Weekly Wrap-Up With Cathy Nelson

Oct. 24, 2007

HALFWAY HOME

We have hit the halfway point in the Pac-10 season and the conference championship is very much up for grabs. Stanford and Washington have put themselves in the best position after the first round with identical records - they are both 8-1 in the Pac-10 and 19-1 overall. USC, UCLA and California are log jammed in third with a 6-3 mark with Oregon on their heels at 4-5. Arizona State and Arizona are holding to slim NCAA hopes while Oregon State and Washington State bring up the rear. What do we have in store for the final five weeks of conference play? Many big match-ups, teams desperately trying to get on track, and somewhere in there a conference title will be decided.

The remaining schedule will often dictate how a team will do down the stretch. Some teams have decidedly easier second halves coming their way while others, unfortunately, have a tougher road ahead. Of course every team will play each other one more time but the order and location of those matches can have an impact on the degree of difficulty of the schedule. California, for instance, played host to Stanford, USC, UCLA and Washington during the first half of the Pac-10 slate and have a 6-3 record to show for it. Big wins for the Golden Bears in the first half was their win at Oregon and, more impressively, beating Washington at home. But now they must face the top four teams in the conference on the road, including this weekend when they travel to USC and UCLA. Since Rich Feller took over in Berkeley in 1999 Cal has a combined overall record of 5-27 when they play at USC, UCLA, Stanford and Washington. Four of those wins are against the Huskies, including back-to-back victories in 2003 and 2004. They have not won in any of those locations in the past two years, and have never won at Stanford or UCLA. So it will take a terrific effort by California to finish the second half of the Pac-10 with the same 6-3 record it currently has. If the Bears can pull it off, however, a total of 12 conference wins would equal the 2003 team that went a program best 12-6 and tied for third in the conference.

If Cal has a tough schedule it would stand to reason that travel partner Stanford also has it tough, and they do. They are hosting Cal which gives the Cardinal five home matches against four on the road, but three of those road matches are against top 10 teams. Stanford has had better overall success on the road than Cal but have its struggles as well, particularly against Washington. No one on the Stanford roster has won in Seattle as the Huskies have won four in a row at home. In fact, Washington is the only conference team that has a winning record against Stanford in the past five years. It is a remarkable 6-3 against the Cardinal in their last nine meetings dating back to 2003. Stanford is a little better on the road at USC, going 3-3 in LA over the past six seasons, but has not lost to UCLA in Pauley since 2000. As good at Stanford is this year, and it is very good, its real tests are coming. While going 3-1 in its past four matches it hit below .250 three consecutive times which is significantly below its season average of .313. The Cardinal got it going in their last match, however, hitting a season best .491 while completely dominating Arizona State. They handled USC and UCLA with ease the first time around, hitting over .300 both times and winning every statistical battle. It could be a different matter on the road but when Stanford is playing well it is as good as anyone in the country.

Arizona showed some life this weekend after the announcement that Whitney Dosty, an Pac-10 All-Freshman team member last year, would redshirt the season with a knee injury. The Wildcats played Stanford tough Thursday night and held a two games to none lead against Cal on Friday before eventually losing 12-15 in the fifth game. However, the fact remains that they have lost their last four matches and five of their last six. Before the Cal match they were swept in three consecutive matches for the first time since 1992 - Coach David Rubio's first year in Tucson. And they are looking at a very tough stretch to end their season. Arizona's final five matches will all be against teams ranked in the top 20 nationally. A non-conference match against #18 Colorado State at home November 9th begins the run, followed by matches at Cal and Stanford and finally a home stand against USC and UCLA. Currently at 12-9 overall, it is not inconceivable that Arizona could find a way into the NCAA tournament. No Pac-10 team has ever been invited to the NCAA tournament with fewer than seven conference wins, but no Pac-10 team with a winning record has been left out of the tournament since it expanded to 64 teams in 1998. If Arizona can go 5-5 down the stretch they would get in. At 4-6 they would have a winning record - 16-15 - but only 6 conference wins. That is a position they would love to be in, as the Wildcats have not missed the NCAA tournament for two straight years since 1991-1992.

Arizona State must be kicking itself for its slow start to the season. The Sun Devils lost their first three matches of the year and four of their first five to teams that are not considered top flight teams. UNLV is having a great year in the Mountain West, but Virginia, Texas Tech, New Mexico and San Jose State, all teams that defeated Arizona State, are not. Those losses have made a return trip to the NCAA tournament nearly impossible. At 11-11 overall there is no room for error and the Sun Devils will have to go 5-4 in their final nine matches. In the final three weeks ASU will host the Washington schools, travel to Stanford and Cal, and then host UCLA and USC. That is five teams currently in the top 9 in the nation, one of which would need to be a win if the NCAA tournament is in their future. The bad news is that the Sun Devils were not really close the first time through against the top teams - they were swept in four of the five matches managing to take a game off only Cal.

The Oregon schools have a bit of reprieve from the top 10 with the Arizona schools coming to the Northwest this weekend. But it will not last long as its next four matches are at Stanford and Cal and then at home against UCLA and USC. The only win for the Oregon schools against the California schools the first time through was Oregon State's improbable win at UCLA. The Beavers could not hang onto the momentum very long, however, as they lost in convincing fashion to the Ducks in part one of the Civil War last weekend. Oregon's last match of the Pac-10 season comes at Washington, a chance for the Ducks to avenge the tough five-game loss to the Huskies that opened the conference season for both teams. Oregon has not won at Washington since 1990 and had suffered five consecutive sweeps in Seattle before last season when the match went four games. A win in Seattle would solidify Oregon's rise as a national contender, but this team is headed to the NCAA tournament and should make it past the first round for the first time in 23 years. The Beavers are not headed for postseason play but have shown flashes of brilliance to build upon. They are very young with only one senior on the roster and a lineup that features many sophomores and should be in the NCAA conversation a year from now.

Washington was picked to finish fourth by the coaches before the season began, which is fairly low considering it has been to three consecutive Final Four's and returned five starters from last year. That just shows the respect the coaches had for setter Courtney Thompson, assuming the Huskies would not be the same team without her. And they are not the same, but they are still very good and Coach Jim McLaughlin has a system that has proven to be successful year in and year out. They might be considered a surprise to be at 8-1 through the first half but they have done it with authority, getting sweeps in six of their eight wins. Two of those sweeps were last weekend against UCLA and USC, teams that you would expect to be a challenge for Washington but were outmatched. November will be their toughest test yet - after traveling to the Arizona schools the run of top 10 teams begin - home against Stanford and California and to LA to play USC and UCLA. The most intriguing weekend in the second half is when Stanford and Cal visit Seattle - the matches in the Bay Area were incredible and there is no reason to believe these will be any different. NCAA tournament seeding will be at stake, and so could the Pac-10 championship. And you can bet that UCLA and USC want to give a better showing at home against the Huskies than they did last weekend in Seattle. And finally the Ducks come visiting after Thanksgiving - a team that desperately wants to prove they can do more than just compete with Washington, but that they can win.

Probably the easiest remaining schedule, and that is very relative considering we are talking Pac-10 volleyball, belongs to USC, with UCLA a close second. The Women of Troy get to be at home for their toughest remaining matches and travel to the teams near the bottom. These next three matches will be very important for USC - they host, in order, California, Stanford and UCLA. To stay in the race for the Pac-10 championship they need to win at least two of three, and it would be very helpful if one of those wins was against Stanford. Three wins and they prove themselves to be in the hunt for more than just a conference championship. And after a trip to Oregon, which is no easy win, they will host the Huskies looking for back-to-back home wins against Washington. Depending on what happens with the earlier matches that could have Pac-10 title implications. UCLA does have to travel across town to face USC but otherwise has the same benefits that USC does - the toughest teams at home and the weaker teams on the road. The Bruins were picked to finish second in the Pac-10 and most felt they could be a title contender. But with three losses after the first half they have a lot of catching up to do if they want to win their first Pac-10 championship since 1999. This is a program that won six of the first eight Pac-10 championships from 1986-1993 but has won only one since. Friday night's match against Stanford is a match the Bruins need to win if they want to contend for an eighth title. They could not take a game off Stanford in Palo Alto and need to turn the tables on the Cardinal. Another loss for UCLA essentially takes them out of the race for the championship - no team has won a Pac-10 championship with even three losses. But it could happen, and this is a year it might happen with so many evenly matched teams and so much yet to be decided.

The first half of Pac-10 play was both surprising and entertaining. I have a feeling there will be much, more to come as the second half unfolds.

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