Sunday, August 28, 2011

Recap of 2011 AVCA Showcase

The USC Trojans had the tables turned on them last night, squandering a 2-0 lead and losing to Penn State, just one night after 'SC had come back from 0-2 down to top Minnesota. The Gophers, meanwhile, came back on Saturday to defeat Oregon, the opening night's conqueror of Penn State, sending home all four teams in the AVCA Showcase with 1-1 records.

What stood out to me from the Penn State-USC box score was the depth each team had available to call on. For the Nittany Lions, it was frosh OH Nia Grant, whose hitting line consisted of 11 kills and 0 errors on 17 attempts, for a .647 percentage. Another first-year player, Micha Hancock, has taken over Penn State's setting duties for now, and she added a 7-0-8, .875 line on the attack. The former setter, Kristin Carpenter, has now apparently become a backcourt specialist, leading the team with 20 digs. Deja McClendon (.321) and Katie Slay (.320) had solid hitting nights, but Ariel Scott had an off match (-.143).

For 'SC, with Lauren Williams (.269) and Alex Jupiter (.200) cooling off from the night before, it was left to soph OH/opposite Kirby Burnham (15-1-31, .452) and frosh MB Hannah Schraer (4-0-7, .571, albeit with a small number of attempts) to power the offense.

Penn State dominated the total team blocks, 18.5 to 6.0. As I wrote yesterday, the Nittany Lions needed to do a better job blocking against USC than had Minnesota (7.0) and they did.

Looking at Saturday's Minnesota-Oregon box score, the Gophers' Tori Dixon (.364) and Katherine Harms (.519) continued the excellent hitting they showed Friday night, whereas Ariana Filho (.000) fell off. Soph OH Ashley Wittman (.417) was there to take up the slack for Minnesota. The Gopher defense was sharp, outblocking the Ducks 15.0-7.0, with Minnesota's Jessica Granquist contributing 26 digs.

Oregon junior OH Alaina Bergsma took 40% of her team's spike attempts (63/158), hitting .270. Soph MB Ariana Williams (.400) and frosh OH Liz Brenner (.368) wielded the big hammers for the Ducks.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Opening Night of 2011 AVCA Showcase

Last night's opening matches of the AVCA Showcase didn't exactly go as expected. Pre-season No. 1 Penn State lost to Oregon, 3-1, ending the Nittany Lions' 94-match home winning streak. No. 2 USC almost lost, dropping the first two games to Minnesota before roaring back to take the final three.

Tonight's Oregon-Minnesota match certainly takes on more importance than previously thought, as a second win over a ranked opponent (the Gophers are No. 12) would really propel the initially unranked Ducks' national reputation. The PSU-USC match tonight, though perhaps diminished somewhat in luster, nevertheless gives the Lions a chance to bounce back and make a statement.

Looking at the box score from the Penn State-Oregon match, one wonders at first glance how the Nittany Lions lost, given that they outhit (.308-.277) and outblocked (8.5-5.5) the Ducks and had fewer service errors (8-12) for the match overall. However, if we remove Game 1 -- which PSU took 25-16 -- from the equation, things look different.

Overall, Oregon's hitting numbers for kills, errors, and total attempts were 62-23-141. Removing Game 1, in which the Ducks' numbers were 7-6-23 yields 55-17-118. We then take (K-E)/TA, giving Oregon a hitting percentage of .322 for the final three games. Doing the same for Penn State, one starts out with the overall numbers of 48-11-120, which after removing the 14-3-27 from Game 1, leaves 34-8-93 for the final three games, a hitting percentage of .280.

Also, the Ducks sided-out at 60% or better in each of the final three games, whereas the corresponding percentages for the Nittany Lions ranged from 47-58% (after coming in at a torrid 70% in Game 1).

Regarding the USC-Minnesota match, I can't pinpoint the Trojans' main source of power any better than the above-linked game article from the USC athletics website: "Senior All-America middle blocker Lauren Williams... had 16 kills without recording an error for a .552 (16-0-29) performance..."

The Trojans' Alex Jupiter also had a nice hitting line (22-5-52, .327), but as shown in the chart below, her success varied markedly by game (because the play-by-play sheet accompanying the box score shows only how points ended, her spike attempts that stayed in play could not be gleaned, only kills and errors).

As can be seen, Jupiter's hittest was at its most blazing in Games 2 (won by Minnesota 26-24) and 3 (won by 'SC 25-13). Frosh MB Hannah Schraer also delivered offensively for the Trojans (7-1-18, .333).

The Gophers had a power trio of their own in MB Ariana Filho (8-0-17, .471), MB Tori Dixon (22-6-39, .410), and OH Katherine Harms (11-3-23, .348). Still, Minnesota was outhit by USC, .289-.232. How could the Gophers have won Game 2, the way Jupiter was hitting for 'SC? By siding out at an astronomical 75% rate.

For the match, Minnesota committed 13 service errors -- likely in an attempt to serve aggressively and take USC out of its offense -- compared to only 5 for the Trojans. The Gophers recorded only 7.0 total team blocks against USC in five games. Penn State will have to do a lot better to slow down the Trojan hitters.

Friday, August 26, 2011

2011 Women's College Season Gets Underway

The 2011 women's college volleyball season gets underway today, with a slew of tournaments across the country. The marquee event is the annual AVCA Showcase tournament, being held this year at Penn State. The format of this competition brings together four teams, a pair from each of two conferences. This year's conferences are the Big 10, from which Penn State and Minnesota will be participating, and the Pac 12, represented by USC and Oregon.

All matches are cross-conference. Tonight's matches are Penn State vs Oregon and Minnesota vs. USC. Saturday night, Minnesota faces Oregon, plus the pre-season No. 1 Nittany Lions square off with the No. 2 Trojans.

If you scroll down to my conference previews in earlier entries, you can see capsule summaries of the four teams. One update for USC is that outside hitter Falyn Fonoimoana has been declared ineligible. Also, in Trojan coach Mick Haley's "At the Net" video broadcasts (here and here), he has alluded to middle blocker Alexis Olgard apparently having some lingering injury problems, but incoming frosh MB's Eve Ettinger and Hannah Schraer looking ready to contribute immediately.

For Penn State, the storyline for this upcoming season has been framed in terms of sophomore OH Deja McClendon taking over team leadership.

After tonight's matches are over, I plan to scrutinize the box scores to see what I can glean to preview Saturday night's big Penn State-USC match.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Coach Writes in "Coaching Volleyball" on Using Stats

Oakland University (Michigan) women's volleyball coach Rob Beam has an article in the August/September issue of the AVCA journal Coaching Volleyball, on compiling statistics and using them to help one's team improve its performance.

The article, aimed mainly at high school coaches, provides a gentle introduction to volleyball statistics, with definitions of many key terms. Further, rather than presenting his ideas in technical terms (e.g., correlation coefficient), Beam uses a more intuitive form of exposition.

For each type of volleyball statistic, he presents a chart with the terms "absolute correlation" and "strong correlation" to winning or losing. The chart tells the reader how, for the midwestern high school competitions analyzed, performing above or below certain levels on eight different statistical indicators within a given match was associated with winning or losing. For example, teams recording a hitting percentage above .281 always won (an absolute correlation), those keeping their hitting-error rates below 14.2% usually won (a strong correlation), those having a ratio of service aces to reception errors below .33 always lost, and so forth.

With these benchmarks in hard, coaches can then work with their teams to raise (or lower) their numbers on the various statistical indicators. Beam also suggests a number of drills coaches can use in practice to enhance teams' competencies or minimize their deficiencies.

I e-mailed Coach Beam to share some thoughts and get his feedback. The hitting-percentage correlations to winning (.281 absolute, .172 strong) seemed fairly low to me, especially the .172. He attributed these findings to the closely matched competition in the late rounds of the high school tournaments he analyzed, in which teams' blocking and digging would keep down the hitting percentages.

I noticed one minor error in the article, in Chart A, where it appeared to define hitting percentage (efficiency) as ((KE)/TA). The numerator should, of course, be K minus E.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Women's 2011 College Previews -- SEC, ACC, and 9 Other Conferences!

Today, I present the final batch of 2011 women's college team previews. Having done comprehensive (i.e., every team) previews of the Big 10, Big 12, and Pac 12 thus far, I didn't have time to do the same for all the remaining conferences, with play beginning in a little over a week! What I did, therefore, was look at last season's NCAA bracket and the newly released 2011 AVCA pre-season poll to select a manageable number of teams to preview.

I ended up with 23 new teams, from 11 conferences. If a school made the round of 32 in the NCAA tourney and/or received a substantial number of votes in the new pre-season poll (even if it didn't actually crack the top 25), then that team is included somewhere (either in today's preview or in one of the earlier ones).  When today's 23 teams are added to those reviewed earlier, it brings the total to 56 squads for which we now have capsule summaries.

Below is a chart (actually, two charts, given the large number of teams) that summarize the statistics, followed by some narrative commentary. The teams are organized by conference.

For those of you who've read the previous conference previews, the routine is old hat, but here it is for new visitors. In the charts below (which you can click on, and click again on the magnifying glass/plus icon that follows, to enlarge), you'll see information on teams' leading returning and non-returning players from last year. Statistics are based on the full 2010 season (conference plus non-conference), unless you see a pound sign (#) to indicate conference-only stats. To define leading hitters, I generally look for hitting percentages of .250 or higher and for players who took an appreciable share of their teams' spike attempts (generally 15% or more for middle blockers and 20% or more for outside hitters), although I'll post something that looks interesting to me, even if it doesn't fit within the aforementioned parameters. Specific block/set (game) and dig/set statistics are noted next to the names of team leaders either to illustrate a virtual tie between two players or, again, to convey something interesting.

Of course, returning players are not the only personnel on a team. The AVCA high-school All-America list is available here, so you can see which of the schools are bringing in nationally lauded prep players. Tennessee, Tulsa, and Pepperdine successfully recruited first-team All-Americans, whereas several other schools in today's preview are bringing in second-team and honorable-mention awardees.

OK, let's move on!

FLORIDA began the 2010 season on an auspicious note, going into Omaha (Nebraska's home away from home) and knocking off the Cornhuskers in an early-season tournament. A 3-1 loss to Penn State on the Gators' home court followed shortly thereafter. However, a perfect run through the SEC (coupled with some Penn State losses in the Big 10) gave Florida the No. 1 seed nationally in last year's NCAA tournament. Unfortunately for the Gators, they turned out not to be ready for Prime Time, barely surviving against Florida State in the round of 32 and then getting swept by Purdue in the Sweet 16.

Senior Kelly Murphy, who doubles as a setter and right-side (RS) hitter par excellence -- hitting .374 while taking 20% of Florida's spike attempts a year ago -- is back for her final go-round leading the Gators (see this YouTube highlights reel of the left-handed Murphy in action). Cassandra Anderson gives UF strength at the net, although fellow middle blocker Lauren Bledsoe has finished her college career. (Note that, because so many teams are reviewed today, not all players listed in the charts are discussed in the text.)

Also from the SEC, LSU returns a pair of plus-.300 hitters and its leading blocker and digger, whereas TENNESSEE brings back two plus-.300 hitters and someone who hit .298. The Vols also return two setters to feed the attack, plus their leading digger. As an aside, I discovered an excellent Tennessee fan site during my research for this report.

From the ACC, DUKE (No. 12 seed) got to the NCAA Elite Eight, where it took a game off of Penn State. The Blue Devils, in fact, were the only team outside the Big 10, Big 12, and Pac 12 to make a regional final. Duke returns two plus-.300-hitting middle blockers, starting setter, and leading blocker and digger.

NORTH CAROLINA was a conundrum last year, taking second in the ACC, yet hitting only .210 as a team. The loss of Christine Vaughen, who hit .325 during her senior campaign, deprives the Tar Heels of what little offense they had. Setting, blocking, and digging are areas of experience for UNC this year, though. MIAMI, FLORIDA ST., and VIRGINIA TECH joined Duke and UNC in the NCAA field last year. On paper, the most interesting player to me among the latter three schools is the Hokies' Cara Baarendse, who hit .362 in ACC play while taking 20% of her team's spike attempts, unusually high for a middle blocker.

HAWAI'I returns two dynamic players, OH Kanani Danielson who last year hit .301 taking 31% of the team's spike attempts, and Brittany Hewitt who hit .365 and averaged 1.68 blocks/set (where I consider 1.00 to represent excellent blocking).

The Big West Conference's top two teams a year ago were Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State. The 49ers' Haleigh Hampton was another player who enjoyed a tremendous hitting/blocking year a season ago (.357, 1.58), her reward being a spot on the U.S. Junior National Team.

Two Ohio teams, DAYTON (from the Atlantic 10) and OHIO UNIVERSITY (from the Mid-America Conference) look to continue making inroads on the national scene. Ohio took Duke to five games in an NCAA second-round match last season. Like the aforementioned Hewitt and Hampton, the Bobcats' Katie Post posted impressive numbers hitting and blocking (.334/1.47). Overall, however, Ohio U. was one of those rare squads that did well a year ago, despite hitting only .232 as a team.

NORTHERN IOWA, WICHITA STATE, and CREIGHTON formed a formidable trio from the Missouri Valley Conference last season. Northern Iowa was seeded No. 5 nationally in the NCAA tourney (perhaps a bit generous) and dropped a five-game opening-round match to Missouri. I've been noting plus-.300 hitters throughout this report; UNI takes things a step further, boasting of two returnees, Michelle Burow and Krista DeGeest, whose 2010 hitting percentages were both north of .350. The Panthers' digging last year was delightful, as well, with Amy Braun (4.02, returning) and Ellie Blankenship (5.49, non-returning) racking up enormous digs/set numbers. Creighton's claim to fame is its NCAA first-round upset of Iowa State last year.

TULSA, from Conference USA, swept 13th-seeded LSU in an NCAA first-round match last year, then took intrastate rival Oklahoma to five games in a second-round loss. It almost sounds like a game of "Can you top this?" to state that Tulsa has two returning players whose hitting percentages exceeded .370, Tyler Henderson (.372, taking fully a third of the team's hitting attempts) and Elizabeth Kale (.402, albeit on only 9% of the Golden Hurricanes' attempts).

CINCINNATI and LOUISVILLE are the leading lights in the Big East Conference. Cincinnati loses what writer Dave Reed last year called "[o]ne of the most potent kill-producing combinations in the country," setter Annie Fesl and OH Stephanie Niemer. Both were seniors a year ago. Niemer took a whopping 36% of the team's spike attempts, but came through with a .331 percentage. The Bearcats do return Jordanne Scott, who hit .333 last year.

Over at Louisville, Gwen Rucker hit .414 (though on only 9% of the team's attempts) and averaged 1.30 blocks/set. Rucker and Cardinals teammate, setter Taylor Brauneis, are both part of the U.S. national team's development program. Beyond Rucker and Amanda Simmons, who hit .329 as a senior last year, Louisville was a very balanced hitting team, as four players each with at least 128 spike attempts in conference play hit for averages of .258, .262, .264, and 266.

Megan Plourde will likely be the go-to gal for COLORADO STATE of the Mountain West Conference. The 6-3 junior MB recorded hitting/blocking numbers of .383/1.23 last year in conference play.

Finally, we have the West Coast Conference, with SAN DIEGO, ST. MARY'S, and PEPPERDINE leading the way a year ago. USD, the conference's only NCAA-tournament team, swept Long Beach State and then lost 3-1 to powerhouse USC. The Toreros look to ride Chloe Ferrari, whose name provides irrestible pun opportunities, to success this season. She hit .403 as a frosh for USD last year. WCC runner-up St. Mary's returns MB Gabby Jolly, who hit .328. Finally, there's Pepperdine, who in the recently released AVCA pre-season rankings, had the highest voting point total of teams not in the top 25. The Waves return three players who hit between .280-.329 last year, plus they return their setter, leading blocker, and leading digger.

Done! Between this report and my three previous ones, we now have a repository of basic data on 56 of the nation's better teams. As the upcoming season unfolds, I'll be interested to see if there are some statistical markers that are associated with improvement or decline in the teams compared to a year ago (e.g., returning or losing starting setters; returning or losing players who took 25% or more of their teams' spike attempts and hit .300 or higher).

Let the games begin!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Women's 2011 College Previews -- The Pac 12

Penn State is obviously the dominant program in women's volleyball, having won the last four NCAA titles. Arguably, however, the second-, third-, and fourth-best teams a season ago were all from the Pac 10 (now 12), namely Cal (national runner-up), USC (Final Four participant), and Stanford (which ended Penn State's 109-match winning streak in September and ultimately lost a tight regional-final match to USC). In addition, Stanford (1st, .319), Cal (3rd, .308), and USC (8th, .290) all were among the nation's most highly ranked teams last season in hitting percentage.

Of the three schools, USC returns the greatest number of key players -- basically everyone -- whereas Cal and Stanford lose some top players. Another three Pac 12 schools -- UCLA, Washington, and Arizona -- were in last year's NCAA tournament, and will seek to improve their conference standing based on returning players and/or strong recruiting classes.

The following chart highlights the most noteworthy returning and departing players for all Pac 12 schools (including newcomers Colorado and Utah), in the statistical categories of hitting percentage, blocks/set (game), and digs/set from last season. As with my previous Big 10 and Big 12 previews, my general criteria for top hitters include an attack percentage of .250 or higher and taking an appreciable share of their teams' spike attempts (20% for outside/right-side hitters and 15% for middle blockers). Readers can click on the chart (and then on the magnifying-glass/plus icon that appears next) to enlarge it. All statistics in the chart are from the overall season (i.e., conference and non-conference matches), unless a pound sign (#) appears by the school's name to indicate the stats are from conference play only. Additional discussion of each team appears below the chart.

In writing these conference previews, I have discussed teams in order of their 2010 finishes in their respective league standings. I will stick to this practice here, but for the record, I would favor USC to win the Pac 12.

CAL loses only one of its leading players from last year -- but it happens to be the AVCA national player of the year! The player in question is setter Carli Lloyd, who during her senior campaign last season not only ran the high-powered Golden Bear offense, but also hit a respectable .265 on 283 tries (7% of the team's attempts) and contributed 1.08 blocks/set. (In the course of writing these previews, I've come to regard an average of 1.00 or greater blocks/set as a marker for excellence in blocking.)

Senior 6-3 OH Tarah Murrey is back to pummel the Bears' competition. Murrey took a whopping 36% of Cal's spike attempts last season. Such a proportion is rare, though not unheard of; what makes Murrey's 2010 season so extremely unique is her ability to maintain a hitting percentage well above .300 while taking so many attempts. Cal also returns 6-4 MB Correy Johnson, whose hitting percentage exceeded even Murrey's (see chart above). Enhancing their hitting depth, the Bears bring in a pair of first-team AVCA All-Americans, Michelle Neumayr, a 6-1 OH, and Lillian Schonewise, a 6-2 (6-3 according to the Cal website) MB.

Leading blockers Kat Brown and Shannon Hawari, and digging dynamo Robin Rostratter, return to bolster the Bears' defense. As of the spring, the starting setter gig (or what might be called the "Lloyd Void") was slated to fall to junior Elly Barrett, who participated in an online chat here.

At the other end of the San Francisco Bay, the loss of three senior stars from last year leaves doubt whether STANFORD can contend this year at its typical nationally elite level. Gone are Alix Klineman and Cassidy Lichtman, who together accounted for nearly 50% of the team's hitting attempts, plus leading libero Gabi Ailes. Lichtman also was a setter in the Cardinal's 6-2 offense, with returnee Karissa Cook. In the just-out Pac 12 coaches' poll, Stanford is picked for an uncharacteristically low fourth in the conference. Over at VolleyTalk, what might be considered a "hand-wringing" discussion thread about Stanford was launched and, at the moment, has reached 75 pages!
Stanford will never be devoid of talent and, indeed, there are strong returnees for the Cardinal. Junior OH Hayley Spelman, at 6-6 one of the tallest players in the country, hit above .300 last season. Further, Stephanie Browne (6-4) and Carly Wopat (6-2) each averaged over 1.00 blocks/set. In addition, Stanford will be adding two high-school All-American players, first-teamer Kyle (MacKenzie) Gilbert, a  5-7 defensive specialist/libero, and second-teamer Morgan Boutkather. The latter is either 6-2 or 6-1 tall (depending on which source one consults) and appears to be a right-side/opposite hitter (she is listed as an OH on the Stanford webpage, but the roster doesn't appear to differentiate between "outside" hitters on the left and "opposites" on the right).

Last year's third-place conference finisher, USC, is a unanimous pick to win the Pac 12 this year in the aforementioned poll (Cal received a first-place vote, but the article refers to the Trojans' receipt of "all 11 possible first-place votes," implying that coaches could not vote for their own teams). USC returns all of its key players from a year ago, including a trio of AVCA All-Americans: Alex Jupiter (6-3 senior OH, 1st team), Kendall Bateman (5-11 senior setter, 2nd team), and Lauren Williams (6-4 senior MB, 3rd team).

OH Falyn Fonoimoana, another tall Trojan at 6-4, was given nearly a quarter of the team's hitting attempts last season as a freshman, recording an attack percentage of .239. If she can improve on that percentage, 'SC will be that much more dangerous. Even the liberos are tall on this team, with 5-9 Natalie Hagglund, leading the team in digs/set last year as a freshman.

As unstoppable as USC looks this year, it also appeared poised to do real damage in last year's Final Four until Cal put the brakes on the Trojan attack. With a single-elimination NCAA tournament, anything seemingly can happen at the end.

Across town in Los Angeles, UCLA will be trying to return to the national elite under second-year coach Mike Sealy. Last year's workhorse hitter, Dicey McGraw, has finished her college career, whereas the Bruins' top statistical returning attacker, junior OH Bojana Todorovic, hit only .230.

Last year's team leader in blocks/set, Katie Camp, discusses her recovery from ACL surgery and prospects for the upcoming season here. Digs/set leader Lainey Gera also returns.

The Bruins have a large and highly touted recruiting class coming in this season, although only 6-3 MB  Zoe Nightingale (first team) was on the AVCA high-school All-America squad. Setter Megan Moenoa has also received a lot of buzz. Last year's starting setter Lauren Van Orden returns for her senior season. Whether Moenoa will join Van Orden in a 6-2 offense remains to be seen.

Things appear to be looking up for WASHINGTON, as last year's fifth-place Huskies are tabbed for third in the coaches' poll. U-Dub loses a pair of senior, second-team All-America outside hitters from a year ago, Kindra Carlson and Becky Perry, as well as last year's senior setter, Jenna Hagglund.

Bianca Rowland, a 6-0 MB who last year recorded gaudy numbers in both hitting and blocking, returns for her senior season. She received AVCA honorable mention All-America honors last year. Other returning defensive assets for the Huskies are Lauren Barfield, a 6-5 senior MB, and sophomore DS/L Jenna Orlandini, who led the team in digs/set a year ago.

First-team high-school All-America Krista Vansant, a 6-2 OH comes on board; as noted above, Washington's greatest losses were at this position.

Last year's sixth-place team, ARIZONA, is predicted by the coaches to drop a notch to seventh this year, perhaps not surprisingly given that the Wildcats were a senior-oriented team a year ago. Key losses include Tiffany Owens, who not only carried the Cats' hitting load last season (hitting .262 while taking 30% of the team's attempts), but also led the team in digs/set; and setter Paige Weber. Cursty Jackson, a 6-2 MB who excelled in hitting and blocking last year, returns for her senior year.

Joining Jackson will be an impressive recruiting class that includes four high-school Americans: Chloe Mathis (5-10 or 5-11 setter, height varies by source; 1st team), Madison Kingdon (6-1 OH, 2nd team), Halli Amaro (6-2 or 6-0 MB, honorable mention), and Elizabeth Manthei (6-0 OH who also set in high school, honorable mention).

OREGON's front-court play may be a little weaker this season. Heather Meyers, who hit .285 while taking a quarter of the Ducks' spike attempts during her senior season, moves on. Also, Jocelyn Levig, who led Oregon in blocks/set, is transferring to the University of San Francisco. Leading Duck returnees are OH Alaina Bergsma (6-3 junior), setter Lauren Plum (5-9 soph), and libero Haley Jacob (5-2 junior). Joining Oregon will be first-team high-school All-America Elizabeth Brenner (6-2 or 6-1 tall), who played MB as a prep but is listed on the Ducks' roster as an OH.

ARIZONA STATE's biggest strength appears to be blocking, with MB's Sonja Markanovich (6-1 senior) and Erica Wilson (6-1 junior) returning. Wilson also hit .318, taking 11% of the Sun Devils' attack attempts. Presumably, ASU will go to her more often this season. Setter Cat Highmark had one year of eligibility remaining, but will forgo her senior season due to knee injury.

OREGON STATE returns some promising players, foremost among them 6-4 soph MB Mona Kressl, who averaged 1.16 blocks/set and nearly hit .300 a year ago. Junior setter Megan McBride, who also hit .267, returns, as do 5-11 junior Ashley Eneliko, a productive blocker who has been used at opposite hitter and middle blocker; and sophomore L/DS Becky Defoe, who led the squad in digs/set last year.

WASHINGTON STATE, which went 0-18 in conference play last year, is in a state of transition. The athletic director's first move after last season was to give the volleyball team a greeny -- no, not amphetamines, the slang for which is "greenies," but rather a new coach, Jen Greeny. Also as part of the Cougars' turnover, a few non-senior players from last year are no longer on the WSU roster. Digs/set leader Oceana Bush has transferred to Rutgers, whereas for two other departees, I couldn’t find any articles on what happened with them. Hoping to provide some stability is 6-3 senior OH Meagan Ganzer, who took an amazing 38% of the Cougars' spike attempts last season (albeit hitting only .149) and led the team in blocks/set.

And now for the newcomers. COLORADO made the NCAA tournament in 10 of the first 11 years of Big 12 play (1996-2006), but were a combined 13-67 in that conference the last four years. Moving to the Pac 12 hardly seems like a good recovery plan, but the Buffaloes may be able to compete with some of the weaker teams in the new conference. As seen in the chart above, Colorado returns all of its leading players. However, no one was close last year to (unofficial) markers of distinction such as .300 hitting and 1.00 blocks/set. On a more positive note, soph DS/L Megan Beckwith averaged 4.10 digs/set last year in the Big 12, which placed her 10th in that conference.

UTAH finished third last year in the Mountain West Conference, but did not make the NCAA tourney. Two returning Ute middle blockers, Danielle Killpack (6-3 senior) and Erin Redd (6-3 sophomore), each hit over .300 last year, with Kilpack also leading the team in blocks/set.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Women's 2011 College Previews -- The Big 12 (-2)

In the history of the Big 12 Conference (and its forerunners, the Big 8 and Southwest Conferences), there have been two nationally elite programs, Nebraska (winner of three national titles, most recently in 2006) and Texas (participant in the last three Final Fours and national champion in 1988). Nebraska is now gone to the Big 10, so for now at least, Texas seems to be in a dominant position in the Big 12.

Let's start with my chart of capsule summaries of the teams, with additional discussion of each team below (you'll need to click on the chart, and possibly on the plus-sign magnifying glass icon that will appear next, to enlarge it). As noted previously in my Big 10 preview, when it comes to teams' leading hitters, I'm generally looking for hitting percentages of .250 or better, and players who take appreciable shares of their teams' spike attempts (20% for outside hitters and 15% for middle blockers).

As hinted at by the high 2010 hitting percentages shown for TEXAS spikers, the Longhorns were one of the best attacking teams in the nation last year. Texas finished fourth, to be exact, with a .306 hitting percentage, behind only Stanford (.319), and last year's NCAA finalists, Penn State (.314) and Cal (.308). In addition, Longhorn MB Rachael Adams, who returns for her senior season, led the nation in individual hitting percentage. Sha'Dare McNeal, who is listed on the team roster as a utility player, perhaps due to her digging, as well as hitting, prowess, is also back.

The Horns lose high-percentage hitter Jennifer Doris and workhorse Juliann Faucette. However, they have a bunch of new (and redshirt-returnee) players who may be able to help take up the slack. Freshman Madelyn Hutson (6-5) received the dual recognition of being named a first-team AVCA high school All-America last year and being selected to the U.S. women's junior national team. Hutson was listed as an outside hitter on the AVCA site, but is referred to as a "utility" player on the Texas site (perhaps she will also be tried at middle blocker). Two other freshmen are first-team All-American Katherine (Khat) Bell, a high school MB who will also be tried at OH (either 6-3 or 6-1 tall, as player heights sometimes differ between official school rosters and other sources, such as the AVCA list) and OH Haley Eckerman (6-3), a member of the junior national team. Other possibilities on the front line are sophomore  Bailey Webster (6-3 OH), who is attempting a comeback from missing the 2010 season due to knee surgery, and redshirt-freshman Ashley Bannister, returning from an ankle injury.

Texas is also deep at setter, returning two who saw considerable action last year, sophomore Hannah Allison, yet another Longhorn member of the junior national team, and senior Michelle Kocher. Though a two-setter (6-2) offense might seem a natural for UT, coach Jerritt Elliott's squad seemed to employ mostly a one-setter (5-1) line-up last year.

As a game-show announcer describing a prize-package would say, "...and that's not all!" UT's leaders from last year in blocks/set (game), the aforementioned Adams, and digs/set, senior Sydney Yogi, return as well (Yogi has had injury problems, however).

If this isn't enough Longhorn coverage for you, VolleyTalk has a thread discussing the upcoming Texas season, which has stretched to 10 pages!

Tied for third last year behind Nebraska and Texas was IOWA STATE. Few programs, in any sport, have experienced the kind of overnight turnaround as Iowa State did in 2005 with the arrival of coach Christy Johnson-Lynch. As seen in the graph below, the Cyclones had several 1-19 conference records (along with a 0-20 campaign) prior to Johnson-Lynch's arrival. In her first year, ISU shot up to nine wins, and the team has had a winning Big 12 record each season ever since. In the postseason, the Cyclones have gone as far as the Elite Eight, although last year the team suffered a first-round exit.

Johnson-Lynch and one of her former players discuss what they see as the reasons for the program's turnaround, in this November 2009 video. The statistical information on which I based the chart is available here.

This year's Cyclone squad will be led by junior Jamie Straube, an honorable-mention All-America who put up excellent numbers hitting and blocking last season. However, first-team All-America Victoria Henson, ISU's go-to hitter with 30% of the team's spike attempts, has finished her collegiate career. Star libero Ashley Mass, a third-team All-America, has also finished up. Setter Alison Landwehr, who also hit .370 on 246 attempts (6% of the team's total), returns. Also, Iowa State has added an honorable-mention high school All-America for this season, 6-3 MB Tory Knuth.

Sharing third place last year with ISU was OKLAHOMA, which also made the NCAA Sweet 16 before running into the buzzsaw called Penn State. The Sooners return third-team All-America setter Brianne Barker (a senior), plus their 2010 team leaders in hitting (from both the outside and middle), blocking, and digging. Soph MB Sallie McLaurin hit over .300 and led the team in blocks/set. Suzy Boulavsky, a 6-1 senior listed as both an outside hitter (hitting from the left-hand side) and right-side hitter, took a quarter of OU's spike attempts last season and acquitted herself well, hitting .273. Leading digger Maria Fernanda (junior) rounds out the returnees. The Sooners also bring in 6-2 OH Tara Dunn, a second-team high-school All-America.

MISSOURI, the final Big 12 team to make the NCAA field last year (also making the Sweet 16), will be led by Brittney Brimmage, a 6-3 senior who is listed at both MB and OH. Brimmage hit .331 last season and led the team in blocks/set, and is part of U.S. women's volleyball development program. First-team high-school All-America Jade Hayes, a six-footer who played OH as a prep, is also highly touted defensively and apparently will also be tried at libero, potentially replacing last year's senior Caitlyn Vann. Highly decorated sophomore setter Molly Kreklow, a junior national team player, is back to run the offense.

To the extent the BAYLOR Bear program has left its mark (or in this case, paw print) on women's college volleyball in recent years, it is largely through stunning UCLA in Pauley Pauley in the 2009 NCAA second round, before losing in the round of 16. Baylor failed to build on that success in 2010, and the loss of some key talent may make it difficult for the Bears to reach the postseason in 2011. Elizabeth Graham, who hit .307 and led the team in blocks/set last year has moved on, as has digging dynamo Caitlyn Trice. MB Torri Campbell, a 6-2 junior, hit just about as well as Graham last year. Campbell recorded an average of .86 blocks/set, not too far from the 1.00 per set that top blockers are often able to reach (Graham was way up there at 1.29, third among Big 12 players for the overall -- conference and non-conference -- season). The Bears' two setters, Kate Harris and Brittany Ridenour, are both back.

KANSAS last made the NCAA tourney in 2005. Given how tough the conference has become (even with Nebraska's departure), I don't know if KU can make it back this year, but it has a good young nucleus. The Jayhawks return leading hitter and blocker Caroline Jarmoc (sophomore), leading digger Brianne Riley (sophomore), and setter Nicole Tate (senior). Joining the squad is second-team high-school All-America, Chelsea Albers, a 6-0 OH. 

The first nine years of the Big 12 (1996-2004), TEXAS A&M enjoyed steady success, winning between 12-16 conference matches a year (out of 20) and making the NCAA tournament in every season. The past six years, however, the conference win totals have been 9, 5, 10, 11, 11, and 7, with only two NCAA tourney appearances during that time (2005, 2009). If the longtime Aggie coaching duo of Laurie and John Corbelli is to get things turned back around this season, it will probably be through defense. In fact, one could say that team cohesion will be a product of 3M: Miller, Minnerly, and Mellinger. Junior 6-2 middle-blockers Lindsey Miller and Stephanie Minnerly each exceeded 1.00 blocks/set last season. Leading digger Tori Mellinger is also a junior. Finally, sophomore setter Allie Sawatsky appears to use her 6-2 height to good purpose, contributing .48 blocks/set last year.

KANSAS STATE is in a bit of a funk like Texas A&M. After reaching seven NCAA tournaments in the eight years from 2001-2008, K-State has compiled identical 6-14 records each of the last two seasons. In their effort to get things back on track, the Wildcats do have one major force, namely 6-1 junior Alex Muff, who finished second in the Big 12 last year in overall-season blocks/set with 1.31, behind only Nebraska's Brooke Delano (1.42). Big 12 opponents have learned that if you go up against Alex Muff, you're likely to suffer a stuff! Muff's fellow middle-blocker Kaitlynn Pelger (sophomore) hit slightly higher than Muff, but both were only around .250. Junior setter Caitlyn Donahue is back to run the office. (Before leaving the discussion of K-State, I wanted to mention this amazing fan page for the volleyball team.)

Finally, we get to TEXAS TECH, the school at which I've been on the faculty for 14 years. Over the last few years, the Red Raider program has hit rock bottom, losing 64 straight Big 12 matches until finally winning one last October. As well, the midseason departure of then-coach Trish Knight last season contributed to the image of a sinking ship. Into this setting marches new coach Don Flora,* most recently an assistant at New Mexico State (Beth Falls, who went from Texas Tech assistant coach to interim coach, remains with the Red Raiders as an assistant under Flora).

The 2011 Red Raiders' fortunes would seem to be heavily in the hands of 6-3 senior Amanda Dowdy, who toured Europe this summer with one of the U.S. women's developmental squads. Dowdy took an astounding 36% of Texas Tech's spike attempts last season, but hit only .170. That hitting percentage potentially could be somewhat misleading if either (a) opponents focused their block on her because Tech didn't have other big hitters to divert attention; or (b) the huge number of attempts caused fatigue.  Dowdy has been switched between OH and MB during her time in Lubbock, but is listed only at OH this year.

One coup for Texas Tech was the signing of honorable-mention high-school All-America Breeann David. Though she apparently did some setting in high school, the 5-11 (or 6-0, depending on which source you believe) David is listed exclusively as an OH by Tech. With her setting ability, however, she may be able to salvage some out-of-system plays.

Karlyn Meyers, who did most of the setting last season, returns for her senior year. However, the team's leaders last year in blocks/set (Barbara Conceicao, 1.03) and digs/set (Jackie Vincent) are gone, as seen in this photo gallery from last year's Senior Day.

As of this writing, the Red Raider roster has 23 players listed, which should spark fierce competition for spots on the team!

*I've gotten to know Coach Flora, which I wanted to disclose so readers can take this information into account regarding the tone of my writing about Texas Tech (whether it seems overly favorable or critical).

Hawai'i Sweeps Long Beach State to Claim Second Straight NCAA Men's Championship

Hawai'i swept Long Beach State last night in Los Angeles to win its second straight NCAA men's championship. Scores were 25-22, 25-...