Weekly Wrap-Up With Cathy Nelson
Sept. 20, 2006
The Pac-10 conference ended the 2005 season on a high note, to say the least. When Washington defeated Nebraska in the NCAA title game last year the Pac-10 claimed its fifth consecutive National Championship. The Conference seems to have picked up right where it left off, with five teams ranked in the top 10 nationally and a combined non-conference record of 96-16, including a record of 11-4 against ranked opponents. But now is when the stakes get higher - Pac-10 Conference play begins this week.
Conference play is ultimately what is going to decide which teams make it to the NCAA tournament, and which do not. The goal for most coaches is to have a preseason schedule which is challenging, yes, but more importantly that will allow for wins. They must have some wiggle room as the Pac-10 season progresses to keep a winning record while playing in such a tough conference. Because every Pac-10 coach knows the same thing - if they have a winning record at the end of the season they will make the NCAA tournament.
So, how is the Pac-10 season going to pan out, and which teams will have that necessary winning record in the end? Team by team, here are my thoughts:
The UCLA Bruins have started the season on a mission, with impressive wins over Florida and Hawaii in Honolulu earlier this month. They are ranked No. 3 nationally and their 13-0 record is their best start since 1993. Can this team get the Bruins back into national championship contention? UCLA went to five consecutive Final Fours, including two national championship seasons, from 1988-1992. Since that time they have been to only one Final Four and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history in 1997. In two of the past three seasons they have been to the regional finals, but just could not get themselves over the hump. This should be the year the drought ends and UCLA gets to the Final Four. Why? In a year that many Pac-10 teams had major losses to graduation, the Bruins lost only one senior (middle Nancy Barba). Their sensational sophomore setter Nellie Spicer now has a year of Pac-10 play under her belt, and she has experienced weapons to go to. Nana Merriweather may be the best middle in the Pac-10, and the addition of transfer Ali Daley from Long Beach State has bolstered the outside attack. UCLA might be tested by the undefeated Ducks in Eugene on Thursday, but its first real test will be next weekend when it will host the defending champion Huskies. Then we will know if UCLA is the real deal.
USC is also undefeated, but its fairly weak non-conference schedule makes its 11-0 record less impressive. What is impressive is new addition Asia Kaczor, a sophomore outside hitter from Poland who was the junior college national player of the year last year at the College of Southern Idaho. She helps make up for the losses of USC's top two offensive performers last year, middle Bibiana Candelas and outside Staci Venski. How far this team will go, however, will likely depend on freshman setter Taylor Carico. Carico is a fantastic talent but needs time to adjust to the level of play she will see in the Pac-10. Her job should be a little easier with senior all-American libero Debora Seilhamer patrolling the back row. This team will be good, but time will tell if they will be great.
California is off to a great start and, like USC, added a foreign born player that filled a void for the Bears. Hana Cutura, from Croatia, has stepped in and is second on the team in kills and points while leading the team in service aces. However, Cutura is the only real new face in the lineup for Cal, who returns most of its starting lineup from last season. First team All-Pac-10 outside hitter Angie Pressey, a junior, leads this team, as does senior setter Samantha Carter and senior libero Jillian Davis. This is one of coach Rich Feller's most experienced teams, and they can be as good, if not better, than the 2003 Bears that made it to the round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament. The only concern with this group is depth, especially at the middle blocker position. The Bears will be challenged immediately in conference play, as they open at Washington, which will be a good indication of just how good this Cal team is.
Stanford was the coaches pick to win the Pac-10 Conference, and after a 9-1 start it looks strong. Sophomore Cynthia Barboza returns after having her phenomenal freshman season cut short by a knee injury. She is joined on the outside by senior Kristin Richards, who together form the best overall outside hitter tandem in the conference. Setter Bryn Kehoe also missed time last year after breaking her hand, but she is 100% this season and ready to go. Middle blocker Foluke Akinradewo is leading the Cardinal in kills per game and hitting .440 on the year. Yet, with all this talent, the Cardinal still lost to BYU in their second match of the year. Stanford will go as Barboza and Richards go, and against BYU they combined for 20 hitting errors and collectively hit only .043. There is still work to be done, but if they can avoid the injury bug that hit them last season look for Stanford to contend for a Pac-10 championship and a national championship.
Oregon is the final undefeated team in the Pac-10, and its 10-0 start is the best in school history. However, history has told us that the Ducks have started well in the past but struggled once conference play began. Last season the Ducks went 11-1 in non conference matches but only 1-17 in the Pac-10, a trend that second-year coach Jim Moore is trying to change. Oregon has an interesting mix of youth and experience that have been the right formula so far, but how far can a team starting three freshmen go in this conference? Freshmen Sonja Newcombe, Netecia Enesi and Nevena Djordjevic join seniors Erin Little, Kristin Bitter and Heather Madison on the floor, along with sophomores Mira Djuric and Katie Svoboda. The biggest difference for the Ducks has been their blocking, an area that has plagued them in the past. However, their non-conference schedule was soft and featured only one ranked team (Long Beach State, No. 17 at the time by CVU.com), so the real test will begin this weekend. The bad news for Oregon is that USC and UCLA come to town, programs that have a combined record of 74-6 against Oregon. The Ducks need to make a statement this weekend that they are for real.
Oregon State is the only conference team with a losing record in the preseason. After winning their first match of the year the Beavers lost six straight, then finished off the preseason with consecutive victories at home. OSU features eight freshmen on its roster, four of whom play extensively, which explains its early season struggles. Rachel Rourke, a freshman from Australia, leads the team offensively but the Beavers will rely on leadership from senior co-captains Brittany Cahoon and Abby Windell. Last year, coach Terry Liskevych's first in Corvallis, the Beavers went 7-11 in the Pac-10 which was good enough for seventh place but not quite good enough for the NCAA tournament. Only twice before had Oregon State had a better conference record, which says a great deal about the job Liskevych and his staff did a year ago. The encore will be tougher, as this is definitely a rebuilding year for Liskevych and Oregon State and a push towards the NCAA tournament is unlikely.
Can Washington repeat as Pac-10 champs, or national champions for that matter? The Huskies lost a large part of their championship team to graduation, but at 10-1 on the season and ranked No. 4 nationally they have shown they are still in the mix. After playing two ranked teams to start the season at the AVCA College Showcase Championship, including a loss to Texas in a five-game heartbreaker, Washington has not lost a game while playing a weak schedule. That has allowed their younger, inexperienced players to get the feel of the system before embarking on the tough conference slate. That starts this week in full swing, as Washington matches up with No. 8 California on Thursday followed by No. 6 Stanford on Friday. The best news for Washington fans is that two time All-American setter Courtney Thompson returns, as does her favorite target Christal Morrison. What the Huskies most need to replace is ball control, as three primary passers graduated last year, and the all-around play of Pac-10 Player of the Year Sanja Tomasevic. Washington may have already reached the point where it won't rebuild but reload, and the addition of Big West Player of the Year Janine Sandell, a transfer from Santa Barbara, has helped. This weekend will tell us a great deal about the Huskies, and if they will be in position to defend both their championships.
Washington State, at 12-2, already has more wins this year than all of last. That is a good sign in Pullman, but just when you think this team might be gaining some confidence and momentum, they lose to Idaho, who had previously gone winless on the year (0-8). Ouch. So where does that leave the Cougars heading into Pac-10 play? Another off season with multiple transfers left WSU with only two seniors and has forced coach Brian Heffernan to use new players at nearly every position. Senior outside Kelly Rosin has been the steady, constant influence the Cougars have needed around first time starters Adetokunbo Faleti, a JC transfer that red-shirted last season, Tara West, a sophomore from Australia that joined the team this fall, and freshmen starters Cassie Robbins, Kelly Hyder, and setter Corina Beyer. It is very hard to win in the Pac-10 with multiple freshmen on the floor, and wins will be tough to come by for Washington State. The coaches picked the Cougars to finish last in the Pac-10, a spot they have just been able to avoid the past two years - their 2-16 record each year just did get them ninth. If the Cougs want to avoid the fate of last place, they will need to take care of business at home against the Oregon schools and Arizona State, the only conference teams they have been able to beat the past few years. Bohler Gym used to be the most dreaded place to play in the Pac-10, and if Washington State wants to climb back up the conference ladder they must get back that Bohler magic.
Everyone knew last year was Arizona's year. Kim Glass, Jennifer Abernathy and Bre Ladd were seniors, it returned five starters, it was ready to make a run at the Final Four. After a strong conference season and second-place finish in the Pac-10, Arizona did make its run at the Final Four, falling just short in a five-game marathon match to Santa Clara. The 2006 Wildcats are as athletic as ever, but the preseason has shown that this team is also erratic. After winning all three matches in its first tournament, Arizona went 2-1 in each of its next three tournaments, with losses to Dayton, Rice and Northwestern. The surprising loss to Dayton, in three games, came on the same day the Wildcats beat No. 12 Louisville at Louisville. As is often the case with Arizona, it seems to hurt itself with its own errors. In the loss to Dayton the Wildcats had 28 hitting errors and hit only .024. Against Rice it was 36 hitting errors and 15 service errors that did them in, and after fighting back to go five games with Northwestern they hit .000 in the final game, with 9 hitting errors, in a tough 12-15 loss. All that being said, a 9-3 record does not hurt Arizona. The Wildcats are a .500 conference season away from making their 11th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament. In fact, the Wildcats can go 7-11 in the Pac-10 and have a winning record, which virtually guarantees a trip to the tournament. Seven wins should not be a problem for Arizona, which won 11 of 12 at home last year. The `Cats begin at home this year, with rival Arizona State - a match that is always a battle.
Finally, Arizona State is 8-3 heading into Pac-10 play. The Sun Devils were picked to finish ninth in the Pac-10, but I like what this team has done so far this season. Two of their three losses were to ranked teams away from home, and their other loss to Duke went to 18-16 in the fifth game. They seem to have a toughness about them this year, led in that category by junior libero Sydney Donahue and sophomore outside hitter Margie Giordano. Donohue leads the Pac-10 and the nation with 7.18 digs per game, and Giordano leads ASU in kills per game and is second in digs. Coach Brad Saindon, in his fourth season in Tempe, finally has seniors and juniors on his roster, led by seniors Nicole Morton, Tierra Burnely and Nina Reeves. If their front row play can continue to improve - the Sun Devils are last in blocks, eighth in hitting percentage and seventh in kills - they will have a chance to hover around .500 at the end of the year. Don't count Arizona State out, as they could be the surprise team in the Pac-10 this season.
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