(Posted June 10, 2008)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- In a typical biostatistics class, students collate and analyze disease distribution data, forest growth rates, student health surveys. You know -- something biological. At Juniata College, a team of three students completed a statistical project that gave an off-court scientific assist to the national champion Penn State men's volleyball team.

As a project for Juniata's Biostatistics course, taught by Vince Buonaccorsi, associate professor of biology, a student team this fall examined game statistics from Penn State's entire 2007 season. Through analysis of a variety of game statistics provided by Mark Pavlik, head coach, men's volleyball, at Penn State, the team was able to discover which individual skills were most important to victory and in turn provide analysis on how to organize practice time to hone those skills.

"(The Penn State coach) thought it would be too onerous to ask students to enter all these statistics, but I told him students will do anything for the sake of science. They're used to doing onerous things."

Vince Buonaccorsi, associate professor of biology

"The students gave a statistical foundation to what we already assumed intuitively," says Pavlik, whose Division I Penn State team won the NCAA national championship this year. "I wasn't looking for statistical trends to use in a match, because we can see that in the game. I was looking for statistics to give me some guidance on structuring our practices so we can maximize our strengths and minimize our weaknesses."

Pavlik took the statistical analysis and used the findings to create practices that emphasized the skills that contributed most directly to victories. This spring, the Penn State men's volleyball team won its second national championship.

"This was unbiased analysis," Pavlik explains. "To have a person look at raw numbers and tell us what was happening without making a pro or con argument was important."

The obvious question here is: Why is a professor at Juniata, a longtime NCAA Division III women's volleyball power, doing statistical analysis for a rival school (the Juniata men's team plays the Penn State men's team)?

"Because he asked me," laughs Buonaccorsi. Actually, the reason is a bit more close to home. Penn State's Mark Pavlik, a Huntingdon-area resident, is married to Heather Pavlik, associate head coach, women's volleyball at Juniata. The couple is acquainted with Buonaccorsi because the Pavlik's son, Jack, and Buonaccorsi's oldest son, Andrew, attended the same daycare on the Juniata campus.

"Mark was telling me he had all this statistical data and didn't have any way to analyze it," Buonaccorsi says. "I listened to his idea and I immediately thought it would make an opportunity for my students."

Buonaccorsi assigned the project to Jeffrey Kleinberger, of Bradford, Pa., and Shayla Sims, of Houston, Pa., both 2008 graduates, and Tyler Kochel, a senior from Lancaster, Pa. The students agreed to do it, and Pavlik delivered a pile (105 sheets) of game statistics. "Mark thought it would be too onerous to ask students to enter all these statistics, but I told him students will do anything for the sake of science," Buonaccorsi says. "They're used to doing onerous things."

The statistics collected included kills, attack errors, total attacks, attack percentage, assists, service aces, service errors, serve return errors, digs, assisted and solo blocks, blocking errors and ball-handling errors. The Juniata student researchers found that overall team attack percentage, number of service aces and total blocks were the skills most directly related to predicting victory.

The students delivered the data to Pavlik in December 2007 (They got an A," Buonaccorsi says), just in time for Penn State's in-season training. The Penn State coach immediately put the results to work. He recently sent an e-mail to Buonaccorsi, telling the professor how he used the research: "We kept practices focused on passing and serving and kept refining our offense especially in situations where we were transitioning from blocking and digging our opponent to converting on that opportunity. So I would like your class to know that they had a very big hand in a National Championship season!"

Unfortunately, Juniata's volleyball teams do not have the statistical analysis systems that would allow Buonaccorsi to perform similar services for the "hometown" team. "The data we collect at Juniata is good, but not detailed enough for what Vince did with Mark's data. That's why we didn't ask Vince to work with our team as well," says Heather Pavlik, Juniata's associate head coach, women's volleyball.

Buonaccorsi says the student research team was energized by working on a sports-related project. Although volleyball is not exactly a health problem, Buonaccorsi points out that the statistical analysis model used to predict volleyball victories is the same type of model used to analyze risk factors influencing the probability of getting a disease.

It's also unlikely Buonaccorsi will become a statistical sports analyst -- the Bill James of volleyball. In fact, aside from a smattering of football savvy (statistically probable for a University of Notre Dame graduate), he admits he knows little about sports and has yet to attend a volleyball match -- Penn State or Juniata. "Now that we've done this analysis, it's more likely I will attend in the future," he says, smiling.

Contact April Feagley at feaglea@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3131 for more information.