Thursday, December 17, 2015

College | All-American slights and other Final Four musings

Washington libero Cassie Strickland deserves to be an AVCA All-American 
  • Tonight | 4:00PM (Pacific) | #9 Kansas vs. #4 Nebraska | ESPN2 
  • Tonight | 6:30PM (Pacific) | #3 Texas vs. #2 Minnesota | ESPN2 

OMAHA—We're once again at the NCAA D1 Women's Volleyball Final Four. We've covered every championship except one (the blizzard of 2008), and this year, will provide primary coverage for Volleyball Magazine—print, online and video. 

A few musings: 


Yesterday, the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) released its list of All-Americans. Washington senior middle blocker Lianna Sybeldon was a well-deserved First Team selection, and will join the other honorees at a luncheon banquet tomorrow here in Omaha. 

Washington libero Cassie Strickland
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
The long list of First, Second and Third teams has at least one glaring oversight: Washington senior libero Cassie Strickland. No liberos were named to the First Team and only Iowa State's Caitlin Nolan (the nation's digs leader) was on the second team. The Third Team added UCLA's Taylor Formico and Nebraska's Justine Wong-Orantes. Strickland was one of dozens and dozens of Honorable Mentions. 

Despite her relatively diminutive size (5-8), Strickland was an effective outside hitter her first two seasons. AVCA voters overlooked her extraordinary season last year when she made the move to libero, and this season may represent a hangover from that oversight. 

Unless you see a libero in person, it's hard to measure her ability in the box score. Teams try not to serve at elite liberos, so their passing numbers may not stand out. Liberos are usually measured by the number of digs, but that, too, can be deceptive, since a great-serving team like Washington creates fewer chances for opponents to get a first initial swing. Great serves also lead to stuff blocks, a category where Washington has been among the very best the past two seasons. 

When you watch a lot of different volleyball teams, you realize how special Strickland really is. She is extraordinarily athletic—recent plays in the NCAA Tournament have landed her on ESPN SportCenter's Plays of the Day. She is a fiery and passionate leader. And she is among the best jump servers in college volleyball. 

The problem with the current AVCA system is that most voters can only see a limited number of players in action. Liberos are the most overlook players of all, even though players like Strickland can single-handedly make the difference in a close match. No team west of Nebraska has a larger or more loyal fan base than Washington, and the fan favorite at Alaska Airlines Arena this year was unquestionably Cassie Strickland. The loud BOOM cheer each time Strickland served will long echo in the Arena rafters. 

Over the years, Washington players have won plenty of postseason awards. But UW has never had a team with so much balance, which tends to make it tougher for outside voters to single out deserving honorees. If they were on any other team, senior middle blocker Melanie Wade would have been a Third Team All-American, and sophomores Bailey TannerTia Scambray and Crissy Jones would have earned Honorable Mention. If not for a midseason injury, add sophomore Courtney Schwan to that list. 

Coaches always say that individual awards are really a testament to the entire team. If so, Sybeldon's First Team All-American honor might be rightfully shared by all her Huskies' teammates and coaches. 

And if any of the liberos we've mentioned here—Strickland, Nolan, Formico and Wong-Orantes—decide to turn pro and try out for the US National Team, we'll go out on a limb and say Strickland has the most tools to make it on the next level. 


When Sacramento hosted the Final Four in 2007, three of the four teams—StanfordCal and USC—were from the Pac-12 (Penn State won the title, however.) Pac-12 teams won five consecutive titles from 2001-05 (Washington was the fifth in that run.) From 2010-12, Cal and Oregon each made the Finals once, and UCLA won the 2011 title. 

For just the fourth time since the NCAA Championships began in 1981, there are no Pac-12 teams among the Final Four. All four of this year's entrants come from cities in a nearly-straight north/south line stretching from Minneapolis to Austin. Most NCAA D1 Volleyball championships are held in the heartland, but the NCAA has never been so lucky as this year, considering how central Omaha is to all four fan bases. 

That said, the event was sold out long ago, a regular occurrence these days (including Seattle in 2013.) Even so, broadcast networks, major daily newspapers and the NCAA itself continue to overlook what has now become the most popular high school girls' team sport. All three favor of the false "balance" of providing too much coverage for fast-fading women's basketball to make up for overkill coverage of men's basketball. As this Final Four shows, volleyball is not some west coast specialty sport—it's become a national institution.  


If you're not a fan of Nebraska volleyball, you might be rooting tonight for upstart Kansas. Either way, we've just published a story about Kansas' All-American sophomore setter, Ainise Havili on the Volleyball Magazine website. 

As you'll see, Havili's family is from Tonga. Washington fans might recognize parallels with other South Pacific Islander families, including Washington's Tuiasosopos. 

1 comment:

  1. "Even so, broadcast networks, major daily newspapers and the NCAA itself continue to overlook what has now become the most popular high school girls' team sport. All three favor of the false "balance" of providing too much coverage for fast-fading women's basketball to make up for overkill coverage of men's basketball."

    Sad but true statement about the state of women's sports in general in this country. Thank you Jack and Leslie for your committed and excellent coverage year in and year out. Next season should be interesting for the Dawgs with all the changes that will take place.


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