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Unofficial AVP Awards: Best Defensive Player

A good defender is more than just a great digger. You can dig a million balls, but they don’t matter if you can’t convert the point. That’s why my standards for Best Defender of 2021 are higher than simply overall digs and digs per set. Hitting percentage, the stat I think most indicates a player’s talent level, is a key indicator to a great defender. 

As with many awards, though, Best Defenders can and should transcend the stats. Are they making crazy plays at the right time? Are they unafraid to stand in the angle, absorbing the blow from high-flying, hard-hitting opponents? Would I look at the bracket, see that I’m playing them, and despair because it’s just so hard to put a ball down? That’s what makes a great defender. It’s hard to quantify, but here we are.

Women generally accumulate more digs in a match because we tend to shoot more frequently and/or don’t hit the ball as fast and high as the Men. That means longer rallies and more digs, which pad the stat sheets and make for wildly entertaining play. 

Here are the digging stats for the Ladies. The chart features their overall digs, and I’ve done the math to calculate their digs per set.

*Note – Larissa is on this list, but her stats are split in two. She’s in the Top 10 for overall digs, but at 4.5 – her digs per set didn’t quite qualify her for Best Defender of the Year. 

Digs Per Set from the Overall Dig Top 10

Kristen Nuss – 6.5 
Sarah Sponcil – 6.2 
Zano Muno – 6.4
Sara Hughes – 6.4 
Molly Turner – 4.6
Megan Rice – 4.8 
Emily Stockman – 6.8 
April Ross – 5.2 
Betsi Flint – 5.5 
Savvy Simo – 5.1 

Emily Stockman technically had the most digs per set, while April Ross wasn’t in the Top 5. April is one of the best defenders in the world. Why? Look at her hitting percentage. She was getting 5.2 digs AND hit .532. Emily, while racking up an insane amount of digs, didn’t convert as many of those into points. She hit .316 on the season. 

In fact – in this group, April has far and away the best hitting percentage. She’s the only person above .500 (meaning more than 50% the time, when she attempts a kill she’s successful). The closest player to her is Sarah Sponcil, who racked up 6.2 digs per set (exactly one more than April) but hit .445. Even though April is getting 1+ fewer digs than the rest, the likelihood that her defense will turn into real points is extremely high. April is an incredible defender, but I have to award the greatness I saw in another. 

Zana Muno and Sara Hughes are also in this top bracket of 6 digs and above, but their hitting percentages are too low for me to dub them the best. Sarah Sponcil had high digs and great hitting percentage, but the new kid in town eked out my meaningless Best Defender of 2021 slot. 

Kristen Nuss had 6.5 digs per set and hit .413. Even though she’s not as offensively accurate as April, she’s getting 1.3 more digs per set. Plus – Kristen’s partner Taryn takes a lot of those digs on two, and Taryn is lethal on offense. With a .528 hitting percentage, Taryn is clearly getting juicy digs and dishes from her partner Kristen. So regardless of Kristen’s efficiency on offense, her defensive touches are getting her team important points. 

Kristen also has the X-Factor, that unidentifiable and un-stat-able element that makes you dread playing her. It’s tough to put a ball away against her, even tougher to do so consistently (as seen in her performance in the 2 longest sets in history). It was most evident to me in her Final against Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes in Atlanta. The Olympians really had to fight for points. And if Kristen got the dig, there was a very high chance she was setting Taryn up or putting the ball away herself. That’s why Kristen Nuss wins my Best Defender title. 

For the Men, Casey Patterson was my no-brainer Best Men’s Defender pick. Casey’s stats aren’t what necessarily sold me. His three Finals appearances help a lot, but after watching Casey all year, I was most impressed with the timing of his greatness. 

Casey made the big plays when they counted. He deployed ridiculous digs and put-aways when he needed to, seemingly feeding off the pressure and making more clutch plays than anyone I remember all season (except maybe Tri and Trevor in their MBO Semifinal; that was pretty spectacular). 

The stats don’t disagree, even though they don’t lay out the perfect story:

Digs Per Set from the Overall Dig Top 10

Billy Allen – 4.3 
Casey Patterson – 3.9
Miles Partain – 4.1 
Taylor Crabb – 4.2
Chaim Schalk – 4.4 
Miles Evans – 4.5 
Trevor Crabb – 2.8 
Eric Beranek – 4.7 
John Hyden – 3.4 
Nick Lucena – 3.8 

Casey was among the lowest digs per set in the Top 10 of overall digs. With 3.9, he’s getting a half-a-dig fewer than Miles Evans. But at .388 hitting percentage, Miles Evans isn’t converting as many of his copious digs. 

Casey, Miles Partain, Chaim Schalk, and John Hyden all have very similar hitting percentages. John Hyden, my best Offensive Player, only notched 3.4 digs per set. Miles Partain, as much as I love the kid, just didn’t do what Casey did. Chaim has the highest digs per set and a great hitting percentage. Chaim has every right to this substanceless title, and he was almost my pick.

But Casey killed it this year. He made it to all three finals and won two of them. He and Chase scored more points than any other Men’s Team on Tour. Those high point totals exemplify real points; they show that Casey’s digs are more than just stats on a sheet. Casey’s defense resulted in big moves at the right time. His digs were game-winners, the stuff of highlight reels. Plus, I just really enjoyed watching Casey this year, amirite?