Nebraska and Penn State Meet for 30th Time in Another Big Match

The History: Nebraska is 19-10 against Penn State and has won the last six times the teams have met. Penn State and Stanford have each won seven national championships in women’s volleyball while the Huskers have won four. None of this will mean anything when the two teams meet at 6:00 pm in Kansas City later tonight. Why? Because they are rivals and have played many important matches, and because of the cultures that have been created by John Cook and Russ Rose, neither team will be looking beyond the next point.

Penn State Attack: The Lions offense is built around 6-1” senior outside hitter Simone Lee, who was the Big 10 Player of the Year and hit .321 with almost 4 kills per set, and 6’3” middle blocker Haleigh Washington who was the Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year, leading the conference with 1.5 blocks per set and hit a sensational .521 with three kills per set. Both have the athleticism to make a good living playing professional volleyball should they choose to do so.

Penn State runs a 6-2 offense with 6’ senior setter Abby Deterding playing six rotations, and 6’ red-shirt junior Bryanna Weiskircher playing three back row rotations.  6-2 Senior Heidi Thelen subs in for Weiskircher in the front own and hits slides from the right side.  6’1” senior Ali Franti is a second team All American and is a solid six rotation player. The second middle 6’2” Tori Gorrel hit .447 with just over 1 kill and 1 block per set. The Lions hit .342 as a team with 3.08 blocks per set. Penn State also has Kendall White a sophomore second team All-American libero.

By now you may be asking how did the Huskers beat Penn State 3-0 in the first conference match of the year on September 22 in Rec Hall at Penn State? Some of Nebraska’s success may have to do with Penn State still trying to find out the best personnel for their lineup. They only began running a 6-2 in the Regional Final against Nebraska in the 2016 NCAA tournament and they weren’t as patterned as they are now. In that match Thelen played middle blocker and Nia Reed played front row for Abby Deterding. That required Penn State to sub two players every three rotations for both setters and right side players. Reed struggled in the match and Rose later moved Thelen to the right side, inserted Gorrel as middle blocker and kept Wiskircher in the lineup when she rotated to the front row. That resulted in a more efficient lineup (only 2 subs every six rotations) and Thelen proved to be a  stronger right side attacker on the right side than Reed.

Nebraska also played extremely well. Annika Albright, who recently earned second team All-American recognition, was transitioning from a defensive specialist role in 2016. Annika had 19 kills and hit .400 for the match. Briana Holman had 13 kills, one error and hit .750 for the match. The Huskers as a team hit .347 while Penn State hit 227. Penn State scored points on only 27% of their opportunities, a very low percentage for a team that averages closer to 50%. Much of that can be attributed to the Huskers passing and Kelly Hunter’s setting. (Kelly was named a first team All-American yesterday.) They played much of the match in-system while the Lions struggled to be in-system.

6-2 vs 5-1: National Championships and Olympic Gold medals have been won by teams running a 6-2 offense. The last time it was done in Women’s Division 1 volleyball was in 2003 by Mick Haley’s USC squad defeated Florida 3-1. Why is it not common?

Running a 6-2 system with two back row setters: Degree of difficulty 12 on a 10-point system: Why? The setter is always transition from the backrow, sometimes from almost the end line when an opponent is attacking from its own backrow, and it makes it more difficult for the setter to get to her base position at the net. You also have two different setters setting the middles and left side players who have to adjust to slightly different tempos and geometries. But here is the real challenge. It is hard enough to get one person who is quick enough to get to the ball, set a hittable ball, and have great judgment on which player to set in each situation. Finding two setters with similar tempo and jugdement is hard.

Teams that run a 6-2 do so often because of a weakness rather than a strength. If you don’t have at least one middle attacker who is an effective slide hitter than it is much easier for the opponent to cover both hitters when they are both attacking in front of the setter. Sometimes neither setter is capable of setting a big enough block to play the front row. With fifteen subs and a libero you have enough subs to rotate in hitters for the front row and still have a sub left for a golden retriever if you wanted.   Penn State led the conference in attack percentage so obviously their setters are not just good but very good and because Haleigh Washington is great off one foot behind the setter, they can switch easily to a 5-1 if needed.

Penn State and the 6-2: To my knowledge this may be the first full season Coach Rose has run a 6-2. It has obviously worked since the Lions earned the number one seed in the NCAA tournament. But this is one area that Nebraska has a potential advantage. There are only two setters that have won an NCAA championship that are playing college volleyball. Jenna Gray the sophomore setter at Stanford led her team to a championship last year, and Kelly Hunter led the Huskers to a championship in 2015. Both are the only setters on the 2017 All-American first team and they deserve to be there.

Kelly Hunter will be making decisions in every side-out rotation for the Huskers and then choosing who to set as the play evolves. Penn State will have two players making those decisions and they will be traveling from the back row in all six rotations.

When Wiskercher digs the ball at right back she can dig it to Deterding at right front who then can choose to attack it with her left hand, set the two other front row players or a “pipe” to Lee or Franti playing middle back.  Lee hits more down on the ball on the pipe from the back row than she does at left front. When Lee is in the front row she jumps high goes over the block and hits hard line or deep from middle back to left back. When she hits the “pipe” she tends to hit around the block snapping the ball down at the opponent’s setter or right back player.

When Deterding digs the ball at right back she has to dig the ball to a libero who will more than likely bump set the ball to left front or the 10’ line for Lee or Franti. Why not bump set right front? Because Thelen is more effective on the slide than making a regular approach on two feet. In many ways Penn State uses her as a set of choice in serve reception off a perfect pass or on a free ball. She needs to retreat toward the middle of the court to hit the slide and so she is not always an available option.

Think of the 6-2 as you would playing football with two quarterbacks. It gives you three hitters to side-out with, a bigger block because you are not playing a smaller front row setter and it can wear mentally on a team that does not serve tough enough to keep them out of system because the middle blockers are always responding to three front row attackers. But you are switching quarterbacks every series.

Deterding has a hitter’s mentality so she is going to take a swing on some of those balls that Wiskercher digs at right back and Foecke and Albright will have to be alert, over the net quicker than usual and the back row will have to be prepared as well. This has the potential to be an emotional play for both teams. It can elevate the Penn State offense to continue to make a run when it appeared the opponent has gained an advantage by attacking the setter, but it can also deflate the attacker when the ball is blocked straight down when she could have set the ball and some setters can carry disappointment with them for a couple of plays.

One of the best ways of attacking a 6-2 is with backrow attack after the ball has crossed the net a couple of times. Why? Because the longer the rally goes more back row players suck up toward the net as either set or cover attackers. Teams are fairly organized against back row attack in serve receive, much less so after the ball crosses the net a few times. Nebraska has two very good backrow attackers in Foecke and Albright. (So does Penn State with Lee and Franti.) Back row attack makes it easier to keep the ball away from the libero who is digging left back and who is usually the best floor defender on the team.

Slowing down Washington and Lee: If Washington and Lee are set hitable balls in-system they are going to score. It will be very difficult to stop them at the net. The key is to keep Penn State out of system as much as possible with tough serving, situational attacks from Hunter, attacking the backrow setter, situationally attacking from the backrow when the Penn State middle releases early to block Nebraska’s left side. Staying in-system yourself so that your attackers are splitting the Penn State block and hitting for a high percentage.

The  Head Coaches: John Cook and Russ Rose are two of the best in the business. Their demeanor during the match is somewhat similar. They both sit on the bench rather than stalk the sideline. Coach Rose records information in a notebook and Coach Cook evaluates the larger picture. Both teams are somewhat limited in their depth. Nebraska does not have an experienced pin hitter on the bench. Penn State has one, Nia Reed who started the season as a right-side attacker. Both will have access to Data Volley Stats as the match unfolds which will tell them more than they need to know about which rotations are successful and which hitters or rotations are struggling.

Matchups: Volleyball is really six separate games within a game. Matchups can play a critical role in whether or not a team is successful. In 1990 we played an exceptional Penn State team that had been destroying everyone it played and was undefeated through the regular season. This is before video exchange and it was much harder to prepare for a team that you didn’t see in the regular season. A school was not allowed to reimburse someone on the coaching staff to pay for a scouting trip. Still we felt it was necessary, so I personally paid to have John Cook travel to Texas and see a match. He came back with the rotations drawn out and a pretty somber message that he wasn’t sure how we could beat them. They had a great setter in Michelle Jaworski and unusual left handed middle attacker, JoAnn Ewell, who ran a one foot slide takeoff from the right side into the middle of the court.

Our own Karen Dahlgren was the first player to run the slide in 1986 and it allowed her to be the NCAA Player of the Year. Still it was unusual for a left-handed player to be playing middle attacker and the fact she was running the slide into the middle of the court made it even more unusual. We developed a game plan to try and make it difficult for Penn State to run the slide successfully in serve receive even though we didn’t know if it would work. I thought if we could serve the ball short into zone 2 so that Jaworski had to turn toward the sideline it might bottle up Ewell’s approach and make it difficult to connect with Ewell.

We had one exceptional short server, Nikki Stricker, a freshmen middle blocker who would go on to be our starting setter for the next three years. For our game plan to be effective Stricker had to be serving against Penn State’s fifth rotation. We were able to get that match up in all four sets. Penn State outscored us in four of the six rotations but we ran close to 40% or our points in that one rotation and won the match 3-1 to advance to the final four.

There are several things coaches consider in match-ups:

1. How important is to have my best right side blocker matched up against the opponent’s best left side attacker? Against Penn State that may not be a factor because Lee is capable of going over the top of the block whomever is blocking right side. It may be more important to have your best servers, serving when she is in the front row.

2. Which of my left side hitters can be effective against Penn State’s strongest right side blocker?

3. Who do I want digging middle back when Simone Lee is attacking from the backrow?

4. Who is my best left side blocker against Thelan running the slide?

5. What is my weakest rotation and what would be the best match up for it to be successful?

6. Is there a player on the opponent’s side that the head coach has the least confidence in and when would it be to our advantage to attack her and get her out of the match?

7. What server is going to be the most effective in keeping Washington from running the slide?

8. When Penn State calls a timeout in any give rotation what play are they likely to run in each rotation?

9. Who is there best server and what rotation do I not want to be in when she is serving?

Penn State will be asking these and similar questions as well based on data that is available on Volleymetrics that evaluates video from every team that subscribes to it. It doesn’t necessarily cut down the time a coaching staff spends on preparation but it allows a staff to go into more detail. Some teams use it extensively for each match and some teams only use it occasionally.

Even when you know the match-ups you would like to get because both coaches submit their lineups just before each set you are not likely to get exactly what you want. So to some degree the list above is a wish-list.  If you don’t get the best match up, your team has to know how to adjust and find a way to be successful with a situation that isn’t ideal. Cook and Rose are exceptional at preparation and neither coach is likely to have a significant advantage.  I am very impressed with Nebraska’s serve receive, setting and floor defense. I think Nebraska is as strong as anyone in those three areas which may even be more important than matchups.

Both teams have great chemistry with kids that you would like to coach. They are team oriented and not primarily concerned with their own needs. For Nebraska to be in this position every returning player needed to be better than they were last year. Mikaela Foecke has sped up her arm swing, become a solid six rotation player and is hitting the ball harder than ever. Annika Albright went from a very good defensive specialist to a six rotation outside hitter. Both Foecke and Albright earned second team All-American recognition this year.

Kenzie Maloney stepped into the libero position after being a very good defensive specialist for two years and she has gotten better throughout the season. Perhaps the player who has made the biggest improvement has gone unnoticed by people unfamiliar with Nebraska. Senior middle blocker Briana Holman has improved both her blocking and attack percentage significantly but perhaps more importantly has matured as a teammate and leader.

Red-shirt Freshman Lauren Stivrins has gone from watching the Huskers in a red-shirt season to starting at middle blocker opposite Holman. She has solidified a position that Nebraska needed to if it was going to advance to Final Four. Sydney Townsend has continued to develop in her role as a serving and defensive specialist. When she serves tough the Huskers have an added weapon. True freshman and right side player Jazz Sweet has done everything the coaching staff has asked of a freshman player. Courage is playing without thinking too much and letting your athletic talent take over. When she has done that this year she has had some big matches.

Senior setter Kelly Hunter is the glue. She was injured during the first third of the season and didn’t gain full strength until about a month ago. You can see the difference in serving, blocking and floor defense. A setters biggest challenge in a match of this importance is to be able to set courageously in end game. All setters set the middle early in a match but as the match moves toward a critical point, they tend to set the left side more and more. Why? Because even though middle attackers generally have a higher attack percentage when they do get blocked it happens very quick and setters can feel responsibility for that error. I don’t think either team can win by just throwing the ball to the left side when the match gets tight.

Kelly has great judgment and the fact that she can impact the match more any other player on the court is a big plus. She has all the stuff that the great setters at Nebraska have brought to the game. They can be fearless and still have fun.

Nebraska fans need to relax and enjoy the match. There is nothing better as a competitor than to play a great opponent. You can’t play your best unless you are playing someone capable of playing at their best on the same night. Winning or losing is important. But what allows for a memorable match is the tremendous competition between two great opponents. Adopt Hunter’s attitude, be fearless in your support but have fun enjoying two great teams in action. – Terry Pettit

I originally meant for this to be about 500 words but it turned out to well over 3,000 words. That’s what happens when I am passionate about what I am writing. I would like to ask you to return to the home page of my website and consider buying a book if you enjoyed this article. If you order a copy of Trust and the River or A Fresh Season or the DVD The Journey to Exceptional Coaching, I will  also email you a free copy of the eBook Talent and the Secret Life of Teams that you can keep for yourself or give to a friend.” This offer will be available for orders through December 31.

Good luck and Merry Christmas.

Terry GBR

5 Responses to “Nebraska and Penn State Meet for 30th Time in Another Big Match”

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  1. Avatar for Jeff Stiefbold Jeff Stiefbold says:

    Hi Coach,
    I enjoyed reading your blog on the Nebraska and Penn State semi-final match. I was fascinated by analysis and insight to tonight’s match.
    I believe tonight’s match will come down to just a few things.
    1. Which team serves the best. Not just which team serves the most aces, but which team is able to have the other team setting 2nd and 3rd options more than 1st options.
    2. Which team serve receives the best. Obviously this will enable that team to run the side out offense they want.

    While I believe Penn State is the better blocking team and has an advantage in having Lee on the outside. I believe Nebraska is the better serving and passing team.

    I see Nebraska winning in 4 sets.

    I do know one thing, it will be a great match to watch. I only wish this was the National Championship final match.

  2. Avatar for Kathleen Chenault Kathleen Chenault says:

    I’m a Nebraska alum far from home but still just as keen in following NU sports as always. Loved getting this insight into the intricacies that will play out during this match. I hope you follow up with another post analyzing the play after the match. I interviewed you many years ago when I was a reporter at the Daily Nebraskan. It has been wonderful seeing the growth and development of the Husker volleyball team over the years. I got to see the team play when they were at Maryland this fall. The players are a study in the value of team work. Thanks for all you’ve done to develop and promote these athletes in this amazing program, and now for helping me becoming a more knowledgable fan. GBR!!!!

  3. Avatar for Pam Pam says:

    Loved reading your valuable insight–hope Coach Cook has seen this. Knowing his extensive preparation, I’m sure he has taken advantage of your knowledge in many ways even beyond this blog. I too hope for a classic match, even if my Huskers lose. With two of the greatest volleyball teams ever playing each other once again, how could it be anything but???

  4. Avatar for Bill Armbrust Bill Armbrust says:

    Wow! Read this after the match. With insights like this available to fans, the game of volleyball becomes ever more enjoyable! When Husker volleyball fans watch a volleyball game, it is dissected in conversation and analyzed in the same way Husker football fans do a football game. Greatest fans in the world= Husker nation!! Thanks Coach for all you continue to do for the state of Nebraska and us fans.

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