From the Cheap Seats

Whenever Stanford makes an appearance in the Midwest, you can bet on one family in Columbia (Mo.) making their way there. Our heartfelt columnist from the Heartland drove yesterday with his son to Omaha to take in the women's volleyball NCAA Final Four semifinals, with Nebraska vs. UCLA followed by Stanford vs. Washington. After reading his account, you'll feel like you were at the Qwest Center.

National Volleyball Semi-Finals

Sadly, some cannot get to Omaha.  [Even if you could, you could not get a ticket, unless you were willing to shell out some major bucks on EBay or to a scalper.]  And rumor has it that ESPN has moved the Stanford UDub match to "The Ocho," so some of you might not even have television access.  Fear not: MiniMizzouCard and I will be your eyes and ears!

10:00 a.m. in Columbia

Almost ready for another trip to Omaha.  Omaha is not exactly the "Seattle" of Stanford sports, but there have certainly been some heartbreaks for the Cardinal there.  The two of us have been there to witness most of them.

It is, of course, possible that it is not an "Omaha curse," but the "MizzouCard family curse."  Maybe if we stayed home, Stanford would have a chance.  But Mini has never seen a Stanford national championship in any sport.  And he desperately wants to do just that.  His did would love for it to happen before he is too old to get excited about it, particularly in the company of his dad.  When we first started these trips to Omaha eight and half years ago, it seemed like it was almost inevitable that it would happen some day.  Now, it seems like the sand is slipping through the hourglass at a disturbingly fast rate.  So we chase our beloved Cardinal to Omaha once again.

It is hard to be a fan of a school a few thousand miles away.  Only about once a year do we get the chance to see our Cardinal live.  So we do not miss many of those opportunities.

But my mother was right when she said every cloud has a silver lining.  Because we do not get to see Stanford sports teams live very often, each of those opportunities is precious.  In a busy life with kids growing up all too fast, you have to be willing to waste a little time in some sort of quest with your kids.  These Stanford road trips, even though they often end in some disappointment, are already among our most treasured memories.

In a sense, this is the best part of the trip, because right now there is nothing but possibility.  Like kids on Christmas Eve, neither Mini nor I got much sleep last night.  We had another trip to Omaha ahead of us.  By now, we pretty much have the pattern down.  Mrs. MizzouCard has written the notes to the teachers talking about the "need" for Mini to be absent for a day and a half.  [As an educator, I ought to be ashamed of myself for taking him out of school for this.  But I am not.]  In about 15 minutes, Mini will start looking at the clock, wondering when the call is going to the intercom in his classroom to send him to the office.

I am going to share a little secret: I really hate to say this, because I do not want to raise any hubris-related bad karma, but I think we have a shot this time.  On paper, there is no way Nebraska should not win this thing.  They have a truly dominant player, Sarah Pavan, who simply cannot be stopped if she is set properly, and lots of other strong players.  They will have the largest, most boisterous crowds in American volleyball history behind them.

On paper, Stanford looks to have its hands full tonight, actually.  Washington seems to be the one Pac 10 team that consistently gives us trouble in volleyball.  They swept us 3-0 in Seattle.  Of course, what good ever happens in Seattle for Stanford sports teams?  [Can you believe we actually won a football game, of all things, there?]  And we did sweep them on The Farm.  But there seems to be some sort of match-up issue with Washington.  Perhaps it is those hideous uniforms.  Are there any uglier uniforms in college volleyball?  [Of course, I have not seen Oregon's volleyball uniforms.  When the topic is "ugly college sports uniforms," Oregon usually belongs in the conversation.]

On paper, Stanford looks to be a year, or perhaps two years, away from peaking.  We have a solid team this year, but we did, after all, get swept by BYU.  And a certain unmentionable team from SoCal beat us at home.  Ugh.

Thus, both our previous experiences on many trips to Omaha and the match-ups on paper should give me no problem adopting my usual pessimism.  But there is this little optimistic bug in my head that refuses to be squashed.  Part of it comes from a belief that John Dunning usually gets his teams peaking at the right time.  The team that won it all two years ago had some ugly spots on its regular season record, too.

Of course, my optimism probably dooms us.  Mini is doing everything he can to get the sports karma lined up in the correct direction.  He packed only enough clothes for a two-day trip, thinking the sports gods might punish his hubris if he actually thought Stanford has won.  He has mapped out a new route to Omaha, because he is convinced that we have somehow doomed the Cardinal by our previous trips.  "Gotta break the string!" he reminds me.  [Warning: This is about the fifth different route we have planned to Omaha, so I would not derive much optimism from Mini's tactics.  If this keeps up, I will someday be driving to the Twin Cities first, then turning around and heading back to Omaha.]  I have suggested to Mini that perhaps the results of these athletic endeavors have nothing to do with us, but he has scoffed at this obviously ridiculous notion.

Gotta go.  It is past 10:30.  The big hand on the clock must be moving excruciatingly slow in Min's Spanish class about now.  See you in Omaha...

Qwest Center, One Hour Before the First Semi-Final

Our seats are not nearly as bad as we thought they would be.  Upper bowl in the "end zone," but in the second row.  But only one other Stanford fan in sight.  Oh well.  We knew it was going to be lonely.

[Note from later: Strong circumstantial evidence suggests that the two folks in front of Mini and me got their tickets from the Stanford ticket office, some way or another.  And they are Nebraska fans, pure and simple.  Wild gestures of pleasure in the first match.  Barely moved in the second.  And we have loyal Booties who show up at every Stanford game in these parts who could not get tickets from Stanford?  On Monday I will send the Stanford Ticket Office an email suggesting that they maintain a list of folks who buy tickets from Stanford allotments and give them to the enemy.  I have made note of the seat numbers, so it ought to be easy enough to trace this back to the Stanford alum who took two seats out of a very small Stanford allotment.]

Nebraska vs. UCLA

Most Stanford folks are probably rooting for UCLA.  On the drive here, I decided to root for Nebraska.  It is a very difficult thing to beat a good team three times.  Plus, I cannot stand the thought of being in any way involved in the possibility of UCLA getting its 100th NCAA title.

Not that it matters much, because Nebraska needs no help from us.  There are over 15,000 folks here who are rooting for them.  That does give them a tremendous home advantage.  However, I think there is a slight possibility that having all those fans rooting for you might actually put some unwelcome pressure on you.

As the Nebraska/UCLA match started, it sure looked like that was happening.  The first point of the match was scored by UCLA when Sarah Pavan spiked the ball right into the net.  Pavan, into the net?  When was the last time that happened?  MiniMizzouCard immediately opined that the last thing we wanted was for Pavan to have a bad match against UCLA, because "there is no way she is going to have two bad matches this weekend."

Of course, Pavan proceeded to play what was inarguably the worst game I have ever seen her play, in game one.  [We have actually seen her play quite a few, as Mizzou and Stanford fans.]  I have never seen her look so tentative.  Her shots were soft.

She actually did some of her best work in the back row.  Pavan has a killer hard curve ball serve.  Toward the end of game one, when it was clear that UCLA was going to snag the game, Mini predicted that Pavan would reel off four straight points on her serve, thus propelling Nebraska into game two with confidence.  He was one off.  It was actually three points.

The Bug Eaters (I did not make that nickname up - it is the "pre-Husker" nickname for Nebraska sports teams) did indeed look nervous in game one.  Jordan Larson had a couple of service errors.  Both of them landed a long ways out - near where the Stanford Band would have been sitting if they were still allowed to travel.  [More on that later.]

They did start to settle down a bit in game two.  About halfway through that game, I turned to Mini and said, "If they somehow get this game, they are going to win this whole darn thing this weekend."  By that time, of course, my heart had overruled my head (as it so often does) and I was rooting for UCLA.  My gut told me that, despite the "three times in one season" problem, Stanford had a better chance of winning a title game against UCLA than against Nebraska.

But Nebraska did settle down enough to win game two.  Then they followed up a very strong game three with a "good enough" game four.  Pavan really picked it up after game one, so that she was her old "can't stop me" self by the end of the match (although UCLA, rather impressively, did dig her several times and even blocked her at least once).  She looks like she has her feet firmly underneath her now.

Larson did not have her best match.  In the end, this scares me.  For part of the night, Pavan was as off as she will ever be.  For almost all of the night, Larson was at least a bit off.  But Nebraska still won.  They are a very good team.  [Now there is a news flash, huh?]  I would be very surprised if Nebraska does not play significantly better on Saturday than it did today.

UCLA played pretty well.  Nana Meriwether never fails to impress me.  Today she was particularly impressive while blocking.  The Bug Eaters are very tough to block, but she did so repeatedly.  UCLA also seemed to have the best back row defense at the Qwest Center today.  But they also had too many service errors for a soft-serving team, and not enough strength at the net.  I should also note that I now understand why Meriwhether, good as she is, was not the Pac-10 Player of the Year.  She is on the bench half the game.  As good as she is, UCLA does not seem to go on many service runs when she is on the front line.  [The exception was the late run in game one that pretty much put the game out of Nebraska's reach.]  Too many times, key sequences are being played out when she is on the bench.  Because Pavan has that wicked serve and plays competently in the back row, she is a significantly bigger contributor to her team.

Atmosphere

Bug Eater fans know when to cheer, to help lift their team's spirits.  Without a doubt, the place was loud.  But it was not "this is so loud I cannot hear myself think!" loud.  That has more to do with the design of the arena than any lack of enthusiasm from Nebraska fans, because there is no lack of enthusiasm.

The Qwest Center, like all of the recently built arenas I have seen, has very comfortable seating and good sight lines.  Modern fans demand these features in new arenas.  The downside, at least from the "home" team's perspective, is that the resulting large spaces inside modern arenas are difficult, if not impossible, to overwhelm with noise.

As a rough gauge, I would say that the Qwest Center during the Nebraska match tonight was not as loud as Arrowhead Stadium, by a noticeable margin.  The noise will cause some communication problems for Stanford on Saturday, but it can be managed.  If our team concentrates, it can overcome the noise, even though the noise does give Nebraska an advantage.

What a contrast it will be for Stanford.  The vast majority of Nebraska fans stayed for at least part of the second match, but they made little or no noise.  After the opening match, the place resembled a tomb, at least by comparison.  We few Stanford fans tried to noisily encourage our team, but we created only a tiny fraction of the noise for Nebraska.  It will be the same, if not worse (due to Nebraskans buying tickets from disappointed UCLA and Washington fans) on Saturday.

Stanford vs. UDub

I intended for this to be a running report of my impressions as the match progressed.  But there really is no need for that, because the Stanford vs. UDub match can be summed up rather easily: Stanford looked awfully good, dominating a team that had, after all, swept the Cardinal in Seattle.  The only glitch was a bit of sloppiness in the second game, which let UDub hang around.  That is dangerous in volleyball, because a team that is hanging around might just steal a game on a couple of "double hit" calls or other oddities late in the game.  Even in the relatively sloppy game two, though, it never felt like Stanford lost control of the match.

To provide some detail regarding Stanford looking good, here are a few impressions:

+  In the last two matches (Texas and UDub) Cynthia Barboza has been stunningly good.  Her serve is certainly impressive enough to tolerate the one ball into the net in each of the last two matches.  Her play in the back is a few steps above the "competent" rating given to Pavan.  At the net, she is creative, powerful, tricky, and accurate.  She is starting to block quite well.  She has always had tremendous talent.  And now the game is, as they say, starting to slow down for her.

A year ago at the season opening tournament at the Qwest Center (the last time I saw Stanford live), Barboza had a super opening game (against Penn State, if the memory serves), but Nebraska's Larson significantly outplayed her the next night.  Tonight Barboza was the best player on the court.  Whether she will be on Saturday remains to be seen, of course.  But, as our little group (Mini, another Bootie, his wife, and I) were rather astutely saying, it sure is nice to have her on our team!

The only significant mistake I saw Barboza make all night was when she was carrying another Cardinal player around "piggy back" style in the celebration after the game.  I almost ran out there and put a stop to it myself, before she had one of those freak celebration injuries that NFL kickers seem to get.

+  Jessica Fishburn played much better than she did against Texas.  Her passes tonight put Bryn Kehoe in position to set the bigs.  If there was one big difference between the Texas match and this one, it was the passing.  At the end of game one, I asked Mini what he thought we did well: "We passed," he said, then noted, "and lots of other stuff, too."  Major kudos to Jessica for stepping up to a significant challenge.

+ Foluke Akinradewo, like Pavan on most days, does not miss much.  The only frustration in watching her is that they do not set her more often.  Those smarter than me about volleyball (and there are a whole lot of you out there!) would undoubtedly say that you cannot set the middle blocker too often, because the defense could make some sort of an adjustment to take that away too easily.  So she has to spend most of her time as the second or third option.  But that is unfortunate, because Akinradewo really knows how to get the ball to the floor.

+ Bryn Kehoe had a very solid match.  When the pass is there, the set is there, too.  Also, for a setter, she is darn strong at the net.  [How many setters consistently win jousts at the net?]

+  Kristin Richards was also solid.  You really get the feeling that this is "her" team.  I am not sure why I say that.  It just feels that way.

+  Our "secret weapons" on offense are Erin Waller and Franci Girard.  Barboza, Richards and Akinradewo draw the attention of the defense, and deservedly so.  But that often frees up Waller and Girard.  They are starting to take advantage of that.

Random Observations

  • It scares the heck out of me when my team plays as well as Stanford did tonight.  I always wonder if that means the next match is bound to be tougher.  Athletes do not always perform at their peaks.  If they did, there would be no sport to it.  Will Stanford be able to duplicate its performance on Saturday?
  • One thing that will not be duplicated for Stanford will be the atmosphere in the Qwest Center.  The difference between the two matches was palpable.  17,013 people for the first match, most of them rooting hard for one team.  A good number of them stayed for the start of the second match, but with a crowd dwindled, to the point that no more than 10 or 15% of the seats were occupied by the third game of the second match.  [This was not entirely a bad thing, as it allowed us to sneak into seats behind the Stanford fans in the lower bowl.]  In all seriousness, there was significantly more noise at the NAIA tournament in Columbia two weeks ago than there was during the Stanford/UDub match, despite our best efforts.  Toward the end of game three, it seemed like a few lights went dead, calling to mind the "could you please just go home?" maneuver used in many bars.  Stanford held its concentration well, not falling prone to the "let them back in the game" mental lapses that sometimes bedevil our beloved Cardinal teams.  [Washington, on the other hand, seemed to lose interest.  Mini paraphrased the country song in saying that their "giveadamn was busted" by game three.  It was understandable.  But it was also noticeable.]  What a strange weekend it will be for Stanford, going from a tomb to what is likely to be the most raucous crowd in U.S. volleyball history.  Will Stanford be able to handle both environments?
  • Those things having been said, despite what I said about the environment and despite what I said in the middle of game two of the UCLA/Nebraska match, Stanford has a shot.  I do not expect Nebraska to again fall prey to a major case of the yips, as golfers say.  But that is a possibility.  Of course, the same could happen to Stanford.  What I am saying is that Nebraska is a heck of a volleyball team, but Stanford is a heck of a team also.  If both teams play their best, this is going to be a barnburner.  At one point, I thought that, if both teams played their best, Nebraska would clearly win.  FWIW, I no longer think that.  I do not necessarily think Stanford would win, either.  But I now think these teams, at their best, are a push.  Certainly if this match where elsewhere, where the locals cared less.  Maybe even in Omaha.  It is in Omaha, though, so an objective observer would give the edge to the Bug Eaters.  But not by much.
  • We hope you Booties who went to the Old Pro were able to create more atmosphere than we managed.  Maybe on Saturday you should invite the band.  [Are they allowed to travel that far?]  It is pretty pathetic to have to rely on a piped in version of "All Right Now."  Also, I am already tired of answering the ubiquitous question, "Where is the Tree?"
  • It was fun to see Oganna Nnamani in the arena to cheer on her sister and her former teammates.  What a special athlete she was (and is).
  • Cynthia Barboza as number 14?  What's up with that?
  • Though our Bug Eater friends were doing their best to turn the place into a tomb, there was a clearly discernable "Ohhhh!" when one of Akinradewo's slams took the score to 15-8 in game one.
  • Gratuitous Shot: Udub's sleaveless uniforms are indeed every bit as hideous in real life as they are on television or in an internet stream.
  • Gratuitous Shot by Mini:  "Nebraska's Lil' Red mascot looks like he is having a seizure."  The kid has a point.  And this observation is coming from a young man whose uncle once served as "Herbie Husker."
  • Mini's Observation Regarding the Video Board Highlights of Past NCAA Volleyball Championship Matches:  "Are they going to go through all 20 we did not win, and none of the six we did win?"

Scores

Nebraska 23 30 30 30
UCLA     30 28 23 28

Stanford   30 30 30
Washington 12 25 15


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