With six matches on the slate between teams ranked in the Top 10, some were better than others. The one with the most hype and anticipation surrounding it – Stanford at Penn State – turned into a mostly one-sided affair. A run through of the showdowns:
— No. 1 Penn State d No. 2 Stanford (25-21, 25-22, 25-18)
Down the stretch of each set, it was clear Penn State was more effective scoring. One stat that stands out is the Nittany Lions hitting .327 for the match. Stanford had difficulties defending everywhere as Bryanna Weiskircher worked the ball around.
The Nittany Lions had four players with between 19-35 attempts and 11-13 kills. Middle Haleigh Washington put up 12 kills and led the team with a .526 hitting percentage. Opposite Aiyana Whitney nailed down 13 kills and swung at a .440 clip. Outside Megan Courtney ended with 11 kills while hitting .400. Only outside Ali Frantti didn’t torch Stanford from a hitting percentage standpoint. She hit .200 but finished with 13 kills and delivered at key times. One included clinching the second set by going off the block.
Brittany Howard and Hayley Hodson turned in remarkable efforts for Stanford. Howard scorched Penn State from the left with 15 kills and hitting .483. On the right, Hodson hit .452 and finished with a team-high 16 kills. It was an impressive performance for the rookie on the road, but the Cardinal needed a trio not a duet to take down the Nittany Lions.
Penn State limited Jordan Burgess to three kills and a -.056 hitting percentage. She didn’t get her second kill until Stanford led 13-11 in the final set. What was interesting about it was Burgess was mostly matched up with Weiskircher, with Whitney and Howard mostly paired together. Going by the stats, it’s possible to think it should have been the other way around, Burgess going against the taller Whitney.
There were times when Stanford struggled to get a quality swing and that contributed to Burgess’ struggles as well. Tied at 21 all in the first set, the Cardinal didn’t have one good look the rest of the set. It was Weiskircher’s float serve causing the problems for Cardinal passers and they were out of system and one time Burgess swung from 12 feet off the net. That played right into Penn State’s hand, as the Nittany Lions have so enough options they are difficult to defend with an easy ball to control and start their transition.
It was abundantly clear how much Stanford misses Inky Ajanaku in a match like this. Whereas Penn Sate could pressure Stanford by running Washington on the slide against Burgess, who sometimes was left all alone in an impossible assignment, the Cardinal had no such counter to throw back at the Nittany Lions.
Penn State just doesn’t look like a good matchup for Stanford right now. Better blocking teams like Florida and Texas are more likely to be able to get in the way of the Penn State hitters and slow them down. Because one thing about the outcome of the match, if people were told that Howard and Hodson would combine for 31 kills and both hit above .450 on the road, that would seem to definitely favor Stanford winning.
However, Penn State never let Stanford get a lead late. Tied at 20 in the opening set after a Frantti kill, Penn State won five of the next six points. Hodson’s kill brought Stanford to within 21-20 in Game 2, but the Nittany Lions scored three in a row and led 24-20. It featured Courtney tooling a block and Washington crushing a slide. Then in the final set, Frantti’s kill brought up match point at 24-18.
“I think the key to the match was just energy in the building,” Penn State coach Russ Rose said. “We started a little sloppy and competed in the first game. We weren’t really clean. It’s a great team victory. I thought a lot of people really stepped up and did some great things.”
— No. 4 Texas d No. 5 Nebraska (25-17, 21-25, 25-15, 23-25, 15-11)
What a back-and-forth thriller this was. I snuck in the last few points of the fifth set at the rehearsal dinner Friday night and then caught the whole fifth set this morning on a replay on the Longhorn Network.
It would be ludicrous to begin anywhere else but with the debut performance of opposite Ebony Nwanebu. The only downside to it was she was in a walking boot the next day and didn’t play in the loss to Florida. As for her first showing for Texas, Nwanebu put up a cool 22 kills and 17 digs, while hitting .315. She added four blocks.
“I have been waiting to play Nebraska, so it was exciting,” Nwanebu said. “It felt good to be on the court again and play well.”
Playing six-rotations, Nwanebu took 54 swings, which was only five less than outsides Paulina Cerame and Amy Neal had combined. Middles Chiaka Ogbogu and Molly McCage combined for 40 swings, so in all, setter Chloe Collins was moving the ball around well and it caused havoc on the Nebraska block.
There’s no question if the Huskers block shows up they win the match. Texas out-blocked Nebraska, 15-6.
“I thought our serving and passing was good enough to win,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “They out-blocked us, that was the biggest difference. We needed to do a better job of blocking them. We had some nice touches on them, but it would’ve been nice to have some more stuff blocks.”
Something else Cook touched on was learning how to attack against the taller blocking teams like the Longhorns.
“One of the biggest things (Texas) exposed was if Kelly (Hunter) sets the ball too tight against a big block we get in trouble,” he said.
After letting a 15-10 lead in the fourth set slip away, Texas needed to produce a rally of its own in the final game. Nebraska went up 6-3 before the Longhorns used a 7-2 rally to go up 7-2. Kelsey Fien hit a sharp angle cross court to pull the Cornhuskers within 12-11 later on, but Texas scored the next three points.
Middle Meghan Haggerty was Nebraska’s most effective hitter, going for 10 kills and hitting .400.
“Not only our blocking, but our defense as a whole was good,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. “We just kept coming at them and when you are blocking and playing defense well, it puts a tremendous amount of stress on them.”
— No. 3 Florida d No. 5 Texas (25-20, 21-25, 25-18, 26-24)
With two of the best middles in the country squaring off in this one, Florida’s sophomore Rhamat Alhassan stole the show. She posted a team-high 13 kills and hit .480 to go with nine blocks.
“Rhamat’s numbers are going to garner a lot of attention, as they should, but this is a team win because so many people contributed,” Florida coach Mary Wise said. “Winning in Austin is not easy, whether it’s late in the season or early in the season, but today we got such great contributions by so many people it enabled us to be successful.”
Ziva Recek’s nine kills don’t jump out, but her .563 hitting percentage shows how effective she was when called upon. She finished with zero errors. Middle Simone Antwi put up seven kills and hit .333, along with five blocks. She also had the match-clinching kill.
Texas did a good job of limiting opposite Alex Holston, who had 12 kills but hit .200. However, the Longhorns weakness was revealed with the absence of Nwanebu.
“You just lose a lot of transition swings,” Elliott said. “First ball is okay, but we’ve got to be able to solve that problem.”
Amy Neal was strong for Texas, as she led the way with 18 kills and hit .316.
Yet, the balance that was there offensively against Nebraska was missing against Florida as Nwanebu watched from the sidelines. Neal had 38 swings, combining with Cerame for 67 attacks. The rest of the team had 64 total.
Going back to playing without Nwanebu was one thing, but Texas was also coming off an emotional victory over Nebraska and didn’t have the same approach against the Gators.
“I think the beginning of game one was slow and I don’t think we ever really responded,” Neal said. “We tried. I mean we obviously started playing better, but I don’t think we were ever really going after it. I think it was less focused, timid and we just kind of looked scared out there. I think last night we were a lot more aggressive with our mentality.”
— No. 5 Nebraska d No. 8 Oregon (21-25, 21-25, 25-23, 25-20, 15-12)
Both sides were smoking hot in the third set, with Nebraska hitting .586 to Oregon’s .452. Hunter was a major pest for Oregon, as the setter finished with nine kills and zero errors for a .692 hitting percentage. Kelsey Fien had a big outing, matching a career high with 19 kills on a team-high 41 swings.
Freshman opposite Mikaela Foecke had the second most swings with 25 and finished with 10 kills while hitting .360. Nebraska had trouble with Oregon’s freshman in outside Lindsey Vander Weide. She send down a team-leading 20 kills and hit .318.
While Oregon missed a golden opportunity for a great victory, the fact Nebraska fought back from being down 0-2 a day after losing an emotional five-setter to Texas reveals a lot about the Cornhuskers’ character.
— No. 2 Stanford d No. 6 Illinois (16-25, 27-25, 25-18, 25-21)
The best news from Stanford’s victory was the middle production from Meret Lutz. She finished with a team-high 19 kills and hit .531. For Illinois, it just couldn’t sustain after a hot start.
The Fighting Illini hit .448 in the opening set and .348 in the second, but declined to .020 in the fourth set. A good sign for Illinois was the performance of middle Katie Stadick, who hit .429 with 13 kills.
“I expected this to be a good volleyball match,” Illinois coach Kevin Hambly said. “I think both teams made more errors and did some things that you’re not going to see later in the season, but I expected this to be a tough battle. I expected our girls to fight and they fought.
“They just are a better volleyball team right now, but it’s not about right now when it comes time for the NCAA tournament. We’ve seen that we can play with them and I like our chances later on in the year.”
— No. 3 Florida d No. 8 Oregon (25-18, 25-19, 25-20)
Florida was impressive in sweeping the Ducks, which struggled to slow down the Gators offensively. Florida toasted Oregon for a .440 hitting percentage as a team. Antwi was outstanding, with 13 kills on 15 swings with no errors for a .867 hitting percentage.
Alhassan hit .500 with 11 kills. Outside Carli Snyder had nine kills and hit .412. Recek had 11 kills and hit. 348. It was a good day for everyone. Oregon’s offensive numbers weren’t bad, as Martenne Bettendorf had nine kills and hit .409.