Weekly Wrap-Up With Cathy Nelson
Oct. 4, 2007
The Cardinal and the Huskies are the only two Pac-10 teams that have managed to make it to October without a loss. They are two of five teams in the country that have yet to taste defeat - No. 1 Nebraska, No. 6 Florida and No. 15 Dayton are the other three. Yet Washington remains at No. 8 nationally and stays behind Penn State with two losses, UCLA and USC who both lost this weekend (UCLA for the second time) and Texas with three losses. The only explanation for this is the emphasis on strength of schedule, or in the case of the Huskies lack thereof, with the voters.
Just how good is Washington? Let's see.....they are 14-0 on the year and have every starter except one back from a team that made it to the Final Four last season. They lead the Pac-10 and are second in the nation in hitting percentage, hitting .339 as a team. They have three players in the top five in the Pac-10 in individual hitting percentage. They have the reigning Pac-10 Player of the Year Chrystal Morrison and three players on the floor that received All-American honors last season. All the evidence suggests this is a very good team. But, even after six weeks of play I cannot tell how good this Washington team is. Why? They have played only one ranked team - No. 21 Oregon. The Pac-10 opener was the only time they have been challenged this season - in fact, the Huskies had lost only 1 game all season before the Oregon match, a five-game win. Washington has swept 12 of its 14 matches - including two of three in the Pac-10. Only two teams it has played in its non-conference schedule managed 25 points in a game. So either the Huskies are very, very good and have been dominant or they just have not had any competition. All that will change come the middle of October. After home matches against Arizona State and Arizona this weekend the Huskies will have four consecutive matches against top 10 teams. They will travel to California and Stanford followed by home matches against UCLA and USC. So if you want to know how good Washington is ask me on October 20th.
Stanford, on the other hand, has earned its place as the No. 2 team in the land behind Nebraska in the national polls. It has faced every challenge up to this point - it has played and defeated nine ranked teams so far this year, including No. 3 Penn State, No. 4 USC and No. 5 UCLA. Like Washington, Stanford returns three players with All-American credentials and added the No. 1 recruit in the nation with freshman Alix Klineman. But what makes Stanford special and one of the truly elite teams in the country this year is its balance offensively and its experience. It has three players that are averaging over 4.0 kills per game which is just unheard of and not duplicated by any other top 10 team. And with a line-up that is dominated by juniors and seniors that have been on the floor since their freshman year there is not much that will affect this team mentally.
Perhaps the best place to see Stanford's experience, and its success, is with senior setter Bryn Kehoe. She is one of only two senior setters in the Pac-10 and the other, Washington State's Maureen Perez, is in her first year starting for the Cougars. She understands the game, she understands her hitters and she knows how to make everyone else look better. Yes, she has terrific weapons at her disposal, but knowing how to use your talent is what separates the elite teams from the good teams. Kehoe is an elite setter and Stanford is an elite team.
Last weekend was one that was supposed to be a challenge for the Cardinal but ended up as three game sweeps against two of the better teams in the nation, USC and UCLA. Stanford thoroughly defeated USC, hitting .323 as a team and getting in done defensively as well - it won the blocking battle 12-8 and had 18 more digs than the Women of Troy. It was more the same against UCLA with Stanford winning all the statistical battles. And what a weekend for junior middle Foluke Akinradewo. She had 18 kills and only one error against USC, hitting a scorching .680 and followed that up with 12 kills and one error for .500 against the Bruins. Even Texas Coach Jerritt Elliott, whose outside hitter Destinee Hooker was named AVCA national player of the week couldn't believe that award didn't go to Akinradewo this week. Maybe that award didn't go the way of the Cardinal, but they have all the pieces to be back playing in the national championship match in December.
Big Matches this weekend
There are two marquee match ups in the Conference this weekend. The first happens Thursday night and is the Pac-10 match of the week - California at Oregon. The Golden Bears have started the Pac-10 season 0-3 and have to be hungry for a win. It is little consolation that their losses have been to No. 2 Stanford in four games, No. 5 UCLA in five games and No. 4 USC in four games. Cal was in every match and even had a 2 games to none lead over UCLA but could not get a win. Now it enters a much more favorable stretch in its schedule but will face a hot Oregon team that swept at Arizona State and Arizona for the first time in 20 years. Cal Coach Rich Feller has never lost in Eugene in his eight years in Berkeley but did suffer a home defeat to Oregon last year, and this is the best Oregon team he has faced.
Oregon is off to its best Pac-10 start since 1987 and would love to add a win at home against a ranked opponent to its resume. The Ducks opened the Conference schedule with a tough five game loss to No. 8 Washington and hope to get over the hump with the Golden Bears. Both teams have outstanding 1-2 punches offensively with Cal relying on Angie Pressey and Hana Cutura and Oregon countering with Gorana Maricic and Sonja Newcombe. Maricic leads the Pac-10 in kills per game and points per game and has come up huge night after night for Oregon. California leads the Conference in blocking while Oregon leads the Conference in aces....with Cal right behind. These are two evenly matched teams - Oregon gets the home court advantage but Cal has the most balanced offense in the Pac-10 with every starting hitter averaging over 2.0 kills per game. Oregon is the hot team and Cal is the team desperate for a Conference win. This is one of those matches that can make a huge impact for the team that comes away with a win.
The other big match this weekend is Friday night when No. 4 USC visits No. 5 UCLA. The rivalry match in Los Angeles is always compelling but even more so when they are both ranked so high and each need a win to keep up with Stanford and Washington atop the Pac-10 standings. UCLA won both matches against USC last season for the first time since 1999. In fact, before last year, USC had defeated the Bruins 11 consecutive times from 2001-2005. Of course in the early 90's it was UCLA that dominated the rivalry. And so it goes with these two schools. But this year they are as close as you can get. Each team has 13 wins, both lost to Stanford last weekend and they are ranked within one spot of each other in the national polls. And how about the coaching match up? Two Hall of Fame coaches with over 1,700 wins between them and six national championships. This is as good as it gets.
UCLA has one of the best setters in the county with First Team All-American Nellie Spicer running the show, and junior Ali Daley has posted double/doubles (kills and digs) in three of four Pac-10 matches. USC has one of the best pure attackers in the country in senior Asia Kaczor and a terrific young setter in sophomore Taylor Carico, the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year last season. Will USC be affected by its near loss earlier this week to UC Irvine? The Women of Troy trailed 0-2 in the match, at home, but managed to rally and pull out the win. Not what they had in mind when they added Irvine to the schedule. UCLA had to pull themselves out of a similar situation last weekend, but that was on the road against California, a top 10 team. One thing is for sure - it will be a battle in LA Friday night.