Weekly Wrap-Up With Cathy Nelson

Oct. 11, 2007

STANDINGS, AS I SEE IT

We are three weeks into the Pac-10 season and things are starting to take shape. We have teams yet to lose in the conference and a team yet to win in the conference. We have five teams ranked among the top 10 in the nation - a feat that would seem unbelievable but is common place for the teams in this conference. Here is where I think the teams rank this season:

No. 1 Stanford. Okay, not much of a stretch here, but I cannot go against the Cardinal. I have heard more than one coach describe them as 'unbeatable' and so far they have been just that. Senior setter Bryn Kehoe leads the nation in assists, averaging 14.42 per game, and is one of only three players over 14 a game. Junior middle Foluke Akinradewo leads the nation in hitting percentage, hitting .488 so far this year. As a team Stanford is second in the nation in kills per game (17.81), third in assists per game (16.32) and fourth in hitting percentage (.321). They have dropped only one game in conference play, which includes four matches against ranked opponents. They are an experienced, well balanced team without a weakness. So all the numbers support the notion that Stanford will win its 11th Pac-10 championship. But it is something else I see in the Cardinal that I like, and that will be a major factor in the NCAA tournament - confidence. When they played at Oregon last weekend they found themselves in a deficit at the end of game two after easily winning game one. Oregon had a game point at 29-27, the crowd at Mac Court was going wild and all the momentum seemed to favor the Ducks. But the Cardinal did not panic, everyone on the court was calm, and they simply scored five of the next six points to win the game. Even the Oregon players felt it, remarking in the paper that it felt like Stanford just knew they were going to win even when they were down. That is something rare and special and Stanford has it.

No. 2 UCLA. I am giving the Bruins the nod over Washington for the simple fact that they have more experience at key positions and perhaps the best setter in the country in junior Nellie Spicer. UCLA made it to the Final Four last season after an 11-year absence and it certainly has all the pieces to get there again. However, it did lose two All-Americans from last season - Nana Meriwether and Katie Carter - that gave the Bruins a one-two punch. UCLA does have terrific balance this year, with three players averaging over 3.3 kills per game. Junior Ali Daley leads the way at nearly 4.0 kills per game, with junior Kaitlin Sather and senior Rachell Johnson both around 3.5 kills per game. The Bruins have been successful without hitting a high percentage (they are sixth in the conference at .233). You would think a team ranked No. 4 in the nation would have to hit better than that, especially when the three teams ranked ahead of them - Nebraska, Stanford and Penn State - are No. 1, No. 4 and No. 3 nationally in team hitting percentage. UCLA comes in a distant 69th. The only statistic they lead the conference in is digs per game, which tells you a little about how they win without being a top-rated offensive team. The Bruins will pass, defend and serve well night in a night out. And, like Stanford, they have that extra something when they need it. Down 0-2 to California the Bruins fought back, squeaked out wins in game three and four, and managed to win, on the road, while hitting only .131 for the night and being out blocked 23-14.5. They just know how to get it done in crunch time. Credit their win this spring at the Adult Open Championships for forging that belief, a tournament that saw them defeat Washington and the USA Red team, a collegiate all-star training team. UCLA's only losses so far are to No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 Stanford, both of which they would love to avenge later this year.

No. 3 - Washington. I can't say enough about the job Jim McLaughlin has done in Seattle. The Huskies have gone to three consecutive Final Fours and won a national championship the past three years. Once again they have started the season on a roll and have a No. 8 national ranking to show for it. But, as I mentioned last week, the Huskies have not played a highly-competitive schedule. That will all change the next two weeks with four straight matches against top 10 opponents. A trademark of Washington volleyball is that it has a very high hitting percentage. In the past five seasons the Huskies have ended the season ranked no worse than eleventh in country in hitting percentage, were first in 2005 and eighth after last year. They are currently second in the nation to Nebraska. Three players from Washington -Jessica Swarbrick, Alesha Deesing and Becky Perry - are second, third and fourth, respectively, in the Pac-10 for hitting efficiency. The worst hitting performance of the year for Washington came against ASU, when it hit .243. That is a great 'worst' performance, and was backed up the next night against Arizona when it hit a nearly season high .427 against the Wildcats. Can the Huskies continue to hit over .300 against top 10 teams? There is no shortage of offensive weapons in Seattle, including reigning Pac-10 player of the year Christal Morrison, but having a freshman setter usually will play a role at some point in the season. Stay tuned as the next two weeks will be telling for the Huskies.

No. 4 USC. This team has talent, but generally is a very young team on the floor. That is especially true now as senior captain Diane Copenhagen has missed the last three matches entirely, and played sparingly against Stanford before that, due to an abdominal strain. She is listed as week to week, and in her absence freshman Kimmee Roleder has stepped in and showed why she was such a highly-rated recruit. Along with fellow freshmen Zoe Garrett and defensive specialist Gino Urango the Women of Troy are relying on three freshmen to make plays. Considering that the other starters - junior Jessica Gysin, senior Asia Kaczor, senior Bethany Johansen and sophomore Taylor Carico - are all essentially in their second year at USC you realize they are not that experienced. Perhaps that explains falling behind 0-2 to UC Irvine only to come back to win. Or going five games with Arizona. Before the season coach Mick Haley felt this was a Final Four caliber team - or would become one. 'I think we should be in the hunt for the national championship,' said Haley. 'I will be very disappointed if we don't continue to get better as the season progresses. We will not be Final Four-caliber at the start of the season but by November, we should be very good.' It is not November yet and the Women of Troy have shown they are a very good team, but a little erratic. Both of their losses have come on the road to Stanford and UCLA. Are they elite? Probably not this year, but the future is bright for this young USC team.

No. 5 California. I wonder if California is tired of finishing fifth. That is just where the Golden Bears have ended the past two seasons, and tied for fourth the year before that. They are ranked 10th in the nation and will likely end up in the middle of the conference standings. And that is how it has been for Cal. It is good - very good - but not quite good enough to make it to the top of the Pac-10. They did tie for third place in 2003 which is a program best and a place they would love to return. The Golden Bears did what they had to do last weekend - get into the win column and, even better, a sweep at the Oregon schools. With Oregon ranked No. 19 it is certainly not as easy at it once was but Cal showed maturity and came away with a tight, hard fought win against the Ducks before soundly defeating Oregon State. And they have been close to knocking off higher ranked teams, going to five games with UCLA and taking a game off of Stanford, the only Pac-10 team to do so this season. I really like the balance that Cal shows on offense, often getting double digit kills from as many as four players in a match. Sophomore Hana Cutura and senior Angie Pressey lead the way for Cal offensively, but it is the defensive side of the ball that seems to be Cal's strength. They lead the Pac-10 in blocks per game and recorded 23 total blocks in their loss to UCLA. As with Washington, Cal has a freshman setter in Carli Lloyd. How far California goes likely depends on how Lloyd grows this year and if she can help get them over the hump and out of fifth place.

No. 6 Oregon. The Ducks have a lot going for them and certainly a bright future. With only one senior on the roster you can imagine the success that could await this team a year from now. However, it is not all about the future as their No. 19 national ranking indicates. This season has started out much like last year did for the Ducks. They recorded lots of wins early in the season and had five conference wins in the first half of Pac-10 play. But last year's team faltered down the stretch, losing their last eight matches, including their NCAA match against Hawaii. Can Oregon learn from last year and avoid the late season meltdown? This team went to the desert and swept Arizona and ASU which is a good indication that this is not last year's team. They also have the kill leader in the Pac-10, junior Gorana Maricic, who is averaging over 5.0 kills a game. The only time Oregon gets into trouble is when it relies too much on Maricic, who already has two conference matches where she has had 70 or more swings. Sophomore Sonja Newcombe, a Pac-10 all-freshman team member last year who led the team in kills as a freshman, has all but disappeared since conference matches have begun. She has yet to hit .200 in conference play and has not reached double figure kills in the Ducks last three matches. Freshman Heather Meyers is having an impressive freshman campaign, starting every match, and basketball player turned volleyball player Kristen Forristall leads the team in blocking. There is a lot to like about Oregon, but next year may be its year.

No. 7 Arizona. The Wildcats, at 12-6 overall (2-4 Pac-10) are not out of the NCAA picture yet, but will have to get some things worked out if they hope to be there in November. They showed signs of being a very good team when they opened the Pac-10 playing well and pushing both UCLA (4 games) and USC (5 games) on the road before losing. Their other two losses - at home to Oregon and at Washington - were bad losses. They needed to hold home court against the Ducks and could not, and then were not any competition for the No. 8 Huskies. They need to a win at Arizona State Friday night in the Pac-10 match of the week to get some positive momentum going. The Wildcats have dominated the series over the past 10 years but ASU won both meetings last year, sweeping Arizona for the first time since 1995. Arizona has some youth on the floor and is still without sophomore Whitney Dosty who has been out the whole year with an injury. But the bottom line is this - if they want to get back to the NCAA tournament after being left out last year, they will need to get a signature win. I don't think it will be enough to beat the teams at the bottom of the conference this year - they must find a way to defeat a ranked opponent.

No. 8 Arizona State. When Coach Brad Saindon took his Sun Devils to the NCAA tournament last year after a three-year absence he hoped that would be the start of a string of NCAA appearances. However, ASU has struggled this season to regain its form of a year ago and the contributions of departed seniors Nicole Morton and Nina Reeves. The Sun Devils got off to a slow start losing four of their first five matches, and even a five-match winning streak before Pac-10 play began could not get them ready for conference competition. At 10-9 overall, it is going to be a struggle to maintain a winning record and, like Arizona, the ASU program would need to have a good win over a strong opponent. It did not accomplish that during the non-conference part of its schedule and it only gets harder in conference play. Beating Arizona Friday night would be a big boost, but I don't see how this team will be able to knock off any upper level Pac-10 team. Perhaps ASU's only real identity lies with libero Sydney Donahue, the Pac-10 career digs leader. Freshman outside Sarah Reaves is making a name for herself, averaging over 4.0 kills a game to lead the team. But it is the six seniors on the roster that need to step up and get ASU back to the NCAA tournament.

No. 9 Oregon State. What happened to the Oregon State team from the preseason? The team that beat Colorado State and Hawaii, that competed hard but lost a couple of heartbreakers to LMU and Pacific? That stood at 1-0 in the Pac-10 after a conference-opening win against Washington State? Since that win the Beavers have not won a game, enduring five consecutive sweeps by their opponents. And with matches at USC and UCLA this weekend it is not likely to get better for the Beavers. Sophomore Rachel Rourke still carries the load offensively, averaging 4.5 kills per game and over 5.0 points a game, good enough for second in the Pac-10. The fact is that most of the net play for the Beavers is coming from the sophomore class - there is only one senior on the roster, outside hitter Kristin Murray. If coach Terry Liskevych can get a few good recruiting classes strung together, they can get OSU turned around. But for now, it looks like more growing pains are in store for the Beavers.

No. 10 Washington State. The Cougars have finished ninth in the Pac-10 three consecutive years and seem to be headed in that direction again. WSU was 9-2 at one point this season before sliding into an eight-match losing streak, including all five of its conference contests. Over the past several years Washington State has been bitten by the transfer bug, and again after last season lost a key player - setter Corina Beyer. So senior Maureen Perez has taken the reigns after playing sparingly a year ago but has five returnees to get the ball to. Unfortunately the Cougs are hitting a Pac-10 low .180 for the year and are also last in kills and assists. At this point the most important thing is confidence - trying to get some when you are not winning, and trying to sustain it once you get some. This will be a hard time to find confidence for the Cougs - their next five matches are all against teams ranked in the top 10 nationally.

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