VB Goes 0-2 Against New #1 And #2
Last weekend promised to be an exciting one for Purdue volleyball: for the first time since 2004, the Boilers would be hosting consecutive matches against top-10 opponents. That squad was in its second year under Dave Shondell, and they would be swept by #6 Penn State and #9 Ohio State; they would still make the NCAA tournament and knock off #9 Colorado State in Colorado Springs before losing to #2 Hawaii. This team was in a much better position, but was also facing what would prove to be the two best teams in the country. BTN and ESPN2 were hoping for quality volleyball, and the teams did not disappoint.
Purdue put a real scare into the Badgers on an unseasonably hot Friday evening, forcing Wisconsin to five sets before falling; while it was evident the visitors had not brought their best volleyball, Shondell made sure that his troops brought theirs, and the Good Gals acquitted themselves very nicely in the loss. Sunday's story was quite a bit different: the weather was much nicer, the opponent played much better, and the result was not quite as good, as the Boilers fell in straight sets. Overall, the outcome wasn't unexpected for Purdue, and even though they fell three spots in the latest AVCA poll (passed by Ohio State, who beat Nebraska, so OK; Penn State, who beat Michigan State and Michigan, so OK; and Florida State, who beat two teams that are bad at volleyball; this is why you should take polls with a mountain of salt) and one in Massey's rankings, they're still in the thick of the pack in the Big Tenteen - sixth of nine (!) teams in the AVCA poll and fourth of eight top-25 Massey teams. (Both systems have Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska 1-2-3, although Massey has the Gophers below the other two and AVCA has them first.)
For both matches, a Wisconsin dad and his daughter (a Purdue student) sat behind me. We talked a bit because that is what I do; it was interesting to hear both his take on the teams and his discussion with his daughter about various things. The one topic I listened to the most was height; he'd spotted Carissa Damler and was wondering how it was that she was starting when there was a taller DS (Olivia Van Zelst, who's 5'9" to Damler's 5'4") on the bench. Setting aside the redshirt question, the daughter did her best to explain why height isn't so much of a factor in the back row, where you're not blocking or attacking. Sure, a taller player with a longer wingspan can reach more balls (as I've noted in the past), but DS isn't just about reach, and you can overcome a good bit of that with quickness and anticipation, as Damler has done this year. Besides, if your front row is blocking well enough, your back row doesn't have to try to cover everything, right? (Says the guy who sucked at attacking and wasn't bad at digging in rec-league sand volleyball.)
Purdue 2, Wisconsin 3 (25-21, 20-25, 25-18, 21-25, 9-15)
No lineup changes either day. Azariah Stahl is now playing with a wrap on her right hand; it's probably less likely to affect an OH than what looked like a similar injury to S Val Nichol in her senior season, but it's still going to be something to keep an eye on. The number of attacks that go through Stahl will put pressure on whatever is under that wrap.
Oddly, for a match that was so evenly played, the team that scored first won each of the first three sets, and the first two saw a 2-1 lead that would not be relinquished. In the opener, it was the Good Gals who struck first, on an attack error by Kelli Bates. The Boilers increased their lead to 5-2, 8-3, and finally 12-6, forcing a Wisconsin timeout. The Badgers immediately began chipping into the lead, getting a kill from Bates and an ace from Molly Haggerty, but the sides proceeded to trade the next 16 points (!), despite UW using their second timeout, until the visitors made their final run with Romana Krišková at the service line. The redshirt senior from Slovakia had been unable to find the range with her jump serve earlier, with one error in two attempts, but she put Purdue in difficult attacking positions again and again: the 20-15 lead dropped to 20-18, causing Shondell to call a timeout, and then a Lauren Carlini kill got Wisconsin within 1. They would get no closer: Blake Mohler and Danielle Cuttino banged home kills to make it 22-19, and after a Lauryn Gillis kill, the two combined to block Gillis, Brooke Peters dropped an ace to give Purdue set point, and Sherridan Atkinson would answer a Haleigh Nelson kill with set point, 25-21.
Wisconsin did everything well in the second set except for serving; unfortunately for them, Purdue stayed in the set solely because of service errors. A Krišková error at 2-5, a Sarah Dodd error at 4-7, a Kelli Bates error at 10-12, and another Krišková error at 11-13 had the Boilers nearly even halfway through the set, but Wisconsin went on a mini-run thanks to a Gillis kill and attack errors by Mohler and Stahl, and they would lead by as many as five, first at 14-19 on a solo block by Bates. Shondell called a timeout, and the Boilers responded with four of the next five points; Wisconsin called a timeout, and the Badgers answered with four of the next five. Cuttino held off the first set point at 19-24 with a kill, but a Peters service error gave Wisconsin set two, 20-25, and the teams headed into the locker room at 1-1.
Set three started with a Shondell special: showing confidence in his sophomore DS, he had Peters start on the service line, and she did not disappoint. The Boilers opened a quick 3-0 lead on a Stahl kill and two UW attack errors; from there, Purdue could get no more than three points up before Wisconsin would respond, eventually drawing even on a Krišková ace. Stahl answered with a kill, and the Boilers led at the media timeout, 15-13. It looked for all the world like the sides would trade points from there, and they basically did through 17-15, but the Boilers took care of business: Atkinson kill, Mohler kill, Wisconsin timeout, Stahl kill, Stahl solo block, Wisconsin timeout, and it was 21-15. Another Peters service error got the Badgers the serve, but Atkinson and Stahl stretched the Purdue lead to 7, and they would win by that margin, as a Gillis attack error gave the hosts a commanding 25-18 win, and after three sets, it was the Boilers who looked like the higher-ranked team.
Indeed, with a little more experience, the Boilers might have stolen the fourth set and the match, but Wisconsin was the side with the experience, returning 11 players from a squad that went 26-7 last season, and it showed in a set they had to win. Each team had a small, early lead, but Wisconsin got the first run of the set, pushing a 9-8 lead to 12-8, and Shondell used his first timeout to cool things down. Six of the next eight points went to the Good Gals, and they tied at 14, 15, and 16 before taking a 17-16 lead on a Faye Adelaja kill ... but it would be their last lead of the set, as the Badgers followed their first timeout by reeling off five straight points with freshman M.E. Dodge at the line. Purdue would draw within three twice, 20-23 and 21-24, but Bates put down a Carlini kill to seal the set, and it was time for a fifth set.
Oddly, Purdue came into the weekend 0-2 in five-set matches at home and 11-0 in all other matches, and while in retrospect it was no surprise that their streak continued, at the time, it looked as though the Boilers might steal this one. Purdue scored first, on a Haggerty attack error, and led 2-1 after kills by Haggerty and Cuttino, but the next two Boiler attacks were off, and after a Mohler kill, Wisconsin ran off three straight, drawing a Purdue timeout at 3-6, and then added a fourth on an Ashley Evans double hit. The Good Gals would close within two twice, 6-8 and 7-9, but Wisconsin added three more with Dodge at the line, and after Purdue's final timeout, the Badgers cruised, scoring the final two points on kills by Haggerty and Bates.
The box score showed a tale of two types of errors: attack errors by Purdue and service errors by Wisconsin. The Badgers outhit Purdue, .262 to .193, with 20 of Purdue's 29 attack errors unforced. Conversely, the Boilers were -5 from the service line (3 aces/8 errors), while Wisconsin was a surprising -11 (4/15), with Krišková, Bates and Nelson all -3. The teams were even in blocks with 9, and Wisconsin had a slight edge in digs, 51 to 47.
Cuttino led the Boilers with 18 kills at .333; Atkinson (10 at .389) and Adelaja (10 at .273) joined her in double figures, but both Stahl (8 at .029) and Mohler (8 at .136) were held in check by the Badger defense. Natalie Haben had 2 aces and no errors for +2, leading the Boilers in both categories; Mohler paced the team in blocks with 3.5, and Haben led all players with 17 digs, while Peters added 12. For the Badgers, MB Tionna Williams had a remarkable match, recording 17 kills and hitting .500; MB Nelson led everyone at .526 with 12 kills, and OH/RS Haggerty (13 at .114) and OH Bates (10 at .154) made it into double figures as well, but like Stahl and Mohler, needed a lot of attacks to get there. Haggerty matched Haben with 2 aces and +2, and Bates led the Badgers with 15 digs, followed by L Dodge with 13; surprisingly, it was All-American S Carlini who topped Wisconsin with 3 blocks.
Purdue 0, Minnesota 3 (18-25, 18-25, 23-25)
Sunday promised change in two ways: first, the TV-dictated start time of 1:30 meant that Holloway, for once this season, would not be hot and miserable again; second, the overlap between the match and a regular Sunday of NFL football - although coincidentally (or not), the Colts game in London ended roughly when the Boilers started play - meant a challenge for some of the fans who had tickets. Pretty much everyone showed up eventually, and Purdue had another full house for what hoped to be another great match between two solid teams. Unfortunately, Minnesota got the wrong script, and instead of playing "ranked opposing team who battles gamely but loses", they played "dominant team is dominant."
To be fair, the Boilers got closer and closer each set, but they started far back of the then-#2 Gophers. Minnesota opened the scoring with a kill by Sarah Wilhite; Cuttino and Mohler answered, putting the Boilers up 2-1, and then the Gophers scored five straight; Shondell used his first timeout, but at 2-6, it would prove to be too late. The Boilers would score on their own serve just three times the rest of the set, so even though they did a reasonable job of forcing sideouts on Minnesota's serve, they never really got back into the set, and a Molly Lohman kill at 18-24 put a merciful end to a rough opening stanza.
Set two got off to a roaring start for the Boilers, as a Stahl ace gave them a 1-0 lead. This time, they stayed with the Gophers, as the teams traded points and occasional 2-point runs until the Boilers led 10-9. A Wilhite kill put the senior at the line, and she started the first of three straight 3-1 Minnesota runs. A Cuttino kill ended the first at 11-12, another ended the second (after a media timeout) at 12-15, and a Stahl kill ended the third at 13-18, but each time, Minnesota responded, and again, the Boilers had dug themselves a hole from which they could not escape. Hannah Tapp got the final point of set two, and this time, it seemed that Purdue would need something extra to force a fourth set.
Indeed, the Boilers played much better after the break, holding the Gophers to ones and twos while using a 3-0 run to erase an early 2-5 Minnesota lead. The visitors had started to pull away at the media timeout, leading 12-15, but Adelaja had back-to-back kills to get Purdue within one, and after a Wilhite/Paige Tapp block of Evans and a Stahl attack error, kills from Stahl and Cuttino and a Cuttino block of Hannah Tapp evened the set at 17 ... and finally, we got the exceptional volleyball we'd been hoping to see. An Adelaja error put Minnesota up 17-18; Cuttino answered to tie at 18. Wilhite made it 18-19; Cuttino tied it at 19, and Mohler blocked Wilhite to give the Boilers a 20-19 lead and burn Minnesota's first timeout (the first they'd used all day). Alexis Hart tied it at 20; Cuttino made it 21-20. Lohman evened it at 21 and an Atkinson attack error put Minnesota up 21-22; Lohman's service error tied it and a Stahl kill put the Boilers up 23-22, forcing Minnesota's final timeout and giving the 2000-plus Boiler fans hope that there would be a fourth set. They were denied, to a small extent by what is generally the worst officiating crew in the conference. Mohler was whistled for two hits, putting Katie Schau on the line to serve, and Evans got a controversial call for the same thing, giving the Gophers match point. They would convert on - surprise - a Wilhite kill, and the Gophers walked away with a well-earned sweep. (While the worst call of the day came at a very inopportune time, nothing about the match suggested that a reversal would have given Purdue more than one set.)
Where the Friday match had errors, the Sunday match had execution. Minnesota hit a sizzling .457, overshadowing an excellent .323 by the Good Gals; only three teams had topped .200 against the Gophers, with the best effort coming at Stanford, .233 in a four-set win for the Cardinal, the only loss of the season for Minnesota. The Gophers had just 6 attack errors, 5 on Purdue blocks, while Purdue had 15, with only 2 on Minnesota blocks. Purdue wasn't bad at the line (2/5, -3), but Minnesota was slightly better (4/3, +1). Purdue won the digs battle, 34-31.
Individually, Stahl hit .517 with 17 kills, but possibly her best play of the match was a spectacular solo block of an attempted kill by Samantha Seliger-Swenson off a Purdue overpass. (If you can't kill it, block it?) I'll try to find a clip of it somewhere. Cuttino added 17 kills at .382 as the only other Boiler in double figures. Evans was a surprising -3 at the line, while Peters (+1) and Stahl (0) had the only aces for Purdue. Haben (9) and Evans (8) topped a short list of Purdue digs - not surprising given the short match and Minnesota's accuracy - and Cuttino, Mohler and Stahl all recorded a solo block and an assist.
Minnesota was led by OH Sarah Wilhite, whose .300 attack percentage entering the weekend looked pedestrian compared to her .621 in Sunday's match; 19 kills led everyone and was nearly double her next-closest teammate's total (RS/MB Hannah Tapp, with 10 at .444). OH Alexis Hart also cleared .500, with 9 kills at .562. Four different Gophers recorded an ace, with MB Molly Lohman (-1) the only Minnesota player with more than one service error. Libero Dalianliz Rosado was the only player with double-digit digs (13); Wilhite was next on the team with 5. Four Gophers had a single block assist, which is a much smaller total than you'd expect from a team in the top 5 in the country in blocks per set. (They're now 11th, at 2.91.)
Wisconsin let Purdue hang around too long and the Boilers nearly got them; Minnesota punished Boiler errors and never let them catch up. On one play, a hard return, I think by Carissa Damler off a Paige Tapp serve, went basically straight up among three Boilers (not counting Damler); no one touched it, and Tapp got the ace. That play kind of symbolizes where I thought Purdue would be this season: a young team, not really deep enough and not having quite enough experience to get past those mistakes. Instead - if I'm remembering correctly - the Boilers got the next point on a Stahl kill, and they were right back in the set.
I was wrong. Shondell has got this team playing to the best of their ability, to the point where I was initially disappointed in the five-set loss. In retrospect, pushing Wisconsin to five sets was a fine effort. The Minnesota match didn't go as well, but when a great team plays to the best of their ability, it's nearly impossible to stop them. The refs didn't help - two line calls were blown in addition to the bad two-hits call - but the best time to have that crew is in a match you weren't going to win anyway. If they'd made those calls in the Kentucky match ... let's not think about that.
Speaking of the Wildcats, they're in the AVCA poll (tied for 25th) and 28th in Massey, and Illinois has reached similar heights (AVCA 24, Massey 32), so those other five-set losses are looking more and more understandable. Washington State is off to a fine start, Stanford has recovered nicely, and a couple of other previous opponents are acquitting themselves well. It's no wonder the Boilers have such a nice RPI (7th); Massey has their SoS at 10th.
One thing that hurt Purdue this weekend was passing/setting. In Lauren Carlini and Samantha Seliger-Swenson, the Good Gals saw two of the best setters in the country, and it wasn't an accident that the Boilers found themselves on the wrong side of the attack-percentage battle in each match. On too many points, a Purdue pass or set put an attacker in an impossible position, and that makes a big difference when your opponents are not effectively blocking your attacks. Timing in particular became an issue again, especially on middle sets - hopefully this was an off day or two for the Boilers, and they'll be ready to kill next weekend.
The Boilers make their first conference road trip of the season, traveling to Iowa Friday and to Nebraska Sunday. The Hawkeyes have a sparkly Massey rating, 40, but that seems to be mostly from beating a bunch of mediocre squads. Iowa's only Massey-top-25 matches so far were their opening-week losses at Michigan State (0-3) and Michigan (1-3); still, that's a significant step up from last season, when they managed only two wins in conference play, at Indiana (!) and home against Rutgers. Iowa tends to run their attack through two outside hitters: senior Lauren Brobst (158 kills at .344) and redshirt freshman Meghan Buzzerio (122 at .168). When you have an OH hitting well above .300, it doesn't matter as much if you don't have a middle hitting .400, which is good, because Iowa only lists two: junior Jess Janota (123 at .344) and senior Ashley Mariani (94 at .337); Mariani is listed as OH/MB. Senior Loxley Keala carries the weight at S, with 591 of Iowa's .677 assists. Keala leads the Hawkeyes with 12 aces, but is -13 from the line; Iowa as a team is a disappointing -69 (59/128). Junior libero Annika Olsen leads Iowa with 216 digs; sophomore RS Reghan Coyle has a team-high 6 solo blocks, and Mariani leads the team with 24 total blocks.
Nebraska will present a formidable challenge in the Devaney Center as they always do, especially coming off a surprising 3-1 loss to Ohio State Saturday evening. The defending national champions return 10 players from the 2015 team that went 32-4, sweeping the Boilers in Holloway in their only meeting last year. Three-time All-American senior OH Kadie Rolfzen leads a balanced NU attack, with 144 kills at .314; 2015 NCAA MOP sophomore OH Mikaela Foceke (122 at .291) and All-American transfer from LSU, junior MB Briana Holman (100 at .363), are also in triple digits. Junior S Kelly Hunter is the lone setter on the roster, posting 488 of 584 assists and adding 49 kills at .459. Rolfzen (14/14), Hunter (13/21) and junior OH Annika Albrecht (12/12) all have double digits in aces; the Huskers as a team are -30 (60/90). All-American senior libero Justine Wong-Orantes has a team-high 170 digs, with Rolfzen second at 111. Holman and All-American senior MB Amber Rolfzen (yes, they're twins) are tied with 6 solo blocks, and Amber has a team-leading 33 total.
You know the radio drill: WSHY 1410 AM. Friday's match is at 8 PM ET and will be on BTN+ (woo!), while Sunday's match is at 3 PM ET and will be on ESPN2. Massey expects a 3-1 win at Iowa and a 3-1 loss at Nebraska; he has the Boilers on pace for a 22-win regular season, with remaining expected losses at Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State, and Ohio State. Yeah, that seems like a lot, but there are a lot of good teams in the conference. 22-9 with this schedule would likely mean a good seed in the NCAAs and maybe even first- and second-round matches in Mackey.