Smoke and "Hot" Volleyball in Southern California
Last weekend, the Stanford women's volleyball team ventured down to fire-ravaged Southern California for a weekend of scorching hot volleyball against top ten powers UCLA and USC. There are four active Pac-10 coaches who have won the NCAA tournament and this past weekend's set of games involved matchups of three of these four championship coaches. UCLA's Andy Banachowski, at the helm for a remarkable 41 years, is the gray eminence in this group. Banachowski's Bruins have won the tournament more any other current Pac-10 coach has - six times in all - the first time in 1972 and most recently in 1991. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, as Don Shaw's powerful Stanford teams became an increasing challenge to UCLA's dominance, there were some classic battles at Pauley Pavilion. More recently, UCLA has fallen on relative hard times, ceding its preeminence to Stanford and falling behind USC and Washington, each of whom has won the NCAA title since UCLA's last triumph in 1991. Nevertheless, UCLA remains a top-tier finisher. Last year, the Bruins returned to the Final Four, losing in the semi-finals to Nebraska. In last year's Pauley Pavilion matchup, Stanford prevailed only after five hard-fought games. Pauley Pavilion is a somewhat strange venue for volleyball. It is a gigantic arena, seating well over 12,000 as I recall, far too big for a volleyball game that will attract a couple of thousand people. To make the place seem a bit more intimate, a set of long Bruin-blue vinyl curtains is drawn across the basketball court's mid-court line, cutting the massive Pavilion in two. The volleyball court is then rotated 90 degrees so that the end courts are at the sides of the arena. Since no one can sit beyond the blue curtains, the spectators are seated in a stubby-legged horseshoe area, with only players benches and official scorers tables located against the curtains in the open horseshoe side. This means there are mid-court seats only on one side, so more fans are forced to sit higher up or at end-court locations. Still, the sight-lines are good and there's plenty of room for world-class volleyball.
Although perhaps still a top-ten team, this is a bit of an off-year for the Bruins. Against Stanford on Friday night, the Bruins had their moments. In particular, they rebounded from a first game loss to play well-enough to win the second game. The Bruins have a fine setter (Nellie Spicer) and two front row attackers who put up decent numbers (Kaitlin Sather - 20 kills at .226 percent and Rachell Johnson - 15 kills at .226 percent). But overall, at least on this night, they lacked the balance to be a legitimate final four contender. Particularly in games three and four, Stanford went on long serving runs that sealed the Bruins fate. Stanford played down to UCLA's level, particularly in the first two games, when the team's digging and passing was suspect. Jessica Fishburn was used throughout as a back row sub, and, beginning in the third game, so too was Cassidy Lichtman. Lichtman served well and sparked a long run in the third game, and that was really it for the match. The Bruins rallied to score half a dozen points at the end of the fourth game, gamely delaying match point for Stanford, but UCLA was simply too far back, and Stanford closed it out at 30-27. Cynthia Barboza and Foluke Akinradewo played their usual sterling offensive games. Bryn Kehoe was on top of her setting game. Franci Girard also had a fine senior game, hitting .385 (11 kills). Back row play improved with the use of both Fishburn and Lichtman, but still was not at championship-level. Stanford survived UCLA despite a flawed effort.
Saturday night turned out to be much more exciting volleyball, albeit with a disappointing result for Cardinal fans. The venue is the one-year-old Galen Center, an arena with a 10,258 capacity that is truly a great place to see a volleyball or basketball game. For the Stanford match, the building was only about 1/4 full, but fans were concentrated in the lower seats, creating a lively crowd. Many USC students showed up in Halloween costumes, looking for solace from their football team's disappointing performance at Oregon earlier in the day. One sensed a determination in the players and coaches and an excitement in the fans, ready for an upset. Coach Nick Haley's aggressive coaching style - he stood constantly and regularly worked the officials - presented a contrast with Coach Dunning. Having sensed an upset at the outset, I had changed my mind after Stanford prevailed with relative ease in game one (30-20). But USC came out with renewed intensity in the second game. A difference-maker was, 6'4" Polish national Asia Kaczor, a senior outside hitter at USC. I'd seen Kaczor play before, but never like this. She had 28 kills on 67 attempts, hitting at .328. Kaczor attacked from the front with consistent power and an effective over-the-block dink shot. She added five assists, three service aces, and 13 digs. USC setter Taylor Carico also had an All-American game, crossing up Stanford with unexpected attacks off the first ball (Nine kills for a .533 hitting percentage). And the Trojans back row play was at championship level, digging and passing with proficiency and making Stanford work for every point. Stanford was unable to repeat its first game success. In both the first and second games, a lot of USC balls were going down that seemed retrievable. About midway through the third game, Coach Dunning started substituting Jessica Fishburn in the back row. This improved Stanford's digging, but left tyhe Cardinal without Alix Klineman's back row attacking ability. Stanford lifted its game to a higher level in games three and four, but it wasn't enough. Stanford had chances to take control of the fourth game, but couldn't seize them. In the front row, Kaczor continued to put down kills with ruthlessness efficiency. As in the UCLA game, Barboza, Akinradawo, and Kehoe each played excellent games. Erin Waller stepped up with 11 kills and a .348 hitting percentage. Gaby Ailes was at her peak in games three and four, contributing an impressive 31 digs. The prolonged rallies in these games made this exciting volleyball and almost brought Stanford back in game four. With the Trojans at game point (29-27), Stanford saved one match point, then set up Akinradewo for what should have been a game-tying kill. When it landed out of bounds, Stanford players stood stunned for a moment, apparently convinced that USC had a touch on the ball (or perhaps had a net violation - it wasn't clear to me). But the match was over.
So why did Stanford lose? From this amateur perspective, it was because USC executed a well conceived game plan that called for getting the ball to Kaczor and played with heart in back row defense. Stanford too played very well, actually better than they had the previous night against UCLA, but it wasn't quite enough against a national-class opponent playing at home. In tough games against a good blocking team, Stanford's dominance in the Akinradewo front-row rotations is still unchallenged. But without Akinradewo, the front row was not delivering with consistency. One can see growth in Alix Klineman's game, and she may soon be hitting with higher percentages from the front row. While watching Kaczor hit with power and effectiveness, the thought crossed my mind that Klineman, who is similar in height and stature to Kaczor, may soon be hitting with the flair that the USC attacker demonstrated in this match. When that happens, watch out! Stanford's second-best weekend effort, its victory over UCLA, was telecast on a delayed basis by Fox Sports Network.
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