Monday, December 17, 2007

Penn State 2007 Champs over Stanford (volleyball)

During the break after the second game of the NCAA women’s final at ARCO arena this Saturday, they introduced members of the All America team to the crowd of 13,650 people. When Jordan Larson of Nebraska’s name came up as a third team All American (they make the announcements in reverse order), the crowd responded with what had been up to that point the loudest cheer of the night. An equally loud roar for each of the five Nebraska players named to the team followed. There were a lot of people wearing red around Arco for the three days, clearly not all of them were there to root for Stanford.

The announcer pointed out that this was the second biggest crowd ever for a final four, but Arco, the home of the Sacramento Kings was clearly not full. It was more or less the crowd you’d get for a Kings regular season game this year instead of say four years ago. With Cal and Stanford within a hundred miles, I had thought that Arco might have sold out. Oddly, I suspect with either Nebraska or Hawaii in the final four, it might have. That’s pretty much where women’s volleyball stands in 2007. It’s wildly popular in certain places, but mildly obscure in some surprising spots.

Two weeks ago, I happened to attend Stanford’s second round match against Sacramento State. It was Big Game weekend and this was Debbie Colberg’s last match as a coach after a career that started twenty nine years ago with her simultaneously coaching Sacramento State and the Rio American High School girls’ volleyball team. The NCAA attendance for that match said 2,000, but I suspect that included all the people working concessions and any passerbys from the football game.

It wasn’t just the Cornhusker factor. At that point in the match Penn State was handling the number one seeded Cardinal comparatively easily, so the locals didn’t have much to cheer about. Fwiw, there were a bunch of blue shirts in the lower level on the far side of the court. They would hold up signs for “Air Wilson”, Holehouse, and in support of lions in general. If you’re wondering, a Nittany Lion is a mountain lion that lives on Mount Nittany near the Penn State Campus. This was better than Thursday night when they spent much of the time borrowing the cheer from the movie “We Are Marshall.”

The match had started with a big kill from sophomore Meagan Hodge. Penn State’s bread and butter is for Alicia Glass to zip a four to the left at about nine and half feet before the defense can get in position. Hodge or Fawcett then hammers it cross court. Throughout the night Hodge repeatedly went for a spot about two feet behind of the ten foot line and two and a half feet left of the center line. In her 26 kills, she probably found that part of the floor at least a dozen times. Fawcett tends to hit harder and more towards the center of the court. Hodge tends to change speeds more while Fawcett daresthe defense to dig in against her fastball.

Stanford has a pair of even more celebrated lefts. Both Barboza and Klineman where national high school players of the year and national number one recruits. At various times, Barboza and Klineman have both been labeled the next saviour of the U.S. National team as were their predecessors Oganna Namani and Logan Tom before them and Kristin Folkl before that. That said, the Stanford style was more or less Martina Hingis to Penn State’s Serena Williams. Barboza is still recovering from a knee injury and she generally does not get her kills by overpowering or hitting over the defense these days. Much of the time on offense and defense, she looks like a beach player wandering through the indoor game. As a 17 year old freshman, Klineman does everything well but she does not have the raw physical strength or arm speed to overpower the block. Stanford’s lefts hit plenty hard, but still rely on timing and placement to get the ball down. Penn State gets points by simply getting to the point of attack faster, higher, and harder.

One of the more interesting sources of drama was that Hodge was the number one recruit in the year between Barboza and Klineman. Rumor has it that Stanford never actually offered Hodge at least in part to leave the spot open for Klineman who some thought would be a better emotional fit for the Stanford team. Barboza tends to be the player who growls at teammates on the Stanford team on the court. Hodge had something of a reputation for the same. John Dunning may have rightly been a bit nervous about having two players on the floor playing that role. Bottom line, all four lefts played pretty well in the final, but Hodge and Fawcett ultimately had a lot more kills. Fawcett doesn’t play her own back row, so it’s a bit tricky to compare all around. Just as interesting, all four players return next year.

Throughout the first two games, Penn State’s serve receive, the one area of vulnerability, was noticeably solid. As a result not only were their lefts hitting well, Arielle Wilson and Christa Harmotto were arguably even more efficient. In the semi against Cal, the freshman Wilson hit an otherworldly .913 with 11 kills against a defense that allegedly lived for the block. In the final Harmotto’s arm would appear crane like over the Stanford block on the slide and on more than a couple overpasses to put the ball away. Blair Brown, Penn State’s freshman rightside and probably the least renowned player on their front line repeatedly converted open nets, usually from somewhere near the middle of the court. The Penn State back row defense, led by Roberta Holehouse, was also easily a match for Stanford’s. Stanford actually had 28 and 25 points in the first two games, but the matches never really felt that close as Penn State didn’t give up its lead once the games got into the teens and seemed capable of running off points at any given time.

At the second game break, I suspect everyone present was convinced that Penn State was the physically superior team. Given that Stanford had National Player of the Year and year long .500 hitter, Fouluke Akwinadero, among others, this was a pretty astonishing thing to concede so easily. It hardly seemed possible that Stanford had won in 5 when the two teams met early in the season. To be honest, I was thinking things like “Well at least the Stanford band and cheerleaders are better than Penn State’s.” (Penn State brought sort of economy versions of both to the final four). In the third game, Dunning made two interesting moves. He flipped his lineup so that Kleinman was at L1 and he switched in Alex Fisher for Erin Waller on the rightside. For the entire year, including a big kill down the line in the fifth game against USC in the semis, Waller had been a clutch player for Stanford in tight situations. While not an imposing hitter, she has very consistently hit the volleyball equivalent of the open twelve foot jump shot often at times when Stanford needed it most in a match. Through the first two games, it looked like Kehoe was pursuing some sort of game plan gone awry by repeatedly choosing to set Waller on the right against what appeared to be a solo block. It didn’t work and the difference between Brown’s .267 but much better in the first two games and Waller’s .000 may have turned out to be the critical difference in the match. Early in game three, Dunning switched to Fisher who saw exactly zero sets in the course of two games and roughly fifteen rotations. Even odder, that seemed to be the right move. With fewer options, Stanford’s attacking rhthym improved considerably and Akwinadero and Girard started to break loose.

The third game stayed roughly even until 15-13 (Stanford) when Penn State’s serve receive sprung a leak. Two nights earlier, they had difficulty with Hana Cutura’s high speed jump serve. In this match, Kehoe’s relatively harmless looking jump floater (Okay, I confess even though my own daughters both served the jump floater, I’ve never quite gotten why it works) seemed to find the hole in Penn State’s game. Kehoe broke out three straight aces off Roberta Holehouse in the midst of a 6-0 Stanford run that put the game more or less out of reach at 21-13.

On the Penn State end, the passing breakdown resulted in Glass becoming very reliant on the left, but she couldn’t get the ball out there with the same zippiness that she’d had available earlier in the match. One result was that Penn State made three hitting errors from the left (2 by Fawcett) in a seven point stretch. In the meantime, Barboza and Ailes who had both struggled in serve receive early in the match appeared to steady out. By wining the third game, 30-23, Stanford had preserved respectability.

In game four, I figured that Penn State would fix its serve receive problem and be on its way particularly after two early kills by Hodge. Hodge then missed at 2-2 and Stanford broke out to a 7-3 lead as Barboza matched Hodge with a couple kills of her own. In the semi, Barboza had struggled as a hitter despite getting the match clinching kill. There were several stretches where Kehoe repeatedly went to Barboza for the sideout and she simply could not deliver against USC at least not in the way that Asia Kaczor, USC’s twenty three year old rightside who has already played seven years for the Polish National team was delivering from the other side. In game four of the final, Barboza made the argument that she is indeed an elite hitter. She wound up with 6 of her 16 kills for the night in game 4. More significant, Fouluke had spent most of the first two and half games watching the Penn State defense find some way to get a hand on her swings whether it was Wilson’s blocking or Holehouse and Glass diving to the floor or drop shots. There were also several points where Kehoe (I say this as a Bryn Kehoe fan) simply didn’t get the ball in good position for her go to hitter to get to deliver. Suddenly, in game four Fouluke became her usual unstoppable force.

Penn State fought, but it seemed like the magic had run out. Whenever Hodge would get a kill as the team attempted to come back, she would jump two feet in the air and yell with joy. Stanford’s approach even as they seized the momentum was decidedly less emotional. At about the 10 point mark, Franci Girard, Stanford’s very slender senior middle, put down four kills on four attempt to give the Cardinal a three point lead at 14-11. After that, Klineman and Barboza went on a scoring spree sandwiched around Penn State’s serve receive struggles that included two consecutive ball handling calls against Glass that left the game 29-19 which was quickly followed by a Fouluke kill. Stanford had not only evened the match, they had scored more points than Penn State for the night on an evening that started out as a Penn State rout. Stanford hit .535 in game 4.

Stanford and Dunning deserve considerable credit for finding a way to get back in the match. I suspect though, it’s even harder to find your poise when the momentum shifts that radically, but Penn State did exactly that in game five. For some reason, Dunning did shift back to Barboza at L1 and Waller on the right for game 5. Perhaps it was a case of “Go with what got you there all season?”, but this will probably be the question that haunts Stanford this offseason. Oh yeah, Fouluke also came out for game five without her trademark goggles. I haven't googled the googles, but I assume this was an equipment issue and not a coaching decision.

Although Stanford took a 4-3 lead after another bhe by Glass and a Harmotto miss, it was clear that PSU’s serve receive had steadied out again. In fact, there was one spectacular play either in game four or five where Holehouse dove to get the serve up, Glass had to go to her knees to set and delivered a perfect four, that Hodge powered down before Stanford could even think “Wow, great serve.”

It was then Hodge, Harmotto, Fawcett, and Harmotto for kills to give PSU control of the game. During the sequence, Stanford had a point where Klineman had three straight shots from the left and couldn’t get the ball through the Lions’ defense. This “message” may have accounted for Klineman’s two critical hitting errors that derailed any semblance of a Stanford comeback. At 8-4, Glass then took over the match with two and what should have been a third attacks of her own. On the first, she looked off the defense and placed the ball in the back right corner. On the second, she took a net high pass and hit the ball at a sharp angle about three feet away from the net on the left side. A third kill from the middle was called a “throw” by the ref, though it felt like he was just showing Stanford a little mercy. Stanford’s last gasp from the left saw Barboza get blocked on point 14 and then perhaps fittingly it was Glass to Hodge on a quick overpowering four to give Penn State its second title.

Only two players who saw significant playing time in the final graduate, Kehoe and Girard for Stanford. Penn State returns all its starters. Of course, people were saying the same thing about Nebraska last year. In any case, I think the question will be whether Penn State has initiated a new more physical era at the top of collegiate women’s volleyball. This may have been the hardest hitting and highest blocking women’s college team in some time. I think too that Glass is going to cause more than a few schools to start looking for big, super strong, athletic setters again (not that they don’t do that already). Cal also has one in Lloyd as does USC with Carico. It’ll be fascinating to see what Stanford does about the setting position in 2008. While this year’s final four wasn’t Bryn Kehoe’s best tournament, she leaves with a national title as a freshman and three trips to the finals in her career. I suspect there are only a couple setters ever who can claim comparable success.

As people talk about the mix in the women’s game, I have one sobering thought. There’s a good argument that there’s not a single player in the ACC, Conference USA, and the Big West who could have started for either Penn State or Stanford except at libero. Even with this year’s top recruit, Kelly Murphy who outdueled Alix Klineman in this year’s equally exciting JO final, headed to Florida, I don’t know that the women are going to see parity any time soon.

That said, this was a great final. With apologies to Nebraska and USC, the play on the floor argued quite eloquently that these were the nation’s two best teams playing at or near the top of their games (well except for the missed serve festival early in game one) Congratulations to Penn State, the Sweater, and his staff.


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At 10/21/2010 05:33:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I watch that game on my TV and it is very interesting game.


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Good to know that the NCAA women’s final at ARCO,and could be an amazing thing that you attend the Stanford second round,although wonderful to tell.

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