Weekly Wrap-Up With Cathy Nelson
Nov. 16, 2007
Some things in Pac-10 volleyball do not change. Last year at this time Stanford and Washington were tied at the top of the Pac-10 standings with two losses a piece. Look familiar? Last year Stanford had an easier schedule down the stretch than the Huskies and eventually won the Pac-10 Championship after beating Washington in Palo Alto on the final weekend of conference play. This year the Cardinal again have the advantage of an easier schedule in their final three matches - all three are at home, and they play only one ranked opponent (No. 6 California). Washington, on the other hand, is facing perhaps the toughest road trip in the Pac-10 this weekend when it heads to Los Angeles to play No. 8 USC and No. 10 UCLA, and also host No. 14 Oregon in its final match. There is no doubt that if Washington wants to win its third Pac-10 title it will have to earn it the hard way, while Stanford simply needs to win out at home.
Stanford's biggest challenge was last weekend when the Cardinal did what they have not been able to do the past four years - win at Washington. During that four year drought the Cardinal were swept three times and took only one game off the Huskies, which had to make this win ever more gratifying. It was a match Stanford had to win to stay in the hunt for an outright Pac-10 championship. It was a match that could have put Washington in the driver's seat for the Pac-10 title. But in the end it was too much Foluke Akinradewo, the one player in the Pac-10 that is an impossible match-up for opponents, and Erin Waller, who had her best match of the year. Stanford also won the battle of the outside hitters, with Cynthia Barboza and Alix Klineman combining for 35 kills and 32 digs while hitting .198. The Huskies struggled from the outside as their terrific tandem of Christal Morrison and Stevie Mussie went for 11 and 13 kills respectively but combined to hit only .078. Stanford hit .267 as a team, well above the .140 opponents have averaged against the Huskies this year, which made up for the 20 service errors (with only 2 aces) they committed. The crowd of over 4,000 was treated to a classic battle between two outstanding teams but did not get to do what they are so used to doing in Seattle - cheer a Husky win.
The Huskies and Cardinal have been the class of the Pac-10 since the 2004 season and it certainly looks like they will finish first and second in the Pac-10 for the fourth consecutive year. Washington came out on top in 2004 and 2005 and Stanford won last season, with Washington tied with UCLA for second. They each have been to three consecutive final fours, have each won a national championship, and once again they are fighting for a Pac-10 title. While Washington has risen to the top of the conference in recent years Stanford has been there year in and year out. Amazingly enough, since the Pac-10 added volleyball in 1986, Stanford has finished first or second every year except one. Yes, for the past 21 seasons they have 10 Conference championships and 10 runner up finishes. The only year that Stanford was not first or second was 2000 when it was between coaches and long time assistant coach Denise Corlett was the interim coach. It finished 4th that year and did not make it past the Second round of the NCAA Tournament. But the Cardinal rebounded the next season, John Dunning's first, with a Pac-10 championship and a national championship. Are they headed that way again? Their win against the Huskies showed me that the Cardinal are starting to play their best volleyball just in time for the NCAA tournament. They have the talent and have been in the conversation as one of the best teams in the country all year. Now they just have to prove it.
Some things in Pac-10 volleyball are very new. The Oregon Ducks had, arguably, the best weekend in program history. They avenged two long losing streaks in beating two top 10 teams in the same weekend - the first time in program history the Ducks have registered consecutive wins over top 10 opponents. When Oregon took down USC on Thursday night it broke a 34-match losing streak to the Women of Troy, but outdid themselves the following night breaking a 40-match losing streak to UCLA. And Oregon has never beaten both UCLA and USC in the same season, much less the same weekend. The wins are even more impressive due to the fact that Oregon had been on a slide of late, going just 2-7 in its previous nine matches. It needed to right the ship and did so in a big, big way.
As has been the case for Oregon all year it took a heavy dose of junior Gorana Maricic who was named not only Pac-10 Player of the Week but also national player of the week, the first Duck ever honored with such an award. Maricic went for 29 kills and 14 digs while hitting a scorching .436 against USC and backed that up with a 25 kill, 12 dig performance against the Bruins. Neither team had an answer for her as she scored nearly one third of Oregon's points for the weekend - and had over one third of the Ducks attempts. She had plenty of help from her teammates, particularly sophomore Sonja Newcombe and freshman Heather Meyers who have been a big part of Oregon's success this season. Oregon's 18 wins on the year are the most for for the school since 1989 and surpassed the 17 wins from a year ago, and seven conference wins matches last season's total. The Ducks' remaining schedule includes two matches they should win - Oregon State and Washington State - along with a chance to upend another top 10 team at Washington.
The wins over USC and UCLA have done a number of things for the Ducks. First, and perhaps most importantly, they got a much needed dose of confidence. Now they know they can win against the top teams in the conference. That confidence will go a long way come NCAA tournament time, because we all know if you can win in the Pac-10 you can beat anyone in the country. And speaking of the NCAA tournament, their seeding should also be helped greatly by those wins. It started to look like Oregon was going to limp into the NCAA tournament with the lack of success they had in October and early November. The committee looks at late season performance and those kinds of wins will stay in the minds of the committee as they are putting the tournament together. Making the NCAA tournament was a huge accomplishment for the Ducks last year. This is not last year's team and they are built to get wins in the NCAA tournament. That is definitely something new.
Bruin fans wish that racking up losses in Pac-10 play was something new, but unfortunately for UCLA it is not. Last year was a terrific year for UCLA. It finished tied for second in the Pac-10 and earned a berth in the Final Four, only to lose to Nebraska in the semi-finals. Many thought this team would be back in the Final Four this year. The Bruins were picked to finish third in the conference, received 1 vote to finish first, and began the year ranked No. 5 in the country. They certainly have not been the impressive team that won the Adult Open Championships last spring - a win that should have given them a lot of confidence heading into the season. The 2007 season has been a struggle for UCLA ever since the calendar turned to October, going just 4-6 since October 5. I don't think anyone expected UCLA to have seven conference losses this year... but, the fact is, since the 2000 season the Bruins have averaged over six losses in conference play per year. It took 10 years of Pac-10 volleyball for UCLA to ever have six losses in a single year - this marks the sixth time in the last seven seasons it has reached that mark.
There is so much respect for the Pac-10, and UCLA, and coach Andy Banachowski that the Bruins have not dropped much in the national polls. The Bruins have more losses (8) than any other team in the top 10, and trail only Oregon with their nine losses for the most in all of the top 25. They have certainly lost a high seed for the NCAA tournament and will have to face a tough opponent earlier than they had hoped in the tournament. But they also have been tested. They have played a very difficult schedule and will be battle-tested when the tournament starts. They are a very good team, but don't play that way all the time. And setter Nellie Spicer is as good as any collegiate setter playing today but that has not translated to wins. The Bruins will have to draw on their Final Four experience from last year and all they have learned through disappointment this year to put themselves back into the national picture.
Finally, just like last year, Arizona State is sitting on the bubble of a winning record, and therefore the NCAA tournament. The Sun Devils just did make it last year with a 16-15 overall record by winning four of their final five matches. With four matches left this year the Sun Devils are 15-12 overall, 7-7 in the Pac-10. They are one win away from securing a winning record and a second consecutive NCAA tournament berth. The bad news is ASU is looking at the toughest four matches imaginable - at Stanford and Cal followed by home matches against UCLA and USC. The first time through the Pac-10 the Sun Devils lost to all four teams, getting swept three times and taking only one game (against Cal). But they will have to find a way to get a win if they want to extend their season into December. They have some experience in this area from last year......and want to end in the tournament like they did last year.