Monday, August 31, 2015

College | Pac-12 volleyball nonconference season opens against opponents big and small

#7 Washington goes 3-0 but #8 USC makes biggest splash | Seattle U gets big win

Washington's Cassie Strickland and Tia Scambray
-2014 file photo courtesy Shutter Geeks Photography
In Pac-12 volleyball, nothing is more imbalanced than the first four weeks.

On the one hand, schools like #8 USC and #2 Stanford traditionally seek out several top national opponents to tune up for the tough conference schedule. This year, USC matches up with—among others—#18 North Carolina, #12 BYU, #10 Kentucky, Creighton and Pepperdine, all front-line opponents. Stanford’s schedule includes #1 Penn State, #18 North Carolina, #6 Illinois, Duke, Minnesota and Texas A&M, perhaps the toughest nonconference lineup in the country.

All across the Pac-12, teams try to schedule at least one marquee matchup. #16 Arizona has #3 Texas and #22 Ohio State; #15 Arizona State has #6 Illinois and #9 Colorado State; #21 Colorado faces #1 Penn State, #6 Illinois and #14 Florida State; #11 Oregon takes on Florida and Nebraska, both tied at #4. And so on.

On the other end of the spectrum, both #7 Washington and unranked Washington State have scheduled teams that finished the 2014 season with relatively modest RPIs. Neither has an attention-grabbing opponent during the first four weeks, and the Huskies could enter the Pac-12 part of the season without being seriously tested.

In the Pac-12, scheduling philosophies fall into three general categories:
  1. Get tough. Some coaches (USC’s Mick Haley, Stanford’s John Dunning) want their teams to face adversity early. Defeating opponents with high RPIs pays off at tournament time, when RPI helps determine which 16 teams get to host the first two rounds. Fans, of course, enjoy seeing top teams from other parts of the country.
  2. Start slowly. Some coaches figure that success during the Pac-12 part of the schedule is what matters most, and all but ignore RPI implications. These coaches treat early season matchups essentially as part of extended preseason training, even if fans have little to look forward to. This season, Washington’s home nonconference schedule includes Buffalo (2014 RPI: 173), Murray State (114), two matches against Cal State Northridge (46) and St. Mary’s (162). None of those teams is currently ranked; Murray State is 3-0, St. Mary’s is 2-1, Buffalo and Cal State Northridge are both 0-3.
  3. Play ‘em if only they’d come. Many Pac-12 teams travel across the country to face schools from other top conferences. But, with few exceptions, other power conference teams refuse to head out west, where they almost always lose.

Over the weekend, UW earned three sweeps in the annual Northwest Challenge, easily defeating Gonzaga, Portland State and Boise State. Three sophomore hitters—Courtney Schwan (4.0 kills per set, .444) Tia Scambray (3.3 kps, .300) and Crissy Jones (3.0 kps, .440) were the offensive stars across the three matches. Senior middle Melanie Wade had a hand in 16 blocks (1.78 blocks per set), while senior setter Katy Beals and sophomore setter Bailey Tanner each tallied 4 aces. Senior libero Cassie Strickland had a stellar weekend, averaging 4.38 digs per set. As a team, UW outhit its three opponents .363 to .132.

USC was the weekend’s biggest winner, defeating both North Carolina and 2014 National runner-up BYU at Galen Center. Trojan All-American Samantha Bricio led the way, averaging 5.80 kills per set, and was named the Pac-12 Player of the Week. It's all the more impressive considering USC snuck into the NCAAs last season with a 16-16 record, and saw All-American Ebony Nwanebu transfer to Texas in the offseason.

Stanford was without a star of its own: All-American Inky Ajanaku is out for the season with a knee injury. Even so, the Cardinal swept both Texas A&M and Minnesota, as senior Jordan Burgess averaged 4.0 kps. Haley Hodson was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Week after averaging 3.17 kps.

Colorado lost to #23 San Diego, then upset #14 Florida State. The Buffs also defeated Oklahoma, dropping the Sooners to 0-3. Washington will play Oklahoma in Norman in three weeks, and the Sooners were thought to be the toughest team on UW’s nonconference schedule.

In Berkeley, Seattle U (3-0) raised eyebrows with a 3-0 sweep of California (2-1). Jelena Vujcin had a big weekend for the Redhawks, averaging 3.33 kps. Including 9 against the Golden Bears.

Pac-12 schools suffered other early losses. Oregon State, coming off its best season in a decade, lost to both Wichita State and #17 Hawai’i. Utah lost to Lipscomb, a team with a 2014 RPI of 39, just behind the Utes’ 37. UCLA lost 3-0 to Loyola Marymount (44 RPI in 2014.) Washington State lost to Radford before sweeping both Elon and East Tennessee State.

  • In 2001, Jim McLaughlin started his Washington tenure by going 1-2 that first weekend, beating Purdue, but losing to BYU and Texas. This past weekend, McLaughlin started his Notre Dame career by going 1-2, beating Middle Tennessee State, but losing to Bowling Green and Cleveland State. Over three matches, the Fighting Irish have been out-hit .251-.196. The Notre Dame roster includes just one senior and two juniors.
  • The USA Women’s National Team is now 6-1 in World Cup play, and has taken the overall lead in the 12-team race for two 2016 Olympic berths. The most recent matches—against Peru, Algeria, Kenya and Argentina—have all been 3-0 blowouts. In three sets, Algeria managed just 14 total points (25-7, 25-2, 25-5). USA’s final four matches are against Cuba (2-5), Russia (6-1), Japan (6-1) and Dominican Republic (4-3)
  • Congratulations to Brooke Niles and Karolina Sowala, women’s winners of the National Volleyball League’s Seattle Championships over the weekend at rainy/windy Alki Beach. Dave Palm and Eric Zaun won the men’s title.

1 comment:

  1. As a season ticket holder for the Huskies, I am disappointed on a yearly basis with the wimpy preseason schedule. Buffalo? Oklahoma the "tough" match? There are a lot of juicy matches this weekend, many of them involving Pac 12 teams. I just don't see the benefit of scheduling weak opponents, either from a strategic standpoint for NCAA seeding, a "how is this team going to get better" standpoint, or certainly a fan interest standpoint. Keegan Cook: Can you change this sorry Husky tradition?


[It's okay to comment as "Anonymous," but please feel free to share your name and/or alias.]

Have your friends discovered Volleyblog Seattle? Number of unique visits: