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Stanford Sweeps Wisconsin for NCAA Women's Title, Aided by Multifaceted Blocking Game

With Stanford's win over Wisconsin for the NCAA national women's championship about a month ago coming so easily, 25-16, 25-17, 25-20, it was hard at first to come up with a statistical angle. The Cardinal, led by 6-foot-6 senior outside-hitter Kathryn Plummer's torrid spiking (.459 on 22 kills and 5 errors on 37 attempts), outhit the Badgers, .358-.152 (box score). Madeleine Gates, a Stanford graduate transfer who finished her degree at UCLA, also came up big (.529, 10-1-17). I've already written a lot on Plummer's hitting, however, so I wanted to focus on something else. Then, an idea from five years ago popped into my mind.

As I wrote in February 2015 then-Penn State men's assistant coach Jay Hosack (now head men's coach at George Mason) noted on the Internet-radio show The Net Live that, "blocking should be evaluated more broadly than via direct stuff-blocks for points." For example, blockers could slow the ball down from a spike attempt, making it easier for the players behind the blockers to dig the ball. Guests on that episode of The Net Live referred to slowing the ball as "control blocking." I prefer the term "dampening" the spike attempt.* Here is a schematic I created to illustrate dampening:


Blockers can also ricochet the ball back to the attacking team's side of the net, with the original attacking team keeping the ball in play. A "block back in play" probably would not be as advantageous to the blocking team as would a dampening, as the original attacking team can set up again for a spike. However, a block back in play would buy the blocking team some time to set up to receive the next spike attempt.

I had never gotten around to examining Hosack's idea, as one could not do so simply from box scores and would have to engage in careful observation and charting while watching matches. Perhaps some teams and volleyball statistical services compile dampenings and block-backs, but I'm not aware of how to access these numbers. I had forgotten about Hosack's idea until, for whatever reason, it re-emerged in my mind after the Stanford-Wisconsin match. I decided now was the time to follow through on it using video of the match on YouTube.

With pencil in hand, I began recording Stanford and Wisconsin's dampenings and block-backs, as shown in the following graph. I also plotted stuff blocks (listed in the box score simply as "blocks). As can be seen, Stanford outperformed Wisconsin in all three areas -- stuff blocks, dampenings, and block-backs -- on the night.


If one has the time and interest in charting dampenings and block-backs, I would recommend doing so. The three measures together yield a richer measure of blocking success beyond just stuff blocks. Conceivably, a team could compile very few stuff blocks, but a large number of dampenings, for example. Looking at the box score alone, one would not appreciate the team's blocking success.

***

Every year since 2011, I have computed my Conference-Adjusted Combined Offensive-Defensive (CACOD) measure to predict success in the NCAA women's tourney. I noted before this year's tournament that the lowest CACOD score for a team that went on to win the national title was 1.91 (Stanford, 2016). Stanford's was 2.05 this season, whereas Wisconsin's was 1.85. Hence, had the Badgers defeated the Cardinal, Wisconsin would have been become the team with the lowest CACOD to win the championship.

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*According to a scenario from the NCAA manual, a defender fielding a ball after a dampening block still receives a dig in the statistics, even though the ball has been slowed down:

Team White player No. 1 attacks the ball. The ball goes off Team Blue player No. 1 and ... (b) goes to Team Blue player No. 2 who keeps the ball in play. RULING: ... In (b), Team Blue player No. 1 is not awarded a block but Team Blue player No. 2 is awarded a dig.

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