany Lions this season, the first time that has ever happened. Erin Johnson (9-0-14, .643) and Liz McMahon (10-1-16, .562) turned in monster hitting nights for Illinois, which finished with a .340 attack percentage as a team (on 42 kills and only 8 hitting errors, on 100 swings). Penn State's Deja McClendon had a big hitting night against Illinois (17-3-40, .350) and then added a .439 performance the next night in a three-game win over Northwestern.
Lastly, I wanted to discuss No. 24 Michigan, a team I follow closely as an alumnus (Ph.D., 1989) of the school. The Wolverines have continued to be ranked nationally, even though they lacked an impressive Big 10 conference win (with a 5-10 league mark) coming into this afternoon's contest at No. 16 Minnesota. Further, Michigan has exhibited an unfortunate penchant for failing to capitalize on game and match points during conference play (here, here, and here).

Somehow, today, the Wolverines managed to keep their focus and sweep the Gophers, 25-21, 25-21, 25-22 (box score). With only one hitting error between them, Claire McElheny (7-0-18, .389), Jennifer Cross (7-1-16, .375), and Molly Toon (9-0-27, .333) powered the Maize and Blue. Whenever the Gophers seemed to be digging themselves out of a hole, either Michigan came up with a timely block (8 total) or Minnesota committed a service error (11 total).

All was not perfect for the Wolverines, however. One problem was serve-receipt, with the Gophers recording 8 aces. Minnesota received strong hitting performances from two of its stalwarts, Tori Dixon (11-1-24, .417) and Ashley Wittman (14-3-28, .393). Michigan's Alex Hunt reportedly suffered an injury in warm-ups and was used very sparingly.

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