OBSERVATIONS (AND OPINIONS) FROM OMAHA
Following an all night (actually, not quite, but it was most of the night) drive from Omaha back to home base in Columbia, Missouri, your faithful Midwestern scribe stands ready to report upon what he thinks he saw in Omaha this weekend. Of course, my trusty assistant, MiniMizzouCard, provided valuable help in compiling the observations and opinions!
At the outset, I should note that I am no Roland Hu. He knows volleyball inside and out, as do several other contributors to the SearsBoard. I am becoming a big fan of the game, but my observations and opinions should be taken with several grains of salt. The only thing had (or ever will have) over Roland is that I was in Omaha's Quest Center watching the AVCA/NACWAA College Volleyball Showcase this weekend. [Then again, why let a little thing like a complete lack of expertise get in the way of a few opinions?]
Overall, a Good, Though Not Great, Weekend
It sounds strange for a passionate Stanford fan who hates to see the Cardinal lose to say this after watching the Card get swept, but I thought it was a pretty good weekend for the Cardinal. As Penn State showed in sweeping Hawaii on Saturday in the consolation game, they are a strong team, but our crew beat them 30-24, 30-24, 28-30, 23-30, and 15-10 Friday night, coming from behind in all three wins.
Of course, the Cornhuskers posted that nasty 30-23, 31-29, and 33-31 sweep on Saturday. But two of the games went past 30, and our team fought back from fairly significant deficits in both of them. In the third game, Jessica Fishburn served a rally from Nebraska 24-18 (I think!) to Nebraska 24-23. Down two games to zero, with over 10,000 folks screaming and clapping for Nebraska, it would have been easy for our team to mail in the rest of the third game and head for the airport. Going from 24-18 to losing 33-31 was pretty impressive, even though we were hoping for a different outcome.
Put another way, we were playing our first games after graduating our best player from last year - a player who was probably more important to her team than any single player on any other elite team. We were playing the best team in the country, in front of (lots of) their fans. Although it is never any fun to get swept (and I hope the weekend left a bit of a bad taste in the mouths of our players), it was not a bad outing.
We Are in Good Hands
With the graduation of Ogonna Nnamani, Kristin Richards is now the team leader. She will handle the role well. She is our best all around player - strong in the back, clever and powerful at the net, and probably our best server. She seems to have solid control of her team, and she seems to be willing to assume the responsibilities of leadership. For a team that just graduated a legendary player, we are in good shape.
The Stanford starters, in numerical order, this weekend were Cynthia Barboza, Bryn Kehoe, Njideka Nnamani, Richards, Fishburn, and Foluke Akinradewo. Courtney Schultz is the libero.
When Nnamani's slot rotates to the back row, Katie Goldhahn takes over. [This is a rather amusing substitution pattern. When this slot rotates to the front row, we send in Nnamani and give up three or four inches of height. I realize that there are only two inches of height difference between Goldhahn and Nnamani in the program, but it looks like three or four to me. How often does a volleyball team subtract height in the front row and add it for the back row?]
The other Stanford player who sees regular action is Franci Girard. There seems to be a substitution pattern, far too complicated for this humble scribe to completely follow, that involves Girard, Fishburn, Schultz, and Akinradewo. Fishburn often comes in to serve and leaves after Stanford loses her serve. As the libero, Schultz, of course, plays in the back row. Girard and Akinradewo seem to play primarily in the front row.
Alex Fisher was in street clothes. Liz Suiter was in street clothes and on crutches.
Don't I Know You From Somewhere?
Speaking of Nnamani, when she takes the court, one has an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. She looks like her sister. She walks like her sister. She smiles like her sister. She even jumps like her sister.
Unfortunately, she is quite a bit shorter than her sister. The program lists her as 5'9." Yet, as noted above, she comes into the lineup to play the front row! Putting two and two together, she is an incredible leaper. It really is fun (and a bit nostalgic) to watch her jump.
Despite those incredible "ups," she has to be quite cunning with her shots. Even on Friday against Penn State, a good blocking team but not one in Nebraska's league (see below), her shots came right back if she put them where it looked like she was going to put them. Though she can really jump, she cannot get high enough to go over the top of a solid block.
However, she quickly noticed this in the Penn State match. By the second game, she started to use quite a bit of "trickeration," looking one way and hitting another. She also has a well developed dink shot. She will finish a lot of rallies, but she will have to be careful in doing so.
"Other" Stanford Frosh
I will save my thoughts on "you know who" from our freshman class for a moment. Before discussing her, it should be noted that the two other freshmen who played make one feel optimistic about our future. Akinradewo looked very strong at the net, and caused the poor Nebraska announcer (who seemed, to his credit, to have little trouble with Hawai'ian names that would have flustered me) no end of trouble. Fishburn served that nice rally under difficult circumstances. Already this freshman class looks strong. Anything added by Fisher and Waller will be icing on a very nice cake.
Two Freshman Titans
To transition to a discussion about Nebraska (and Stanford vis-à-vis Nebraska), let's talk about two very impressive freshman, Stanford's Barboza and Nebraska's Jordan Larson.
First things first. You are going to love Barboza. Friday night, she was dominant. She is very strong in the front row, but she plays quite credibly in the back row also. The offense is already pointed toward setting up her hitting. That hitting was out of this world on Friday.
Even on Saturday, against Nebraska's formidable block, she showed flashes of brilliance at the net. Like Nnamani on Friday, after a few games of seeing her shots careen back to her, she started to use some misdirection and deception, to good effect. She still has a bit of work to do to consistently overcome Nebraska's block, but there is no shame in that (see below). Also, at this point in her career, she does not have Ogonna's ability to score from the back row, but it took a while for Oganna to develop that unusual talent, too.
Larson, too, was an eye-opening newcomer. She is more Kristin Richards (strong all around player) than Ogonna Nnamani (unstoppable in the air), though she is solid at the net, too. In fact, I am quite certain that the Nebraska fans went away thinking that she was even stronger than Barboza at the net, based upon Saturday's game. However, the comparison was somewhat unfair, because Nebraska's block, which Barboza faced, was substantially stronger on Saturday than our block, which Larson faced. Without a doubt, though, she demonstrated that a defense must commit more than one defender to blocking her, as she consistently hit past the single block into the back corner.
Thus, I still give a slight (and admittedly biased) edge at the net to Barboza, even though Larson is quite good in this department. In the back row, I would have to go in the opposite direction, giving the nod to Larson, though Barboza is credible there. Larson has the clear edge in one department - serving. She is a powerful and clever server. Barboza floats the ball (see below) and still hits an occasional service error.
Playing for teams in separate conferences, these two will not face each other regularly. However, I think there is a strong possibility that they will be on opposite sides of the net in some epic post-season battles in the next few years. With our strong freshman class, we should be factors in the post-season for several years. The same should be true of Nebraska.
Nebraska is Scary Good
Speaking of Nebraska, for a team that was, after all, also playing its first two games of the season, Nebraska looked really good. They manhandled a fairly good Hawai'i team Friday, even before the injury to Hawai'i's tallest player, Sarah Mason, in the third game. Then they swept a team that is certainly strong, Stanford, on Saturday.
What makes Nebraska so darn good? Several things, I think. Let me review the ones I noticed.
First, they are very tall. The Hawai'i ladies looked pretty tall when we saw them at a restaurant salad bar before the game, but they looked pretty small across the net from the Huskers. Nebraska has one 6'5" player, Sarah Pavan, and several other contributors at least 6'2", including tournament MVP Christina Houghtelling, Melissa Elmer, Jordan Larson, and Amanda Gates.
More importantly, Nebraska knows how to use their height, especially on defense. Their block is absolutely amazing. Rarely did I see a Hawai'i or Stanford player have a chance to hit it by a single Nebraska blocker. Instead, it seemed like two of them, hands high and covering several feet of net, were always there. Nebraska's block was clearly superior to that of the three other teams in Omaha, and those three teams are not slouches. [The block is so important to Nebraska that their fans have even developed a special cheer to reward successful blocks. After hearing what sounded like three dog barks ("Woof. Woof. Woof."), I finally asked a Nebraska fan what was up (much like the inevitable "what's the deal with that tree?" inquiry all of us know and love). It is actually "Roof. Roof. Roof." It signifies putting the "roof" on the court. And they most assuredly do that.]
Next, although Stanford, overall, is a slightly better hitting team in my estimation (see below), Nebraska has one basically unstoppable hitter in the aforementioned 6'5" Canadian lefty, Pavan. For a player this tall, she has pretty good footwork, though she is not as agile as her "shorter" teammates. Because she jumps better than most tall players, if she gets a strong set on the right side of the net, she is so high that her shot is pretty much unstoppable. Occasionally her swing was a bit off. A few other times, our back court dug out her shots. But the scorekeeper can pretty much hit the "add a point to the Nebraska total" button as soon as she gets a good set.
Yet, Pavan is not even Nebraska's best player. That honor, at least for the time being, goes to Houghtelling (though Larson is already a contender for that honor). When Nebraska is in the portion of the rotation that puts Houghtelling under the left antenna and Pavan under the right, they are very tough to beat.
Nebraska also has several strong servers. Pretty much all of them jump serve and hit the ball hard. Our hardest server, Richards, would probably place no better than fifth on the Nebraska m.p.h. list. In addition, the Huskers, particularly Jennifer Saleaumua and Larson, seem to be able to put their serves where their coach tells them to serve. [See discussion below about serving, however.]
Finally, Nebraska seems pretty good at setting. As a "still learning" fan, I am a pretty poor judge of this aspect of the game (which seems like offensive line play in football - one seems to notice mistakes more than strong play). However, there were many times on both nights when the ball went up for Pavan, Houghtelling, and Larson when they were in perfect position to end the point.
Cardinal Assets (vis-à-vis Nebraska)
All that having been said about Nebraska's dominance, there are at least a couple of aspects of the game where I would put the check mark in the Stanford column on a comparison chart with Nebraska.
First, I give a slight edge to Stanford in offense at the net. That, of course, is a difficult judgment to make, given the unstoppable nature of Pavan when she is set well and the strength of Houghtelling, Larson, and other Huskers. However, the Nebraska hitting game seems to be a bit unimaginative. Pavan, of course, can get away with that, because it is impossible for anyone to get high enough to block her. But the other Huskers tend to hit the ball right where it looks like they are going to hit it, with, of course, a few noteworthy exceptions, primarily in the "dink shot" category. I think we have a bit more deception at the net. Also, we have quite a few options at the net, including Barboza, Nnamani, Girard, Richards, and Akinradewo. If we get Suiter back, we will have yet another option. This one is close (and I am admittedly biased), but I am giving a slight edge to Stanford here.
Also, I was quite impressed with our digging ability. Nebraska has some powerful servers (see below), but I do not remember them getting many points off that serve. More significantly, while our blocking was not as strong as Nebraska's, our back line was able to dig out an impressive number of potential kills.
"There is No Place Like Nebraska"*
[*Stolen from the Nebraska fight song.]
As fans of a sport dominated by the west coast, it is worthwhile to remind ourselves that there are a few other places where volleyball is taken very seriously. The list would have to include Texas, Florida, and, of course, Pennsylvania, but I am pretty sure that, outside the west coast, "there is no place like Nebraska" when it comes to interest in women's volleyball.
In Nebraska, little boys dream of playing football for the Huskers. Little girls dream just as hard about playing volleyball for the Huskers. High school volleyball is huge in the state. [My recollection as a long ago resident of the state is that volleyball and track were the first women's sports sponsored widely by Nebraska high schools. In most states, basketball came before volleyball, but not in Nebraska.] Seven of the thirteen players listed on the Nebraska roster are from Nebraska, and their home towns are scattered across the state.
The intense interest of Nebraskans in volleyball was also reflected in the attendance this weekend in Omaha. Both nights, there were more than 10,000 folks there, and pretty much all of them were Husker fans. The fans are very knowledgeable about the game (and very loud!).
Nebraska fans, though very polite to their guests, are rabid supporters of their beloved Huskers. Make no mistake: these were home games for Nebraska in every sense, except the location at Creighton's home basketball arena in Omaha rather than on Nebraska's campus in Lincoln. The announcer fired up the crowd, the crowd worked over the referees, and there was red (not cardinal) everywhere. Which leads me to my next point...
"Stay West, Young Ladies!"
One of the four NCAA Regionals this year will be held at the site of this weekend's action, the Qwest Center. Lest we forget, the last two times a Stanford women's team was sent to a regional, that regional was in the Midwest (Kansas City in women's basketball and Columbia in softball).
As much as MiniMizzouCard and I have enjoyed cheering on the Stanford women, as we see it, Stanford's number one goal from here to the post-season is to avoid the Omaha regional. I just cannot see any way that Nebraska will not be in that regional, because I don't think anyone in the Midwest will be able to unseat them as the premier team from the region. [This weekend, curtains blocked off the basketball general admission seats in the highest tier on the sides. If they pull back the curtains to expose those seats (and I think they are planning to do just that), they will probably draw over 15,000 Husker fans.]
So, much as we love you ladies, our request is for you to stay west of the Rockies through the regional. Washington, from all accounts, is probably the favorite in the Pacific time zone. Seems to me, then, that we need to find a way to finish above them in the Pac-10, so we don't have to play NCAA bracket Russian roulette. [We all know how badly we do at that game!] Thus, there will be a lot riding on the Pac-10 games this year, which should be fun for those of you who can get to Maples Pavilion to cheer on our team.
"… I Shall Not Serve* (Hard)"
[*Historical Reference: After the Civil War, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman (or somebody like him - don't press me for details!) was asked to run for President. Showing a wonderful lack of interest in the post, he supposedly said something along the lines of "If nominated, I will not run. If elected, I will not serve."]
This seems like a very minor point, and it probably is. However, if you have the stamina to read to this point, it might interest you. Nebraska and Stanford have radically different approaches to serving the ball. Nebraska serves hard and tries to use the serve as an offensive weapon. Most of Stanford's serves are quite soft. Indeed, for a Stanford fan, it is somewhat aggravating to see lollypop after lollypop when Stanford is serving, with the exception of Richards. Even Kehoe, who jump serves, is no Roscoe Tanner.
It seems to me that, somewhere deep in the recesses of my very faulty memory, one of the many astute volleyball observers on the SearsBoard suggested that Coach John Dunning is not a proponent of overly aggressive serving. If so, I think Saturday's game suggests that he may be onto something. With the somewhat ironic exception of the last point in the match, which Stanford misjudged and therefore did not return a serve to its peril, I cannot remember an ace (though there probably were a few). Instead, Stanford consistently dug out some very tough Nebraska serves. However, Nebraska committed several service errors, including a few that helped Stanford stay in the second and third games. In contrast, though lollypop-serving Stanford had a few service errors on Friday, there were only a couple on Saturday. [Barboza had at least two each day, though.]
Thus, aggressive serving may not be worth the risk, at least against a strong team. Although a hard serving team like Nebraska will undoubtedly rack up aces against weaker competition, the risk-reward ratio may not compute correctly in a tough match. Perhaps Mike Montgomery, who viewed steals in basketball as fool's gold purchased at too high a price, and Dunning, if he has a similar view of aggressive serving, are correct.
Can We Catch Nebraska This Year?
As this discussion makes clear, I am firmly convinced that Nebraska is the best volleyball team in the country at this point. I have not seen Washington, of course, and other Pac-10 schools (and other teams yet to be determined) will emerge, but I just saw the pre-season no. 1, 3, 4, and 5 teams. Of those teams, Nebraska is the best, by a noticeable margin.
Of course, December is a long time away. Thus, the obvious question, for us Stanford fans is whether we have any hope of catching Nebraska by the end of the year. [I do not mean to put the cart ahead of the course. After all, the no. 2 team in the country is in our conference, so I have no illusions of anything but a very tough season ahead. However, as I see it, anyone who wants to win the national championship this year is going to have to beat Nebraska, or, at least, beat someone who beats Nebraska. Thus, I think the question I have posed is worth considering.]
In my view, we have a fair bit of improving to do before we get to Nebraska's level. That having been said, I think we have a chance of doing that improving and pulling even with Nebraska.
Why? Well, there is room for improvement in Stanford's game. For example, we can get better on defense at the net. In particular, we need to develop a better double block game. Too many times, Nebraska players had to hit it past only one Stanford blocker, while Stanford's players almost always had to get past two Nebraska blockers. Frankly, I am not knowledgeable enough to know why this was the case, but I am optimistic that we can get better in this part of the game. First, we were operating without Suiter after we expected to have her available. I do not know if she will be able to get back in the line up. Even if she cannot do so, our freshmen will be more experienced at the college level in December. Second, we have a really good coach. If this is, indeed, an aspect of our game that needs to be improved, he will improve it.
Second, we play in the toughest volleyball conference in the country. Nebraska plays in a decent volleyball conference. I think that will work for us and against Nebraska. For a parallel, look at our romp through the Pac-10 in women's hoops last season. It is fun to win game after game with few close games, but it does not push one to a higher level. [To take one example, Nebraska will get away with hitting right where they look like they are going to hit against many a Big 12 team, so they might not develop as much of a misdirection game.] This is no big slam on the Big 12, which, after all, is the conference in which I see most of my volleyball these days. Many Big 12 teams (including Mizzou!) are solid, but the conference teams do not present the challenges that the Pac-10 teams present.
Also, I think Nebraska is closer to its end of the season finished product than we are. Both teams will improve, but we have more room for improvement. The major area of improvement for Nebraska will be to limit its service errors. Because our team will be redesigning itself after the loss of its best player, we have more experience to gain and more areas for improvement.
Nebraska is going to be tough for anyone to beat this year. We will not be in a position to do it unless we improve. Whether we will improve remains to be seen, of course. Given the spunk shown in Omaha, though, I like our chances.
[To get way ahead of ourselves, the Final Four will be in Qwest Center in 2006. If Nebraska is in, they will sell tickets like crazy, and the atmosphere will be unreal. If Stanford gets in, it would be a sin for any Stanford Volleyball fan to miss it.]
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