Looking back on the 2017 season

The NCAA women’s volleyball season is official over. Champions at all levels have been crowned. Seems like a good time to look back on the 2017 season with respect to MSU Volleyball to see how we did.

You can look back to my last in-season log entry to see how we ended the year in the Lone Star Conference (LSC). In this post I’ll take a look at things in more detailed fashion, and also look at the historical context of our performance.

The Rankings

We finished 16th in the NCAA Division II South Central Region’s RPI rankings, out of 33 teams. That’s up from 20th in 2016. On the Pablo ranking (available at Rick Kern), we ended the year at 115 out of 297 in Division II, a 12 spot improvement. In case you’re interested, we came in at 469 out of 1297 in the Pablo composite NCAA/NAIA all divisions ranking. We landed at 98 in the Massey Ratings, up from 143 in 2016.

2017 Team Statistical Performance

Let’s first look at how MSU compared to the rest of the LSC statistically. Here are the final team conference-only stats for 2017.

Our offensive performance lines up really well with where we finished in the league. We simply did not score enough in attack. We were a solid team on defense, and quite good when it came to serving and blocking. Unfortunately, that only gets you so far. At the end of the day, you have to put the ball away when you get the opportunity.

The biggest issue there was our low kill rate at just 31.5%. Could we have made fewer errors? Sure, but at 15.4% our error rate was not particularly high. It was within 1% of most of the teams above us, and better than some. By comparison, the Kill % for Tarleton was 39.4, Angelo and Kingsville were in the 37s, and everyone else other than Western NM was in the 34s. As you can see from our standing in terms of Opponent Digs and Opponent Blocks, we simply hit the ball at their defenders too often.

Year-over-Year Comparison

Offensively, we were basically at the same level in 2017 as we were in 2016 when our Hitting Efficiency was .163. Our 9th in that category this year is the same as it was last year, though we did move up one place in Kills/Set.

Looking at our offensive positions, it’s a mixed bag. We definitely got more production out of our middles – 3.7 k/s as compared to 2.9 k/s – and they hit for a little better efficiency. Our pins were less productive, however. The OHs might have had a slightly higher hitting percentage, but were a down a fraction in kills/set. The big drop was in the OPP position. We went from 2.35 kills and .174 efficiency to 1.03 and .069.

Our defense was where we really got better. We massively improved in Opponent Hitting Efficiency, going from .221 to .183. Our block was a huge factor there, as we increased our Blocks/Set by nearly 1 whole block. We jumped from 10th to 4th in that category. We also were better in digs, improving to 16.17 from 13.76 and moved up to 7th from 9th.

At the individual level, the first thing that really jumps out is the production at our libero position. In 2016 we didn’t have anyone above 2.63 digs/set. This season our libero finished at 4.81. Not surprisingly, there are also some dramatic improvements in blocking. In the OPP position we went from 0.48 to 1.02. Our MBs in 2016 were at 0.61 and 0.54. This year it was 1.21 and 0.86.

Historical perspective

While the program still has a way to go in becoming what we all think it could be, and this season didn’t meet expectations in some ways, it still had some good things happen with respect to the history of MSU Volleyball.

  • First ever foreign trip.
  • First time beating West Texas after more than 30 failed attempts.
  • Most overall and conference wins since 2013.
  • The 4-match win streak we had early in the season was the longest since 2013, and the longest away from home since 2011.
  • This was the first season since at least 2008, when national rankings started to be noted on the schedule, that our only non-conference losses were to ranked teams.
  • The set we took off of Central Oklahoma was the first we’d taken from a ranked team since 2014 and the first against a non-conference ranked team since 2011.
  • Season Blocks/Set were 6th highest on record, Total Blocks the 8th highest, and our 2.20 Blocks/Set in the LSC were the most since 2010.
  • Our 2nd place position in the LSC in Aces/Set was our best position since 2007
  • The 4th place our top OH held in the LSC Kills/Set ranking was highest for an MSU attacker on record (2004 the first available).
  • Our setter’s 3rd place in conference Assists/Set was the best ranking for an MSU player since 2008.
  • Our freshman MB’s 1.21 Blocks/Set in the LSC was the most for an MSU player since 2005.

We can add in the fact that our combined total of 27 wins over the last two seasons is the most since the 2010 and 2011 campaigns. We need 14 wins in 2018 for the best 3-year total since 2008 to 2010.

Thoughts on the season – big picture

Generally speaking, I am satisfied with the season. Was it disappointing to miss out on the conference tournament? Of course.That fact that we did so is a good lesson in how things you have no control over can decide your fate. We had more wins this year than last, but finished one place lower in the standings.

At the same time, though, it’s also a lesson in how you need to perform every time out. Had we won a couple of those matches we lost early in the season due to really poor performances, our season could have ended very differently.

I think one of the issues we had early in the conference season is that we were too focused on outcome.In particular, I think there was too much pressure to win. That may sound a bit odd on the face of it, but stick with me.

The idea of reaching the NCAA tournament had taken hold in a lot of minds. It’s something the program hasn’t done since 2007, so obviously it’s a major goal. The problem, though, is only 3 or 4 teams from the conference make the NCAA tournament. We were a team that barely made it into the top 8 of the LSC in 2016. It’s not such an easy thing in a competitive conference to move up 4-5 spots from one year to the next.

So there was all this internal pressure to win at the start of the LSC season. This was in a group of players with no history of being in that kind of situation, and thus no real tools to handle it. It’s something we’re working on, but it takes time and experience. On top of that, the players are sick of losing – especially in conference. That can lead to playing not to lose rather than playing to win. I think we definitely had issues with that over the course of the season.

The combination of those two things made for some notable ups and downs in mentality. This wasn’t helped at all by the death of an MSU football player early in the season. That threw everyone for an emotional loop. These are young people who haven’t had to deal much with that sort of thing yet in their lives.

All in all, though, I think the season represented pretty good progress. We finished #16 in the NCAA South Central Region rankings, out of 33 teams. That’s up from #20 in 2016, and #25 in 2015. Importantly, we kept improving – and wanting to improve – right up to the end. That was definitely not the case in 2016 where we basically just survived the last couple of weeks of the season.

Thoughts on the season – the details

In any season there are areas which go well and those that don’t. The 2017 was no different in that regard.

From a playing perspective, the major objective we had coming out of the 2016 season was better defense. Our block was poor and we didn’t dig nearly as many balls as we felt we should. We made defense the top priority for our off-season development. We definitely were much better in that arena this year. The one area we persistently struggled in, though, was defending against the right side attack.

The offense for me was a disappointment. We just never could get that going the way we wanted. Part of it was a decided lack of any real right side threat. We might have been able to get more there with a personnel change, but it would have meant significantly reducing our blocking presence. In any case, that’s a change we really couldn’t have made until later in the season given who was available and the progression of player development.

The other trouble area was the second OH position. The two players who took turns there struggled with their consistency and made far too many errors in attack. We were not helped by losing our freshman OH early on to a knee injury. She would have at least challenged for playing time.

One thing I like a lot is that our senior players went out on their best season at MSU. I mean that both in terms of team and personal performance. Our attacking players had their most kills and their best hitting percentages this year. Our defensive players had their most digs this year. And our setter had her most assists (and digs) this season. You expect that to be the case, but it doesn’t always work that way.

Looking forward

It will be an interesting situation for the program moving forward. Next season we will only have two players with more than a single season’s experience at MSU. Everyone else will either be 2017 or 2018 freshmen or transfers. One the one hand that means little in the way of experience at our level of competition. On the other hand, though, it also means none of the baggage left over from the teams that finished last in the LSC in 2014 and 2015. In a way, now is when the real future for MSU Volleyball is shaped. That’s pretty exciting.

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John Forman
About the Author: John Forman
John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women's team. This follows a stint as head coach for a women's professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women's Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

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