Weekly Wrap-Up With Cathy Nelson
Nov. 1, 2006
Stanford in the Driver's Seat
When the Huskies beat both USC and UCLA last weekend in Seattle it did a number of things to the conference standings. First and foremost for the Huskies, it kept them in the hunt for a Pac-10 championship. A loss to either team would have likely eliminated them from chance to win their third straight conference crown - never has a team with three losses won a Pac-10 title. However, with the depth and talent this conference has displayed the past few years, I would not be surprised if sometime in the near future a three loss team finished at the top of the standings. That Husky win also placed Stanford alone atop the Pac-10 with a 10-1 record and a nine-match win streak. And, surprisingly enough, the top of the conference has been somewhat foreign territory for Stanford in recent years. The Cardinal have not won a Pac-10 title since 2001 - the longest drought for one of the most dominant programs in the conference and, with six national championships, in the nation. The 2004 Stanford team finished second in the Pac-10 but won the National Championship, so some of these Cardinal players have tasted a national championship but never a conference championship.
Will that drought end this year? Well, Stanford is certainly in position to win the conference championship but still have five ranked teams remaining on its schedule. The other top teams in the league - Washington, USC and UCLA - remain on the schedule but all three of those matches are at home. It also plays at No. 24 Oregon in two weeks, but the Cardinal have never lost a match to Oregon at MacArthur Court. Stanford's final ranked team is No. 13 California, which takes place Friday night in Berkeley. Although Stanford holds a commanding 39-2 overall conference record over Cal, those two losses were in the last three years, and both came at California. In fact, in the past five years, the game known as the 'Big Spike' has gone to five games five times, and Stanford has not won at Cal in three games during that span. It did get the best of Cal at home this year, winning in three games and dominating the Golden Bears in every statistical category. But, California has defeated Stanford in Berkeley before and it will play better then it did in Palo Alto earlier this year.
The bottom line is that Stanford, with the exception of its match at Cal this weekend, has played its toughest competition on the road and lost only once. And it just doesn't often lose conference matches at home. In the past five years the Cardinal have lost just four times in a Pac-10 match at Maples Pavilion. Two of those losses were last year to No. 2 Washington and No. 6 Arizona, the latter when Cynthia Barboza and Bryn Kehoe were out with injuries. This Stanford team has all the pieces that make up a championship team - great outside hitting, terrific setting, very efficient middles, and experience at every position. That sounds a lot like the Washington team of a year ago that won, and the Cardinal are the team this season that has all the components to win a conference championship. Their biggest hurdle may be this weekend at Cal, on the road, or the home matches next week against USC and UCLA. But the torch may be passed on the final weekend of Pac-10 play when the Huskies come to town for what could be the match to determine our conference champion.
Ducks Continue to Roll
What a difference a year makes. Jim Moore survived his first year at Oregon with a 1-17 conference record and a team that never felt it could win in the Pac-10. At this point a year ago the Ducks were 1-9 and going nowhere and the team had all but given up hope. Fast forward to now, and you are looking at a completely different mentality for a team that is 6-4 in the Pac-10 and ranked No. 24 in the nation. The last time the Ducks were nationally ranked was back in 1991 and they have not had this many conference wins since 1990. Their win at Oregon State Friday night gave the Ducks the series sweep over their rivals for the first time since 1996. I could go on and on, but the point is the Ducks are heading in a direction they have not been in a very long time.
They are entering, however, the most difficult stretch of their season. After hosting Washington State on Thursday night in a match they should win, they will then face defending National Champion Washington. It does not get a whole lot easier after that, as a road trip to Arizona awaits them. The Ducks swept the Arizona schools in Eugene last month, and I think this is the road trip that will ultimately define them. Road wins have been difficult in the past, but this Oregon team has already won at Washington State, Oregon State and Cal, in what was a huge upset at the time. Can they continue to beat teams below them in the standings on the road? They hope so, as those matches are followed by home matches against Stanford and California and road matches at USC and UCLA. Although the Ducks have done what they needed to do for NCAA consideration - they have assured themselves a winning record and have a win over a highly-ranked team (California was No. 8 when Oregon beat the Bears last month) - a seven match losing streak at the end of the year could curtail their chances for their first NCAA tournament bid since 1989.
The Wildcats have continued to struggle and are currently on their second five-match conference losing streak of the season. With matches this week at USC and UCLA that slide is likely to continue, which would be the longest losing streak at Arizona since coach David Rubio took over the struggling program in 1992. The Wildcats got four Pac-10 wins that first year and continued to improve both in the conference and nationally to the high point in the history of Arizona volleyball, the Pac-10 championship season of 2000 followed by the Final Four appearance in 2001. Just last season the Wildcats had match point in the regional final against Santa Clara that would have sent them to their second Final Four, but they could not put the Broncos away and eventually lost the match. As much as that loss hurt, as well as the graduation of team leaders Kim Glass, Bre Ladd and Gabrielle Abernathy, no one could have imagined the Wildcats would fall as much as they have this season.
The reason can be linked to one thing - too many young players on the floor. When your top five hitters are two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior you know that lack of experience will hurt you at times, and this young squad has been very error prone all year long. When senior middle/opposite Kristina Baum went down with a knee injury after just seven matches the already young Wildcats were forced to get younger. Junior Dominique Lamb is a terrific athlete in the middle and senior setter Stephanie Butkus has a great deal of experience, but the problem lies with the outside attackers. Three of their top four attackers in terms of attempts for the year are all hitting .151 or below, and they are either sophomores that could not find any court time last year behind Glass and Abernathy or freshmen that were playing high school ball a year ago. Arizona has been young and error prone in the past and had much success when those players got older and more experienced, so watch out for the Wildcats two years from now. But this is certainly not their year.
Arizona State showed a lot of promise early in the season but have not been able to come through in Pac-10 play. After their first Pac-10 match, a win at Arizona, the Sun Devils were 9-3 overall and 1-0 in the Pac-10. They had non conference wins over Notre Dame and Michigan State and a tough, 5-game loss to Purdue. There were sparks going and it looked like ASU just might be able to get back into the thick of things in Pac-10 play. But five straight losses followed that first win and the Sun Devils have managed wins over only Oregon State and Washington State since their opening win over Arizona. Now at 11-11 for the year with seven matches remaining, ASU must win four matches to have a winning record and be considered for the NCAA tournament. Do they have four winnable matches? Yes, I think they do. After road matches this weekend at USC and UCLA they host the Oregon schools. They will beat OSU, but a win over Oregon will be the one they MUST have to get a winning record. After that they are off to the state of Washington, where they will need to beat the Cougars in Pullman, and then win the second rivalry match with Arizona, which will be in Tempe. A lot must go right, but this is one of the few teams in the conference that relies on seniors, and only one of these seniors have been to the NCAA tournament. Nina Reeves, their senior outside hitter, was on the team as a red shirt freshman in 2002, the last year ASU made it to the tournament.
If the Sun Devils are going to make it, Reeves and fellow seniors Nicole Morton and Tierra Burnley will have to crank it up another level and lead their teammates there.
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