This is the one we’ve been waiting for, volleyball fans.
Do the Big Ten’s couple of stinging defeats last night mean the Pac-12 remains the preeminent league in college volleyball? (Since I don’t think anyone would say this of the Big 12) Maybe. The Big Ten had a terrific year, perhaps best evidence by getting two teams to Louisville in the first place.
It’s the clear class of the Big 12 going at it for the national title. Locking horns, so to speak, with them are a team I don’t think anyone would have expected to be the league’s last standing. But here they are, with the newly crowned National Player of the Year leading the way.
In many ways this match shapes up a lot like Oregon’s semifinal against Penn State. Texas are a big blocking team, marginally better than Penn State in fact, and Oregon didn’t suddenly become strong at blocking overnight. Both are remarkably efficient offensive teams, with the Longhorns the leaders on the season in attack percentage and Oregon in kills per set. These two teams have among them the best outsides in the nation, beyond question, but with all respect to Texas’ Molly McCage, there really is no impact player to be had in the middle on either side of the net.
Two very strong offenses, with much the same positional strengths, but wildly different styles. Texas have an undeniable physical advantage, but you know what, so did Penn State last night. Oregon’s unpredictable and eclectic offense will present massive challenges for the Texas back-row. Texas no doubt will likewise give Oregon’s defenders fits, and they’ll have to be ready to simply surrender their kills every now and again, but I’d wager to say Oregon have had more experience defending power than Texas have at defending Oregon’s unorthodox offensive style.
And an aspect of the game where Oregon may have a decided advantage is at the service line. If they come out serving like they did at the beginning of the fourth set against Penn State last night, Texas are going to be in a world of trouble. Just as blocking is well-known to be one of Oregon’s few (only?) honest-to-goodness deficiencies, the same is true of Texas’ passing.
But…Oregon’s blocking. It’s got to be a troubling thought for Duck fans, because their block only picked up last night after Micha Hancock got hurt, and it’s not exactly likely that was a coincidence. Texas’ main setter Hannah Allison is by no means as talented as Hancock, but she’s reliable enough to accurately distribute the ball to Texas’ two big weapons on the outside, and I mean big weapons. If you saw both national semifinals, you know the kind of air they get. That’s something that’s just so difficult to defend against, and it’s not the sort of offensive attacks that Oregon were facing for the bulk of their match with Penn State.
Let’s take a look at some of the impact players for both sides.
Eckerman is arguably the most vital cog in the Texas attack, and here we see a prime example of her hitting over an opposing block, something she does so often and so well. It’s not a thing teams generally prepare for, either, because who but a few hitters in the nation can do it? Eckerman’s match last night against Michigan was actually only so-so, as she went 16/4/54, for .222. That’s an awful lot of dug swings (low attack percentage for just 4 errors), and while I did think of Michigan as the strongest defensive team of the Final Four, I can’t say they exactly looked the part during sets 1 and 4 of that match. It’s probably just variance, though – against an undeniably better USC team in the regional finals, she was 11/1/27 for .370 in a three-set sweep.
This is someone you simply cannot hope to contain entirely. Your only goal should be to slow her down. That’s what Michigan were able to do last night, and they were a few fortunate breaks in the fifth set away from playing for a national championship.
Most of what I said about Eckerman can apply to Webster as well. She’s the more experienced of the two, a junior to Eckerman as a sophomore, but really they’ve been equals this season. At least on the front line. One significant difference between the two is the service line. Webster does not serve; she gets substituted for when that turn in the rotation comes up. Neither play much defense, as Eckerman is rotated out after her serving turn.
But oh, my goodness, Bailey-and-Haley on the front line. They’re enough to win any match any day of the week, especially when one picks up any slack left by the other, such as Webster did last night. She was 18/4/47 for .298 against Michigan – nothing wrong with that hitting line at all, and she’s capable of even better. The Texas offense is a big, bad, two-headed monster.
Texas head coach Jerritt Elliot has referred to McNeal as the glue that holds his team together, and it’s easy to see why. She’s the only senior on the team and is an undeniable court general. She doesn’t have the raw physical gifts that Eckerman and Webster do, but she more than makes up for it with her versatility and leadership.
The Texas website lists her as “Utility” under position. That’s not something you usually see for a volleyball player, but after seeing McNeal play some, it makes perfect sense for her. She simply fills whatever need the Texas team has, offense or defense (she plays all six rotations – she never came out of the national semifinal against Michigan). McNeal’s an effective hitter, and she was a consistent threat on slide plays against Michigan. She’s a serviceable blocker, often finding Eckerman, Webster, McCage, or Khat Bell for timely double blocks. She’s a very capable defender – she was the only player in the Texas/Michigan match to record a kills/digs double-double. She’s even suited up as a libero a few times this season. She’s one of Texas’ secondary setters, too, when rallies leave them out of system.
This is just not a skill set many volleyball players possess. I wouldn’t expect to see her playing major international tournaments after the end of her college eligibility, because she does not truly excel at anything, but I have little doubt she could make a living playing the game overseas.
I mean, you did read the last post before this one, right? Bergsma will come into tomorrow night’s match riding high after being named the national Player of the Year. She’s a heavy hitter, a smart hitter, and an unquestionable leader. Much like Eckerman, you can’t hope to silence her, particularly because even if one aspect of her offensive attack is lacking, she’s just go so many other ways to beat you to fall back on.
Here’s another woman for whom non-volleyball pictures may outweigh the volleyball shots, but it’s not glitz and glamor in Brenner’s case. Brenner is a four-sport athlete.
You read that right – a four-sport athlete. Last year, in addition to volleyball, she played on the Ducks’ basketball team and also saw occasional playing time on the softball field in the spring. Apparently ‘occasional playing time’ wasn’t enough as she trades in the softball glove this year for throwing shoes, planning to toss the javelin and shot for the Duck track and field team. She’s said she wants to play two of her sports professionally, which would most likely be track and volleyball.
On the volleyball court, Brenner (just a sophomore) has been a perfect counterpart to Bergsma as an outside. Really, the parallels to Texas’ big two-headed monster are ready and waiting. Brenner didn’t have such a good match against Penn State (though neither did Bergsma, actually) or in the regional finals against Nebraska, but if we go back to the BYU match we see what Brenner is capable of when she’s on. Against the Cougars, Brenner was an amazing 26/6/48 for .417, and if she can find anything close to that level of form tomorrow night, it could be a long one for the Horns. She’ll ease the blow Bergsma’s departure has on the program, to be certain, as the offense comes to center around her next season (though a touch more on that in a moment).
Most photos of Plum show her doing what she does best – setting.
Plum was the Pac-12 Setter of the Year, and it was a pretty easy choice. She led the nation in assists per set, by a full assist per over the setter in second place. It made her a pretty easy All-American choice, too. Now, you could be cynical and say she’s helped out in her statistical categories by having such good outsides at her disposal, but it’s a two-way street. They’re benefited in their offensive output by having Plum at the net. Without question.
What makes Plum’s effectiveness as a setter all the more impressive is she’s a bit undersized at 5’9″. Now, setters definitely don’t tend to be as tall as outsides and certainly not middles, and I’ve even seen a few as short as their teammate liberos, but they do all play front-row rotations. (Well…except Washington’s setters, but they’re a rare case) So the bigger the better. Certainly bigger setters are more likely to be all-around successes at the position (blocking and dinking are much easier when you don’t have so far to jump). Plum is also a serviceable defender, one of four Ducks to average between 2 and 3 digs per set. No holes in her game.
What, you think I’m gonna pretend that I know who’s gonna win this? In your dreams. There are clear paths for Texas to win. There are clear paths for Oregon to win. It’s just gonna depend on who gets the best breaks and who executes the best. I know how it can happen, but that sure doesn’t mean I know how it will happen.
Sorry if you feel like you wasted the last 1700 words of your life
One last thing. Oregon could perhaps be said to have more at stake in this match, because while McNeal is Texas’ only senior, Oregon have five, three of whom see regular playing time. This number of course including Alaina Bergsma. So while Texas can reasonably speculate (if not harbor outright expectations) about being back at this level in a year’s time, the immediate future after tomorrow night is much less certain for Oregon. A national championship feather in the cap would go a long way to securing the long-term future, to be sure, but they’ve got some key players graduating next year. Texas can expect to get even better for at least one more year (they lose Webster after next season).
I’m not sure what, if any, effect that will directly have on the match tomorrow, but it’s definitely an important factor in the story of this national final.