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NCAA Volleyball Round 1 and 2 Analysis

Plus a look forward to the Sweet Sixteen schedule

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2021 NCAA Division III Women’s Volleyball Championship Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

There was a ton of volleyball played this weekend. Let’s talk about the match ups across the bracket by quadrants. We will start in the top left and move around clockwise. You can see the bracket here.

Top Left:

Ball State produced the win against University of Michigan. While this surprised many of us, I bet if we went into the Ball State locker room they weren’t surprised at all and would not call that an upset. They knew they could win and they did.

Ball State played well against Louisville in the second round. They played a freshmen setter, Megan Wielonski and in her fifth year, head Coach Kelli Miller Phillips continues to demonstrate why she was named to the coach’s association thirty under 30. Lots of respect for this Ball State team and a Louisville team that continues to win.

Florida beat University of Miami in straight sets. Florida had a real roller coaster of a year with surprise losses to Mississippi State and LSU. There is reason to doubt. But there is a ton of experience and talent on this #16 Gator team. T’ara Ceasar, Thayer Hall and Marlie Monserez are all talented seniors with lots of tournament experience.

Also in this top left corner is Ohio State. They have last year’s national freshman of the year Emily Londot. She is even better in her sophomore year, with a wider variety of shots, but still has a heavy heavy hammer of an arm swing. She just crushes the ball. She gets most of the swings for the Buckeyes, but Mia Grunze and Gabby Gonzales carry some of the load on the outside.

Tennessee won in the first round over North Carolina but the Buckeyes beat them in four sets. The Vols ran into a strong Buckeye block and only hit .223 as a team. OSU did a nice job of spreading the ball around on offense. Gonzales received 30% of the sets, Londot 24%, Rader in the middle 19%.

Mia Grunze didn’t play which should concern Buckeye fans. The sub outsides, Vanja Bucklic and Jenaisya Moore both played okay...but not great and not reliable when push comes to shove and normally around next weekend, teams start shoving.

Georgia Tech might not be the shoving type. They play OSU next. I didn’t see anything in the first two rounds by the eighth seeded Hornets that explained this seeding to me. It still has me scratching my head. They beat The Citadel in three sets and Western Kentucky in three sets, two straight set wins, which is good but the level of volleyball was not that high.

In the regular season Georgia Tech was 23-5 overall and 14-4 in the ACC. They beat South Carolina, Penn State and Pitt (first match up). They lost to UCLA, Notre Dame (not in the tournament), Pitt (second match up) and Louisville twice in straight sets. I say again, is that a good enough resume for the number 8 seed?

Top Right: #14 Creighton met Ole Miss in the first round. Former Nebraska libero and then Nebraska assistant coach Kayla Banwarth is the head coach at Ole Miss. This didn’t end up being a tough match for Creighton except for the fact their star fifth year senior Jaela Zimmerman was injured while landing on an attack. That was tough to see. She was out for the rest of the Ole Miss match and didn’t play in the second round vs Kansas.

Of course, none of us saw this injury coming and Creighton was not as good without Zimmerman. They adjusted but ultimately lost to Kansas in four sets.

Kansas was a fun team to watch in the first two rounds. Their two outside hitters do most of the work. Jenny Mosser is a 5’11’’ 5th year senior and Caroline Bien is a 6’0’’ freshman. Caroline Crawford, 6’3’’ sophomore, got involved in the middle.

They run a 6-2 (six hitters - 2 setters) offense which means the setter is always in the back row. They sub one setter when she rotates to the front row with a right side hitter and put in another setter for the player rotating to the back row. There are two good reasons to choose this offensive system; your setters are shorter (below 6’0’’) and/or you have more than five very good attackers and want to utilize them all. Kansas has both.

Penn State and Pitt faced each other in the second round. Penn State really had a shot at this win but Pitt’s 5th year opposite, Chinaza Ndee, took over on the right side. She buried balls in the floor. Kayla Lund is also a 5th year player for Pitt. She plays on the left side and finishes a lot of rallies. Penn State was also facing a player on the Pitt side that used to be a Nittnay Lions, just last year. Serena Gray is a 6’2’’ senior MB who transferred to Pitt from Penn State.

Just like Kansas, Pitt runs a 6-2 offense. They have two setters, freshman Rachel Fairbanks and junior, Lexis Akeo. They are both very talented setters and the reason this offense runs smoothly. Pitt looked very good in their opening two rounds.

BYU and Utah matched up in the second round. BYU is the 11 seed with a 28-1 record. Their lone loss this season is to Pitt. BYU played Utah in September and beat them in 3 sets. Utah is 21-8 with notable wins over Nebraska, Washington and Oregon.

They are a real roller coaster team mostly because they rely on star outside hitter and 5th year player Dani Drews for most kills. Utah gave BYU a real fight but most of the time the ball went outside to Drews or Madelyn Robinson and the BYU block set up a campfire, waited, roasted a few marshmallows and just jumped to block the ball back in Utah’s face.

Purdue made it to the third round by the skin of their teeth. Purdue went to five sets in round 2 against Dayton. Dayton is a good team who took down a quality Marquette team in round 1. Purdue won, but the story Boilermaker fans are worried about is that the offense was non-existent.

Normally Purdue is too heavy with hitters, and Hayley Bush, their setter, has too many options. But against Dayton she really only had 5th year outside hitter, Caitlyn Newton and senior right side hitter, Grace Cleveland. They had 19 and 17 kills respectively. After Newton, the other outside position was like a revolving door with three players trying to impact the match. In the end, none of the three players really produced enough kills to talk about.

The scores for the sets give Purdue fans some encouragement; 25-27, 19-25, 25-15, 25-6, 15-5. It seems as though they flipped on the heat switch and just decided to win the 4th and 5th sets. The next question is, why didn’t they flip it sooner? I can still hear some of my coaches saying to us in practice, “there isn’t a switch in a match that you can turn on the good play, you have to practice hard to play hard”. I am sure Purdue practices hard but it does seem that they do have a switch to flip. I will contact my college coaches immediately to let them know, there is a switch!!

Pitt is set to host Kansas, BYU and Purdue next.

Bottom Right:

Nebraska met Florida State in the second round. Lauren Stivrins had 11 kills and hit .429 and added 4 blocks to let her presence known. Ally Batenhorst played one of her best matches of the season. She had confidence and swung aggressively. She had 11 kills and hit .333. Her kills were varied and kept the Seminoles off balance. Fellow freshman Lindsay Krause was also pivotal, both in offense and defense. She blocked four times and terminated eight times. Krause and Batenhorst seem to have solidified their starting positions, for the time being.

Kentucky and Illinois met in the second round. Illinois served tough, flat and floating balls at the KU serve receive pattern. They aced them, they forced bad passes and they made KU change their passing pattern which then disrupted their offense. Illinois played great defense. The volleyball looked like a ping pong ball at times as it ricocheted off players and somehow went back over the net. The defense gave the Illini offense another chance; it also gave Kentucky another chance to make an error. And they made so many. 18 hitting errors, 4 service errors and 3 serve receive errors.

Illinois and Nebraska play in Texas next. Nebraska won both meetings this season in straight sets. There is another thing my coaches used to tell me, “it is hard to beat a good team three times”. Illinois is also playing with confidence and Coach Cook said he saw the Illini doing things they didn’t do earlier in the season.

Hawaii and Mississippi State looked simple enough on the surface, Hawaii for the win right? Both teams travel a long way for a match in Seattle, WA. Mississippi State surprised volleyball historians with a strong performance against the traditionally strong Hawaii.

Hawaii met #15 Washington in the second round and lost in straight sets; 25-16, 25-14, 25-13. This was not a competitive match.

Rice made quick work of the San Diego Toreros beating them in three sets (25-20, 25-19, 25-20).

Rice met up with Texas in the second round. I couldn’t watch this one as it was only on the Longhorn Network but the score indicated a good match (25-21, 25-23, 25-19).

Texas is set to host Washington, Nebraska and Illinois starting December 9th.

Bottom left:

I will call this the corner of unseeded great teams. Of course there are seeded great teams too; Baylor, Minnesota, UCLA and Wisconsin. But the sneaky unseeded “power” teams are Stanford and UCF.

I think this corner is VERY competitive with the two of the best Big Ten teams (WI and MN beat NU even though NU ended second in the Big Ten), the best PAC 12 team (UCLA) and the second best Big 12 team (Baylor). That is a stacked deck if you ask me. Poker players?

Minnesota and Stanford played in September, and the Gophers came out on top in four sets. I thought this rematch would be very competitive and it was not. Stanford never punched back. I think they tried but digging deep and really pushing to the next level is a different kind of trying.

Baylor looked very strong in these first two rounds. They were pushed a little but found another level to get the win. The first challenge was against A&M Corpus Christi in set 3. The Bears had made a good deal of errors this set but won it 26-24. Then against Washington State in set 1, the Cougars were out playing them on defense. Baylor picked it up again and won that set 27-25.

UCLA won in a long five set match with UCF. Mac May, UCLA’s fifth year outside hitter, picked up her entire team and put them on her back. She had 62 swings and 25 kills. UCF was more balanced and I thought they had this match won, but in the end it wasn’t enough and UCLA moves on to face Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is set to host UCLA, Minnesota and Baylor.

The times for the regional match ups (sweet sixteen) are set. You can see them all on the interactive bracket.

#10 Nebraska (23-7) and Big Ten peer Illinois (22-11) will meet on Thursday, Dec. 9 at 8:30 p.m. CT, and the match will be televised on ESPNU from Gregory Gym in Austin, Texas.