VB Falls At Iowa and Nebraska

VB Falls At Iowa and Nebraska

We've all heard coaches talk about how tough it is to win on the road in the Big Tenteen, regardless of the sport. Sure, some of that is just a motivational ploy, but there's more than a ring of truth to it ... well, maybe not if you're playing Rutgers. Everywhere else, the difference between home and away can often mean the difference between a W and an L, and Dave Shondell's team found that out on their first conference road trip of the season, dropping a pair of matches to unranked Iowa and #3 Nebraska.

To be sure, the latter was no surprise: even though the Cornhuskers were surprised by Ohio State earlier this season, the Devaney Center is a place where pretty much any visiting will struggle to take a set, much less a match. However, more than a few people, including yours truly, expected the Boilers to walk into Carver-Hawkeye Arena Friday night and come away with a win, but third-year coach Bond Shymansky and his staff have done a good job of turning around a program that hasn't topped .500 since the 2000 season, and the home team pulled out a five-set win.

Purdue's still a respectable #19 in Massey, 7th in the conference, but dropped to #22 in the AVCA poll, down five spots and 8th of 9 conference teams in the poll.

Purdue 2, Iowa 3 (22-25, 27-25, 25-20, 21-25, 13-15)

One lineup change on Friday: Natalie Haben played just one set at libero and was replaced by Brooke Peters for the remainder of the match. I couldn't see the bench often, and the BTN+ "feed" had no announcers for the majority of the match and no on-screen graphics at all, so there was no way to tell if Haben was hurt or struggling or if Shondell simply wanted to shake things up. That change meant that Linnea Rohrsen moved into Peters' spot opposite Danielle Cuttino. Lexi Dorn also appeared in three of the five sets.

The first set was the most contested of the night, with 16 ties and 10 lead changes. Iowa got off to a quick start, taking an early 1-3 lead, but the Boilers got a Cuttino kill that put Ashley Evans on the line ... for a jump serve? Yes indeed. It turns out that Purdue's junior setter had - or has - an ace up her sleeve, and in fact her first serve was an ace. (She was positive from the line for the night, so I'd like to see more of that.) The Hawkeyes returned the next one with a kill, and the seesaw battle was on, as the teams traded ones and twos until 15-15, when Iowa ran off three straight around a Purdue timeout. In a sign of things to come, after an exchange of points to make it 16-19, Purdue scored four in a row around an Iowa timeout, and things briefly looked good for the Old Gold and Black ... but Iowa scored five of the next six points to force set point at 21-24. A Blake Mohler kill would stop the first one, but set point #2 was a kill by Meghan Buzzerio, and the Hawkeyes took an 0-1 lead.

Iowa started off set 2 as well, going up 0-2, but the Boilers responded more quickly, taking leads of 4-3 and 5-4 before an 0-4 Iowa run forced Shondell to use a timeout. After Purdue got a Mohler kill to make it 6-8, a string of Purdue errors around a three-point Boiler run found the Good Gals at 10-12; two Cuttino kills and another Evans ace surrounded a Jess Janota kill, and the set was tied at 13. Another attack error and a Buzzerio kill put Iowa back in front by 2, and after trading points again, the sides traded service errors to make it 15-17. Faye Adelaja put home an Evans set to cut the lead to one, but a service error from Carissa Damler gave the Hawkeyes the serve. Lauren Brobst slammed a Molly Kelly set home, and at 16-19, the Boilers were in danger of falling behind 0-2 ... but this time, Shondell's timeout magic work wonders. A kill from Azariah Stahl put her at the line, and then four straight Iowa attack errors (one unforced, three on blocks by Evans and Adelaja on Brobst) had the Boilers in front 21-19 despite a Hawkeyes timeout. Buzzerio stopped the Purdue run with another kill, and after yet another exchange of points, kills from Evans and Cuttino had the Boilers at set point ... except Iowa responded with a four-point run of their own, on a triple block of Stahl, a Buzzerio kill, and two straight Janota aces. Cuttino saved Iowa set point with a kill, and Purdue scored out with Rohrsen on the line, with a Sherridan Atkinson kill and an Atkinson/Mohler block of Buzzerio providing the final margin, 27-25.

After the break, Purdue looked ready to take control of the match in set 3. For the third straight set, Iowa scored first, but they managed just a single point, and Alexa Ito's service error ended the Hawkeyes' only lead; immediately after that, a solo Cuttino block of Janota put Purdue in front to stay at 2-1. Despite another run of service errors (three in a row this time), the Good Gals still found themselves up 18-15, and after kills from Adelaja and Brobst kept the lead at 3, a Cuttino kill, a Buzzerio attack error, a Cuttino/Mohler block of Janota and another Cuttino kill gave Purdue its largest lead of the night, 23-16 ... but instead of calling a timeout, Shymansky let the Hawkeyes play through it, and they did, chopping three points off the lead and prompting Shondell to use a timeout. Cuttino ended the mini-run with a kill, and although an Evans service error gave Iowa life, Cuttino (who else?) would put down one more kill to give Purdue a 2-1 lead in the match, 25-20. Could the predicted 3-1 win come to pass?

Not exactly, as it turned out. The home team made it four straight opening points in set 4, this time going up 0-3 ... and Purdue never made up the difference. Iowa would lead 6-11 to force one timeout, 12-17 to force another, and eventually 13-22, at which point you could have forgiven the Boilers if they'd folded their tents and prepared for set 5. Purdue did make things interesting with a five-point run around an Iowa timeout, but a Damler service error stopped the run, and although the Good Gals did manage to get as close as 20-23 and 21-24, a Peters service error ended the set, 21-25, and set up a deciding fifth. Superstitious people would note that Purdue, to that point, had won their five-set matches away from Holloway and lost them at home, so this was good, right?

With Stahl at the line, Purdue struck first in set 5, going up 2-0 ... but Iowa tied it 3-3. A Janota service error put Evans on the line, and the Boilers opened up a 6-3 lead on a Mohler kill and a Cuttino/Mohler block of Reghan Coyle. They led 8-6 at the turn, went up 9-6 on an Adelaja kill, and then things started to turn. Iowa ran off three straight to tie at 9. An Annika Olsen service error gave Purdue its final lead, 10-9, and a Janota attack error made it 11-9, leaving Shymansky no choice but to call a timeout. His team responded immediately: Brobst kill. Stahl attack error. Loxley Keala ace. Timeout Purdue. The Boilers managed to tie one more time with an Adelaja kill, and they would serve at 12-13 and 13-14, but it was Iowa who got the deciding point on a Buzzerio kill, giving the Hawkeyes the match.

If you like errors, then this was the match for you. Purdue barely outhit Iowa, .236 to .235, in large part due to 19 unforced attack errors; both sides were -8 from the line (Purdue 5 aces/13 errors, Iowa 7/15), and while Purdue had more digs (53-47) and more blocks (12-8.5), they could not overcome their own problems. Give Iowa credit for staying close enough to capitalize on those errors: it's worth noting that this is three straight seasons in which the Hawkeyes have given the Boilers fits, winning 1-3 in Iowa City in 2014 and losing 3-2 in Holloway last year.

It was easy to tell that Iowa, like so many Purdue opponents, focused heavily on Stahl and Cuttino. The latter did lead everyone with 17 kills, but hit only .256. (She did have 4 digs!) Atkinson was the big weapon, hitting .636 with 15 kills ... if you'd like to second-guess the playcalling, here's your chance to do it. Adelaja had her usual stellar numbers, 13 kills at .476, but Stahl struggled again, only 5 kills at -.182. Evans led the Boilers with 11 digs, while Peters added 10, mostly from her new role. Evans was also +1 at the line (3 aces/2 errors), which means yes, the rest of the team was ... not great, Bob, at -9 (2/11). Damler struggled the most, with an uncharacteristic -3 (1/4), while six other players were -1 each (Peters had the other ace). Mohler led everyone with 2 solo blocks and shared match honors with Janota at 3.5 total.

On the other side of the scoreboard, OH/RS Meghan Buzzerio led five Hawkeyes in double figures with 13 kills at .257; OH/MB Ashley Mariani added 12 at .429, RS Reghan Coyle had 12 at .375, OH Lauren Brobst recorded 11 at .000 (yep, 11 kills and 11 errors), and MB Jess Janota had 10 at .261. Janota and S Loxley Keala each had 3 of Iowa's 7 aces, although Janota was even and Keala +1. Annika Olsen led everyone with 13 digs from her libero position, while no other Hawkeye had 10. Janota and Brobst each had a solo block, and as mentioned above, Janota totaled 3.5, with the Hawkeyes getting an "extra" half-block because of that weird triple-block that makes statisticians grumble. (In volleyball, you get credit for a block (1 for solo, 0.5 each for double) if you jump and there is a block, even if you don't make contact; that means if your opponent hits into a triple block (grrrr), there are three 0.5s to give out.) 

Purdue 0, Nebraska 3 (17-25, 13-25, 17-25)

(Highlights are difficult to come by for road matches, but you can watch Nebraska's view of them here.)

Lineups mostly the same as for sets 2 through 5 at Iowa, with Peters at libero, Rohrsen at DS, Dorn basically replacing Rohrsen as occasional-server-for-Mohler (once in each of two sets), and Haben not playing. Shavona Cuttino made a brief appearance late in set 1.

The Boilers managed one good set against Nebraska, although you might not be able to tell from the score: that was set 1, with 10 ties and 2 lead changes. While the Huskers scored first, Purdue quickly responded to go up 2-1; they would lead 3-2, 4-3, 5-4, 6-5, 7-6, and 8-7, before Nebraska finally scored on their own serve after a Peters service error. The Boilers tied it at 9 and 10, but NU steadily pulled away after that, getting a Purdue timeout at 13-16 right after the media timeout at 13-15, and another at 14-18. Purdue would score each time, but their point on Damler's serve to make it 13-14 would be their last on their own serve, and Nebraska scored six of the last seven points to end set 1, 17-25.

Set two was all Nebraska, as the hosts spotted the Good Gals 1-0 and 2-1 leads before leading for good at 4-5; at 6-7, they scored six straight to put the set out of reach. Purdue did manage 5 of the next 6 to pull within 3, 11-14, but that was as close as they would get, and a Dorn service error at 13-18 put Kadie Rolfsen on the line to serve out the set. NU headed to the locker room with a 13-25 win, and Boiler fans could be forgiven for turning off ESPN2 and turning on the NFL game of their choice.

They wouldn't miss much, as Purdue could manage just a 6-6 tie in the final set. Again, the Boilers struggled to score on their own serve; Nebraska's sideout percentage of 72 was their lowest of the match. Three straight kills put Nebraska in the barn at 17-24, and a Kelly Hunter ace meant we could all go home.

The conference's acquisition of Nebraska seemed like a boost for Big Tenteen football, but the real treasure was the volleyball program, and Sunday's match was a prime example of that. Nebraska owned virtually every category in the box score: kills (42-26), attack percentage (.273 to .031), aces (2-1), digs (38-35), and blocks (11-6.5). Whatever happened to Nebraska against Ohio State the week before got fixed in a hurry, as NU recorded its second consecutive home sweep, sixth at home on the season, and tenth overall. Oh, and here are some of their Massey victims: #3 Texas, #13 Michigan, and #28 Illinois in addition to Purdue.

OH Kadie Rolfzen led the Nebraska attack with 11 kills at .350 and added a team-high 9 digs; S Kelly Hunter had NU's only 2 aces and was +1 from the line, while MB Amber Rolfzen led all players with 5 blocks. On the Purdue side, it was Danielle Cuttino again, with 12 kills at .194 - of note, only Mohler (5 at .333) joined her on the positive side, with Stahl (6 kills) at .000 and Adelaja (2 at -1.82), Atkinson (1 at -.222) and Evans (0 at -.222) all negative. Peters had Purdue's only ace but was also -2 at the line; she did have a match-high 13 digs, while Atkinson was the surprise leader in blocks with 2.

Overall thoughts

One weakness Purdue seems to have had over the past few seasons is an insistence on running a play that is not working. When a hack like me can tell that the set is coming to the outside hitter again and again and again, you know the opponents' block will be there as well. While Azariah had a fantastic night against Minnesota (17 kills at .517), that's been an anomaly in Big Tenteen play, largely because the level of competition has risen to the point that you can't simply run the same plays and expect them to work. (Coughfootballcough) When you have middles hitting .409 and .332, it seems like maybe some of those outside attacks should be going to the middle instead. (Granted, some of the problem comes down to inaccurate passing and setting.)

In retrospect, this isn't nearly as bad as it could have seemed at the time. Again, Purdue is a young team, and if anything, their early success made it seem like the bar ought to be higher, when in reality, this is probably close to where they belong. Their ridiculous early schedule is the main factor in their 10th-place spot in the conference standings: again, keep in mind that three of their five conference losses are to top-5 opponents. The loss to Iowa was surprising, but that's as much due to Iowa's improvement as to Purdue's "struggles". That makes the return match on November 12 more of a challenge: in fact, only three of the Boilers' 14 remaining matches are against opponents outside the Massey top 40 (Rutgers and Northwestern this month, then Indiana and Maryland on the four-match season-ending road trip).

The switch from Haben to Peters underscores Purdue's lack of depth, because it involved all of Purdue's back-row subs (Shavona Cuttino is the only front-row-only sub, while Dorn could be counted as either). The one concerning part was Haben not playing against Nebraska. There are many things that can see a player benched, so for now let's assume that Shondell didn't see any value in the freshman being shelled two days after getting the hook on the road. (I mean, would you want to return Nebraska serves with 8000 people staring at you and expecting you to miss?)

Up next

Good news! While it's Penn State and Rutgers, the Nittany Lions struggled in non-conference play, losing to the only talented opponents they faced (#7 UNC, #5 Colorado and #16 Stanford) ... um, bad news, after a pillow-soft opening trip to Rutgers and Northwestern, Penn State swept Michigan State and Michigan before knocking off Minnesota in five sets. (Quick fact: Stanford is 1-3 in Big Tenteen play, beating Minnesota, Illinois and Penn State, but of course losing at home to our Boilers.) Sooooo maybe not an off year for them. 

Junior OH Simone Lee is the main PSU attacker, leading the Lions with 241 kills at .299, while junior MB Haleigh Washington is #3 nationally at .459 on 142 kills. Junior S Abby Detering runs the PSU attack, with 537 of their 726 assists, and also has a team-high 14 aces at -6, while freshman libero Kendall White paces the squad with 216 digs. Redshirt freshman Tori Gorrell has 15 solo blocks, while Washington has 38 total.

Rutgers will be a different story, as the Scarlet Knights have yet to adjust to the level-11 difficulty setting that Big Tenteen volleyball presents. They have yet to win a set in six conference matches, and Massey does not see them taking a set the rest of the way. Rutgers is led by junior OH Meme Fletcher, who has 163 kills but is hitting just .092. The one bright spot on attack is redshirt senior MB Mikaela Matthews, who's hitting .338 with 98 kills. Setting is split between junior Talia Holze (253 assists) and freshman Megan Sharkey (299 assists). Freshman libero Karysa Swackenberg has a team-high 16 aces and is an impressive +9 at the line; she also has 190 digs, with Fletcher the other Knight in triple digits at 135. Matthews has 6 solo blocks and a team-high 39.5 total.

For the Good Gals, Faye Adelaja is now 16th overall at .409 with 119 kills, while Danielle Cuttino easily paces the team with 253 at .281; Blake Mohler is the other Boiler over .300 with 105 kills at .332. Ashley Evans now has 703 assists, good for #26 on the aces-per-set leaderboard, and also leads the team with 19 aces (-1), just three short of her season total last year. Natalie Haben leads the Boilers at the line at +5 (14/9), as well as in digs with 195 (followed by Azariah Stahl with 144, Evans with 142, and Brooke Peters with 138). Stahl also has 17 solo blocks, and Mohler has the team lead with 37.5 total.

Friday's match is at 8 PM, while Saturday's is at 8:30 PM: both are on WSHY 1410 AM and on BTN, but if you're cheap and want stats you can follow the CBSi GameTrackers for Friday and Saturday. (Here's where I'll mention that Iowa's stat tracker was miles beyond CBSi's. I'm not sure what service they're using, but Mr. Bobinski, if you've got people reading this - surely you're spending your own time elsewhere - could you maybe look into that for 2017? There was a mixup in the scoring when Purdue successfully challenged a line call, and the stat tracker managed to fix it all the way through the play-by-play before the set ended.)

Saturday is supposed to be a White Out, which ... idk. For one thing, neither Old Gold nor Black is white, so why white? For another, Rutgers? Can we not just play the match and let it go? Finally, whose idea was it to have the Boilermaker Blackout earlier in the year when Holloway is like a slow cooker and the White Out later in the year when we'd all benefit from retaining some heat? (Also, have you tried to buy a white Purdue jersey of any sort? The stick up the NCAA's ... compliance department is so big that I'm surprised you can buy anything licensed right now. As soon as the O'Bannon Cannon is reloaded, we'll see some more changes.)

Massey says the Friday match will come down to the wire, and with the Boilers dropping three five-set matches at home to quality opposition so far this season, you shouldn't be surprised if that one goes against the Good Gals too. Those losses to Kentucky and Illinois are looking more and more understandable as time goes on; while the Wildcats have four losses, all are to top-60 Massey teams, and a couple of weeks ago they swept #9 Florida in Gainesville, the only meeting between the two this year. UK has a home-and-home against #34 Missouri: oddly, they're favored to win on the road and lose at home, but it's one of just two SEC matches in which they're underdogs (#37 Texas A&M is the other; wouldn't be surprised if Massey has UK's home advantage flipped by mistake). 

Saturday, well. Anything other than a convincing sweep would be an ominous sign; it would be nice for Dorn and Shavona Cuttino to get some real playing time. 

One more thing: stats apology. Massey defaults to including all NCAA teams in his volleyball rankings, and there are a number of DII schools, like Concordia and Minnesota-Duluth, who are actually top-20-caliber programs in his system. What that means is that I have to do some extra work to get those numbers correct here; it may be the case that you see inconsistencies, and those would be my fault.

Feature image courtesy of huskers.com - it's OK if we promote the most impressive volleyball arena in the country, right?

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