Wednesday, December 18, 2013

NCAA | Whose serve will scorch in the semis, Washington or Penn State?

A renowned server faces a team that serves tough

  • #12 Wisconsin vs. #1 Texas | December 19 | 4:30 PM |Key Arena (NCAA Semifinal)
  • #2 Penn State vs. #3 Washington | December 19 | 6:30 PM |Key Arena (NCAA Semifinal)

Penn State’s Micha Hancock has an impressive serve. In fact, folks who broadcast volleyball are fond of saying she’s the second-best server in the country.

Penn State's Micha Hancock
-photo by Mitchell Wilston
But like so many statistics, that claim can be deceiving. And, in fact, it may point to one of Penn State’s biggest potential weaknesses as it heads into its NCAA semifinal match Thursday evening against Washington.

Of all the players in Division 1, Hancock has the second-highest average of service aces per set (0.64), trailing only USC’s Samantha Bricio (0.70). In 155 sets, Hancock has scored 74 aces (Bricio has 85 aces in 122 sets).

Washington's Cassie Strickland
But Hancock and Bricio both employ a jump serve, which means they also rack up their share of service errors. Bricio had 105 errors, which also may lead the nation (the NCAA does not publish that statistic). Hancock is not far behind, with 95 miscues on the season so far.

Now as it turns out, most players who use a jump serve (standing back from the end line, tossing high, and hitting the ball as if it were a back row attack) generate more errors than aces. But what’s interesting about Hancock is when those errors and aces have come.

On October 26, Hancock registered 8 aces and just 2 errors in a 3-0 win against Iowa, a team that went on finish the Big Ten conference season with a 2-18 record. Since then, however, Hancock has recorded just 21 aces in 49 sets. Ten of those aces came against just four teams, each with poor records and/or lower RPIs (Indiana, Northwestern, Ohio State and LIU-Brooklyn). Against more competitive teams, Hancock has had just 11 aces in her last 36 sets, spanning 10 matches. At the same time, she recorded 35 service errors against those 10 teams.

Of all of the statistics in volleyball, service aces per set may be the most misleading. Far more important is how often a server can force an opposing player to send a poor pass toward her setter, vastly reducing the opportunity to disguise which hitter will attack the ball. Quality serves are a stat that every coach knows well, but they’re not part of the official statistics and are rarely seen by fans.

Powerful jump serves may be fan favorites, but elite-level passers are seldom bothered by them—Bricio didn’t have a single ace against Washington on Saturday. Most jump serves have a predictable trajectory and spin, and—though they travel fast—can be handled with proper eyework and a textbook platform (hands together, straight arms, good angle on the ball).

Coaches who’ve seen Washington play consider them the best serve-and-pass team in the Pac-12, if not the nation. As a team, they rank sixth in Division 1 with 1.74 aces per set (Penn State, averaging 1.29, ranks 105th), but those aces are spread across all six of Washington’s servers, while Hancock has almost half Penn State’s total.

More significantly is the ability of Washington’s Jenna Orlandini, Jenni Nogueras and Melanie Wade to deliver hard, flat serves that often head for the corners and dip or change direction like a knuckleball. Katy Beals has a terrific short serve, but mixes it with deep floaters. Cassie Strickland is the Huskies’ only regular jump server, but her team-leading 42 aces are paired with 80 errors.

As with so much of Washington’s game this year, the Huskies’ overall serving success often comes down to Krista Vansant. As the season has progressed, the Pac-12 Player of the Year’s serving has noticeably improved. During the last four weeks, she’s been at the line time and again in crucial situations, delivering laser strikes that lead to opponents’ passing errors or easy UW blocks. At the start of the season, Vansant may have been Washington’s weakest serving link; in the Final Four, she could be its strongest.

Hancock, Bricio and Strickland get most of the attention. But train your eyes on the other servers to get a real sense of which team controls the service line.

See also:

  • Three Washington players were named All-Americans by the American Volleyball Coaches Association: Junior Krista Vansant (First Team), Junior Kaleigh Nelson (Third Team) and Senior Jenna Orlandini (Honorable Mention).
  • The 14 players on the AVCA All-American First Team also included Penn State’s Micha Hancock and Ariel Scott, plus Texas’ Haley Eckerman. From the Pac-12, Stanford landed its two middles, senior Carly Wopat and sophomore Inky Ajanaku; USC had libero Natalie Hagglund and freshman opposite Ebony Nwanebu, who was also named National Freshman of the Year.


  1. At least as important as aces is the number of times the opponent is out of system when it is not an ace.

    I think a main reason UW could handle Bricio's serve is that they see Cassie's serve every day in practice. Once you are used to one you can pass the other without that much worry.

  2. Really enjoying your articles! Keep it up and thank you!.
    Do you know if there is any footage of the press conferences today that we can watch on line?
    Go Dawgs!

  3. Just to get everyone ready for the finals, here is a link to UW's last five points in our 2005 championship match: . Enjoy.

  4. Let's get behind our team tonight and make some noise at the Key.. Point Huskies!

  5. Wow what a thumping! That looked like a college team taking on a high school team last night. Its almost like our ladies were asleep at the wheel. I don't understand how you can come out so flat in front of your home crowd. Give PSU credit though, they look unstoppable. I hope their setter is a Senior because she is just a machine! It also reminds me just how good Stanford is since they gave them a good scare.


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