Weekly Wrap-Up With Cathy Nelson

Oct. 25, 2006

Errors tell the story

Volleyball coaches are known to say that volleyball is a game of errors. It usually comes down to which team makes the fewest, or makes the fewest at critical times. Coaches are constantly working with their players on the risks and rewards that come with making aggressive plays, and knowing when to 'go for it' and when to just keep the ball in play. Most coaches feel their teams are playing their best when their errors are low, and the key statistic in volleyball success - hitting percentage - takes into consideration the numbers of errors each team commits on the offensive side of the ball.

Statistically, there are five categories of errors - hitting errors, serving errors, reception errors, blocking errors and ball handling errors. Hitting errors and serving errors are pretty self explanatory. Reception errors only take into consideration served balls, so at the end of a match each team's service aces will equal their opponent's reception errors. Blocking errors occur only when a blocker touches the net, has a center line violation, or reaching over violation, or when there is an illegal blocker. All those balls that are tooled off the block are not statistically considered a blocking error. A ball handling error is any time the official blows the whistle and calls a lift or a double contact on a team. I wanted to see the correlation between errors committed by a team and their ability to have success, so I totaled each team's errors, divided by matches played and games played and came up with two statistics: errors per game and errors per match And, with a few exceptions, the teams near the top of the conference have fewer errors overall while those at the bottom of the conference have higher errors per game and per match.

Stanford has the fewest errors overall in the Pac-10, and has the lowest errors per match at 30.58. In addition, the Cardinal have the fewest hitting errors in the conference (only 305). It needs to be said that Stanford has played the fewest games in the conference as well (only 60). Arizona is on the other end of the spectrum, leading the conference in total errors, errors per match and errors per game. The Wildcats average 45.05 errors per match and have the most hitting errors (553) and reception errors (115) in the Pac-10. In order to win a match a team needs to get to 30 three times, so they need to have scored 90 points (could be 75 points in a 5 game match). With 45 errors per match the Wildcats are providing one half the scoring for their opponent. Washington is known for playing low error volleyball, and the stats show that to be true. The Huskies have the second lowest error per match number (32.05) and commit the fewest errors per game in the conference (9.57). USC is also ranked high in both categories, committing only 9.6 errors per game, which trails only Washington, and 35.05 errors per match which ranks third in the conference.

I was surprised to see that UCLA, tied for the conference lead at 8-1 and ranked third nationally, ranked fifth in both errors per game and errors per match. They have more blocking errors than anyone in the Pac-10, but have the fewest ball handling errors. In fact, the Bruins have only 19 ball handling errors on the year, which is averaging less than 1 per match. Compare that to the 3.37 ball handling errors per game committed by Oregon, or the 3.35 by Washington State - a staggering difference. California, the No. 11 team in the country, is one of the most error prone teams in the conference. It ranks ninth in errors per game and eighth in errors per match. It leads the conference in service errors with 212 on the year - the only team that has surpassed the 200 service error mark - and average over 3 service errors per game. California can look at its serving as an area that is directly correlated to its success. In their four Pac-10 wins the Bears have 23 aces to 39 errors, but in their five losses they have only 14 aces to 50 errors. And, half of those aces came in their loss to Oregon on Thursday night - in their previous four conference losses Cal managed only 7 service aces to 40 errors. Granted, you need to serve very tough and take some chances when you play the top teams in the conference, but I am sure Cal coach Rich Feller would like to see a little more reward with that risk. Oregon, sitting at fifth in the conference standings, is also rated near the bottom for both errors per match (ninth) and errors per game (eighth). Only Arizona commits more hitting errors per game then the Ducks, who are also near the top in service errors and reception errors. However the Ducks, along with Arizona State, have the fewest blocking errors in the Pac-10 with only 22. Washington State, a team that has decent numbers offensively and rank second in the Pac-10 in digs have hurt itself with its ball control game. The Cougars have the most ball handling errors in the conference with 77 and are near the top in blocking errors and reception errors. Their 15.7 kills per game has them behind only the five ranked teams in the conference, so offensively they have shown they can play at a good level. Just too many errors in other parts of the game holds this team back.

Arizona State and Oregon State, teams seventh and tenth in the conference respectively, are less error prone than teams ahead of them in the standings. Arizona State, for instance, ranks fourth in both errors per game and errors per match. The Sun Devils average 9.9 errors per game, nearly two errors less than fifth place Oregon and sixth place California. Oregon State is sixth in errors per game, averaging 11.02, and seventh in errors per match at 39.77. The Beavers have the fewest service errors in the conference - only 130 - but also have, by far, the fewest aces. If these teams are less error prone than others, why aren't they winning more? For Oregon State, it is two things: it is not winning the serving and passing battle and they do not have enough offensive firepower. The Beavers average a league high 1.71 reception errors per game and league lows in service aces and opponent hitting percentage, which indicates they can't get their own offense started by passing well nor can they get their opponent out of system by serving tough enough. They also are last in the Pac-10 in kills per game, assists and hitting percentage. If you can't pass you can't set up your offense, and this is what plagues Oregon State. Arizona State has three conference wins, but in only one of those did it hit over .200 - in its win over Washington State it hit .220. The Sun Devils are consistently hitting in the .150 range which might be enough to beat Oregon State or Arizona this year, but will not be enough to defeat teams ranked higher in the Pac-10. They are leading the conference in digs and can certainly play great defense, but need to find more offense on a consistent basis.

When it comes to errors, however, it is not only the number you commit, but when you commit them. Or, if a team has one bad match where they are error prone it can cost them a win, and a chance for a Pac-10 championship. Stanford, who is the least error prone team in the conference, did not play a good match at Washington earlier this year and lost because of it. The Cardinal average just over five hitting errors per game but doubled that number with 10 in the first game alone, and finished with 23 for the match. Washington, on the other hand, also averages just over five hitting errors per game and finished with only eight - well below its average. California found the same fate in its loss to Oregon. After losing a very close game three 33-35 and needing to win game four to keep the match going, the Golden Bears hit only .085 with a whopping 12 hitting errors to lose the game, and the match. The Ducks actually had more hitting errors in the match (31) than California (30) but timed them better, with only two hitting errors in that important fourth game. In a close match, errors will make a huge difference in the outcome.

Big Match in Seattle

When UCLA travels to Washington this weekend a lot will be at stake. The Huskies can put themselves back into the championship race with two wins, or will be out of it with a loss. UCLA wants to stay atop the conference standings with only one loss, and winning on the road will need to be the theme for the Burins who also must travel to Cal and Stanford in the next two weeks. USC is not out of the picture either, and wins here will solidify its position as a championship contender. And Washington State wants to be the spoiler - it was only two years ago that the Cougars upended No. 6 USC in Pullman in a huge upset. Anything can happen on this road trip, where teams must fly across the state the same day they play. Never an easy trip.

The Huskies lost to both USC and UCLA on the road earlier this year in tough, hard fought matches. The UCLA match was perhaps the best conference match of the year so far, with UCLA getting the win 15-13 in the fifth game. It had to be very frustrating for the Huskies, who out hit UCLA for the match, to come so close but end up short. Washington was done in by its 14 service errors and untimely hitting mistakes, hitting .000 in game five with seven hitting errors - a game it lost 15-13. The USC match was similar, as the Huskies out hit and out blocked the Women of Troy but once again had 14 service errors and more hitting errors than usual. Washington has been very good at home the past four years but have struggled the most with UCLA and USC, going 4-6 against the LA schools since 2001. In fact, the Huskies win over USC last year in Seattle was the first home win against the Women of Troy for coach Jim McLaughlin.

UCLA will have the toughest schedule, playing in Pullman first then flying to Seattle to take on the Huskies Friday night. Can the Bruins overcome the travel fatigue to play a Husky team that will be ready for revenge? USC has the advantage of playing in Seattle first and should be fresh for its Washington match, but it cannot overlook the Cougars as they did in 2004. Washington will be at home, will have Bank of America Arena packed and ready, but will it learn from the mistakes it made in LA? I would have to favor Washington in these matches. I think the Huskies have the edge over USC, but will have another battle on their hands with an outstanding UCLA team. Ultimately, the energy of being at home and playing in front of a Husky friendly crowd will spur Washington to victory.

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