Return to the Top? How 2012 Reminds Us of 2007 (and How it Doesn’t)

 

 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Getting Ahead of Ourselves?  Well, yeah, it’s the off-season!

We know.  Speculating about the 2012 performance of Penn State’s women’s volleyball team, before most of the incoming freshmen have spent a second on campus, before we know who’s going to start at what position, before we have any idea of how much the returning players have improved during the off-season, and without any demonstrable track record of assessing volleyball talent is, if not downright crazy, at least at risk of getting ahead of ourselves.

And that, as is clear from the video below, can lead to trouble:

Still, with three months to go before Penn State plays it’s first match of the 2012 season, we’re left with nothing to do but speculate until August 24th, when Penn State takes on Morehead State in Louisville, Kentucky.

Lately, that speculation has centered around how very young and very inexperienced Penn State was in 2011.  We understand, youth is not an excuse.  But it’s a fact that in 2011 Penn State had no seniors or juniors among the top seven attackers, no seniors or juniors among the top seven blockers, a freshman starting setter (with a junior backup setter), and no seniors and only one junior among the top seven players in service aces and in total digs (although So. Libero Ali Longo — second in service aces and the leader in digs — decided after the season to transfer to, we believe, Hawaii).

That’s alot of returning underclassmen who saw significant playing time in 2011 and who, one would hope, learned alot from the experience.  And that doesn’t take into account the potential contributions of incoming freshmen 6-2 OH/S Megan Courtney, 6-2 OH/MH Paulina Prieto-Cerame (who is already enrolled), and 5-6 DS/L Kendall Pierce, all of whom bring considerable talent to Happy Valley.

And that got us to thinking about another season in which there were alot of returning freshmen and sophomores who saw significant playing time the previous year, and in which Head Coach Russ Rose welcomed three incoming freshmen, all of whom brought considerable talent to Happy Valley — 2007.

Based on how the 2007 season played out, with Penn State winning the first of four consecutive NCAA titles, that can be a pretty good formula.  Could it work again?

We’re not saying it will, but we’re not saying it can’t.  What we’re saying, in words and charts, is that in many ways, the 2012 edition of the Penn State Women’s Volleyball team (or what we know about the 2012 team, sitting in our inexpert speculation chair, in May 2012), reminds us of the 2007 Penn State Women’s Volleyball team.  We’re also saying that in other ways — important ways — it does not.

So, at the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, here’s how the 2012 team reminds us of the 2007 team, and how it doesn’t.

The Outlook in 2007

Penn State entered the 2007 season with a pre-season ranking of #3.  The table below shows the top 8 teams in the AVCA’s 2007 pre-season poll, their 2006 final ranking, and 2006 won-lost records:

2007 Preseason CSTV/AVCA Division I Top 8 Coaches Poll

School2007 Preseason Rank2006 NCAA Tournament

(Finals: Qwest Center, Omaha, Nebraska)
2006 Record2006 Final AVCA Poll
Nebraska1First - Defeated Stanford (3-1)33-11 (60 votes)
Stanford2Second - Lost to Nebraska (3-1)30-42
Penn State3Seattle Regional Finals - Lost to Washington (3-1)32-35
Texas4Austin Regional Finals - Lost to Stanford (3-1)24-77
UCLA5Semi-Finals - Lost to Nebraska (3-1)33-43
USC6Honolulu Regional Semi-Finals - Lost to Hawai'i (3-2)27-58
Florida7Gainesville Regional Semi-Finals - Lost to Minnesota (3-1)30-310
Washington8Semi-Finals - Lost to Stanford (3-0)29-54

Nebraska and Stanford, the two teams ranked ahead of the Nittany Lions in the 2007 pre-season poll, both had good reason for optimism heading into the 2007 season.

2007 Outlook for Nebraska

Although Nebraska lost 2006 starting OH 6-2 Dani Mancuso , and 2006 starting L 5-11 Dani Busboom to graduation, they returned all-everything Sarah Pavan (2006 AVCA National Player of the Year, three-time 1st-team AVCA All-American, and two-time Big 12 Player of the Year), and could count on three other returning AVCA All-Americans – 6-2 Jr. OH Jordan Larson (1st Team AVCA AA), 5-10 So. S Rachel Holloway (3rd Team AVCA AA), and 6-3 Sr. MB Tracy Stalls (2nd Team AVCA AA).  An even bigger plus was the much-anticipated return of 6-2 Sr. OH Christina Houghtelling, who had been the 2005 AVCA National Player of the Year but who had missed the 2006 season following shoulder surgery.

2007 Outlook for Stanford

Stanford, which lost in the 2006 NCAA Final match to Nebraska, was another school with legitimate title aspirations for 2007.  The Cardinal returned six starters from the 2006 squad, including 6-0 Jr. OH Cynthia Barboza (2006 AVCA 1st-Team AA), 5-11 Sr. S Bryn Kehoe (2006 2nd-Team AVCA AA) and Foluke Akinradewo (2006 1st-Team AVCA AA).  Barboza and  Akinradewo were in the starting lineup for the 2007 US National Team at the Pan Am Games in Brazil in the summer of 2007. The three other returning starters were 6-2 Sr. MB Franci Girard , 6-1 Jr. OH Erin Waller, and 6-0 Jr. L/DS Jessica Fishburn.

Adding even more firepower was Stanford’s four-person freshman class, which was considered by many to be the best in the nation.  The headliner was Gatorade National Player of the Year 6-4 OH Alix Klineman, with 6-4 MB/OH Stephanie Browne ranked #16, 6-1 OH/S Cassidy Lichtman ranked #20, and 5-7 L/DS Gabi Ailes having been the Nebraska State Player of the Year.

2007 Outlook for Penn State

Penn State returned seven starters, including 6-4 Jr. OH Nicole Fawcett (2006 1st-Team AVCA AA, 2005 AVCA National Freshman of the Year, and 2005 2nd-Team AVCA AA), 6-3 So. OH Megan Hodge (2006 AVCA National Freshman of the Year, 2006 1st-Team AVCA AA, and the first player ever to be named both Big Ten Freshman and Big Ten Player of the Year), 6-2 Jr. MH Christa Harmotto (2006 2nd-Team AVCA AA) and 6-3 Sr. MH Melissa Walbridge (2005 2nd-Team AVCA AA).  The three other returning starters for the Nittany Lions were 6-2 Sr. OH/Opp. Kate Price (2004 Big Ten Freshman of the Year), 5-8 Jr. L Roberta Holehouse, and 6-0  Alisha Glass (Big Ten All-Freshmen Team).

The Nittany Lions lost three players to graduation – 6-5 Opp. Cassy Salyer, and defensive specialists Kris Brown and Ashley Fidler — but welcomed three outstanding freshmen: 6-5 Opp./RS Blair Brown (a redshirt freshman), 6-3 MH Arielle Wilson and 5-9 DS/L Alyssa D’Errico, .

Penn State Stats: Who Brought What to the Party in 2007

We put together some charts to highlight the statistics of the returning and non-returning players in 2007 (we did the same thing for 2012, below).  The totals for “Returning Players – Category Leaders” and “Non-Returning Players – Category Leaders” do not include all returning players or, in some instances, all non-returning players.  The totals are only for the players who were among the statistical leaders in the applicable categories.

What jumps out is that statistically, the 2007 Penn State team returned almost all of its firepower from 2006 — 89.5% of the kills from its leading players, 90% of the blocks, 85.9% of the block assists, 79.5% of the service aces, and 75.8% of the digs.  That’s not news, but in black and white (and red) it stands out to us even more.

To be sure, Cassy Salyer had played an important role in 2006, and defensive specialists Kris Brown and Ashley Fidler were valuable contributors on defense, but, as noted above, the arrival of  Blair Brown, Arielle Wilson, and Alyssa D’Errico, and the improvement of the returning players, more than compensated for those losses.

Even with all that, the 2007 title wasn’t easy, and could easily have been lost at a number of crucial junctures — not least of which was the 3-2 victory over Stanford in the Finals, a match that certainly could have gone the other way.

Attack Leaders - Who Returned from 2006

#Name 2006
Class
Sets
Played
Matches
Played
Matches
Started
Kills% of
2006
Team
Total
Kills/SetAttack
Errors
Total
Attacks
% of
2006
Team
Total
Hitting
Pct.
11Hodge, MeganFr.114353555128.84.83213125330.2.270
1Fawcett, NicoleSo.113352948325.24.27140103524.9.331
3Harmotto, ChristaSo.111343431616.52.857360214.5.404
2Walbridge, MelissaJr.11435351899.91.66363789.1.405
14Salyer, CassieSr.8629171779.32.06413488.4.391
6Glass, AlishaFr.11335351316.81.16433358.1.263
16Price, KateJr.1003512422.20.42181212.9.198
Returning Players
(Category Leaders)
n/an/an/an/a171289.5n/an/an/a89.6n/a
Non-Returning Players
(Category Leaders)
n/an/an/an/a1779.32.06413488.4n/a
Team11435351913100.016.785734155100.0.323

Blocking Leaders - Who Returned from 2006

#Name 2006
Class
Sets
Played
Matches
Played
Matches
Started
Blocks-
Solo
% of
2006
Team
Total
Block
Assists
% of
2006
Team
Total
2Walbridge, MelissaJr.11435352425.315523.8
3Harmotto, Christa

So.11134342223.215323.5
1Fawcett, NicoleSo.11335291920.07010.8
11Hodge, MeganFr.11435351313.7649.8
6Glass, AlishaFr.11335351212.611718.0
14Salyer, CassieSr.86291755.36910.6
Returning Players
(Category Leaders)
n/an/an/an/a9094.755985.9
Non-Returning Players
(Category Leaders)
n/an/an/an/a55.36910.6
Team114353595100.0651100.0

Set/Serve Leaders - Who Returned from 2006

#Name 2006
Class
Sets
Played
Matches
Played
Matches
Started
Assists% of
2006
Team
Total
Service
Aces
% of
2006
Team
Total
Service
Errors
% of
2006
Team
Total
4Holehouse, Roberta So.114351281.65023.37021.3
11Hodge, MeganFr.1143535321.83918.16419.4
1Fawcett, Nicole So.113352990.52712.65917.9
6Glass, Alisha Fr.1133535141380.1219.83911.9
7Fidler, Ashley Sr.8132570.4177.9154.6
16Price, KateJr.1003512533.0125.6113.3
3Harmotto, Christa So.1113434191.1115.1175.2
2Walbridge, MelissaJr.1143535171.0115.1206.1
5Brown, KrisSr.86355110.694.2103.0
12Yanz, JessicaFr.291721196.783.772.1
Returning
Players
(Category
Leaders)
n/an/an/an/a157189.117179.528085.1
Non-Returning Players
(Category Leaders)
n/an/an/an/a1377.93415.8329.7
TeamTeam11435351763100.0215100.0329100.0

Recept/Digs Leaders - Who Returned from 2006

#Name ClassSets
Played
Matches
Played
Matches
Started
Receive
Errors
% of
2006
Team
Total
Digs% of
2006
Team
Total
Digs/Set
4Holehouse, Roberta So.1143513127.044026.03.86
11Hodge, MeganFr.11435351815.730317.92.66
6Glass, Alisha Fr.113353521.723013.62.04
16Price, KateJr.10035123026.121412.62.14
7Fidler, Ashley Sr.813251412.21317.71.62
5Brown, KrisSr.8635521.7855.00.99
1Fawcett, Nicole So.113352932.6965.70.85
Returning
Players
(Category
Leaders)
n/an/an/an/a8473.0128375.8n/a
Non-Returning Players
(Category Leaders)
n/an/an/an/a1613.921612.8n/a
Team1143535115100.01693100.014.85

The Outlook in 2012

The preseason coaches poll is based on potential not performance.  We have to work hard and see if the results on the court will match up to the goals of the team.

The preseason polls aren’t out for 2012, but if, as we anticipate, Penn State ranks high in those polls, we expect that Penn State Head Coach Russ Rose will say something pretty close to the quote above.  Which isn’t surprising, given that it’s exactly what he said in a GoPSUsports August 14, 2007 press release after Penn State was ranked #3 in the 2007 preseason poll.

So what about 2012 reminds us of 2007, other than the prospect of a high preseason ranking?  Returning players on the front row is the most obvious.  Ariel Scott, Maddie Martin, Nia Grant, Aiyana Whitney, Katie Slay, and Deja McClendon all return after seeing significant playing time in 2011.  Erica Denny is back too, after two injury-plagued seasons.  If Denny, who was the #14-ranked Senior Ace by PrepVolleyball.com her senior year in high school, can approach the potential she showed before her injuries, she will provide even more competition for front row playing time, as will incoming freshmen Megan Courtney and Paulina Prieto-Cerame.

Returning starting setter 5-11 So. Micha Hancock is another reason 2012 reminds us of 2007.  Like Alisha Glass, who returned in 2007 for her sophomore campaign after starting as a true freshman, Hancock is poised for a second year as Penn State’s starting setter.  Obviously, there are lots of imponderables, and we certainly aren’t comparing Micha Hancock to Alisha Glass, but the experience Hanock gained in 2011 could go a long way towards addressing some of the timing and connection issues that dogged Penn State last season.

What about 2012 doesn’t remind us of 2007?  Again, the obvious answer is the back row.  If Ali Longo had returned for her junior year, the resemblance to 2007 would be stronger. (And, fwiw, we’re not inclined to get into a debate about how good Longo was or would have become.  We were fans of hers when she was at Penn State, and we wish her all the best).   Without Longo, the 2012 backrow, at least on paper, looks thinner than the 2007 model.

Having said that, we really liked alot of what we saw from Dominique Gonzalez and Lacey Fuller last season, and incoming freshman Kendall Pierce has been compared favorably to Alyssa D’Errico.  So it’s not as though we think the back row can’t be better than in 2011 — we think it can.  But it doesn’t appear to us to be as strong, based on performance to date, as the returning core was in 2007.

Still, even without Longo, Penn State returns 60.4% of its digs from its leading 2011 players, and 78% of its service aces.

So the talent and the potential is there, but as Coach Rose suggested in a recent interview, it takes more than talent to have a great team:

I thought we had a team with good talent [in 2011], but we didn’t have a team that was a great team that played well together.  It always seemed that when we hit certain crisis situations, we had players who were playing independently instead of playing as a group.

Teamwork and hardwork.  Two cliches, but probably among the keys for how much success the 2012 team will have this season.

The following three tables show some summary comparisons between 2007 and 2012, followed by in-depth statistics in the final section.

Summary Comparisons — 2007 and 2012

 Kills% of Total
Kills
Solo
Blocks
% of Total
Solo Blocks
Block
Assists
% of Total
Block
Assists
2006 Returning
Players
(Category
Leaders)
171289.59094.755985.9
2006 Non-Returning Players
(Category Leaders)
1779.355.36910.6
2006 Team Total1913100.095100.0651100.0
2011 Returning
Players
(Category Leaders)
162296.87193.447995.2
2011 Non-Returning Players
(Category Leaders)
492.945.3204.0
2011 Team Total1676100.076100.0503100.0
 Assists% of Total
Assists
Service
Aces
% of Total
Service
Aces
Service
Errors
% of Total
Service Errors
2006 Returning
Players
(Category
Leaders)
171289.59094.755985.9
2006 Non-Returning Players
(Category Leaders)
1779.355.36910.6
2006 Team Total1913100.095100.0651100.0
2011 Returning
Players
(Category Leaders)
162296.87193.447995.2
2011 Non-Returning Players
(Category Leaders)
492.945.3204.0
2011 Team Total1676100.076100.0503100.0

Errors per Set (by Season) - Pre-Oregon State Match

SeasonTotal Sets
Attack
Errors/
Set
Service
Errors/
Set
Receive
Errors/
Set
2006-Pro-forma
(assuming
25 Points
per set)
1144.192.400.84
2007-Pro-forma
(assuming
25 Points
per set)
1224.002.310.78
2008
(25 Points
per set)
1163.692.910.61
2009
(25 Points
per set)
1223.361.980.53
2010
(25 Points
per set)
1233.952.210.78
2011
(25 Points
per set)
1224.622.360.93
2012
(25 Points
per set)
203.802.350.90

In-Depth Statistics –  Players Returning from 2011

Attack Leaders - Who's Back from 2011

Name 2011 ClassSets
Played
Matches
Played
Matches
Started
Kills% of 2011
Team Total
Kills/SetErrorsTotal
Attacks
% of 2011
Team Total
Pct.
McClendon, DejaSo.122333343225.83.54144109026.2.264
Scott, ArielSo.118333141824.93.54136108326.1.260
Slay, KatieSo.122333325715.32.116350212.1.386
Whitney, AiyanaFr.652401136.71.74513207.7.194
Martin, MaddieSo.9833241418.41.44604109.9.198
Grant, NiaFr.11732321519.01.29443097.4.346
Hancock, MichaFr.12133321106.60.91342465.9.309
Kabbes, KatieSr.34193291.70.8514952.3.158
Dorton, DarcySo. (RS)22170201.20.9114611.5.098
Returning Players
(Category Leaders)
n/an/an/an/a162296.8n/a532396095.2n/a
Non-Returning Players
(Category Leaders)
n/an/an/an/a492.9n/a281563.8n/a
Teamn/a12233331676100.013.745644159100.0.267

Blocking Leaders - Who's Back from 2011

Name 2011 ClassSets
Played
Matches
Played
Matches
Started
Block
Solo
% of 2011
Team Total
Block
Assist
% of 2011
Team Total
Slay, KatieSo.12233332735.514629.0
Grant, NiaFr.11732321317.19418.7
Scott, ArielSo.118333156.68116.1
McClendon, DejaSo.12233331317.1489.5
Hancock, MichaFr.121333256.65410.7
Martin, MaddieSo.98332456.6346.8
Whitney, AiyanaFr.6524034.0224.4
Kabbes, KatieSr.n/an/an/a45.3193.8
Dorton, DarcySo. (RS)n/an/an/a00.010.2
Returning Players (Category Leaders)n/an/an/an/a7193.447995.2
Non-Returning Players
(Category Leaders)
n/an/an/an/a45.3204.0
Teamn/a122333376100.0503100.0

Set/Serve Leaders - Who's Back from 2011

Name 2011 ClassSets
Played
Matches
Played
Matches
Started
Assists% of 2011
Team Total
Service
Aces
% of 2011
Team Total
Service
Errors
% of 2011
Team Total
Hancock, MichaFr.1213332127582.39143.57626.4
Longo, AliSo.117330905.83215.33010.4
Carpenter, KristinJr.100334764.9146.73712.8
Returning Players (Category Leaders)n/an/an/an/a142892.216378.023581.6
Non-Returning Players (Category Leaders)n/an/an/an/a905.83215.33010.4
Teamn/a12233331549100.0209100.0288100.0

Recept/Dig Leaders - Who's Back from 2011

Name 2011 ClassSets
Played
Matches
Played
Matches
Started
RE% of 2011
Team Total
Digs% of 2011
Team Total
Digs/Set
Longo, Ali

So.1173301916.839723.03.39
Hancock, MichaFr.121333243.527916.12.31
McClendon, DejaSo.12233332219.524514.22.01
Carpenter, KristinJr.1003341210.618210.51.82
Martin, MaddieSo.9833242118.61569.01.59
Gonzalez, DominiqueFr.84296108.91237.11.46
Fuller, LaceyFr.673001311.5593.40.88
Returning Players
(Category Leaders)
n/an/an/an/a8272.6104460.4n/a
Non-Returning Players
(Category Leaders)

n/an/an/an/a1916.839723.0n/a
Teamn/a1223333113100.01729100.014.17