Weekly Wrap-Up With Cathy Nelson
Nov. 9, 2006
It is the voting time of the year, and our Pac-10 coaches will be voting again in a few weeks for the conference awards. Of particular interest is who will be named the Pac-10 Player of the Year - an honor that is nearly as impressive as a NCAA Player of the Year award. If you are deemed the best player in the best conference in the nation, it not only puts you on the short list for national player of the year, but also includes your name among the best collegiate players ever - Bev Oden, Natalie Williams, Kerri Walsh, Logan Tom and Ogonna Nnamani to name a few. Who will be next on the list of Pac-10 greats?
In my opinion there are three players who are vying for this award, and the results from the next couple of weeks could determine who will win. UCLA's Nana Meriwether, Stanford's Cynthia Barboza and Washington's Courtney Thompson have been the best players in the conference all year long and have their teams in the hunt for the Pac-10 championship. And staying in the race for the conference championship is important for their chances to win player of the year. Since 1987, when the Pac-10 Conference first gave a conference player of the year award, the winner has come from the championship team 14 times. The other five times the winner was from the second place finisher - no individual has ever won the player of the year award if her team finished third or lower.
Meriwether has the statistical dominance to back up her nomination for player of the year. She is currently leading the Pac-10 in hitting percentage (.483) and blocks (1.88), is sixth in kills (4.07) and fourth in points (5.09/game). She is one of only three players who are listed in the top 10 in both kills per game and hitting percentage. In addition, she is the only UCLA player listed in the top 10 for any offensive or blocking statistics. She has been named Pac-10 player of the week a league-high three times this season, including last week when she dominated the Arizona schools - posting 4.57 kills per game on .583 hitting with 2.43 blocks per game. In the history of Pac-10 volleyball there have been only seven players who were named player of the week three times during the same season, and three of those seven were named player of the year. Although the Bruins success this year can be attributed to their overall balance - four player's average over 3.0 kills per game - it is the play of Meriwether in the middle that has enabled them to achieve greatness.
Barboza is also statistically very strong and her ability to elevate her level of play in Pac-10 matches sets her apart. In conference matches only she ranks first in kills (4.95), aces (.47) and points (5.92) - all numbers that are higher for conference only stats than for overall stats. With the tremendous competition in the Pac-10 it is difficult to have more success statistically in conference play, but Barboza averages nearly 0.5 more kills and points per game in conference then in the overall stats. She is also sixth in hitting percentage (.292), which is the top percentage for a Pac-10 outside hitter, who swings at significantly more balls than do middles or opposites. And, unlike Meriwether, Barboza's ability in the back row is just as important to her team as her ability in the front row. She is a primary passer, averages better than 2.50 digs per game, and is a great server. She shines in every phase of the game and is definitely the most important player on a very good Stanford team.
Thompson, however, just might be the best of them all. The fact that Washington, after losing five starters from last years national championship team, is still in the mix for a Pac-10 and national title largely goes to the fact that Thompson is an amazing setter. She is working on her third straight 1st team All-American honor and was the Honda Award winner for volleyball last season. She will end her career, barring injury, atop the Pac-10 in career assists and highest assists average. Her current career assist average of 14.67 would not only demolish the Pac-10 record of 14.00 set by UCLA's Erica Selsor (who also owns the career assist record.....for now) but would also break the NCAA mark. The player of the year is not a career award, however, and Thompson is having a terrific season. She leads the Pac-10 with 15.02 assists per game, which is 1.24 assists higher than her closest competitor. That total is the second best season average in Pac-10 history, and is only a bump of .04 assists per game away from the top mark ever in the Pac-10. And, like Barboza, Thompson plays good defense and is a great server. In fact, the statistic that just might give the best idea of Thompson's play is her serving stats. She has 21 aces on the year, which ranks second on the team, but has missed only 6 serves. No, I did not forget a number - in 83 games played this year Thompson has missed a total of 6 serves. Just an indication of how smart and how low error she is - Courtney Thompson makes very few errors in the course of a match and does everything necessary to help her team win.
The thing working against Thompson is that setters rarely garner Pac-10 Player of the Year. Most coaches will tell you that the setting position is the most critical on the floor and that having a good setter is essential for team success. Yet, in 19 years of conference player of the year awards, only three have gone to setters. Stanford's Wendy Rush won in 1987; Julie Bremner from UCLA in 1993 and finally Dana Burkholder of Arizona won in 2000. The coaches in this conference seem to have always recognized the greatness of the attackers in the Pac-10 but have, perhaps, slighted some very good setters. Thompson is not a good setter, she is a great setter, and should be recognized for her achievements. Regardless of where the Huskies finish in the Pac-10, Courtney Thompson should be named Pac-10 Player of the Year.
How about freshman of the year? There are some very good candidates this year and no clear cut favorite. USC setter Taylor Carico is having a terrific freshman season, averaging 13.16 assists per conference game and setting USC to a 21-3 record and No. 6 national ranking. The lefty's ability to be offensive has made her difficult to defend and has opened up the USC offense. She is having a great year and showing the potential to be a special setter in the Pac-10. Cal's Hana Cutura has been a major factor in its success, averaging 3.87 kills per game and giving the Golden Bears a much needed weapon alongside Angie Pressey. Cutura got off to a great start to the season, garnering two tournament MVP honors and another all-tournament honor, bringing back memories of another Cal great from Croatia - Mia Jerkov. However, Cutura was slowed down by a foot injury and is hitting only .111 in Pac-10 matches. Rachel Rourke from Oregon State has been the primary offensive weapon for the young Beavers and has come up big, averaging 4.36 kills per game - the best of the conference freshmen. Her 4.94 points per game also leads the freshman class, but Oregon State's struggles to win in the conference will likely take her out of contention. Oregon's Sonja Newcombe is the only freshman to be named Pac-10 Player of the Week this season, getting the honor after leading the Ducks to a weekend sweep over the Arizona schools in mid-October. She has been one of the main factors in Oregon's stunning turn around this season, leading the team in kills per game and is second in digs, trailing only libero Katie Swoboda. She is also a good server and blocker and was named floor captain for the Ducks, a title not many freshmen hold. ASU setter Marina Mercer deserves a mention, as does Arizona's talented duo of Whitney Dosty and Jacy Norton - these players will be heard from in the future but have not been able to provide enough wins for their teams.
I think it will come down to Carico and Newcombe - they have had the greatest impact on their teams and each play for a team ranked in the top 25 and headed for postseason play. But, as rare as it is for a setter to be named player of the year in the conference, it is even less likely for a setter to be awarded the freshman of the year award. Only once has a full time setter received freshman of the year, and it was nearly 20 years ago when California's Holly McPeak won. I should mention that Stanford's Cary Wendell was Freshman of the Year in 1992, and although she did eventually set in a 6-2 for the Cardinal she did not set as a freshman - she played opposite that year. Could this be the year of the setter in the Pac-10? Could setters sweep the player of the year awards? Oddly enough, it has happened before. The year McPeak won Freshman of the Year was the same year Rush won Player of the Year. This has been a good year for conference setters, but it remains to be seen if they will be rewarded for their outstanding play.
Finally, coach of the year. I would have to give strong consideration to Washington's Jim McLaughlin for the outstanding job he has done keeping the Huskies in contention after losing so many key players to graduation. Also, UCLA coach Andy Banachowski has done an excellent job returning his Bruin team to prominence and in the hunt for their first Pac-10 title since they shared the title with Stanford in 1999. But, hands down, the award goes to Oregon coach Jim Moore. No one figured the Ducks would rise this high this fast in the Pac-10 and the credit goes to Moore. The Ducks were picked to finish eighth and were coming off another last place finish in conference play. What Moore has done at Oregon is remarkable and he deserves to be honored as Coach of the Year.