Two days before the first serve launched to kick off the 2013 NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament, Volleyball magazine editorial assistant Megan Kaplon joined three contributors, Lee Feinswog, Jack Hamann and Deb Stadick, in an online chat to talk match-ups, predictions, and more.
Megan, who played at Emerson College and continues to compete in the gym and on the beach, oversees all the magazine’s content. Lee lives in Baton Rouge and is the only sportswriter in America who runs a volleyball club for girls, Volleyball Baton Rouge. A Seattle-based journalist, documentary film maker, and blogger, Jack is the mastermind behind the film Court & Spark that will premiere at the AVCA Convention later this month. And Deb played at Iowa State and is now the program director for USAV’s Badger Region.
All four follow the women’s college game closely and care about issues concerning it and the tournament.
Lee Feinswog: Let's start with this: The Pac-12 got nine teams in the tournament but one of them isn't UCLA, which is hard to imagine. Thoughts?
Deb Stadick: Not that hard to imagine after seeing their record and performance the second half of conference play. They just didn't come to play this year. At this point, I am less shocked they didn't get in and am more curious about how they'll come out next season.
Megan Kaplon: I agree with Deb. They didn't play NCAA tournament quality ball this year. I would have been much more surprised if they had made the tournament actually.
Jack Hamann: No matter what the RPI, a 15-15 ninth place team should not be in the tournament, pedigree or no. I'll bet [UCLA head coach] Mike Sealy agrees.
LF: Just as shocking on the other side of things was the SEC got eight teams in and Auburn is complaining that it didn't. That early season win over Nebraska only went so far.
DS: I think big wins are great, but the reality is that unless big wins are a norm, they can easily be looked at as flukes. I think that's probably the case with Auburn. They showed up big early on but didn't pick up any other jaw-dropping wins to prove they had "arrived."
JH: Too many SEC teams this season. Would rather have seen a team like Saint Mary's in there...
DS: Saint Mary's I would have loved to see in the mix.
MK: Definitely don't think one high-profile win means you should make the tournament. Especially not with Florida, Mizzou, Kentucky ahead of you [in the SEC].
DS: For sure. So how do we think Missouri's play impacted that whole conference? Correlation between their breakout season and number of teams in the tourney?
MK: I love the Missouri story and want them to do well in this tournament to prolong it. It definitely lends a little bit more weight to the SEC as a conference. No longer just the Florida show.
LF: Missouri has raised the bar in a lot of ways in the league. Its football team plays Auburn in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday. But in answer to the question, truly it raised the RPI for everyone. And don't forget Missouri swept Florida.
DS: Missouri is just playing great volleyball. So hard to string runs together against them as they are crazy good inside and out. Fun to watch.
JH: Mizzou had a very uninspired non-conference schedule: South Dakota, Arkansas State, Houston Baptist, etc. Hard to give the entire SEC extra credit for that.
MK: Valid point, Jack. Looking forward to seeing how they match up against a Big Ten power in round two [if Missouri beats IUPUI and Purdue beats Central Arkansas].
DS: True. But undefeated is undefeated. That takes a special mindset, drive, and consistency that is admirable and has pushed the conference as a whole. But valid point regardless.
JH: Not so sure Mizzou would meet Purdue in the second round. Purdue has to get by a terrific Central Arkansas team.
LF: Let's stick with the SEC for a bit. You could argue it has four freshman as good or better than anyone in the country. Carly Kan from Missouri is ridiculous as a 5’9” outside hitter and most everyone agreed that in another year Briana Holman from LSU would have been freshman of the year. That bodes well for the league, which is really young overall. Any great freshmen around the country we should look for this week?
DS: For great freshman I think we hop to the Big Ten. The Rolfzen twins [at Nebraska] have been incredible. I wasn't expecting their poise and consistency. They've carried a lot of weight on a strong Nebraska squad.
MK: Ebony Nwanebu from USC is absolutely dominant on the right side
DS: I really like Nwanebu as well. Very physical player and still has lots of upside.
JH: Best freshman I saw all season was Washington State's Kyra Holt, but Cougars aren't in the tournament. Nwanebu had two so-so matches in USC's dual losses to Washington.
MK: Never got to see Kan of Mizzou play but would love to, keep hearing amazing things about her.
LF: I did when they came to LSU. She was mind-blowing. Tooled the block like nothing I’d ever seen. But let me rant about travel. The NCAA always talks about keeping teams near home and there are some great in-state matches going to occur this weekend. But Yale, New Hampshire, and Hampton of Virginia all got sent out west to be first-round carnage. And Jack, this one's for you, LSU and Alabama State are at Washington.
MK: I've never followed the NCAA's policies on travel, but I'm all for cross-country trips in the tournament. When else will Alabama State have an opportunity to play Washington? Or Yale to play Utah? Isn't that what the tournament is all about?
JH: To me, it shows women's volleyball has arrived. Why shouldn't all 64 teams be ranked, then let the chips fall as they might. Hawai’i and Washington had several years when they were top 10 teams but had to travel to meet the old NCAA "keep 'em close" policies.
LF: I agree with both of you, but it just seems that those teams could have been kept closer to home. There's no reason for 16th and 15th seeds to go 2,000-plus miles for a quick dispatch.
MK: But if you make exceptions for those low seeds then you sacrifice the integrity of the whole tournament. I agree with Jack. I wish they would show us the seeds all the way out and let the teams go wherever that leads them.
JH: Problem is, there are always at least five host-worthy teams on the West Coast [including Hawaii], and there aren't another 15 (5x3) teams west of the Mississippi to fill those slots.
DS: I think that the host team thing is all just hard to wrap your head around. Seeding top to bottom makes a lot of sense to me. We have the talent, and more importantly I think, the knowledge to actually stack these teams up and give them a ranking. I think traveling cross-country is a great chance for teams, but it needs to be consistent across the board.
LF: OK, reset. My favorite athlete in the tournament is Liz Brenner of Oregon. She is the coolest kid and exactly who and what the NCAA should promote in its commercials instead of "Still think we're a bunch of dumb jocks?" Who do you guys keep an eye on or root for.
DS: Brenner is a great player to watch. I am curious: how do we think Oregon will do this post-season? It is sort of when they made their move last time around, but they've had a shaky season.
JH: We’ve seen Brenner a lot ... an exceptional player. The heart and soul of Oregon last season was not setter Lauren Plum, but Katherine Fisher and Haley Jacob. They were the real engines in the Ducks' amazing run.
MK: I love to root for Haley Eckerman (although she definitely doesn't need my cheers to excel) and Chloe Mann. Two great stories and very passionate hard-working young women.
DS: I really like Washington. They've been my team all year. I think they have just a unique combination of players. They have a roster full of players that aren't afraid to take big swings. That's a valuable thing to have come tournament time. Wisconsin is back in it for the first time since 2007. I think it'll be interesting to see how they do.
JH: USC has to love the chance to play Washington at Galen Center, to test the old adage that it's tough to beat a good team three times in one season.
DS: That could be a crazy match. I am crossing my fingers it comes about.
MK: Definitely looking forward to that match. Could easily have been the championship match if the bracket had worked out another way.
JH: I've been voting Penn State number one most of the season. They dominated a big-time conference, something Texas can't really say.
DS: Agreed. I am going to go out on a limb and say Texas may get upset by Nebraska should both advance to that point. That's my exact logic for voting against Texas if they face Nebraska or Penn State. They don't have that grind of a conference schedule.
LF: Sticking with this. I will say here and now that the top four seeds will not be in Seattle. I think the tournament could well look like last year's, upsets from the start and two upstarts in the final four like Oregon and Michigan last year. Who ya got?
DS: I think we may see Florida. They have the athleticism and efficiency to make a run.
MK: Florida is definitely in the mix for me too.
DS: Also think Nebraska could end up in the finals if they can get by Texas.
MK: Stanford is also on my list.
DS: Yes. Stanford, if they are passing well, could be a serious threat. Their middle game is almost impossible to slow down.
LF: I saw Florida the Nike Big 4 and at LSU. When they hit on all cylinders they're fabulous. When they don't, they look very beatable.
JH: That crazy Illinois team has played every big team and is in the easiest regional.
LF: Illinois, of course, was in the final two years ago against UCLA. Interesting.
DS: Yes. I obviously am rooting for them! They are also peaking at the right time. They've started settling into roles and responsibilities, and when they are playing smart volleyball and good defense, they are tough to slow down. Birks is as good an outside for her size as any I've seen.
LF: This would be a good time to point out that Katie Stadick, a freshman middle blocker for Illinois, is Deb’s sister!
MK: Would love to see Illinois do well. Loved their run two years ago and want a repeat!
DS: I just love a Midwest team doing work. I love California, but in the nature of growing the game, it never hurts to have this neck of the woods making waves.
MK: Agreed. Although, as an Ohioan, I am sad at Ohio State's disappointing year after a great start.
JH: But the University of Ohio has had a great year, and I think they can beat Michigan State.
MK: Yes OU has done very well all season, but I'm just not sure they play the level of competition to allow them to knock off Michigan State who has been playing Big Ten teams this whole time.
LF: Then how about Missouri? What a great story if they make it.
DS: Right. Missouri, I think, everyone would love to see win it all. Michigan State is not impressive to me right now. I think they rely too much on too few players. It's hard to make a deep run with that kind of pressure.
JH: [The Michigan State] Spartans have lost 10 of their last 14, saved by matches against the likes of Iowa and Indiana.
DS: Yeah, we don't count Iowa and Indiana.
LF: Colorado State was unbeaten until its second-to-last match. San Diego was rocking early. Wichita State is always early-rounds dangerous.
DS: Wichita State and Kansas will be a great match.
JH: Shockers will shock the Jayhawks
LF: If I had to pick a team no one is expecting to screw up the bracket, I'd take North Carolina.
DS: I have them picked too!
MK: Yep, I'm for North Carolina, too. Although Wisconsin will be tough. San Diego is absolutely on my radar still. I think they have a chance to knock off Nebraska.
DS: I think [UNC] is way better and most people forgot about them. But they started the season on a 15-match winning streak. San Diego has surprised me all season. I think they are a scary team to face in the first rounds. Also, how about Utah? Probably going to give Penn State a bigger challenge in the second round than the Nittany Lions have had in years past.
JH: Utah is good at home, but doesn't pass well on the road.
MK: I don’t think [Utah] will be able to do much to slow down Penn State, though.
DS: Probably not. Penn State is brutal. But gosh, wouldn't it be awesome if they did.
MK: It would be. I have a love/hate relationship with Penn State. So fun to watch, but love to see them get upset.
LF: Jack, you've seen Washington all year. The real deal?
JH: Washington may be the best serving team in the nation, so many opponents can never get into system. Teams that have had success against Washington force Krista Vansant to do all the work. When Vansant rises to the occasion, the Huskies win anyway.
DS: Love Washington. Speaking of strong serving teams, who else gets it done on behind the endline? I love Minnesota for serving.
MK: [Penn State’s] Micha Hancock. Could win a game by herself from behind the service line.
DS: I tend to hate jump servers for the error-factor, but I would let her go for it all day.
(her being Hancock). [Minnesota’s Daly] Santana has such a heavy arm. Inconsistent though. Hancock is a rockstar.
MK: Samantha Bricio [of USC] is really tough, too.
JH: Washington's Melanie Wade, a 6’4” sophomore middle, served 10 in a row against USC at Galen Center— without UW's outstanding libero, Jenna Orlandini, on the court. Like most of Washington's players, she serves a deadly, flat floater to the deep corners. Setters are forced to race around for the second ball, and Washington's blockers can camp on the pins.
DS: Thus my obsession with deep float serves. Good observation I really think Washington could make a run for it if everything falls into place.
MK: Definitely am for having the home team in the finals. Makes for the best atmosphere
DS: Agreed. It would be a blast.
LF: OK, Jack, here's your trivia for your regional in Seattle. In LSU (which plays Michigan) and Alabama State (which plays Washington) you have two of the greatest players ever from Baton Rouge, behind only Danielle Scott. Fran Flory, the LSU coach, grew up here and played on Texas' 1981 team that won the last AIAW national championship. And Alabama State's coach is Penny Lucas, another BR legend who played on our national team and is the former longtime coach at Air Force.
JH: I LOVE Baton Rouge. Had one of my best Thanksgiving feasts there one year.
LF: Two more subjects before we wrap up. Jack, you have a documentary coming out at the final four. Tell us about it.
JH: Court & Spark follows Seattle Olympian Courtney Thompson (one of two setters in London) on a journey through her professional life with a Polish team and a summer with the U.S. National Team. If you don't know Courtney, you'll meet an extraordinarily eloquent athlete, who isn't afraid to tackle a host of issues on the minds of most every volleyball player, coach, and parent. We hope it is a conversation starter. It will premiere at the final four but is primarily meant for DVD sales to benefit youth volleyball.
MK: Courtney is a great subject to tell a larger story about volleyball. Loved seeing the life of an overseas pro since we don’t have that kind of competition in this country and many people don't understand what that entails.
LF: Premiere details?
JH: It will screen twice during the AVCA convention (afternoons on Friday and Saturday) and again at an invite-only gala in a Key Arena VIP suite. I should also mention that several other USA players have significant parts, as do Karch Kiraly, Hugh McCutcheon, and others.
LF: OK, last question: Pick a winner. One team.
MK: Home team. I’m going Washington.
DS: Penn State. They are just too good (but I'll still be rooting against them).
JH: I'll wear my journalist hat, and say Penn State.
LF: Me, too. Russ Rose at the podium on the night of Dec. 21, cracking sarcastic jokes about winning another. See you guys in Seattle. Looking forward to strolling my fave American city, seeing great volleyball, watching the documentary, and eating copious amounts of salmon.