Courtney Draper's young USF volleyball team went 0-for-Omaha, losing all three matches against a strong field at the Bluejay Invitational last weekend. The Bulls lost 3-0 to #23 California, 3-0 to #24 Creighton, and 3-1 to a Northern Colorado team that has been to three of the last four NCAA tournaments.
Collin's volleyball preview described the team as midway through a rebuild, and that was very much evident in Omaha, in both the positive and negative ways. The team played well at times, nearly winning a set against host Creighton and dominating a set against Northern Colorado. But too often, the Bulls didn't match up well with their opponents, and struggled to get side outs.
The first match was against California, a perennial NCAA team, and a very tall team. The statistics show USF with more blocks, but Cal had a significant size advantage at the net, and played to that strength. Cal methodically set up their big hitters, and their superior blocking ability posed a constant obstacle to USF attacks.
Despite the loss, two things stood right away about this USF team: One, USF really excels at rally points, which reward hustle, quick thinking and teamwork. Here's a nice point against Cal, made possible by some hustle from USF libero Amy Van Sant:
The second thing that was apparent right away is that Erin Fairs, the freshman player of the year in the Big East last season, is an important player. She seemed to be in on every play, contributing attacks, digs, and blocks, and I think even a couple assists. Coach Draper praised her play, saying she "she's got a great arm on her, she had a double-double tonight (13 kills, 11 digs vs. Creighton) and had the great ability to hit around the big block that Cal put up."
Which sort of speaks to the weaknesses of this USF team; they fared much better in some rotations than others. With Fairs in attacking position, and their better blockers like Andrea Rodriguez Gomez and Jennica Mullins in the front, they played even with the NCAA-level competition they faced. But in less favorable rotations, USF struggled to win back the serve. Draper said "a big statistic we look at is the side out percentage, and we didn't side out at a high enough efficiency to give ourselves a shot."
This was especially the case in the Creighton match. In the first set, Creighton had runs of nine, five, and four straight points, winning the set easily. The second set was closely contested, but then arose another problem endemic to young teams: errors. USF played mistake-free throughout the set, but with the score 22-22, gave away two crucial points on attack errors. The third set was anti-climactic, with the Bluejays winning 25-14.
The Bulls strengths and weaknesses were even more evident in the de facto third-place match against Northern Colorado. USF dominated the first set at the net, blocking practically every attack or forcing Northern Colorado into an error, and led 14-2 at one point. That edge seemed to evaporate in the second set, with Northern Colorado looking more for openings in the USF defense. Also, the little mistakes flared up again: net violations became a major source of points for UNC, and the positioning wasn't as sharp, with Fairs just plain running over Van Sant at one point.
The pivotal third set was also tied late, 23-23. Mullins got a kill, but USF couldn't win the last point with Van Sant serving. Van Sant then misjudged a long serve that landed in for an ace, and an attack from Rodriguez Gomez landed out of bounds to decide the set. Losing the second set seemed to take the wind out of USF's sails; they didn't play as well in the fourth and decisive set.
Other than Erin Fairs, Amy Van Sant is the USF player who stood out the most in Omaha. She won the starting libero position as a true freshman, and looks the part, leading the team on the court and making hustle plays as in the video above. I couldn't help but think of Van Sant as Anthony Collins, with sophomore Fairs playing the role of Dwayne Rudd. And like that duo, they seem capable of leading USF to new heights, though that might also be a year away.
The Bulls host a four-team tournament this weekend at The Corral, facing Pittsburgh, FAU, and #23 Purdue. They then travel to Chicago for another four-team tournament before American Athletic Conference play begins.