Weekly Wrap-Up With Cathy Nelson

Nov. 21, 2006

Well, well. Two weeks left and no way to know who the Pac-10 champion will be. The Stanford Cardinal were in the driver's seat a week ago until USC knocked them off, in Palo Alto, with a 3-0 sweep. What a huge win for the Women of Troy - a win that keeps them in contention for the championship. UCLA, tied with USC at 12-3, also still have a shot at the Pac-10 crown and will face its cross town rival on Friday night to see which team is still in the hunt. Washington, having won the last two Pac-10 titles, quietly keeps on winning and is currently tied with Stanford at 12-2 atop the Pac-10. Which of these four teams will win it?

USC and UCLA play on Friday night - a big match any year. There is a lot of added incentive this year, however, as the loser of that match will record their fourth conference loss and would no longer have a realistic shot at a Pac-10 championship. A couple of weeks ago I would have not hesitated to pick UCLA to win this match, but after last weekend I have to wonder if this USC team is just starting to play it's best volleyball. Flash back about one month ago when Stanford won at USC on the night their new arena, the Galen Center, opened. That was the first loss of the season for the Women of Troy and would lead to two more losses in their next three matches. Since their last loss, to Washington in Seattle on October 26, the Women of Troy have won five straight, losing only one game during that span. Their most impressive wins came last weekend in three-game sweeps at both Stanford and California. Cal had not been swept in a Pac-10 match at home since 2003 and the Cardinal have lost in three at home only two times the past five years. For the weekend USC hit .272, including .315 against Stanford, while holding their Northern California foes to only .177.

And how about the play of Asia Kaczor during this stretch. She was absolutely the best player on the floor against Stanford, carving the Cardinal up for 26 kills and only 2 errors, hitting .500 for the match. She has a streak of four matches with 20 or more kills, the last three coming during 3-0 sweeps, and has averaged 7.15 kills per game during that span. Her worst game during the five-match win streak was at Washington State, when she had 15 kills to only 3 errors and a .353 hitting percentage. Her tremendous play of late has placed her atop the Pac-10 statistical standings in kills per game and points and her .311 hitting percentage is seventh in the Pac-10 and the highest for an outside hitter. In fact, she has twice as many swings (1029) than everyone on the list but one player. Her addition to the USC lineup has been critical to their outstanding play this year, but the improved play of junior Diane Copenhagen is just as important for their success. She averages over 4.0 kills a game and ranks eighth in the conference in points per game and provides balance to the lineup. Also, Copenhagen was recruited on the heels of two straight national championships and you can bet she fully expects to get to the Final Four during her tenure at USC. Setter Taylor Carico is not playing like a freshman, and her improvement during the year and ability to run the team at this point in the season has allowed the Women of Troy to continue to elevate their game. This team can win at UCLA Friday night. And, if Kaczor continues her incredible play, they will.

UCLA could not do what USC did last weekend - beat Stanford. The Bruins are 0-2 against the Cardinal this year, but what is important now is that they go 2-0 against the Women of Troy. If UCLA can get a win over USC and over the Oregon schools next weekend they will finish 15-3 in the Pac-10. The last time the Bruins had at least 15 wins in the conference was back in 1999 when they won the Pac-10 with a 17-1 record. That 1999 season was the first in a string of successful but disappointing years for UCLA. In the seven years from 1999-2005 UCLA made it to the regional final match five times but could not get a win in any of those matches to earn a berth to the Final Four. In the late 80's and early 90's the Bruins rarely missed a Final Four, going five out of six years and winning two national championships. But 1994 was their last Final Four appearance - is this the year UCLA gets back to the Final Four? It has been ranked among the top teams in the nation all year, has great wins over Florida, Hawaii and Washington, and seem to have all the pieces necessary to get to a national championship. Nana Meriwether is playing at an incredible level, she has a great supporting cast, they are experienced at every position and they have a very good setter. All these ingredients put the Bruins in a great position to get there. I do think UCLA will get themselves to the Final Four, but they will not win the Pac-10 championship.

Either Washington or Stanford will win the Pac-10 this year. They each have only two losses, and each team plays three matches they should win.....and each other. It is very likely that the conference champion will be determined November 24 in Palo Alto when Washington faces Stanford. I said earlier in the year that Stanford would likely go as outside hitters Cynthia Barboza and Kristin Richards went. We saw last weekend against USC that when they cannot produce Stanford will struggle. I put the jinx on Barboza by writing what a great player she was in last week's column, and she responded by putting up 24 kills to 24 errors on the weekend, hitting .000. Richards did not fare much better, hitting .000 herself against USC before rebounding with 12 kills and a .140 against UCLA. But, to give them credit, both players give the Cardinal great passing, serving and defense even when their offense isn't on. And Stanford had enough production from other players to beat a very good UCLA team. Stanford has the advantage in the schedule over Washington - the Cardinal travel to Oregon and Oregon State this weekend, where they have never lost a Pac-10 match - before hosting Washington and Washington State. The Huskies host the suddenly hot Arizona schools before heading to Northern California. And, while Washington will need to put together two great matches in California to beat two ranked teams, Stanford will face only one ranked opponent and can focus their attention on the Huskies. Even if Washington beat Stanford there would be no guarantee that the Pac-10 championship would be theirs - California would be waiting and ready to play the spoiler.

Washington, however, is just so steady. It has two of the top five players in the conference in setter Courtney Thompson and hitter Crystal Morrison, and many other great players to round out a very talented team. When the Huskies play their low error game they are incredibly tough to beat. They will beat the Arizona schools at home this weekend setting up the championship match at Stanford the next weekend. But, I have to give the edge to Stanford in that one. I just can't imagine that Stanford will lose two home conference matches this year. It is too talented and coach John Dunning will have his team ready for the challenge. The Cardinal did not play well the first time they met Washington in Seattle and they will want to set the record straight. And they want to reclaim the Pac-10 championship they used to win with regularity. But it has been four years since the Cardinal were Pac-10 champs - the longest drought ever for Stanford. Keep in mind that Stanford won six straight from 1994-1999 but have won only one since. I don't think the senior class at Stanford would have guessed they could go through their career without winning a Pac-10 championship and they will do whatever it takes to get one. What it takes is this - beat the Huskies on your home floor. In order to become the champions you need to beat the champions and that is the challenge that faces Stanford on its quest to be crowned Pac-10 champs.

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