→ Advanced Rate Statistics for NCAA Women’s Volleyball
Or Why Per Set Statistics are Bullsh*t
Question 1: How many points is a set in NCAA Division 1 Volleyball?
If you said twenty-five, you are wrong. If you said twenty-five except in a fifth set when it is only fifteen, you are wrong. If you said it depends, then congratulations you have won the game.
Question 2: Name each team that corresponds to the primary or secondary color referenced in the following table.
Hint: These figures are the average points per set for each Big Ten team last season.
Points Per Set
Answers are at the bottom.
This presents a significant issue when it comes to doing rate statistics. A four kill per set player at 41.12 points per set would average more than 4.3 kps if they had the same kill rate and played for the last team in the table averaging 44.29 points per set. A quick look at the current KPS table on NCAA Stats says that’s the difference between being 57th and 34th. A significant difference. Additionally, because the gap will widen linearly as the initial numbers grow, the result is that the players at the very top of the chart can be misrepresented to the highest degree. That’s simply unacceptable when trying to use a statistic to formulate any significant statistical argument.
And that’s not even the worst example I could come up with.
Per Set statistics are meaningless without additional context. The context that a person would need to supply to make those statistics worthwhile is tedious and time consuming to track and calculate. This results in volleyball fans and the media continually relying on and relaying statistics that in reality mean very little.
It needs to change, and that’s the purpose of this article and a couple of pages that I’ve now added to the site. While per set statistics are exceptionally flawed, points are not. In fact, points applied in the right way can be exceptionally accurate when calculating a rate statistic.
Here are the top ten players on the current(9/15/2018) stats.ncaa.org KPS leaders table.
Here is the same list, but instead of per set, the rates are per point in each team’s games.
There are differences and there can be extreme differences. In fact, with many of the common statistics volleyball fans and the media use, using points is inherently flawed. When measuring kill rates for players, total points in a match has an inherent flaw. Specifically, during any match there will inevitably be points wher a player who plays for all rotations will still have no chance to get a kill, namely aces and service errors.
AN: There are caveats beyond this as well. Not every player plays six rotations and there are points beyond aces and service errors during which a player would also by definition not have a chance to get a kill. Rotational errors are the specific issue in this case because I did not have the foresight to track them efficiently in my database and will need to do some significant redesign before I can efficiently account for those points.
Beyond using total points for a rate, simple subtraction can be used measure the rate at which a player gets a kill for every point in play.
This is the table for the statistic named Kills per Point-In-Play. Original name, I know.
It’s not even the same list as the original per point list. While this approach is not currently perfect, it’s still much better than using per set because the denominator of the statistic being calculated means the same thing across all players. The context per point statistics provide is important because without it volleyball statistics are very nearly meaningless. An instance of “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” if you will. Making even incremental progress toward better understanding and knowledge is important.
Measuring virtually every statistic by points played improves it drastically, but Aces and Service Errors per set make the least sense as a statistic. It is entirely possible to play a set in which a primary server will not serve during the set. In fact, in fifth sets, it actually isn”t all that rare. Luckily, NCAA Play-By-Play pages happen to track exactly who serves each point, a fortunate thing in this instance because those pages can be used to get per serve rates for aces, service errors, and service points.
AN: This(A primary server not getting the opportunity to serve.) actually happened to Lauren Stivrins in Set 3 of the Nebraska vs Missouri State less than three hours after I saved my latest draft of this article. Yeah, that happened.
These statistics and more have been made available on each team page as well as Division and Conference leaders. The leaders are available using the “View Complete Advanced Statistics Leaders” link on each division or conference page.
And that friends, is why per set statistics are bullsh*t.
Top to Bottom: Rutgers, Penn State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Northwestern, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Purdue, Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan
→ VERT Challenge Photo Gallery
→ My VolleyTalk Top 25 Vote for 08-27-2018
We have data now, but we have no context. That makes a lot of organizing extremely difficult at best and a fool’s errand at worst. So, I’ve given a lot of thought to some of these teams but very little to others. Alas, sometimes you just have to throw things at the board and see what sticks.
I don’t have much today. There are simply no connections between the pods in our directional graph. Some teams did stuff that I thought probably deserved some movement and got moved. Some teams did very little to prove or disprove my initial assumptions and stayed put. I was in Lincoln at VERT(Longer article to come.) and didn’t see much beyond the four teams that were there. I spent most of the rest of the weekend traveling to and from Lincoln. The official post on VolleyTalk courtesy of user vbprisoner can be found here. The AVCA’s vastly inferior poll can be found here.
Nebraska’s Place in the Fray
Tough to tell right now. The first match for Big Red was pretty different than the clean volleyball we’ve come to expect from the Huskers. However, with all the new players and the losses sustained by graduation and transfers, it wasn’t a totally unexpected start. Statistically, it wasn’t even that different from Nebraska’s appearance in the VERT Challenge in 2017. Obviously, I’m not expecting this team to win a National Championship. That is an unfair expectation at any time, and doubly unfair when half of the team is new to the program. It does; however, illustrate the incredible transition a team can make from opening day to tournament time.
That’s why they play the games. That’s why we watch the games.
→ Omaha Challenge Review and Husker Weekend Preview
The Omaha challenge was last week and I was there for all but one game. Nebraska, Kansas State, Northern Iowa all went 2-1 in the competition while the host UNO went 0-3. However, that’s getting ahead of myself. Let’s first start off with the games.
Game 1. Kansas State and Omaha. The Wildcats have fallen off a bit from their typical results. Usually, near Top 25 status, ViPR started off the week rating the Wildcats around the sixty mark. Omaha started off just beyond 210th. Neither team was particularly clean during the match, but Kansas State’s superior talent did show throughout. Omaha, for their part, played above their predicted level and won the second set handily. Setter Sydney O’Shaughnessy was the star for the Mavericks and did her part taking the second spot in the WPA Top Performers and contributing thirty-four assists and twenty digs. Bryna Vogel of KSU took Top Performer awards in the top spot by terminating on thirteen of twenty-eight swings with only two errors. She also added sixteen digs and two blocks.
Omaha may have lost the game, but they were competitive throughout the game and as it would turn out later, the weekend.
Game 2. After a hotly contested first set, Nebraska cruised through the rest of the match and completed a comfortable 3-0 sweep of KSU. Nebraska swept the Top Performers list as well with Kelly Hunter, Annika Albrecht, and Kenzie Maloney taking the honors. Kelly Hunter’s thirty-seven assists, eleven digs, three kills, three blocks, and a service ace were enough for top honors. Annika added an ace, two blocks, six kills, and fifteen digs. Kenzie Maloney continued a streak of strong performances from her Libero position with sixteen digs.
Both Husker middles had a strong day with Briana Holman acquiring ten kills on eighteen swings with one error and Lauren Stivrins terminating ten times on fourteen swings with three errors.
Kansas State’s Kylee Zumach stands out for the Wildcats with ten kills on twenty-seven swings with only two errors. She added an ace and two blocks for a solid day all-around.
Game 3. The last match on Friday between Omaha and Northern Iowa was almost a repeat of Omaha’s previous match with Kansas State. Both games ended in 3-1 losses for the Mavericks, but that one was a comfortable second set win by Omaha. In this case, Omaha took the second set 25-19.
Bri Weber takes the Top Performer crown in this game despite having a bit of a rough day hitting. Weber had fourteen kills on forty-one swings with eight errors but also acquired a team-high twenty-three digs and an ace. Bri wasn’t the only hitter to struggle as both teams found terminating to be tough sledding. Omaha hit .105 for the match and Northern Iowa managed only .160 in what was a decidedly defensive struggle.
Claire Mountjoy’s match-high twenty-eight digs propelled her into Third Place on the Top Performers list.
Game 4. Northern Iowa’s upset of tenth ranked Nebraska was the only game of the weekend I did not see but don’t worry I was watching a game that was equally frustrating for Husker fans if not more so. Watching the football team spot NIU two touchdowns and fail to recover was pain enough.
Statistically, the game was exceptionally close. The teams scored the exact same amount of points and a quick back-of-the-napkin calculation tells me that UNI edged out Nebraska by 0.017 in ViPR Point Efficiency. A razor-thin margin in statistics, but due to Nebraska dominance in the third set, not so close in actual win probability added.
Bri Weber once again stands out for Northern Iowa with fifteen kills and six errors on forty-five swings. Adding nine digs, four assists, three aces, and a block completed a very good day for Weber and led UNI. The three aces for UNI were not the only ones on the score sheet for the Panthers as Taylor Hedges added another three and one apiece from Heather Hook and Piper Thomas. Nebraska’s struggles in serve-receive were not alone as it appears that they struggled to pass and dig. Despite having one more dig and the same number of kills, Nebraska took five fewer swings than Nothern Iowa which suggest some control issues on the back side of Nebraska’s court. A team that had graded out as the best defensive team in the country by ViPR’s viewing coming into the weekend, Nebraska’s struggles on the back end of this match must be concerning to those hoping for a deep tournament run.
Game 5. Kansas State would top UNI in what was a game of runs back and forth. Those runs led to a fairly high scoring affair by WPA standards as Bryna Vogel led the way. Vogel accumulated fifteen kills on thirty-six swings and committed only three errors. To that, she added twenty-three digs, six blocks, and an ace. Bri Weber once again led the way for Northen Iowa with twenty-two kills on sixty-two swings and eight errors. Weber completed her double-double with seventeen digs.
Both teams struggled to stop long runs from their opponents during this match and momentum shifted quickly and completely. After the first four tumultuous sets, the fifth set was a breather for Kansas State when they took control early and never let go of it. Their five-set victory completed the cycle between Nebraska, UNI, and Kansas State. Nebraska beat Kansas State on Friday afternoon and lost to Northern Iowa on Saturday afternoon. Northern Iowa beat Nebraska on Saturday afternoon and lost to Kansas State on Saturday night. And finally, Kansas State lost to Nebraska on Friday afternoon and beat Northern Iowa on Saturday night.
Game 6. Nebraska concluded the Omaha Challenge by sweeping Omaha. After a hotly contested first set where Omaha had the chance to take the set, Nebraska cruised to comfortable wins in sets two and three.
Annika Albrecht takes top honors for the match with fifteen kills on thirty-two sings with three errors. Sydney O’Shaughnessy once again led the way for Omaha with twenty-three assists and nine digs.
Unfortunately, Nebraska’s story of the match was Briana Holman. The senior middle blocker went down with an ankle injury in the third set and was in obvious pain as she left the court. According to Coach Cook during his weekly press conference, Nebraska will be playing it carefully on just when Briana will be back. It appears to be an ankle sprain and Briana could be back at any time, but the staff will undoubtedly be cautious with the senior going forward.
Nebraska starts off the weekend continuing their storied history with Penn State on Friday at State College. The now fourteenth ranked Huskers will take on the second ranked Nitany Lions on BTN at 7 PM Central.
On Saturday, Nebraska will take on Rutgers.
→ Nebraska Conjures up a bit of Déjà vu Against the Visiting Bruins
The weekend was supposed to be a clash of conference title contenders. UCLA and Nebraska entered the weekend ranked eleventh and twelfth. The Bruins came in the the Devaney Center with the higher ranking and an undefeated record. However, I believe most would have tabbed the Huskers as the favorite. Playing in front of the sold out crowd of more than eight thousand, Nebraska would have the full-time services of Setter Kelly Hunter for the first time this season. Whatever advantages Nebraska had, they took them all and ran past their ranked opponents.
The first match was a surprise, I think, to everyone. Nebraska took a quick first set 25-15 and never looked back.
Annika Albrecht’s attacking had been somewhat suspect, but on this night she was nearly flawless. Scoring twelve kills on twenty-five attempts with only two errors completed a performance that every Husker fan was excited to see. In the back row, Albrecht was no less spectacular. Tying the team lead with fifteen digs, Annika rightfully deserves first mention and hearty congratulations for a job well done.
Mikaela Foecke continued her strong year with a team thirteen kills and adding another thirteen digs. Foecke completed her third double-double of the year and has obviously proven her ability to be a six rotation player for Nebraska.
The “return” of Kelly Hunter can’t be overlooked. The Huskers’ senior setter acquired 44 assists and 10 service points on 16 serves. The only issue seemed to be Hunter’s connection with middle Briana Holman. Managing only five kills on eighteen swings with three errors off the UCLA block, Holman struggled to terminate in the opening match of the weekend.
On UCLA’s part, the night was not without a bright spot or two. Specifically, Madeleine Gates put a strong performance on the scoreboard. Gates totaled seven kills and seven blocks. Three solo blocks highlighted her scoreline and hitting 0.353 with a singular error in the box score was a silver lining in what was otherwise a fairly dark cloud.
Certainly, UCLA retired to examine the game tape and search for a way to reverse their fortunes on the second night of the weekend. It was not to be. In a bit of déjà vu the Huskers not only repeated their dominant win but improved upon it. Again starting off the night with a 25-15 win in set one, the Nebraska women led early, often, and by a wide margin.
The second night was all Nebraska. Winning in straight sets by a combined margin of 24 points, the Huskers stated their case as a team to be reckoned with when Big Ten play starts on September 22nd in State College.
There were contributions to victory all over the court in a complete performance in front of 8,000 strong. Mikaela Foecke put another strong performance together with twelve kills on thirty-three swings with four errors, eight service points, eight digs, and an assist. Annika Albrecht followed a note worthy Friday night with a Saturday that was arguably better. Albrecht terminated on eight of seventeen swings with a donut in the error column. Adding 10 service points, two aces, six digs, and an assist completed an all-around performance for the senior. Jazz Sweet continued a strong freshmen campaign with ten kills on seventeen swings with one error totaling 0.529 and added three blocks just for good measure. Kelly Hunter led the Huskers in digs with fourteen and added 31 assists.
Four Bruins tied at seven kills, but three of them also tied with five errors. Kyra Rogers limited herself to two errors and hit 0.357. The only UCLA player to break the three hundred mark. Sarah Sponcil added 30 assists to the 28 she put up on the first night.
The night and the weekend were all Nebraska, and John Cook commented in the post-game press conference that he would not have believed you if you had told him the results of the weekend before the two teams met on the court. I would not have either. Nebraska outscored UCLA 150-107 on the weekend which equates to 58.3% of all points played landing for Big Red.
Numbers To Know
33: UCLA scored 33 service points on 109 serves. That equates to a Nebraska side-out percentage of 69.7%.
36: The Huskers scored 36 service points on Friday alone. Serving 74 times and scoring 36 points limited UCLA to a side-out percentage of 51.4% on the opening night of the weekend.
38: Improving on their Friday performance, Nebraska scored 38 service points on 74 serves on Saturday. Siding out on only 48.6% of attempts spelled the end of any revenge UCLA might have planned.
Next Up for Nebraska
Nebraska will head down to the road to Omaha and UNO’s Baxter Arena for the Omaha Challenge next weekend. The Mavs host Kansas State and Northern Iowa in addition to the Huskers with action beginning on Thursday with the host taking on the Wildcats of Manhattan Kansas. Each team will play three matches in round robin format culminating in Big Red taking on Omaha on Saturday night.
UCLA will be back in action on Wednesday against Loyola Marymount.
→ ViPR Stat Lines of Week 2
The second week of volleyball season is in the books and this is who lit up the ViPR Win Probability Added sheet.
All-Around Division 1
Heather Hook of UNI takes the crown for the highest base score for WPA. She scored an impressive 2.2865 in UNI’s four set victory over USC. Getting the job done all over the court with 50 assists, 8 kills on 16 swings, 10 digs, 4 block assists and a service ace. I suspect a partridge in a pear tree may have been watching that performance. It was a performance which also takes the award for the highest accumulated score per set.
The highest per set attack score was produced by Green Bay’s Lydia DeWeese. Scoring eighteen true kills on thirty-one attempts with only two hitting errors in a competitive three set loss to Butler. All three sets were won with two point margins and the third set scored 56 total points.
Minnesota’s own Samantha Seliger Swenson takes home the award for the highest setter score. Samantha captured the award by slightly more than a thousandth per set, just edging Duquesne’s Dani Suiter. A comfortable three set sweep of Tennessee provided the stat line for Gopher setter.
Game Not Available
Swenson accumulated forty-nine assists in three sets during a performance game that saw Minnesota hit 0.396. More than a solid day at the office, but Swenson also added three kills, two blocks, and seven digs.
We come to the most fickle of skills the block. The domain of those later described as having a sense of the moment, or a penchant for delivering in the clutch. Lauren Frilling of Xavier takes home the prize this week. Her eight block performance scored 0.4963 on the stat sheet. Two solo blocks and four block assists in a four set loss to Miami of Ohio.
Aces and service points rule the serving score and Ivana Blazevic of Maryland Eastern Shore certainly acquired plenty of both. During Eastern Shore’s three set sweep of St. Francis Brooklyn, Blazevic served twenty-seven times and her team scored on twenty-two of them. Eight times the ball went over and did not come back. Ivana added thirty-six assists to her serving exhibition.
Game Not Available
Emily Lopes of CSU Bakersfield accumulated thirty-two digs in a four set match against Valparaiso. Averaging eight digs per set and doubling the total of the next person on the team placed Emily as the top performer in the Roadrunners victory.
That’s it for the week’s Top Performances. Congratulations to all of the standouts.
→ Husker Volleyball: First Weekend Roundup
The opening weekend proved very difficult for the Husker Volleyball team. Opening the season with two losses to Oregon and Florida won’t penalize the Huskers too much by the time the tournament comes, but if they want a premier win before conference play begins on September 22nd, it leaves few options. A two game set against Pac-12 UCLA on September 8th and 9th will be the only other opportunities to get a statement win over a traditional power. September 15th against a quality Kansas State team also remains before Nebraska opens conference play at Penn State.
Nebraska’s performance to start the season was not wholly unexpected. Losing four starters to graduation including three former All-Americans was always going to be hard to replace, but the added difficulty of Kelly Hunter being unavailable due to injury added another key loss to the current roster. Florida and Oregon came in with veteran rosters and the challenge proved a bit too much for Huskers this weekend. However, Nebraska showed flashes of the team they could be this year. It will take time and there are a number of things that the Huskers will need to clean up before tournament time, but that’s what the season is for.
Nebraska started off the year against a veteran squad that has been reinforced with new talent. The game showcased many of Nebraska’s expected weaknesses coming into the season. Serve receive and passing were both quite shaky at times. Hunter Atherton filling in for the injured Kelly Hunter struggled to connect with several of her hitters, and Nebraska’s radio team of John Baylor and Lauren Cook commented believing that her sets to Briana Holman were a bit too low. That, in particular, is not surprising when you consider that last year John Cook commented on Kelly Hunter having a similar issue connecting with Holman. Holman, despite standing only six foot one, is an extremely good jumper and this has resulted in her setting being somewhat in consistent during her Nebraska tenure. Annika Albrecht, listed at six foot even, also struggled to terminate from her outside spot. Totaling nine kills, two of which came by way of block error, and seven hitting errors on thirty-nine swings is certainly not the day she was looking for.
There were also many positives in the game which, despite being a three sets to one loss, will be highlighted going forward. Albrecht despite having a rough day offensively showed her prowess as a back row defender. Sixteen digs and a nary an error in serve receive is a day that I believe the Huskers will take moving forward. Kenzie Maloney despite several miscues also had a solid day starting her first game of the season in the Libero spot. Replacing the departed Justine Wong-Orantes was never going to be an easy task, but Maloney has been a solid back row player for Nebraska the past two years including several starts wearing the off color jersey. It certainly wasn’t the day she hoped for, but it was no disaster either. Offensively, Jazz Sweet made her college debut in strong fashion terminating on fourteen of thirty-two swings while committing only two errors. That totaled an Attack WPA of 0.5093 which ranked second on the team. Michaela Foecke despite a slow start ended up acquiring thirteen kills on forty-nine swings while committing three errors. Totaling an Attack WPA of 0.6492 showed Hunter Atherton’s penchant for sending the ball Foecke’s way on high leverage points and Foecke’s own penchant for putting the ball down when it really counts.
The second game of the year came against a Florida squad who knocked off the de facto favorite for the National Championship in Texas. A squad that was also playing in front of a larger-than-normal home crowd. Florida comes into the season with a senior laden squad that is as experienced as they are talented. Rhamat Alhassan might, as the announcers continuously pointed out, be the best combination of height and leaping ability in the college game right now. However, in this five set match which featured a continuous line of blowout sets, Six foot eight inch Rachel Kramer stole the show. Acquiring twenty kills on only twenty-eight swings with only a single shot hitting the opposing block. Kramer was simply unstoppable for a large portion of the match and hitting an astronomic 0.679 totaled for a game best Attack WPA of 0.7650. An impressive total considering the dearth of high leverage points being played in a five set match. Every set played was a blowout in volleyball terms. Large gaps between the team scores happened early and often. Comebacks were not to be found.
Nebraska despite losing their second game of the weekend had a more solid day all the way around. The Husker starters were led offensively by Michaela Foecke. The junior managed eighteen kills on fifty-nine swings with six errors. Four of her errors came by way of opposition block. An imposing block from Florida caused a number of problems for the Husker hitters. Foecke’s performance, however, earned her the top WPA score for the game at 0.9808. An unusually low score for a five set match where players often come near or beyond the 2.0 mark, but as stated before, this was not a normal five set match.
Beyond Foecke, Jazz Sweet impressed a second time with a sixteen kill performance on thirty-one swings with six errors. Three of those errors hit the Florida block. Defensively despite several impressive serving runs by Florida’s Carli Snyder, none of the Huskers’ back row players recorded a reception error and five different players recorded sixteen digs. Kenzie Maloney led the way with eighteen digs and had a better more consistent day than she did against Oregon. It did appear that there was a lack of communication on the court as other Husker players stepped in front of Maloney on several occasions and collided with her at least once. Better communication might be one of the key needs and notes from the weekend. After Maloney, four Huskers tied at sixteen digs. Albrecht, Foecke, Atherton and DS Sydney Townsend created a log jam for second on the team in digs. Front row defense showed up as well as Briana Holman and Lauren Stivrins combined for 7 block assists. Foecke added four block assists herself.
Many of the issues from the Oregon match remained during the match against Florida. Albrecht again struggled to terminate facing a large Florida front line as did the Nebraska middles. The Husker passing while better was still inconsistent. These issues and others will need to be improved if Nebraska wants to make noise in the Big Ten this year.
Looking to the future, Nebraska will have games against UMBC, Oral Roberts, and Saint Mary’s when it returns to play next weekend in the Ameritas Players Challenge. Nebraska will be heavy favorites in each match giving them ample opportunity to work out some of their issues before UCLA comes to Devaney the weekend after.
→ Moments That Linger
There are moments in sports that linger in your memory. Sometimes it is just the magnitude of the moment. For example, Cory Schlesinger rumbling, tumbling into the end zone to put Nebraska ahead of Miami in the Orange Bowl and Tom Osborne on the verge of his first National Championship. When the game was over, I shed tears of joy, the only time I can remember crying from happiness. It had been so long a road. There was so much that lead up to that moment.
The moment moved me. It was an enormous moment for all of us because of the enormity of the situation. The magnitude made the moment memorable. It still lingers.
I’ve been thinking a great deal since Saturday about memories, and moments, and being moved by them. Movies do it so well. Images, playing out in slow motion, the swelling of inspiring music, the faces of winners and losers. It’s cinematic magic. It feels real.
It’s Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford in “The Natural”) hitting the lights, running the bases as the sparks rain down around him and Roy, somehow magically, he appears to be part of the cosmos. It’s acceptable for grown men to be moved to tears by the moment.
It’s the end of a journey.
How about “Brian’s Song?” The original version please. A journey for both Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo. Grown men can still cry thinking about it. I know.
Jimmy Chitwood’s final shot. Movies do it so well.
I didn’t cry Saturday night, but I could have. It was the end of a journey too. I wonder whose journey it really was, Tommy Armstrong’s or the fans? I won’t replay the scene. We all know the four year plot of this one. Good Tommy and Bad Tommy. Love one and hate the other, and then, in the space of a week, we finally see our moment that lingers.
Will Tommy even play? Yes, he will start. How will he play? Will he run the ball or just hand off and occasionally throw? He goes down. Will he get back up? At least it’s not another concussion. The crowd now chants “Tommy, Tommy, Tommy.” But that’s not the moment. Not yet. He comes back in again, leads the game winning drive, runs the ball in for the game winner, and gets carried off the field by Jerald Foster and Tanner Farmer. That’s the moment.
That’s the end of the journey.
There are games still to be played. Never mind. Bring up the music and roll the credits. Let the grown men shed a tear if they want to, for finally, Tommy Armstrong will be embraced for who he is.
He won’t be remembered as the greatest Nebraska quarterback ever. Or the most talented.
But he should be remembered as the toughest. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. He made the journey, took the punishment and the blaming, and never complained. And now he has his Roy Hobbs, his Jimmy Chitwood moment. Strike up the band. Roll out all the credit that is due to Tommy Armstrong, Jr. He, at the end of a long and troubled journey, has given me a moment that will always linger.
I was lucky enough to be there. I am grateful. I hope we all are.
Those single moments are so rare, and thank God they are.
→ Time to prove it.
This was the first weekend of the 2016 college sports season. Volleyball, and most exciting for me, Nebraska volleyball, had a big weekend, with the Huskers dominating Florida and Texas, both preseason Top 10 teams. The Big 10 as a conference was almost as successful.
College football begins in earnest next week. This should be a time of unbridled optimism for college football fans. That’s the way it’s supposed to be on opening day. I wish Nebraska fans felt that, it’s not the case. It’s a strange experience and not one I want to accept. I went into the Big Red Etc in North Platte yesterday, looking for the new merchandise, hoping there would be an original, clever t-shirt. My thinking was that it was time now to get my game face on. I found nothing.
It seems symbolic. We want to find that enthusiasm, the hope, the belief that we are Husker Nation and that we believe in our team and ourselves. I really want to believe. Yet when I was asked last week if I was ready for a new season, I could say “yes, but . . .” and then I had trouble finding the words. It’s hard to say I believe in the future, when our immediate past seems so disappointing. Why won’t the victories in 2015 over Michigan State and UCLA carry us through an off-season? They should, but they haven’t.
The last three weeks are a big factor. Keith Williams. Derrion Grim. The tragedy of Sam Foltz death. It’s too much, too much on top of a 6 win, 7 loss season. Tommy Armstrong’s interceptions. Purdue. Illinois. Even Bo. Go back further. Callahan. The Solich firing. The debacle in Boulder. I feel beaten down.
Where do I go to find the fire of a new season? I really want to feel it again. I don’t feel like I’ve lost hope. I don’t think I care any less. I really do believe in, and like, Mike Riley. I think he’s put together a quality staff. I think they are recruiting good players, upgrading the talent level (and we do need better players). I look at the schedule and see a minimum of eight wins. Eleven isn’t out of the question. Nine seems a reasonable expectation. This can be a good year, maybe very good.
We have a four year starter at quarterback who will own many passing records at Nebraska when he’s done. There are young potential stars at most positions and more talent visiting as recruits than we have seen for a long time, maybe ever, standing on the sideline. We still have the sellout streak. We are generally recognized as one of the blue-blood programs in college football, even if we haven’t won a championship in so long that the current players have little or no personal memory of one.
We are special. This is a special place. I could go into a detailed analysis of positions and scheduling, the conference, and match ups, but there are others who do that much better than I ever could. I could write about Tommy Armstrong penchant for locking on to one receiver and trying to force something that isn’t there. I could write about luck and confidence and momentum. I could wonder why Lee Barfknecht needs to write about toughness and somehow include Connie Yori in the discussion. Sometimes I just don’t understand what’s happening.
But it’s that time of year. Strike up “Hail Varsity.” Say “Hello, how are you?” to the people in the stadium that I haven’t seen for nine months. It’s a great time of year.
So next Saturday, when I smell runzas and hot dogs, when I hear the band, when I see the Sea of Red and stand and sing and clap and watch the tunnel walk, all those traditions that have built a lifetime of memories for me, I hope I’ll find that belief in myself, because that’s where it must first be. The coaches will have it. The players will have it; of that, I am totally confident. I hope I’ll believe also.
→ The Challenge of Olympia
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
J.R.R. Tolkien The Fellowship of the Ring
The Dichotomy of the Modern Olympiad
I love the Olympics. It’s one of the few sporting events not directly connected to Nebraska that I circle on my calendar. I hate the IOC. I detest the IOC. The bribes. The blatant money grabs. The patented voluntary ignorance of every important social issue that humanity encounters on a day to day basis. I could spend an entire article retreading all the amazing, extraordinary, disgusting, and morally questionable things the Olympics and the IOC have gifted the world. However, those topics have been well documented by people much more distinguished than I am or will be.
The topic is one that sometimes makes me uncomfortable because, despite all of the shady things that continually surround the Olympics, I know that I will follow the events religiously. I will watch streams. I will watch evening coverage. I will watch replays. I will follow events on Twitter. I will, for sixteen days, bore my coworkers and father to figurative death talking about the Olympics.
It’s the Olympics.
For better and worse, it’s the Olympics.
HuskerGeek Importance Score
A simple and completely subjective scoring system for how important this sport is to my Olympic experience, with slight adjustments based on how important those sections are for Team USA as well.
Wait, that’s in the Olympics?
I changed the channel when NBC was showing that 5 weeks ago. I remember.
Huh, we should be better at this sport.
NBC, why is this on my television instead of the basketball game?
We kind of need to do well in this sport.
USA! USA! USA!
Oh, come on ref! My grandma could have called that one and she’s dead!
We need to win here. We need to win here.
USA has to dominate here. China could get more medals if we don’t!
HuskerGeek Importance Score(10): 12
Any discussion of the Olympics has to begin with basketball for me. The Dream Team and the Redeem Team. The Year We Don’t Speak Of. The sport that makes or breaks my Olympic experience.
This year seems like a transition year for the Men’s National Team. Carmelo Anthony stands as the old man on the team, and his Olympics should be celebrated. This is his fourth Olympic team. Anthony has dedicated more time to USA Basketball than any other player in history. That has to mean something. Each year he’s been a key cog in the machine. He should not be a footnote this time around. He’s become the old man of the team and, quite frankly, it looks like he’s taken to the role just fine.
What makes me nervous this year? This time around, the two best players in the world, Lebron and Steph, stay home. Anytime the best player(s) in the world stay home, it makes me nervous. However, they leave a talented but young team behind to take the trip to Rio, a team that I suspect will toss up around 330 three pointers. They should cruise to the finals.
Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski have brought USA Basketball back from the depths, and I believe they will succeed once again.
That brings us to the Women’s National Team. They’ll win the Gold Medal. It won’t be close.
Why am I so sure? Name the best 5 female basketball players.
Assuming that you could name five, I’m going to bet at least four were on the following list.
Elena Delle Donne
Ladies and gentlemen, the 2016 Team USA Women’s Olympic Basketball Team.
Sixteen countries qualify by accumulated points in the world golf rankings by their top six golfers.
Teams are seven players. Selected by the country in question by whatever means they choose.
Single elimination tournament.
3 Four ball matches for each day’s competition. No ties. Sudden death until the match is decided.
Win two of three and advance. Survive and advance.
That’s it. That fixes the format. Golf doesn’t need an individual tournament at the Olympics. Players (particularly the men) don’t need to play for themselves at the Olympics. They need to play for their country. For glory. The four day Olympic tournament is always going to be a weak field, even when the top players play. However, anything can happen in match play. Anyone can beat anyone. Don’t try to make Olympic golf the fifth major. Try to make it the Ryder Cup.
HuskerGeek Importance Score(10) – Indoor: 8.5
HuskerGeek Importance Score(10) – Beach: 8
Another sport that I need to touch on. This time I won’t really focus on the Men’s team which is very good in its own right, but on the Women’s national team. Currently ranked #1 in the world, the women’s team features three former Huskers (You knew I was going to mention that.), and will need to tackle a team that just might be better and will be playing on its own home turf. Brazil’s own team is coming off of a World Grand Prix championship win over the United States in five sets. Momentum favors the home team, and overcoming the competition will be no small task for Team USA. China also looms large, having handily beaten the Americans not so long ago, even if the last two contests have gone the way of the USA.
Strategically, the USA is setup to play an extremely balanced game. Back row defense will be paramount to the team’s success because the offensive firepower might not be what it once was. Middles Foluke Akinradewo and Rachael Adams will need be the offensive powers we’ve seen in the WGP, and the Husker back row will need to play spectacular defensively for the USA to take the Gold Medal. It’s certainly possible, but the deck is stacked the other way.
The Beach is only lower in importance because the US Women have been so dominant in the event. Kerri Walsh Jennings returns with a new teammate in April Ross, but the expectations remain the same. Gold.
Among the USA’s best hopes are Jordan Burroughs, Kyle Snyder, and Adeline Gray. Burroughs is the defending Olympic champion at 74 kg and has 3 additional World Championships to his name. Another former Husker, Burroughs might be the best freestyle wrestler in the world at any weight class. His quickness and athleticism are a must see.
HuskerGeek Importance Score(10): 10
USA Swimming has been the premier national aquatic program for more than fifty years, and always has stars to burn. This year is no different and there will be several people who are a must see. One is obvious and has been a mainstay for more than fifteen years. We’ll save him for the end. Another is a newcomer and nearly swims in a different pool than the rest of the world. Those are only two of the stars in the spectacular night sky that is USA Swimming.
There are far too many medal hopefuls to mention, and I would only embarrass myself by trying. Crowd favorite Missy Franklin will be in attendance, as will a recently hobbled Ryan Lochte. A plethora of new and returning stars on both sides will make the trip to Rio, but I suspect all eyes will eventually turn toward two.
If you don’t know that name, you should. The best female distance swimmer in the world, and it isn’t close. Leah Smith knew she was having the race of her life in the women’s 400 Free at the Olympic trials. How did she know? “I’ve never been able to see her feet before,” Smith said. “That was exciting.” The “her” she was referring to was Katie Ledecky. Smith bettered her personal best by three seconds and still lost by two. Such is the world of Katie Ledecky. The 400 isn’t even her best race. That’s the 800 where she has broken the World Record. Four times. I should qualify that the 800 is Ledecky’s best race in the Olympics. The 1500 Free is inexplicably only a Men’s event at the Olympics. Ledecky has broken that World Record too. Five times. She broke it twice at the 2015 World Championships.
How do we quantify Phelps at this point? He’s the best all around swimmer of all time. Holds the most Olympic Medals, the most Gold Medals, the most Gold Medals in a single Olympics. The GOAT. How do we look at Phelps now? We will, of course, evaluate him in the context of Baseball movies.
Sydney Phelps: Ken Strout (For Love of the Game)
The wide-eyed rookie. Trying to play spoiler in someone else’s story. Not quite successful, but maybe it’s the start of something.
London Phelps: Shoeless Joe Jackson (Field Of Dreams)
The fallen legend. Not the unbeatable force he once was, but poke the bear and you’ll find out he still has it.
Rio Phelps: Billy Chapel (For Love of the Game)
The aging star trying to push the sun back into the sky for one last day of summer.
Phelps has done everything better than anyone else in his sport. Now he’ll try to show the world that greatness doesn’t just fade with age.
That Sport That Americans Only Pay Attention To Sometimes
HuskerGeek Importance Score(10): See above. Actually it was a 5. It’s USA Soccer.
That other form of Football. Soccer.
The American women are a dynasty. Three time World Cup Champions. Four time Olympic Gold Medalists. They will set out with the Gold Medal in mind and any other result probably isn’t good enough.
The American men are different. As an American sports fan, I can’t describe the strangeness of how the Men’s National Soccer Team seems to be viewed by the rest of the international community. Judging by various Reddit threads in /r/soccer, they seem to be viewed as the plucky underdog. Always trying to finish the Cinderella season and always trying to play above their level. I can’t describe how bizarre that is. I’ve always viewed the USA as the Evil Empire of international athletics. Two thousand six hundred and eighty-one Olympic Medals. Six hundred more than the next two countries combined. Ten different athletes with 10 or more Olympic Medals. All of that and our biggest sport doesn’t even compete on an international stage. I’m sure there are those that delight in our men’s soccer team always coming up a little bit short and I don’t blame them at all, but there are so many others that I see rooting for one of our very few underdog teams and consoling us when we inevitably fall. And it all comes in a sport, that we care about so much less than everyone else. I would best describe the phenomenon as a group of classmates trying to console the captain of the football team after he gets a B+ in Home Economics.
HuskerGeek Importance Score(10) Artistic: 10
HuskerGeek Importance Score(10) Rhythmic: 4
HuskerGeek Importance Score(10) Trampoline: 2
The United States has yet to medal in either Rhythmic or Trampoline since they were introduced in the Olympics and most people probably forget that they exist unless NBC decides to show them live so they can tape delay the Men’s 100m Freestyle Finals. As such, I will pretend that they don’t exist. Moving on.
Artistic gymnastics is much more important for the United States. It is one of the key places the U. S. will need to score medals in order to maintain a lead over China. Both countries are extremely strong in these events and each medal for the one is a lost opportunity for the other.
Many of the United States hopes will be placed on the Women’s team which will undoubtedly enter Rio as a strong favorite. Team USA is led by Simone Biles who has been the best gymnast in the world for years. Biles has won 3 All-Around, 2 Team, and 5 Event World Titles. She will be a heavy favorite in All-Around, Beam, and Floor. Joining Biles are Fierce Five members Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman, and newcomers Madison Kocian and Laurie Hernandez. Douglas returns as the defending Olympic All-Around Gold medalist. Raisman returns as the defending Olympic champion on Floor with continued medal hopes. Kocian joins the team as the current Co-World Champion on Bars. Hernandez rounds out the team having earned second place at the US Olympic Trials behind only Simone Biles, an impressive feat considering the competition.
The Men’s team will enter Rio with less fanfare and significantly lowered expectations. In most events as a team, they will probably be on the outside looking in. A good showing could push them onto the team podium and several of them will push for event medals.
Track and Field
HuskerGeek Importance Score(10): 9.5
While Usain Bolt is the star of the track, the United States will pick up medals across the board in both Men’s and Women’s events. Justin Gatlin will continue his chase for Bolt’s crown in the 100; LaShawn Merrit will join him in the 200. Ashton Eaton returns in the Decathlon with his eyes on the Gold Medal. Long Jump, Triple Jump, High Jump, Pole Vault, Hurdles, and on down the line. Track and Field has been a strength for the United States, and the 2016 Rio incarnation is no different.
The women’s team is just as good, and probably better. They will attempt to bring home multiple medals in a variety of events. From runner Allyson Felix to shot putter Michelle Carter, this team will pull dozens of medals off the awards table.
HuskerGeek Importance Score(10): 3
Many of the best boxers in history have been American, but most previews I’ve seen don’t have a great number of Team USA members factoring into the medal stand. In truth, I don’t know enough about boxing to disagree and so I won’t.
HuskerGeek Importance Score(10): 9
China will dominate in diving. They will. The importance of this discipline isn’t so much that the USA grabs a hand-full of medals, but more that they don’t fall too far behind.
HuskerGeek Importance Score(10): 3
Handball isn’t important. It’s just … not. We have basketball and probably consequently, suck at handball. Still, why aren’t we better at this?
HuskerGeek Importance Score(10): 7
The Bryan brothers and the Williams sisters. Every medal counts, and this is a good place for the US to pick up a few on China. All three doubles events will have American teams that expect to be on top of the medal stand.
Canoeing, Cycling, Equestrian, Fencing, Field Hockey, Judo, Modern Pentathlon, Rowing, Rugby, Sailing, Shooting, Table Tennis, Taekwondo, Triathlon, Water Polo, Weightlifting
HuskerGeek Importance Score(10): 1
Oh, who am I kidding?
HuskerGeek Importance Score(10): 10
USA! USA! USA!
This is the one time every four years where Americans get to flaunt our athletic dominance over the rest of the world. We are the Evil Empire and we like it. Recently; however, we have faced down opposition to our reign. The sleeping giant of the far east has dedicated years to toppling us off the throne. China approaches. Fueled by a population three times larger, and trained near from birth at Olympic training facilities, they have come.
Let them come.
I have often told those who would listen that I would watch competitive spitting if Nebraska was involved. For two weeks every four years, the Olympics is that for my inner ‘Murican. I get to watch sports that I care nothing about and cheer as if Nebraska was playing in the National Championship game. The Olympics are both the best and the worst in sport. For two weeks, I will forget the worst and immerse myself in the best.
The earliest memory I have of the Olympics is the iconic torch lighting in Barcelona. The flamed arrow (which probably(definitely) didn’t actually light the torch) shooting up into the Olympic Cauldron and signaling the beginning. From there, it has been a myriad of triumphs and close calls and moments we agree to never speak of again(2004 Men’s Basketball). I remember the Dream Team. I remember Basketball so perfect that it nearly defied description. I remember the anticipation of the Long Jump. I remember how my dad described Bob Beamon’s 29’ long jump in 1968. I remember 1996. I remember Muhammad Ali’s shaking body lighting the torch. I remember the Magnificent Seven. I remember Shannon Miller on Beam. I remember Kerri Strug on Vault. I remember Bela Karolyi carrying her up onto the podium. I remember Michael Johnson in the 200. I remember Dan O’Brien and the Decathlon. And on. And on.
The Olympics have given me, and I expect most people, some of the most indelible memories of sport that we have, moments so perfect that they defy description when we recount them later. How do we describe Usain Bolt winning a 100m sprint by a margin thought impossible? How do we describe Jason Lezak swimming a 100m relay anchor leg seconds faster than he had ever swum before? How do we describe Jordan Burroughs leaping into the stands after completing his journey to Gold? How do we describe any of it?
For two weeks every four years, I can put away my dislike of the politics and simply watch as history unfolds. I can’t remember half the Super Bowls I’ve watched. I can’t remember half of the NBA finals, or NCAA Tournaments, or World Series, or Masters, or US Opens. But I remember every Olympics. Maybe it’s a just a fading image of a two week event, but I remember every single one.