The UB Volleyball team let a win slip through their fingers against Eastern Michigan on Friday night, building a 2–0 lead and having tied the third set at 24-24; EMU would then win the third set, and go on to win sets 4 and 5 relatively easily as Buffalo's offense floundered.
In that critical third set, Buffalo would trail 22–18, but then came back to tie the match at 24–24, including two kills and a block by freshman middle-blocker Cassie Shado, and an ace by freshman defensive specialist Tessa Ooyama. Buffalo was two points away from winning the match. But a kill by EMU followed by an ace by EMU gave them the set. Buffalo would fall behind by large margins early in sets 4 and never really challenged. While set 5 was closer, a late run by EMU would win the set and the match.
Buffalo had played well in the first two sets, hitting above their season average in sets 1 and 2 (0.244 and 0.269 respectively), but faltered to 0.158 in set three and 0.000 in set 4. The problem was poor passing, which led to poor setting. And then in set 5, Buffalo hit a respectable 0.238, but EMU hit 0.500.
One of the recurring problems during the season, and again against EMU, was their inability to get the ball to senior right-side hitter Sable Staller, who attempted only three attacks in five sets, resulting in two kills. Junior Akeila Lain also played right-side later in the match, but she only had 1 kill from that position (her other two kills came when she was playing middle blocker early in the match). Three kills from your right-side hitter in five sets just won't get the job done, and you can speculate that EMU was able to ignore Buffalo's right-side on defense, and focus on the rest of UB's attack. In the crucial third set, you might expect that those difficulties on Buffalo's side, plus EMU's ability to ignore the right-side attack could have been just enough to allow EMU to win the set.
Despite this depressing loss, the next night, against Central Michigan, Buffalo was able to #ShakeItOff. Possibly in response to Buffalo's right-side problems throughout the season, Buffalo coach Reed Sunahara implemented a new offense. Throughout the season, Buffalo had used a 5–1 offense (meaning they use one setter), but against CMU, Buffalo debuted their 6–2 offense (or two-setter offense). In a 6–2 offense, the setter plays only back row, and when its her turn to rotate to the front row, the other setter comes in, also playing back row. Some of the benefits of this type of offense is that you always have three attackers in the front row, as two right-side hitters are used; and also the setter is no longer used as a blocker.
Making a major change like this late in the season has to be considered a major gamble by coach Sunahara. While there are advantages to this type of offense, there are also disadvantages, and it could backfire. We also don't know how much practice the team has had with the new offense.
How well did the 6–2 offense work? Buffalo raced out to a huge lead in set one, the new offense was of fire. Buffalo hit 0.371 leading to a 25–16 win, and looked like they would run away with the match. Buffalo served, passed and attacked extremely well. But then everything Buffalo did well in the first set, they did poorly in the second set. Instead, it was CMU who was doing those same things well, and CMU took the second set 25–19, as Buffalo hit only 0.167.
After that, Buffalo's new offense that took over, and they hit 0.323 in the third set and 0.344 in the fourth set, both Buffalo victories. It would seem that the new offense was a spectacular success in sets 1, 3 and 4, and for the entire match, Buffalo hit 0.305, their highest hitting percentage in MAC games. Buffalo's right-side hitters Staller and Lain put up some strong numbers, eight kills for Lain and five for Staller, on 18 and 9 swings respectively ... so by comparison, against EMU on Friday, Buffalo's right-side hitters had 3 kills in 5 sets, versus 13 kills in four sets on Saturday against CMU. Although we'd like to see even more productivity from the right-side, this was definitely a huge improvement.
Congratulations to coach Sunahara for making the gutsy decision to implement a new offense, and congratulations to the entire UB team for making it work.
In both matches, Buffalo's block was strong. They had 11 blocks against EMU and 15 against CMU. Shado, junior middle blocker Amber Hatchett and junior outside hitter Tahleia Bishop each had four blocks against EMU, while against CMU, Shado, Bishop and Lain each had five blocks. The nine blocks over two matches by Bishop is particularly notable, as statistically, she has not been one of Buffalo's strongest blockers.
Against CMU, Buffalo's strong serving was another key element in the victory. Although they didn't get a lot of aces, Buffalo's serves were hard to return, leading to poor attacks by CMU and points for Buffalo. In particular, junior Megan Lipski has served tough all year (her short serves are very effective), and she began the match serving nine straight points. She also had a serving streak of four straight points late in the third set as Buffalo took the lead for good. In the fourth set, Buffalo would open up a huge lead on strong serving by freshman libero Niki Bozinoski during an 11–0 run. Although we specifically mention Lipski and Bozinoski, many other Buffalo players also served well.
Bishop was first-team All-MAC last year, and she began the season looking like a sure thing to repeat that honor, leading the MAC in kills per set. Then she missed a few games due to injury or illness, and when she came back, she clearly wasn't 100%. But she seems to have returned to her usual form with 23 kills against EMU and 20 against CMU, including a hitting percentage of 0.459 against CMU. If you left Alumni Arena thinking Bishop racks up kills like your roommate's Halo avatar, I wouldn't argue. Her 4.40 kills per set still leads the MAC.
So where does Buffalo stand in the race to make the MAC Championship Tournament? The top eight teams in the MAC will advance to the tournament, and right now Buffalo's 4–6 record puts them in a three-way tie with CMU and Kent State for positions 7 though 9. Buffalo lost to Kent State, but defeated CMU, so I believe that by tie-breakers Buffalo and Kent State would advance if the season ended today.
Of course, a few more victories in the remaining three weeks of the season are needed if Buffalo will advance, and Buffalo plays at Miami (7-3), whom Buffalo defeated 3–0 at Alumni Arena earlier this year; at Bowling Green (2–8) whom Buffalo defeated 3–0; at home against Kent State (4–6); at home against Ohio (10–0); at home against Akron (2–8) whom Buffalo defeated 3–0 at Akron; and at Toledo (0–10). Clearly, there are several games where Buffalo should be considered the favorite.
- Junior setter Marissa Prinzbach had the play of the night in the third set against CMU, at a critical moment of the match. With Buffalo leading 21–19, Lipski dug a CMU attack, but her pass was extremely close to the net. Prinzbach leaped towards the ball, avoiding touching the net by a bazillionth of an inch, and at the peak of her jump, got both hands on the ball and sent a perfect set to Bishop for the kill.
- Injury report: sophomore defensive specialist Danielle Marotto was not in uniform this weekend, joining senior Liz Scott and freshman Ana Paula Kuthy Rodriguez on the injured list. All of Buffalo's healthy players appeared in the match against CMU.
- Fashion report: normally, coach Sunahara dresses casually, often with an Hawaiian-themed shirt that is not tucked in. Against CMU, he wore a (tucked in) pink dress shirt and dress slacks, no doubt in honor of UB's breast-cancer awareness "Pink Out" night. We like the more dressy style on coach Sunahara.
- Separated at birth report: During halftime, the video board shows the UB players trying to explain one of the game's rules, in their own words. During this video, Ana Paula Kuthy Rodriguez shows a striking resemblance to Morticia Addams (particularly when Anjelica Huston played the role in the movie The Addams Family). I say that not to be insulting, in fact I say it as a compliment. Now I know that you volleyball fans are saying "wait just a minute!" Morticia has straight hair, while Ana Paula has curly hair. And I don't care, I say there is a strong resemblance.
- Central Michigan freshman Paige Carey didn't appear in the match. I thought there was some NCAA rule that players with the wonderful first name Paige had to appear in the match, and so I chastise CMU coach Erik Olson for not playing her. I was certainly looking forward to her appearance.