Weekly Wrap-Up With Cathy Nelson

Sept. 27, 2007

After one week of conference play the thing I learned is that this year will be a battle - for every spot along the Pac-10 standings. After a fairly routine Thursday night of play Friday night showed just how tough this conference could be this year. Three of the five matches played on Friday went to five games and the Cal/Stanford match that went four was tight all the way. The only match that was not close on Saturday was Arizona State at UCLA - a match completely dominated by the Bruins.

In the non-conference schedule going to five games in a match was not a common thing for most Pac-10 schools. A total of 15 matches went to five games prior to the conference slate beginning, with Oregon State going the distance five times and Arizona State four. When Oregon and Washington went to a fifth game Friday night it was the first 5-game match for both teams. Washington State had not played a fifth game yet this year which may have contributed to their loss to the Beavers who have gone to five, amazingly enough, in nearly 50% of their matches this year (6 of 14). Now every team has played at least one 5-game match this year and I am guessing there are many more to come.

Oregon, for the second year in a row, lost at home to the Huskies in five games. Husky coach Jim McLaughlin, in his seventh season in Seattle, has never lost to the Ducks. However, the Ducks have never had junior Gorana Maricic who had a career best 33 kills and 20 digs against Washington. Those 33 kills are the most from a Pac-10 player this season, as are the 75 swings she took during the match. Maricic sat out last season after transferring from Division II Northwood University and has made an immediate impact for Oregon. She leads the Pac-10 in kills per game with 4.86 and is second in points with 5.43 a game. She also takes the pressure off sophomore Sonja Newcombe, a Pac-10 all-freshman team player a year ago who does a little bit of everything for Oregon. During the match the Ducks came to rely heavily on Maricic and Newcombe, along with freshman Heather Meyers, for their offense - only one other Duck had more than nine attempts on the night. They were more balanced offensively the next night against Washington State, but will have to find that balance when they play the top echelon teams.

The Huskies are definitely a team to contend with this season. They are returning every starter but one - setter Courtney Thompson who was a three-time All-American and the undisputed leader of the Washington program. But so far freshman setter Jenna Hagglund has been up to the challenge and the Huskies continue to roll. They rely heavily on their seniors, including the reigning Pac-10 player of the year Christal Morrison, two-time first team All-Pac-10 middle blocker Alesha Deesing and the Seattle Regional Most Outstanding Player Stevie Mussie. Add in the terrific play of freshman Becky Perry and first team All-Pac-10 junior middle Jessica Swarbrick, as well as libero Tamari Miyashiro, currently second in the Pac-10 in digs, and it is hard to find a weakness in this Husky line-up. Their balance offensively was certainly a factor in their win over Oregon - five players had 17 or more attempts and four players had double digit kills, including 27 for Mussie. Both Mussie and Morrison had knee surgeries this spring which was a reason for concern heading into the season but seem to have come back strong. After their trip to Pullman this weekend they will hit a very crucial month in their schedule. In October the Huskies host the Arizona schools, followed by a trip to Northern California and home matches against USC and UCLA. It is so important to win at home in the Pac-10 and Washington will be tested there in October. How they do during that stretch may very well indicate if they can make it to their fourth final four in a row.

USC is one of three undefeated teams in the conference (there are six left in the country). That nearly came to an end on Friday when Arizona visited the Galen Center and had won the first and third games of the match, leaving USC with no margin for error. The Women of Troy took over the match at that point, recording 23 kills to only five errors in games 4 and 5, while Arizona struggled down the stretch with only 19 kills to 16 errors in the final two games. As usual USC relied on their senior tandem of Asia Kaczor and Diane Copenhagen who led the way offensively with 25 and 13 kills, respectively. Add in the terrific play of freshman Kimmee Roleder (15 kills, 4 solo blocks) and the setting of Taylor Carico and you find a team with a good mix of old and young with plenty of weapons. However, the most difficult stretch for this team awaits - its next three conference matches are at Stanford, at California, and at rival UCLA. I would be very surprised if USC can stay undefeated through that stretch.

Does Arizona's 10-4 record and hard fought, close matches against UCLA and USC this past weekend signal the Wildcat's are back? Has Arizona regained the form that sent them to 10 straight NCAA tournament appearances, a streak that was broken after last season's dismal 4-14 conference record? Maybe. They do not have a significant win this year - no wins against ranked teams and losses to unranked Pepperdine and a St. Mary's team that is 8-4 on the year. They are one of the top blocking teams in the conference, but otherwise rank in the bottom half of the other statistical categories. And although they have a number of players putting up good numbers - senior Dominique Lamb, junior Randy Goodenough and sophomore Jacy Norton have led the way so far - it is who is not on the floor that has also influenced this team. Pac-10 all-freshman team member Whitney Dosty has yet to play for the Wildcats due to a knee injury suffered this summer when training with the US Junior National Team. Dosty had one of the best freshman seasons ever at Arizona and is a key component to its success. She may play later in the year or she may redshirt, but either way this Wildcat team is not the same without her. This much I do know - if Arizona is going to be a factor in the Pac-10 and get back to the NCAA tournament they MUST win its next three matches. It hosts Oregon State and Oregon this weekend and then head to Pullman to play WSU. If the Wildcats win three, they are sure a lot closer to being back.

When Washington State and Oregon State collided Friday night it was what you might expect - a close, hard fought match between two teams that desperately need conference wins. By winning, Oregon State did something they could not manage all of last season - win a Pac-10 match. And it managed to win a five-game match after losing its final two non-conference matches in five games. For Oregon State the win means it has made progress and builds on some impressive non-conference wins against No. 10 Hawaii and Colorado State. It also showed that the Beavers have more than just Rachel Rourke. Yes, it still relies on Rourke to provide a lot of offense, but with improvements by senior Kristin Murray and sophomore Bree Knitter there are more options for new setter K.C. Walsh. And old setter Ashley Evans has moved to the libero position and excelled, recording more than 20 digs in the past four matches. Now the Beavers have to look toward all their winnable matches and come up big. Their first such challenges come this weekend at the Arizona schools. A sweep would be huge, but a split will be necessary if the Beavers want to continue the climb up the Pac-10 standings.

For Washington State the loss to Oregon State in five games is heartbreaking and keeps them on the slide that started September 8th. Since that date the Cougars have lost five straight matches, three of which were sweeps by their opponents. During the losing streak they have yet to hit .200 in a match and have three matches in which they hit below .100. Perhaps a bit of home cooking will help the Cougars - they have played 12 consecutive matches away from home and finally return on Friday to host their rival and No. 8-ranked Huskies. The Cougs have not lost at home this year but they also have not seen a team as good as Washington either. The rivalry matches bring out tremendous emotion, however, and the Cougs will need to find a lot of it to stay with the powerful Huskies.

This week keep an eye on the state of California. My favorite matches of the Pac-10 season are when Cal and Stanford match up with USC and UCLA. Each is ranked in the top 10 nationally and features two undefeated teams in USC and Stanford. It is this weekend that sets the Pac-10 apart from any other conference - four teams playing each other when all are in the top 10. That does happen one other time each year outside the Pac-10......it is called the Final Four.

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