Weekly Wrap-Up With Cathy Nelson

Oct. 11, 2006

Last Week, This Week

Well, last weekend went as planned. The teams that were supposed to win did and the Pac-10 standings are starting to take shape. USC and UCLA continue to roll, but this weekend will be a real test when California and Stanford head south to Los Angeles. Stanford had no problem with Cal, extending its home winning streak against the Bears to 26 matches. Washington took care of the Ducks and Beavers while Oregon got a split on the road knocking off Washington State and the Cougars got a split at home beating Oregon State. Arizona is still looking for a win, as is Oregon State, while ASU can't find the magic that helped them win its first conference match - it has dropped its last four. This week the match-ups are intriguing and promise to be a little more interesting.

First, the California schools meet up in Los Angeles. USC will play its first ever match in its brand new arena, the Galen Center, against Stanford on Thursday night. Finally the Women of Troy have a place to call home, after using a student recreation center, the Lyon Center, as their home court for most of the last 19 years. There was an unfortunate five-year span from 1996-2000 when USC used the North Gym for their home matches, which was easily the worst gym I ever coached in during my time at Oregon. The Lyon center held only 1300 fans, but could be configured to seat as many as 3000. But that intimate space worked well for USC - in the past five years the Women of Troy are 57-6 at the Lyon center. The largest crowd to ever watch a USC volleyball match at the Lyon center was back in 2002 when No. 6 Stanford defeated the No. 1 Women of Troy in five hard fought games, and 2,115 fans were there to see it. Their new digs will seat over 10,000, and a crowd of 2,000 will be dwarfed in the larger arena. But, with the opening of the new arena on Thursday night you can bet there will be a crowd on hand to cheer the Women of Troy.

The Stanford/USC battle has been a great one the past five years - each team has won two national championships and the conference series is tied at 5-5. USC does have an overall record of 6-5 against the Cardinal during that time, taking into account the 2002 national championship won by the Women of Troy over Stanford in four games. Stanford swept the series last year, including a five game marathon at USC that went to 15-13 in the fifth game. USC would look to be the favorite here, with its 17-0 record and with all the hype that goes along with opening a new arena. But, as impressive as its record is, keep in mind that in conference play USC and UCLA have only faced one top team in the conference, Washington, and that was in Los Angeles. The next four matches will really determine how good USC is - after hosting Stanford and California, it will host UCLA and then travel to Washington. Stanford, on the other hand, has played (and lost) to Washington on the road and handled California at home without a problem last week.

I think the biggest difference in this match will be experience, and in that column I give Stanford a big edge. Every player that registered a kill against USC last season is back for the Cardinal. And, the second time these teams played last year Stanford was without outside hitter Cynthia Barboza and setter Bryn Kehoe who were lost to injuries. Add those two back into the mix and Stanford is tough at every position. USC, on the other hand, lost its two best offensive weapons from a year ago in Bibiana Candelas and Staci Venski. Those two combined for 62 of USC's 75 kills in its home loss a year ago, and that is a lot of offense to make up. Diane Copenhagen is having a terrific year, and junior college transfer Asia Kacor has stepped in and become USC's top offensive performer, but playing Stanford has a whole different feeling, and meaning, than playing other teams. It will be the first Stanford match for Kacor, and freshman setter Taylor Carico, and for injury-plagued sophomore Jessica Gysin. Santa Barbara transfer Bethany Johansen did play against Stanford last year but was not a factor, collecting only one kill on her three swings. USC will need to find some magic in its new building to earn a win in the first event staged at the Galen Center.

UCLA appears to be the real deal. It, too, will know a great deal more about its team in the next three weeks, hosting No. 7 California and No. 6 Stanford, playing at No. 4 USC and then after playing in Pullman, heading to Seattle to take on No. 5 Washington. But in the Pac-10 you need to win at home, and for UCLA to win the Pac-10 it needs to beat Cal and Stanford this weekend. UCLA had owned California in volleyball until last year when Cal finally broke through and got its first ever win against UCLA. That win was in Berkeley, so now Cal is looking to do another thing it has never done - win at Pauley Pavilion. Last weekend the Golden Bears tried to get their first win at Stanford and failed to do so, and getting a win at Pauley will be just as difficult a task. The series between Stanford and UCLA is as close as you can get, with UCLA having a slight edge over the years and winning 34 times to Stanford's 33 wins. However, Stanford has swept UCLA in each of the past four years and defeated the Bruins in 21 of their last 25 meetings since 1993. Prior to 1993 UCLA was the dominant team in the series, with a 30-12 record over Stanford.

Usually great teams are able to win matches even when they do not play well, and that was the case for the Bruins when they defeated Arizona in four games in Tucson last weekend. UCLA hit only .120 and committed a season high 37 hitting errors yet came away with a win. You can bet coach Andy Banachowski was not happy with the performance, however, UCLA responded with one of its best offensive matches of the year against ASU, hitting .353 with only 12 errors and coming up with 14 blocks. UCLA will have to play at a high level this weekend, as Cal and Stanford are good enough to beat the Bruins if they do not play well. But both Cal and Stanford are battling teams that are undefeated, playing well and have a lot to play for. These UCLA players have never defeated Stanford, and playing at home with their No. 3 ranking and a big leg up on a Pac-10 championship on the line will have them ready to go. The big question is how much is Stanford going to use physically and emotionally in the USC match, and what will they be able to bring the next night at Pauley Pavilion? And will Cal be able to push UCLA and get the Bruins tired?

We learned last weekend that as good as Cal has been this year it has fallen short of the top teams in the conference it has played so far. It was handled easily by both Washington and Stanford, but to be fair to California those matches were on the road. The only ranked team the Golden Bears have defeated this year was No. 18 Pepperdine, and that was in Berkeley. But now it is on the road again against the two teams atop the conference, and my question is this - can California win a big match on the road? Two losses this weekend puts Cal at 3-4 in the Pac-10 and possibly drops them into sixth place. After this weekend the schedule gets much easier for Cal and it will have a much better opportunity to rack up some wins. Let's face it - playing all the other ranked Pac-10 teams on the road in the first half of the conference schedule is very tough. Cal then gets to see the Oregon schools, go on the road to the Arizona's, and then finally get to host, in succession, Stanford, USC and UCLA. It is then that we will know if Cal will be a team that has Elite Eight aspirations.

When the Arizona's come to Oregon this week they have a challenge ahead of them that they have not had in past years. Arizona has dominated both Oregon schools of late, and has not lost to Oregon since the 1998 season or to Oregon State since 1996. Arizona State's last loss to Oregon was in Eugene in 1997, but they have had trouble with the Beavers - in the past three years ASU is only 2-4 against Oregon State. Oregon State has been, in the past, the team visitors took more notice of. Just last year OSU was 7-11 in conference play and swept Arizona State, Washington State and Oregon and also defeated California on the road. This year's Beaver squad struggled from the beginning of the season and has not competed well, winning only three games in their five losses. But things look a little different in McArthur Court and the Ducks, at 2-3 in the conference and 12-3 overall, are playing well. If Oregon sweeps this weekend it will move to 14-3 with 11 matches remaining. That would guarantee a .500 record and would leave them just one win away from a winning record and a shot at the NCAA tournament. The Ducks have the longest NCAA tournament drought in the Pac-10, having last been a part of the tournament back in 1989.

As much as there is at stake in California this weekend for those teams at the top of the conference standings, there is probably even more riding on the matches in Oregon. A conference championship is not at stake, but important wins that could have NCAA tournament ramifications will be played. Arizona is the team that has the most at stake this weekend, and it is in a must win situation. It has lost its last six matches, and although four of those losses were to highly-ranked teams it is still difficult for a young team to believe they can win after so many losses. The best news for the Wildcats is that they start at Oregon State, a team they should beat, which could help their confidence level for what will be a much tougher match at Oregon. The Beavers will be hard pressed to win a conference match this year with the youth of their team and the rebuilding that is going on there. The Beavers could be headed for a 0-18 Pac-10 record, which would be the second time in OSU history they did not win a league match. Their most winnable matches are this weekend, and then home matches against Oregon in two weeks and Washington State in three weeks.

It is a very important weekend for the Ducks as well, and while I will not say they are must wins they are pretty close. For the Oregon program to gain validation that they have indeed taken a step up they need to win these matches at home. The Ducks have had a somewhat favorable schedule so far, and to get these wins now would be huge. Oregon has not had four conference wins since 1991 and to be sitting at 4-2 in the conference would go a long way for the confidence of this team. Like Oregon, I won't say these are must win matches for Arizona State but if the Sun Devils have any aspirations toward moving up the conference standings they need to win in Oregon. In coach Brad Saindon's first three years at ASU they have finished ninth, tied for tied for seventh and eighth in the Pac-10 and have yet to finish anywhere near .500 for the year. This season started with promise - an 8-3 non-conference record including wins over Notre Dame and Michigan State, with two of their three losses to ranked teams (Purdue and Ohio State). Then the win at Arizona to open Pac-10 play put them at 9-3, heading into a very tough part of their schedule. For Arizona State to make a significant move this year, and keep it in the hunt for the NCAA tournament, it must have at least six more conference wins. Although the Sun Devils were just a few points away from a win against USC last weekend, and took a game off California the weekend before, the matches they must win are those against their Pac-10 opponents not ranked in the top seven in the country. That would be this weekend. And that is why the matches in Eugene and Corvallis are more important for the four teams that square off in Oregon then the matches in Los Angeles are for the teams that play there.

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