This is the first in a two-part series, Scouting Report, where we break down an important match happening on any particular day. Tonight’s match between the visiting Bruins of #20 UCLA and #3 Stanford is important for multiple reasons; none of which is more important than Stanford hopefully gaining the #1 overall seed, or at least a reasonably easy opening weekend when they host. UCLA needs another important road victory to continue their rise up the RPI rankings in time to hopefully host on opening weekend in December.
- #20 UCLA (16-9, 9-7 Pac 12) at #3 Stanford (23-3, 16-1 Pac 12)
- Stanford, California
- 8PM Pacific Time/11PM Eastern Time
- Pac-12 Network
- Full TV and streaming schedule
We’re winding down to that all-important portion of the schedule. Teams start earning their automatic bids to the NCAA tournament, senior nights commemorate the accomplishments of hard-working student-athletes, and teams are separated into groups of haves and have-nots. We’ve even seen a few coach resignations already, which is a more negative sign that “it’s that time of year”.
I could sit here and easily type that this match means nothing, Stanford got its Pac 12 Championship last night in their annihilation of USC, and that their loss to Washington last week all but clinched that Penn State would be the #1 overall seed come Selection Sunday.
Try telling that to anyone at Stanford. Or anyone at USC after their blowout loss last night. It’s scary that a loss to Washington in Seattle was the wake-up call it needed to right the ship, beat Washington State in Pullman, and have three days to prep for second-place USC—-a team they struggled to put away on October 15 in Los Angeles. And the Cardinal did just fine, thankyouverymuch.
UCLA certainly isn’t taking this match-up lightly, either. A win tonight would easily cancel out their hard-fought loss to Utah last week, and a nice run against Cal, Oregon State, and USC to wrap-up the season would be perfect timing for the Bruins. There is a good possibility that UCLA will not host the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament, currently sitting with an RPI of 24, and would need a win over Stanford and some help along the way to do so.
But it starts tonight, and here’s what each team brings:
UCLA’S KEYS TO VICTORY
- Defense first
Do not let the record fool you. UCLA might have troubles putting balls away (5th in the Pac 12 in kills per set) or blocking attackers (9th in the Pac 12 in blocks per set), but they currently lead the Pac 12, one of the most physical volleyball conferences ever, in digs per set. Junior libero Zana Muno is second in the Pac 12 and currently boast three other players (Sarah Sponcil, Savvy Simo and Reily Buechler) that average over 2.5 digs per set. You can’t fake those numbers this late in the season. Bottom line: the longer UCLA stays in a rally, the more it favors them.
- Senior leadership
It’s been there all season; Sarah Sponcil and Reily Buechler have led both physically and vocally all season. Their younger cast of characters needed direction, and those two stepped up. Statistically, Buechler will have swung at over 1,000 balls this season by the time the Stanford match is over. With the defense listed above, Sponcil can run whatever she wants, and does it to the tune of 11 assists per set. The problem is this—-who will be there besides Buechler and Sponcil? The upper-midwest freshmen, Jenny Mosser (Minnesota) and Mac May (Iowa) have been pleasant surprises in Michael Sealy’s offense, and those freshmen might need to be more than freshmen tonight. Perhaps those two are part of the “new leadership”?
STANFORD’S KEY TO VICTORY
- Win quickly
If there was ever a match that defined who Stanford is as a team, it’s last night’s match against #11 USC. Stanford had as many service errors as they did hitting errors. Five. They are a first-ball-kill team, and rarely does this team allow rallies to continue. If they do, they’ll block you into submission. 15 blocks last night must have felt like hitting in a phone booth. Yes, they have Miss Plummer. This Cardinal team, however, is more than just one player. 6’8″ opposite Merete Lutz has come on strong at the end of this season, 6’6″ middle blocker Audriana Fitzmorris is tops in the Pac 12 in blocking and in the top 10 nationally, and 6’1″ Jenna Gray leads the Pac 12 and is fourth in the nation in assists per set. Opponents need to pick their poison, and pick it quickly. USC’s 80 minutes last night weren’t enough, for sure.
- No letdown
Stanford would have access to all the excuses in the world if it lost tonight. Pac 12 Championship clinched, top 4 seed almost guaranteed, blah blah blah. I doubt coach Kevin Hambly would allow his team to relax following such a quick beatdown last night. But coach Hambly isn’t playing, the girls are. Continue learning from what Washington exposed of you last week, and you’re primed for a run in the NCAA tournament.
SO NOW WHAT?
Now is the time when I defer and say that I don’t predict anything. Not once this season have I written a Scouting Report that has picked a winner. UCLA is fighting for a strong end-of-season run, and a win at Stanford would help the resume. Stanford might have a letdown considering the Cardinal won their first Pac 12 title since 2014.
However, I watched last night’s match. I would be absolutely shocked if Stanford didn’t do the same to UCLA tonight what it did to USC last night.