VB Starts 2-0, Topping Wyoming and Washington State

VB Starts 2-0, Topping Wyoming and Washington State

Those of you who still live in Indiana have probably grown tired of the weather more than the forecast: once there was a time when "chance of thundershowers" (because that's how we said it in Ye Olden Days) really meant just a chance, but these days it means nearly a daylong tornado watch. Another front moved through the Indianapolis area right around the time I was set to leave for West Lafayette, so instead of starting the morning with a nice helping of bacon, I squeezed into my seat with the Boilers down 3-0 and just regular old concession-stand food in my hands. (Actually, it wasn't my seat, because people were in it - Holloway has very little open seating these days, and a surprising number of guests don't look up to see the Reserved signs over all the good sections. NBD, attendance was maybe half the reported 1607, so there was plenty of space for me ... until they got up for concessions and I got my seat back. Anyway.)

Purdue 3, Wyoming 0 (29-27, 25-16, 25-17)

The rest of the match was about what you'd expect for a season opener: the home favorite struggling early (winning the first set 29-27) but pulling away in the end (25-16 and 25-17), and no way to be sure if problems you see are just working through the offseason rust or noting the difference between practice and live competition. For the Boilers, it may well be the latter, especially given their low roster count ... which suffered another hit today, as MB Faye Adelaja wasn't dressed for either match. Add in the fact that freshmen DS Olivia Van Zelst and S Lexi Dorn didn't play, and that DS Linnea Rohrsen saw little action, and you get an effective roster of 9 players. That's interesting, to say the least.

Fortunately, seven of the nine have significant DI experience, headed by OH Azariah Stahl. The junior brought a lot of energy to her role last season, but she was somewhat limited by the experience in front of her. Now that Purdue has just one senior, Adelaja, Stahl had the opportunity to shine in all-around play, and she did that against the Cowgirls, leading all players with 14 kills and adding 7 digs and 3.5 blocks (including both solo Boiler blocks). Stahl, fellow junior MB Danielle Cuttino (13 kills) and new Boiler OH Sherridan Atkinson (8) led a Purdue attack that outhit Wyoming .277 to .132, with Atkinson's .412 leading the way. MB Blake Mohler was right behind Stahl with 3 of Purdue's 10 blocks, holding 2 of Wyoming's 5 hitters under .100. 

Look at the little people. I will hit it away from the little people just in case.

In what was a surprise to me, true freshman Natalie Haben got the start at libero, and she responded with a team-high 13 digs; DS Brooke Peters added 10 and S Ashley Evans had 8 to go with 40 assists. The serve columns were unfortunately a reprise of last season's efforts, as despite what seems to be a slight move away from float serves, the Boilers still had 4 errors to just 1 ace (the final point in set 2, served by Haben). DS Carissa Damler got the other starting spot and performed well, despite recording just 3 digs. 

To counter the lack of outside hitters on the roster, both Mohler and Danielle Cuttino got frequent time in that spot, with Danielle and Shavona ending up side-by-side at one point in the rotation. (Expect to see a number of "block by Cuttino and Cuttino" calls this season; Shavona had 1 block to go with Danielle's 1.5.) That, plus Stahl's permanent spot and Mohler getting some time on the back line, may be how Dave Shondell gets Purdue through the season of attrition and into next year, when the Boilers graduate only Adelaja. 

After the opener, Washington State swept #24 Kentucky. It turned out not to be the ominous sign I thought it might be. (Oh come on. I can't really spoil the outcome when the headline says that Purdue won!)

Purdue 3, Washington State 1 (28-26, 25-20, 19-25, 25-21)

Stahl and Mohler working over and around the WSU wall

Just as the Cougars played better than expected against the Wildcats, they played better against the Boilers in conditions that were unexpected: while the forecast called for low-80s heat, the temperature near game time was closer to 90, and because Morgan Burke likes to pretend it's 1955, Holloway felt exactly like what you'd imagine a large room with 2000 people and no AC would feel like. (The best thing about today's roster sheet is that it showed Bobinski as athletic director. Maybe he'll see the lack of AC for what it is - a recruiting handicap and a danger to players, rather than some supposed advantage that a) doesn't do much for the Boilers during non-conference play against mostly unheralded opposition and b) certainly keeps the crowd noise down, especially when it's the fourth or fifth set, there's no water left, and half the crowd would rather stand outside in the rain than suffer in the heat.) 

Shondell used the same rotations as in the first match, with only 9 players seeing major playing time and Rohrsen getting only one cameo appearance. It didn't seem to have much of an impact, as the Boilers did their usual squeak-by in set 1, holding off a Cougar set point and closing it out themselves. Even in set 2, when Purdue's defense got a sideout on 17 of 20 WSU chances (I think this is new in this year's boxscores, and I like it) but occasional mistakes and bad calls (yeah, same deal as last season, count on 2-3 atrocious calls per match) kept the Cougars in it until late, it looked like all the visitors would manage was a good scare.

Then set 3 came along, and the tables turned. WSU hit a sizzling .538 to the Boilers' meager .154 and led pretty much wire-to-wire - just 2 ties and 1 lead change the whole way. You might be excused for wondering if this would be a good time to bring in a 10th player (WSU used 11; Wyoming used 12, but one only sparingly), or even an 11th.

Well, Shondell rose to the challenge ... by inserting Rohrsen to serve for Mohler with the Boilers down maybe 22-19 (the full PBP isn't up yet). Yep, the same scenario that gets Linnea her only playing time - go in, serve for one person, come back out. I could understand this better if she had any kind of decent serve (well, she might, but we never get to see it), but she's almost always told to do a float serve, and it almost never puts any kind of pressure on the opponents. This time was no different, as WSU responded by getting a point off an attack that went just over the 5'4" Rohrsen's head. Would 5'9" Haben or 6'2" Mohler have reached that ball? Probably. Did it cost Purdue the set? No, not the way they played ... but it also did nothing to increase their chances of winning it, and it arguably hurt those chances. Still, Shondell's had good enough results over time that if this is his Achilles heel - the Purdue service game - then it's something we can probably live with.

And in fact, set 4 rescued him, barely, from potential disaster, as the Boilers put a merciful end to a boiling night by holding the Cougars to a .119 attack percentage. They didn't hit much better themselves - at .139, it was their worst set of the night - but defense and mysterious calls were enough to give Purdue a 2-0 start. The best call in terms of storytelling was on a play where a Washington State player committed either a double hit or a lift, but the announcer was only able to say "point - Purdue." Naturally, the WSU bench wanted to know exactly what happened, and while we couldn't hear the conversation from the other side of the court, I believe the general idea was that the officials were unable to respond with simple words like "it was a carry." Their answer was probably something like "I dunno, that was so long ago I can hardly remember. Oh hey, you're using too much time, you better call a timeout."

Actually, the biggest mistake the officials made was in set 1 or 3 (with Purdue hitting toward the Block Party), when a Boiler attack probably hit the floor before the Cougar libero dug it out. The line judge on that side immediately signaled that the ball was down for a Purdue point, which is what everyone else in the entire building saw ... except for the two referees, neither of whom blew their whistles. So, as good players do, the players kept playing the ball. I'm not sure for how long, because I'd looked away in preparation for the next serve. In fact, the confusion was so bad that eventually, the second referee was signalling to the WSU bench to go ahead and sub ... except the teams were still playing the ball. This is maybe 10-15 hits later! (And they're still volleying, because no one blew a whistle, even at this point.) I don't even know how that happens, well actually, I do, because the first referee is one who has worked Purdue matches before and has, on those occasions, also proven to be perhaps not up to the task in front of her. 

Anyway. Stahl racked up 21 kills, nearly half of them in the opening set, with Danielle Cuttino (18) and Atkinson (8) following as usual, and Stahl leading with a .366 attack percentage. Evans added a surprising 6 kills with 10 digs and 2 blocks; Haben led all players with 16 digs, while Atkinson led the Boilers with 3 blocks (2 solo). Surprisingly, WSU outhit Purdue .286 to .283 and outblocked them 11 to 10. Also surprisingly, the Cougars made 10 service errors to just 6 for the Good Gals, and Purdue recorded 5 aces: 2 by Stahl, 2 by Mohler (so maybe don't sub her out for a much shorter player with no power serve who's been cold on the bench for so long, eh Dave?), and 1 by Haben. 

Overall thoughts

  • Purdue's lack of height could be an issue when Sherridan and Danielle are not on the floor. WSU had six players 6'3" or taller, and it clearly made a difference against Purdue's attack, especially considering the Cougars were a .500 team last season.
  • Peters and Damler will be fine complements for Haben if the freshman keeps the libero spot; both are reasonably consistent servers (Damler more than Peters, who had 4 errors today) and both cover ground well (15 digs against WSU). After them, there is nothing if Rohrsen gets no real PT and Van Zelst is being redshirted.
  • On that note, redshirting two players out of 13? That is ... not what I would do. At least they're still practicing with the team, so in case of injury, they could be made available, but I'd much rather have more players this season. I mean, I don't think 13 is enough, you know? And why else would you hold out players from a two-match day in heat and humidity unless you were redshirting them?
  • Atkinson is actually going to improve once the timing between her and Evans improves. She and Danielle will be quite an imposing duo, Danielle and Shavona will likely have synergy as sisters, and any rotation with Azariah in it will be good.
  • Speaking of the Energy Twins, Brooke chased one ball just short of the Purdue bench in set 2, and Azariah actually jumped over the bench chasing a ball in set 3 that ended up in the seats. Hey, I admire that tenacity, but ladies, if you break yourselves on the solid, non-cushioned things on that side of the gym, you're still not getting more than one point for doing that, and you'll be out for a while ... with no one to replace you. Be careful, k?

This isn't what I was talking about. This one, she got to. Now imagine Stahl jumping over those chairs ...

Final Thoughts

Annual rant: once again, many of the chairbacks were empty for most or all of the evening match. Hey, I like the idea of getting a premium seat for your dollars as much as the next person - otherwise I wouldn't keep asking to upgrade - but at some point, the Boilers have to acknowledge that constantly putting old, quiet, semi-attending people in all the good seats for every sport is one of the things that keeps our arenas from being the difficult places to play that they ought to be. (I did not say stadiums for a reason. Come on, what's going to make Ross-Ade tough to play in? Robots with lasers?)

What's worse is that unlike in Mackey, where even women's basketball has different price points, in Holloway, there's only one premium seating price, and it's easily within range of a ton of people ... which means it's barely contributing to the bottom line at all. Holloway is nice and all that, but it's horribly outdated. Purdue is 11th in capacity among Big 14 teams: only Indiana (who plays in an ancient facility that dates back to a high school that hasn't been around in 40 years IIRC), Michigan and Maryland play in smaller gyms. Rutgers plays in a larger gym! Purdue was 12th in the country in average attendance and 8th in total attendance last season ... at 110% of capacity! The Boilers drew just over 40K. Wisconsin drew 85K! (Nebraska drew 147K, but let's be honest, when you win national titles like prizes at a state fair, that's gonna happen.) Minnesota drew 62K! They did not do this in tiny gyms. Even Penn State wasn't playing to capacity crowds.

Bobinski needs to get the trustees to put on their big-boy pants, round up some dollars, and build a real gym for a perennial top-25 team. Build a place that has enough seats so that you can build a following among more fans (who then are more likely to donate money later, hint hint), enough premium seats so that you can draw a lot more money from the people who can afford to give it, and enough seating adjoining the student sections that the Block Party's enthusiasm can spread instead of dying in the large gaps between their end and the side bleachers. Football is years away from needing anything beyond what Ross-Ade offers in terms of capacity, and good luck selling premium seats to what we're likely to see in 2017 and 2018. Volleyball could fill more seats right now, and they could do it at a fraction of the cost of some of what you want to do for football. Make it happen. (But still leave exits to the floor for the victory or commiseration lap that the Boilers do after every match. That's a cool tradition.)

BTW, there is actually a Pokestop that is within range of the seats in Holloway. Just sayin'.

Next match

The Boilers are home again Saturday, hosting Kentucky at 6 PM for the final match of the Mortar Board Premier, before heading up to South Bend for matches against Howard, Coastal Carolina and Notre Dame over Labor Day weekend.

Photos courtesy of Purdue Volleyball and David Wegiel

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