A Qwest Ending In "Almost"
MiniMizzouCard has been to enough Stanford attempts to win championships, all of them unsuccessful, to have developed a sense of reality - indeed, pessimism - to go along with his youthful sense of hope. From the start of the volleyball Final Four, he said that the one thing Stanford did not need was for Nebraska's Sarah Pavan (or Jordan Larson) to have an off night on Thursday. Both of them did.
Then Stanford took the floor against Washington and played superbly. Mini was worried. He figured Stanford could not possibly play as well in the final as it did in the semifinal, and Nebraska could not possibly play as badly. Unfortunately, he was right on both counts. That pretty much summarizes the night.
Stanford did not play badly on Saturday night. Indeed, Stanford played pretty well. But Nebraska played great. These teams were very evenly matched, with a slight edge to Nebraska. If one played great and the other played pretty well, the one playing great was almost certain to win. Nebraska did, and it deserved to win.
To put a bit of flesh onto that bare bones analysis:
- Pavan started strong. By the end, she was on fire. Every once in a while, the Stanford block slowed down her shots. Stanford (often in the person of Cynthia Barboza, who had a solid game in the back row) occasionally even dug her. But Pavan is going to get a whole lot of balls to the ground when she is set properly. She was. She did.
- Ditto for Jordan Larson. Like Pavan, she was nearly flawless from the service line, after having trouble hitting the broad side of a Nebraska barn on Thursday. [Mini wonders why nobody ever has a game like that when they are playing us. Actually, several UDub players did on Thursday. But we did not need it then.] She had a strong game at the net also.
- The unsung hero this weekend for Nebraska was Tracy Stalls. Pavan and Larson would have never been around to trouble our Cardinal had it not been for Stalls' strong play on Thursday. On Saturday, she again kept the down stretches for Nebraska within reason. The record on TheBootleg.com's message boards reflects that nobody fears Pavan more than yours truly. She is the most spectacular player in the college game right now. But Stalls was Nebraska's, and therefore the Final Four's, most valuable player in my book. She just did not make mistakes.
- Cynthia Barboza did not have the match that she did against Texas or UDub, but she played reasonably well. The Nebraska block was good, as it often is. As a result, Barboza's numbers (.100 hitting percentage) were way down from the previous two matches. Given that block and the setting problems, it was a reasonable, though not spectacular, night for Barboza (12 kills).
- Mini, who has an eye for these things, noted that the Stanford setting was not as solid tonight as it was on Thursday. [Most things were not.] Some of that resulted from the passing not being as good as on Thursday. Again, the passing and setting were not "bad," by any means. Just not as superb as it needed to be with Nebraska making so few errors. And Bryn Kehoe also deserves major kudos for the big service runs she authored in the first couple of games. They won us the first game, and kept us in the second. [As Mini noted when Bryn was serving at 26-28 in game two, putting our second game fate in Bryn's hands at that point was probably going to the well once too often.]
- Stanford played very tough, especially given the environment. The crowd was even larger than Thursday night, at 17,209. All but a few of us in cardinal (and a dozen in purple - see below) were in cherry red. Every time Nebraska went on a run, the crowd added to Nebraska's enthusiasm. Every time Nebraska was in trouble, the crowd cheered them out of it. It really was asking a lot to play such a good team in such a tough environment. Our players deserve a lot of credit.
- In particular, I loved the fight at the end of game four. Down 28-21, we fought all the way to 29-27 before Nebraska finished us off. [As Mini pointed out at the time, if you reverse that strange "four hits" call earlier in that game, that 29-27 score becomes a dead even 28-28.] What an effort by a team with its back to the wall! It made me quite proud to be a Stanford fan.
- The key sequence to the match, though, was the game three run late in the game by Nebraska while Stalls was serving, starting at 25-27. Mini and I had the feeling that we had to win game three to win the match, and we were in good position to do it before the run on Stall's serve.
- My biggest criticism of our play would be the decision to go "soft" so often at the net. Did it ever work? I do not think so. Instead, Nebraska dug those softies up, then set up Pavan for the kill. A little bit of the soft stuff is needed, to keep the defense honest. But it was not going to be much of a weapon against a solid defensive team like Nebraska.
- Foluke Akinradewo was outstanding. She even got an unintentional "ohhhh!" from the Nebraska fans, as she did on Thursday, late in the match.
- Erin Waller was also a huge asset. She undoubtedly benefits from the attention the defense must pay to Barboza and Kristin Richards. But she takes advantage of that opportunity. Franci Girard was also solid, particularly in the first half of the match.
- It was a heck of a match. Congratulations to Nebraska.
- We have a dangerous tendency to start games slowly, staking our opponents to an early four- or five-point lead. Got away with it in Austin. Did not in Omaha.
- Shame on LSJUMB. Apparently the volleyball etiquette is to have the bands take turns during time outs. When it was our "turn," they piped in music. Every third time or so, it was All Right Now, which does not have the same pizzazz when it is recorded instead of live. Even worse, the other times, they just played random rock music. By sheer coincidence (yeah, right), that resulted in "We will, we will, rock you" just when Nebraska was going on a big rally. Not that this made much of a difference, but Nebraska had enough of a home court advantage, without the extra benefit of having the only band present. [But why did Nebraska fans get to buy the seats in the band area? Why not Stanford fans in those seats, so we could at least try to cheer our team from a reasonable distance?]
- Even when there is an obvious home court advantage, the NCAA pretends it is a neutral court, right? They did not do a very good job of pretending. Mini counted the number of times they displayed "Wow!" or "Amazing" on the scoreboard. In game three, for example, the Bug Eaters got 11 of those. Stanford? Three. And Nebraska got them on each of the last five points of the game. That did not make much of a difference, I suppose, but if the folks in Omaha are looking for a "neutral" person to run their scoreboard (or to do their arena announcing) in 2008, I hereby volunteer. As Mini suggests, considering that Stanford has won more than a fifth of all NCAA titles, I might even be able to find the highlight reel from one of those titles. Not showing any of them (at least while Mini was in the arena - believe me, he was keeping track), while showing a good many of the others, was really quite an accomplishment.
- That having been said, I should also say that I find the Nebraska fans to be the best of fans of any of my teams' rivals. They cheer hard, but they are polite to their guests. A very classy bunch, in my opinion. And that comes from someone whose "other" team spends a lot time losing to Nebraska, in various sports.
- Could it really be true, as three of the (very few) other Stanford fans we saw here reported, that Stanford turned back eight of our 150 tickets? When we had Booties who could not get tickets from that allotment on Monday, for heaven's sakes? Is it really true that all one had to do to get tickets from the Stanford allotment was to claim, but never prove, a connection to Stanford? When our opponent for this game has the world class experts at snagging tickets? Does this explain why the two seats in front of us were occupied by DIFFERENT Nebraska fans than the ones there on Thursday, even though they (almost certainly) were seats assigned to the Stanford ticket office? If so, are we not just a little embarrassed about this? [Lots of questions here. No certain answers just yet. But you can bet that I will be e-mailing someone in the Athletic Department early next week.]
- Good job by the Stanford parents and fans who were able to get seats behind the Stanford bench. A couple of audible "Let's Go Stanford!" cheers. Considering the territory, that was pretty impressive.
- Thank you, Washington Husky fans. Mini noticed that the dozen or so of you who held onto your tickets were cheering for Stanford, and even standing when Stanford got to game point. We needed all the help we can get, so we appreciate it. [Frankly, we did not keep track of whether that one brave soul in UCLA light blue was rooting for us. If you were, sir, thank you, too.]
- In an earlier missive, I reported having told Mini that Stanford's tough record in the rare games that he and I attend might have nothing to do with us being there. Now I am starting to wonder. [On a more serious note, this was a fairly typical "Omaha" trip for Stanford. Lots of success, but ending in disappointment. We once had that routine down to perfection at Rosenblatt Stadium. Then again, those were the days. It was good to be back in the game this weekend, even though it ended badly again.]
- Nebraska is going to be awfully tough next year, too. Despite the brilliance of Pavan, last year Christina Houghtelling was considered their best player. [I think she might have been the national player of the year last year. But it is 3:00 a.m., and I am too blasted tired too look that up.] She took this year off, due to injury, but she will be back next year. They do lose setter-turned-libero Dani Busboom, but very little else. They will not be playing the Final Four in Omaha next year, but Nebraska should be tough again.
- Of course, we will be pretty tough next year, too. Losing Kristin Richards is going to sting. But we have some interesting - to say the least - new players arriving in the fall and a slew of great ones returning.
- Thank you, seniors. You were part of great teams in your days at Stanford. Very few athletes ever win a national title. You almost won two. Your team had great spirit, and it was obvious that you enjoyed playing together. We will remember you fondly, and we wish you well in all future endeavors.
Stanford 30 26 28 27
Nebraska 26 30 30 30
Purely Personal Note
They all do, of course, but this one really stung. As noted in the offering from Thursday, time is running out for Mini to see Stanford win a championship while he is still a "kid" and can really enjoy it. Despite all of Stanford's national titles and all of the attention he pays to Stanford sports, the poor guy has never seen us win one live, even "live" on television. [Two years ago we had to tape the volleyball game because Stanford was playing Mizzou at the same time in women's basketball in Columbia. It was great to see it on tape, but it is not the same as watching it live.]
I have a confession to make: As Stanford took that lead in the 20s in game three, I allowed myself to think of how much he was going to enjoy finally seeing it happen, after all of these failed attempts. Not that I thought it was going to happen for sure. I am way too much of a sports pessimist for that. But I did allow myself a few moments of thinking about the look of sheer joy that was going to come across his face. I was really looking forward to that.
Mini is privileged to root for Stanford, as all of us are. When he sees Stanford lose, it is usually in, or at least quite near, the national championship. [His friends, who root exclusively for Mizzou, have never been near a national championship. Indeed, in our eight-plus years at Mizzou, Mizzou has never even won a conference title, in a single sport.] So he, and we, are deserving of no particular sympathy.
But losing when you are close is particularly painful. And Mini is a kid who, like his dad, only gets to see a Stanford team play about once a year. He really is an incredible Stanford sports fan, given those circumstances. He has already experienced the tough side of these national championship games plenty of times. He has learned to be the gracious loser, congratulating the fans of the winning team (and the Nebraska fans are a gracious bunch, so I bear them no ill will). Just once, though, could he be on the other end?
To borrow a phrase used in the sports context previously, I must admit that, like Fiddler on the Roof's Tevye, after that last noble Stanford rally fell short, I shot a thought skyward: "Would it spoil some vast eternal plan" to have it happen for him?
Of course, we are just fans. Think of how much harder it must be to be a player. The Stanford players represented themselves and our institution extremely well, under very difficult (literally unprecedented, at least in this sport) circumstances. It was, as it always is, an honor to cheer for them.
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