Friday, December 14, 2007

Women's Vball NCAA Final 4: 12/13/2007

Stanford 3 USC 2 (23-30, 30-20, 30-25, 20-30, 16-14)

The road trip that we'd been hoping for materialised. All through the volleyball season, it had been on my mind, but I didn't want to jinx it and make plans too prematurely. Albert got done with his morning final and we left campus around 2pm with another friend, hoping to beat traffic. With 3 of us in the car, we were able to use the carpool lane and cut 20 to 30 minutes off our travelling time. It was a good sign.

This was the first time either of us had been to Arco Arena. The only impression I had of Arco was the numerous Lakers vs. Kings playoff battles where Arco was reputed to be loud. The outside of the arena was impressive. It was well designed with multiple points of entry. Upon stepping inside, however, I was surprised that it was an NBA Arena. It seemed rather small and the floor area compact. That probably explains why fans are able to get right up in the faces of players.

In any case, it was a nice cosy venue that accommodated a less than sell out crowd. While the official attendance was recorded at 13,000 people, I doubt that many people showed up. Albert was far more impressed at Omaha last year where the atmosphere was electrifying. Speaking of Nebraska, I was surprised to see a sizable contingent of Nebraskan fans in attendance. They'd probably made plans long in advance, figuring that they'd be a shoo-in for the Final 4. It was amusing to hear loud cheers erupt when they showed highlights of last year's final. There was also a Nebraksan fan who had a sign: "Nebraskans for Cal".

Both Albert and I had purchased our tickets through the Block Party. They weren't able to guarantee which seats we'd get (upper or lower) and so we found out at will call. Albert had lowers and I had uppers. Albert had gotten 4 tickets (for friends with finals on Friday morning who made bets worth the price of tickets that we'd beat USC), and so I was saved from the nose bleeds. Our seats were excellent. They were right behind some of the players' families, with a mid-court view. I thought it was cute that two girls who I presume to be Alix and Gabi's younger sisters were decked out in Stanford gear and wearing their older sisters' numbered jerseys. A couple of people tried to sneak down from the upper levels but were shut down by the attendant patrolling our section. She was unrelenting, continuing to check tickets during Game 3 of the Cal-Penn State game. A guy who had snuck down with his family tried to give her cash but she refused the bribe, telling him to go back up while calling a fellow attendant over when he initially didn't budge.

There was a decent showing of Stanford fans. Not including the band, I'd say that there were around 30 students. Hopefully with finals done by Saturday, the turn out will be better. There were numerous families with kids. My favourite sign of the night was:

I have to admit that I was pretty nervous coming into the game. We hadn't looked that great against UCLA and USC was a much more formidable opponent. When we struggled and lost Game 1, I felt that our title chances might be slipping away. We simply came out flat and out of sync, struggling with pass receiving, setting and blocking. USC (especially Asia Kaczor) looked phenomenal. The turnaround in Game 2 when we looked phenomenal and USC terrible really shocked me. Reading post game quotes from the coaches, it seemed that the match ups were in our favour for Games 2 and 3. It's funny how volleyball is a sport where the momentum can change so easily from game to game.

In any case, I was proud to see our girls fight back after the poor showing in Game 1. But even with a 2-1 lead, I still wasn't completely settled and anticipated a hard fought Game 4. I was clearly wrong as USC proceeded to destroy us in Game 4. While we were sloppy, they played inspired defense and it was clear that our outside hitters were getting frustrated. As I heard someone comment, Game 5's (first to 15) are a crapshoot. At that point, I might have taken a coin toss to decide the match because we looked frazzled and USC had all the momentum. When we were down 1-4 with Foluke in the front row, I thought it was over. Albert and I still have trouble figuring out how we managed to win that game. It seemed like we just willed ourselves to victory. I also noticed how eerily similar it was to our victory against Cal (that gave us the overall #1 seed). We staved off a match point at 13-14 (thanks to Asia's service error, whew!) and then won the next 2 off Bryn's serve. The first point was heart stopping, as Asia hit the ball (thank god she was in the back row) off our block and time seemed to freeze as everyone stared at it fall just in bounds on USC's court. Match point was equally exciting as Cynthia hit the ball off USC's block and out of bounds. What a game!

While we definitely did not play the best game we are capable of, just like UCLA, we gutted it through for another victory. Against UCLA, we raved about Alix's offense. Tonight, it was her defense. It's a pity that Arco's scoreboard was not able to keep track of any volleyball statistics and so we didn't realise that Alix had 30 digs, but wow! Hopefully, both her offense and defense will be clicking against Penn State. Foluke was amazing as usual. She won the game for us on offense and we really struggled when she wasn't in the front row. The other attackers really need to step up when she's not in. Gabi was great on defense as usual and we needed every dig we could get, especially with our block not being that effective. The block did come through in the 5th though. I just wish we could get a consistent block for the whole game, which is arguably hard to do when you're up against a hitter like Asia who was breathtakingly good, although we did a much better job on her as the game progressed.

At the end of the day, there are no ugly wins at this stage of the tournament against teams of such high calibre. USC was 8-0 in Game 5's coming into this game. We somehow pulled this one out of the bag. Judging from how Penn State demolished Cal (Cal's setter was awful), they are the real deal. Even though we beat them in 5 early this season, I would say that they'd be the slight favourites on Saturday. I do know, however, that if we play to the best of our abilities, we can beat anyone. And this year, we don't have to worry about peaking too early in the Final 4! Go Card! 1 more win. Let's bring it home!
~ Zhihao

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