As the Big Ten is the deepest volleyball conference in the nation, it always has a number of teams in the weekly AVCA poll. Through two weekends of conference play, the depth is apparent in the number of close sets and five-set matches that have been played. But while parity brings upsets, the higher-ranked teams have been relatively unscathed so far.
With the exception of then-No. 4 Penn State beating then-No. 3 Nebraska – can it be called an upset when a perennial power wins at home? – the team expected to win has come out victorious in virtually every match. That does not mean that there have not been surprises through four matches for each team, especially this past weekend.
|Big Ten Standings (through Oct. 2)|
While it was not shocking that top ranked Penn State came out with two victories, the dominance by the Nittany Lions was. Penn State hit a combined .385 in matches against Wisconsin and Minnesota and in each match had one set where they held their opponents to single digit scoring. Saturday’s effort was the most jarring, as the Gophers came in with a balanced attack touting the best hitting percentage in the nation.
Boilers in five
Purdue is off to a 4-0 to start in Big Ten play for the first time since 1990 and three of those four wins have come by way of five set triumphs. Add to it that the Boilermakers have not lost a five set affair in their last 11 chances and you have a streak that defies volleyball logic.
Prior to last Saturday’s win against Illinois, head coach Dave Shondell said he hasn’t had any magic words for his team going into decisive 15-point sets, but he did look back on why other teams in his tenure have struggled in matches that went the distance.
Shondell reflected on a 2009 season where the Boilermakers dropped seven straight five setters in Big Ten conference play before finally beating Wisconsin in five to end the year. The Boiler head coach said inexperience kept a talented group from capitalizing on opportunities in those matches and held Purdue out of the NCAA Tournament for the only time in the past eight seasons.
The experience gained from playing those matches would pay off in the years that followed, as the Boiler freshman class that lost seven of eight five setters would reverse the trend over the course of their careers, going 12-3 since.
Underclassman becoming veterans aided the reversal but so did the emergence of Ariel Turner as the Boilermakers’ decisive moment player. The 2011 Big Ten Player of the Year has shown throughout her career that she can produce at key moments even when her team is feeding her nearly every ball, including during the fifth set.
In Purdue’s three Big Ten victories that have gone five this year, Turner has averaged 3.66 kills in the final set to account for over a fifth of the team’s scoring. Turner would chip in five of her match-high 25 kills in the last set against the Illini Saturday night, including the final three points to seal the win.
There may not be a specific script Shondell uses to get his team ready for the final set but Saturday he knew something needed to alter his team’s play after being brutalized by the Illini in set four.
Shondell had the entire team leave the bench area and gather in a corner of Holloway Gymnasium to regroup before coming out for set five. When the team returned, they were greeted by an ovation from the ‘Boiler Box’ that Shondell described as “a roar that I’d never heard at Belin Court.” Purdue could use and will likely get a similar roar were they to face another fifth set against Nebraska this Friday night.
Here are the matches airing live on BTN/BTN2GO this week:
Michigan at No. 10 Minnesota
Wed., Oct. 3 at 8 p.m. ET
The Gophers came into last weekend leading the nation in hitting percentage, a stat that was far from apparent against the Nittany Lions Saturday night. Minnesota hit .098 with 20 attack errors in three sets and looked nothing like the team that was hitting .341 through five weeks. Wednesday will be a good indication of what kind of character players Hugh McCutcheon has with how they respond to a deflating loss to the nation’s top ranked team.
A young Michigan team will need another defensive effort like they got from Big Ten Freshman of the Week Tiffany Morales last weekend to beat Minnesota. Morales averaged nearly seven digs per set against Iowa and Nebraska and against a bevy of Gopher attackers, she may need to reach those numbers again for the Wolverines to get a road win.
No. 4 Nebraska at No. 12 Purdue
Fri., Oct. 5 at 8 p.m. ET
The Boilermakers pulled off a shocker last year when they swept the Huskers at Holloway Gymnasium in front of a record crowd. Nebraska should expect another electric atmosphere and will need to have a better blocking night then last November when they were out-blocked 9-1. Purdue showed good balance offensively against the Illini and must have a similar effort against one of the conference’s best defensive teams.
No. 25 Michigan State at Wisconsin
Fri., Oct. 5 at 8 p.m. ET (Live on BTN2GO, tape-delayed to 11 p.m. ET)
Michigan State split their first four Big Ten matches beating unranked opponents while losing to teams in the Top 25. This weekend plays out the same, as the Spartans will look to beat Wisconsin before facing 10th ranked Minnesota. Cathy George’s team has shown they have a variety of weapons but need to cut down on the errors that hurt them against Nebraska and Purdue to win on the road this weekend.
Badger head coach Pete Waite said the team suffered a hangover following the loss to Penn State Friday and came out with a slow start against Ohio State. Wisconsin cannot afford to fall behind the Spartans and will need to do a better job receiving the serve of Lauren Wicinski than they did against Micha Hancock.
|Mike Wolf is a BTN announcer and calls Big Ten volleyball matches on the Big Ten Network. His Volleyball Reports will appear on BTN.com every Tuesday for the rest of the Big Ten volleyball season. You can also follow our extended volleyball coverage on Twitter with @BTNvolleyball.|