Penn State vs. Hawai’i Q&A Part 2: NeutralObserver

Tampa, FL

Earlier today we posted an interview with two fans — one favoring Hawai’i and one favoring Penn State, on what they anticipated from the two teams on Thursday. We thought we’d balance things out with an interview — same questions — with a self-identified neutral observer. Here we go:

DigNittany: Do you have one favorite team or do you follow several? Do you get to watch many matches in person or on TV/internet?

NeutralObserver: I don’t have one favorite. I admire excellence and enthusiasm no matter the school. There’s no point in having a favorite team if there’s no one else to play. It’s the ongoing cycle of competition year after year that makes collegiate sports exciting, so I treat the entire field of teams as one big story arc, and each match is a little episode that furthers the plot along.

Other than the ESPN coverage of the last three rounds of the NCAA tournament, television production for volleyball events during the season is still bare bones enough that no amount of watching a broadcast can substitute for being courtside. I am fortunate enough to get to travel frequently, and this often centers around volleyball events.

Out of the 16 teams seeded in this year’s tournament, Michigan, Florida State, and Penn State are the only teams I haven’t seen in person in the last five years. The remaining 13 teams, plus a few other tournament participants, I’ve seen at least once and in some cases several times recently.

DigNittany: Penn State comes in with a huge reputation — #1 ranking, undefeated in 100 consecutive matches, #1 in the NCAA in hitting percentage and blocking, four returning AVCA All-Americans (Megan Hodge and Alisha Glass – First Team, Blair Brown and Arielle Wilson, Second Team), on and on.

But Hawai’i has some pretty good statistics of its own: they have terrific 32-2 record, with solid wins over UCLA, Stanford, St. Louis, Illinois and Michigan, and the only two losses coming early in the season against Texas and, on September 6th, to Cal.

They haven’t lost since. Amber Kaufman is ranked #4 in the NCAA in hitting percentage, with Kanani Danielson and Brittany Hewitt not far behind (Hewitt’s also among the leaders in blocks), and Aneli Cubi-Otineru and Amber Kaufman both have killer serves (ranked 11th and 53rd nationally, respectively).

So, what do you think is the single biggest key for Hawai’i to win on Thursday night?

NeutralObserver: Absolutely it is their serving. Many of Hawaii’s 2009 opponents have been unpleasantly surprised by the fact that although the Rainbow wahine do not have a roster with visibly strong jump-servers like Penn State’s Alyssa D’Errico and Megan Hodge, they are very good at executing the serving strategy drawn up by their coaches. Aneli Cubi-Otineru has a consistent jumper that often catches back row passers in the chest, making it difficult to commit to passing either underhand or overhand. Kaufman has an oddly-angled pinpoint jump-float that will repeatedly find your weakest passer or your primary offensive option.

The variety of serving styles has made them one of the most effective serving teams in the tournament. Some people might say that it is more important for Hawai’i to pass well enough to run their own offense, but the reality is that Penn State’s offense, when they are passing well, is powerful enough to outscore even another strong offense. It is not enough for Hawai’i to run their offense; they must at least partially slow down Penn State.

DigNittany: Illinois Head Coach Kevin Hambly called Hawai’i “a great team, very athletic” and said Illinois knew that if the Illini couldn’t stop Hawai’i from running its offense fast, Illinois would be in trouble. Michigan’s Head Coach Mark Rosen said Hawai’i served and passed as well as anyone Michigan faced all year, and that the Wahine had Michigan on their heels all night.

Obviously, Hawai’i excels in the serve-pass aspect of the game. Do you see anything in Penn State that might pose problems for the Wahine’s serve-pass game? And, on the flip side, do you see any weaknesses in Penn State that might help make Hawai’i even more effective in serve – pass?

NeutralObserver: Penn State passes very well in general, and unlike other teams who tend to give up strings of points when their main offensive weapon is on the back row, PSU has effective attackers in several places on the court. We all know Megan Hodge is a threat from anywhere, but the development of Blair Brown as an attacking OPP from the right back position (sometimes called the “D” set) has given Penn State another way to score than repeatedly going to their left side hitters.

DigNittany: Which Penn State player do you think poses the biggest challenge for Hawai’i, and why?

NeutralObserver: Without question, Alisha Glass. If the key to Hawaii’s chances is their serving game, PSU’s answer is that Alisha Glass has the speed to get to the ball on bad passes and the instincts and training to at least keep the play from going any farther out of system or even “better” the ball. Rarely do you see her lumbering after a shanked pass, seemingly just two steps too slow to keep it from hitting the floor. This allows them to stay on the attack for almost every play. I would be surprised if the Lions have averaged more than two or three “free balls” per set in the last three years.

DigNittany: Which Hawai’i player do you think poses the biggest challenge for Penn State, and why?

NeutralObserver: It’s hard to pick just one, because the strength of this team is, well, the whole team. During transitions and long rallies, someone always seems to be right where the ball is going. Libero Elizabeth Ka’aihue has come on stronger in her junior year. The Rainbows will need every bit of that defensive presence in order to face PSU attackers who’ve already overwhelmed teams like Cal, Stanford, UCLA, and Nebraska in the last two years.

Still, the obvious can’t-miss player is Kanani Danielson, who has averaged 4.74 points per set for her team this year. When attacking, Danielson leaps off the floor with a fluid grace that would linger in your eyes if it weren’t immediately shoved aside by the crack! of her quicksilver armswing snapping the ball downward.

And unlike other top teams whose main hitter is a shaky passer, Danielson is a stable defensive presence for the Wahine, posting the highest receiving percentage of Hawaii’s three primary passers (Cubi-Otineru and libero Elizabeth Ka’aihue being the other two). Despite her comparatively small size – 5’10” according to the roster – she also leads the team in solo blocks.

Penn State will need to have as successful a serving game against Hawai’i as they did against California, when Cal’s hard-swinging Hana Cutura put down over five kills per set, but had little offensive support from the rest of the team, who were limited by passing woes.

DigNittany: What’s been the biggest surprise, for you, about the performance of this year’s Hawai’i squad and this year’s Penn State squad?

NeutralObserver: It’s hard to really feel surprised by either school’s performance, since both have been among the best women’s college volleyball programs in the country practically since the sport began.

DigNittany: What do you see as the single biggest factor in Coach Shoji’s and Coach Rose’s success?

NeutralObserver: I would actually give the same answer for both — they recognize and recruit players who are teachable, and they rarely, if ever, put together teams who simply fold under pressure. Both men seem to have a very steady approach, focused and persistent without seeming anxious or insecure.

This quality is expressed in very different ways, however. Rose seems to be like that tough high school economics teacher who you might like to occasionally gripe about with your classmates, but who later on in life you find yourself wanting to go back and visit, because there’s a bond of respect that comes from having someone challenge you while helping you tap into the very skills and internal strength that you need to meet those challenges.

Shoji also appears to get the same amount of buy-in from his players, but his seems to result from a mixture of Aloha spirit and the magnetic aura of every family’s token “cool uncle” who has traveled the world, and when you’re a teenager he takes you to live jazz clubs and pays for a limo to take you to Prom.

DigNittany: So, what’s your prediction?

NeutralObserver: Penn State wins in three. Hawai’i is a little physically banged up right now, particularly Kaufman and Cubi-Otineru, their two best performers in that “key” serving portion of the contest. No team can afford to play at less than 90% to stay alive in the Final Four.

Hawaii’s defense and passing should be able to keep the match from turning into target practice like the PSU Regional Final against Cal, but the Nittany Lions’ block will force the Wahine hitters to mostly stick to safer shots that will keep their side-out percentage low. The women of Hawai’i will fight the whole way, but the Lions will simply make it to 25 faster.

DigNittany: Thanks very much for taking the time, NeutralObserver (by the way, is that a family name? Just kidding.) We appreciate it. Here’s hoping for a great match.