Weekly Wrap-Up With Cathy Nelson
Sept. 28, 2006
The Battle in Seattle
The battle that was supposed to take place in Seattle this weekend did not materialize when the No. 4 Huskies swept both No. 8 California and No. 6 Stanford. Winning in Seattle has become increasingly difficult over the years - the Huskies currently own a 22 home match winning streak dating back to the 2004 season. If Stanford was the coach's pick to win the Pac-10 championship then Washington proved Friday night it is good enough to repeat as champions this season. In defeating Stanford on Friday night Washington used the same formula it used a year ago to win the national championship - pressure opponents with tough serving, keep errors at a minimum and hit for a very high percentage. Stanford had more hitting errors in the first game (10) than Washington had for the entire match (8) and the Huskies out hit the Cardinal .364 to .225. Washington's middle attackers - junior Alesha Deesing and sophomore Jessica Swarbrick combined for 24 kills with only 3 errors, hitting a scorching .525, while junior Christal Morrison had 17 kills and no errors in her 46 attempts. Stanford's Cynthia Barboza showed she is back, with 25 kills in only 3 games, scoring 27 of her team's 62 points. But she needed more help then she received on Friday night. Washington led the national last year in hitting percentage, hitting .338 on the year. However, the Huskies had only one individual in the top 50 for hitting percentage - Deesing was 10th at .402. What that tells us is that every player hits for a relatively high percentage. This year it is the same story. The lowest hitting percentage for a Washington player this year is .222 by setter Courtney Thompson. Six attackers that have more than 150 swings are hitting between .274 and .511. This is a highly efficient team, and efficiency can be very difficult to beat. However, the single biggest factor for Washington's success is not its hitters, but its incredible setter. Thompson, a senior, is now second all-time in the Pac-10 for assists, overtaking both Holly McPeak and Dana Burkholder in Friday night's win. She now has former UCLA great Erika Selsor in her sights, trailing her by 701 total assists. But it is not just the number of assists that indicates just how good she is. She runs that team, physically and emotionally, she is a great competitor, and she just does not make bad sets. The Husky attackers, for the most part, have a great set every time they go up to swing. Any coach will tell you how valuable that is. And she is the reason Washington has a chance to repeat as both conference and national champions.
How good is UCLA? Very, very good so far this season. Oregon coach Jim Moore said this is the best UCLA team he has seen in at least a decade. Oregon State coach Terry Liskevych marveled at how well the Bruins are playing. Their 15-0 record and No. 3 ranking is a reflection of a great start to their season. But perhaps the most incredible thing about the Bruins great start is they are yet to play a match at home. They have traveled five consecutive weekends and gone from Cincinnati, Ohio to Honolulu, from Denver, on to Maryland, and finally to Oregon. I am sure heading north to Eugene and Corvallis seemed like a breeze, since it was the first time they played in the time zone in which they live. Thursday night opens the Bruins home schedule - and what better way to begin the home schedule then with the defending champion Huskies. The only match Washington lost last season was to UCLA at Pauley Pavilion. Last season it was an upset, but this year the Bruins will be favored to win. Inside the match a couple of very interesting subplots will be happening. The setter battle features the best setter in the Pac-10 (Washington's Thompson) against the heir apparent, UCLA sophomore Nellie Spicer. The clash of the middles features the two highest efficiency attackers in the conference, with UCLA's Nana Meriwether and Washington's Deesing. And how about the battle of Big West transfers? Washington features last year's Big West Player of the Year and AVCA honorable mention All-American outside hitter Janine Sandell, who played at Santa Barbara, while UCLA boasts last season's Big West Freshman of the Year Ali Daley who played for Long Beach. (For the record, Santa Barbara and Long Beach split last year's series). The one advantage Washington might have is the level of competition it played last weekend compared to what UCLA has seen the past few weeks. The last ranked team the Bruins played was Hawaii on the first weekend of September, whereas Washington played No. 8 California and No. 6 Stanford last weekend. I remember UCLA coach Andy Banachowski telling me after losing at Washington last season that the Bruins were not ready for the tough serving of the Huskies, and how they never did recover from getting on their heels early in the match. That Bruin team had lost their first three Pac-10 matches and stood at 2-4 in the conference after that loss. This year's edition of UCLA volleyball is much different, and you can bet they will be ready for whatever Washington throws their way.
Trouble in Tucson
Arizona is in a bit of trouble after losing to Arizona State this weekend. With their next four matches against the California teams - at No. 4 Stanford and No. 7 California this weekend, followed by home matches against No. 3 UCLA and No. 5 USC - they could easily be looking at a 0-5 conference start. However, that is nothing new for Arizona and coach David Rubio. In 2003 the Wildcats started the conference season 0-5 but went 10-3 the rest of the way to finish 10-8 in conference, 17-15 overall and make the NCAA tournament. The following year, 2004, saw Arizona start 0-4 in the Pac-10 and once again rally for a 10-8 season and a NCAA bid. Will the Wildcats be able to do it again this season? Their 9-3 preseason record will help achieve that necessary winning record for the NCAA tournament, but they could be hovering around the .500 mark for a large part of the season. An Arizona win in its next four matches will go a long way for the confidence of this young team, but if not, their make-it-or-break-it time will come in the middle of October and matches at Oregon State and Oregon and a home match against Washington State. None of those matches are a guaranteed win, and in order to have any chance at the NCAA tournament Arizona will have to come up with victories in those matches. That is especially true due to the fact that the Wildcats will then face the top five teams in the conference in succession - Washington, Cal, Stanford, USC and UCLA. The worst conference record that still got into the NCAA tournament has been 7-11 by Cal in 2002 when a record eight teams made the NCAA tournament. The question is this - can Arizona find a way to get seven conference wins?
Youth is Not Served
Having a young team has not been a recipe for success so far in the Pac-10. The four teams without a win so far - Oregon, Oregon State, Washington State and Arizona - are starting multiple freshman and sophomores. Arizona has two freshmen and two sophomores among their starting eight, and only one senior in setter Stephanie Butkus. Washington State's top nine players include four freshmen and two junior transfers who are playing their first year in the Pac-10, and they have only one senior starter in outside hitter Kelly Rosin. Oregon and Oregon State, which face off in the Civil War Friday night, are also young teams and one of them will get a needed 'w' this weekend. Look for the Pac-10 match of the week to be emotional, but both coaches hope that emotion will be controlled, just like the ball on their side of the net. Oregon nearly pulled off an upset over undefeated USC last weekend, pushing the Women of Troy to five hard fought games. No moral victory for the Ducks, however, as they felt they could and would win that match. Coach Jim Moore emphasized to his team after the disappointing loss that they must continue to believe they can win, and they will win. Oregon has two freshmen, sometimes three, in the starting lineup and that youth showed during its 0-2 home stand. Freshman middle Sonja Newcombe hit negative numbers against UCLA, while freshman outside Neticia Enesi did the same against USC. While there are young players on the court for the Ducks, their eventual success this season may come down to the play of seniors Kristin Bitter and Erin Little, along with senior setter Heather Madison. This trio has won only two conference matches in their career yet it is their leadership that must help the young Ducks over the hump now. Oregon State, like Oregon, has a mix of new and old on the court. The Beavers are, by far, the youngest team in the conference and have taken some early season lumps because of it. But coach Terry Liskevych knew when he took over at OSU that he needed to go out and get size and athleticism, and his first recruiting class has both. And that recruiting class has been relied on heavily in their first year, when at times five freshmen are on the floor. Liskevych admits that it has been painful at times, that they have struggled and stumbled in a few matches, but that the payoff will be down the road. 'We are trying to build something to be a Pac-10 contender. We don't want to settle for sixth, seventh or eighth in the Pac-10.' With all that youth on the floor more leadership pressure has been put on senior co-captains Abby Windell and Brittany Cahoon. Both have been adjusting to a new setter and have struggled a bit out of the gates, with Windell, a middle, hitting only .181 for the year and Cahoon, who played middle last year but has moved to opposite this season, at .187. Better production from that pair will make things easier for freshman outside hitter Rachel Rourke, freshman middle Lexie Rathgeber, and freshman setter Camilla Ah-Hoy who all start for the Beavers. Already twice this season OSU has won the first two games of a match, and had match point in later games, only to eventually lose the match. Young teams will do that from time to time, and in the Civil War this weekend two very young teams will go at it. This match will not be determined so much by the young players, however, but rather on which teams gets the most production from its seniors.