Weekly Wrap-Up With Cathy Nelson
Nov. 2, 2007
There have been some exciting weekends in Pac-10 volleyball this year, but last weekend was, by far, the most interesting. The matches provided much drama, many surprises, and some key individual performances that changed the complexion of the conference race. And even the national scene has changed with the last unbeaten team in the country, Nebraska, not only losing their first match of the season but dropping out of the top spot in the national poll - the first time they have not been No. 1 in a regular season poll since 2004. What we know, both nationally and in the Pac-10, is that no team is invincible. And, particularly in this conference, you better show up to play or the results could be disastrous.
Which of the events of the past weekend had the biggest impact? It would be easy to say Southern California's sweep over Cal and Stanford. Those two wins not only got USC back into the Pac-10 race but also solidified them as a national contender, something they have not been the past two seasons. Perhaps the most impressive win was Cal beating UCLA in Los Angeles for the first time in the history of the program. There was the two very surprising wins in the state of Oregon, with Arizona State stunning Oregon and the Beavers beating Arizona for the first time since 1996. And over the weekend eleven Pac-10 players set new career highs. Hard to pick the most important moment of the weekend so here is each of the moments and why they matter.
California beats UCLA in Los Angeles for the first time You had to figure that eventually Cal would win in Pauley Pavilion, but who knew it would be this season? I really thought this was going to be a terrific year for the Bruins. Yes, they did lose a couple of key players from last year's Final Four team but I still believed they had the ingredients to make a run at a Pac-10 title and would be in the mix for the national title. Early in the season it sure seemed that way as they raced out to a 13-1 record with their only loss against Nebraska in Omaha. But now the Bruins are a surprising 6-5 in conference play having lost 4 of their last 5 - three of which were at home. UCLA was one of the teams with the most favorable schedule remaining in the 2nd half of Pac-10 play but did not get off to a good start. Still, they only fell to #9 in the nation, even with six losses on the year. Their recent struggles make this week's match, at red hot USC, even more important. The Bruins have three in a row on the road and need wins to put themselves back in the national picture. California is enjoying the best season in Berkeley since 2003 when they had 12 conference wins and made it to the round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament. They have never, however, made it to the Elite 8. If their win at UCLA is any indication this is a year in which Cal may continue to do things they have never done before. The Golden Bears have many quality wins on their schedule - Minnesota, Santa Clara, Washington and UCLA. Just as impressive for Cal is that they have been in every match they have played. In their five losses they have been swept only once - at Colorado way back on September 2nd. Two of their losses have come in five games. They compete hard and have the talent to play with the top teams in the nation. Is this Cal's year? They have to be a confident team at this point and every team must play well to beat them. That is a sign of a very good team.
Oregon State wins, in five games, again. Remember a year ago when Oregon State was the team that went 0-18 in the Pac-10? They have come a long way since then and have another great win to add to their season. Okay, Arizona is struggling and perhaps it is not a great win when you beat a lower level conference team at home. But this was a match OSU could have lost - and probably would have a year ago. All three of Oregon State's Pac-10 wins this season have been in five games and decided by 2 point in the final frame. All 8 of their conference losses have been in three games. So the key for Oregon State is to avoid the sweep and take the match the distance. They have shown the ability in Pac-10 play to get it done when the match is tight. Although the Beavers are not headed to the NCAA tournament this year they are building something this season that can carry over to future success. They lose only one senior this year and start a line up that includes four sophomores and a freshman. They are playing like a team that has nothing to lose. OSU has seven more opportunities to not only get wins but to add onto what will surely be a year they look back on as a necessary learning experience
Arizona State takes down Oregon This was the most surprising result from last weekend. Oregon has been playing great and absolutely handled Arizona on Thursday night. ASU's four conference wins were against Oregon State (twice), Washington State and Arizona - the bottom three teams in the conference. For the most part the Sun Devils had not even been competitive against the ranked teams in the conference, taking a single game off only Oregon and California in the first round. But that all changed on Friday night in Eugene when outside hitters Margie Giordano and Sarah Reaves each put down 18 kills and the team hit .238 en route to victory. Every win keeps the glimmer of hope alive for a NCAA tournament bid, but with 5 of their 7 remaining matches against top 10 teams the Sun Devils have a lot of work to do. I remember that being the case a year ago - I did not think Arizona State could manage a winning record and an invite to the tournament but they went 4-1 in their final five matches to secure the berth. The difference this year is the strength of their remaining schedule. Can the win at Oregon give the Sun Devils the confidence to get the needed wins? Check back in two weeks......
USC beats Stanford, records weekend sweep Welcome back to the championship race USC. What a huge weekend sweep for the Women of Troy, especially considering what happened to cross town rival UCLA. Now USC is alone in 3rd place in the Pac-10, just one game behind 2nd place Stanford and two behind Washington. Last week I said USC needed to win 2 of their next three which they have already done, and can go 3 for 3 with a win at home against UCLA Friday night. After that match the schedule really opens up and they could go the rest of the way without losing a match. Their biggest challenges will be at Oregon November 8th and the week after that when Washington comes to LA. With some help that Washington match could determine the Pac-10 champion, between the two teams that have won four of the last five Pac-10 championships.How did USC get the sweep? It took some career best marks to put them over the edge. Against California three players had career bests - Freshman outside hitter Geena Urango came up big with 21 kills while setter Taylor Carico got into the offensive act with a career high 10 kills of her own. And libero Alli Hillgren tallied a career best 36 digs as well. Add that to the always stellar play of Asia Kaczor and Jessica Gysin and it was too much for California to overcome. Against Stanford it was all Kaczor and Gysin, with Kaczor netting a career high 28 kills while Gysin added 16 - the only two Women of Troy players in double digit kills. Carico had another outstanding offensive night with 9 kills as well, and all three came up big when they needed it the most.Kaczor was awarded with both the Pac-10 and national player of the week award for her terrific performances over the weekend. In both matches combined she had 52 kills, 30 digs, 4 aces and 6 blocks.....not a bad weekend. If USC wants to contend for the Pac-10 title, and for that matter the national title, Kaczor will need to continue to come up big and her teammates will need some more career defining performances.
Career performances mark the weekend USC was not the only team to have players record career bests. It was an epidemic last weekend with 11 players setting new highs and another matching her career best. California had a big weekend as a team, and saw senior outside hitter Angie Pressey set a new career high with 29 kills against USC. The same night teammate Carli Lloyd tallied 69 assists - her best performance in what has been a terrific freshman season. Oregon State's win over Arizona was partially due to two career best performances - sophomore setter Camilla Ah-Hoy had 54 assists and freshman outside Jill Swatzky came up huge with career highs in both kills (15) and digs (19). ASU was led all weekend by outside hitter Margie Giordano who matched her career best with 23 kills against Oregon State. In losing efforts, Arizona's Tiffany Owens, a freshman outside hitter, had her best offensive night of her young career with 25 kills against Oregon State. The same night senior Dominique Lamb rejected the Beavers a career high 13 times. Gabi Ailes from Stanford did everything she could in the loss to USC with a career high 31 digs, which also sets the Stanford single match record for digs in a match.
Great performances were turned in last weekend, by both teams and individual players. And with 4 weeks left in the season the real drama may be yet to come.