Commentary

Volleyball season begins with 1 vs. 2

Originally Published: August 30, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

USC senior setter Kendall Bateman laughed when it was jokingly suggested that the Trojans were starting out this volleyball season with an easy, low-key event in State College, Pa.

[+] EnlargePenn State/USC
Rob Christy/US PresswirePenn State rallied from a 2-0 deficit to beat USC 3-2 over the weekend.

"I think it's good for us," she said of the high caliber of competition USC would face in the AVCA Showcase. "It will teach our freshmen what they're in for."

Indeed, maybe the opening weekend was an indication of what all Division I women's volleyball followers should expect this season: a strong field of title contenders.

The preseason No. 1 and No. 2 teams both lost. No. 2 USC fell to No. 1 Penn State on the Nittany Lions' home floor Saturday. That happened the day after then-unranked Oregon had ended Penn State's home winning streak at 94.

Also Saturday at Penn State, No. 12 Minnesota knocked off Oregon. The Gophers had lost Friday to USC. So how's that for the AVCA Showcase to start the season? All four teams walked away from it 1-1.

Meanwhile, Cal, which was national runner-up last season, started this season 3-0 and moved into No. 1 in this week's AVCA poll. It's the first time the Bears have ever been in the top spot in the volleyball rankings. Penn State is second, USC third and Texas and Nebraska round out the top five.

Penn State, which has won the past four NCAA titles, entered this season with more questions than usual, considering the senior losses from 2010. This weekend, the Nittany Lions found a few answers.

Junior Kristin Carpenter was the primary setter in Friday's loss. On Saturday, freshman Micha Hancock took over that role, and Carpenter instead played libero. You might wonder how the upper-class player, who was the setter for the NCAA championship team last season, would handle changing positions so that a freshman could start.

[+] EnlargeKendall Bateman
Denny Medley USC's Kendall Bateman believes the Trojans' difficult opening weekend will prepare them for their Pac-12 slate.

Well, she handled it perfectly. The 5-foot-6 Carpenter even joked afterward that if coach Russ Rose needs her at middle blocker this week, she's ready to go. Recruiting players with this kind of attitude, of course, is quite helpful in winning national championships.

As is having a young setter in Hancock who already shows the capacity to run the offense, successfully calling her own number a few times, and executing a lethal jump serve. Another star is born at Penn State.

Meanwhile, USC's Bateman has been playing the "quarterback" spot almost exclusively in volleyball since she first started in the sport while growing up in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

"If you didn't play volleyball there, you probably didn't play any sport," said Bateman, who may finish this season as USC's career assist leader. "I played right side a little when I was about 12, but I've mostly been a setter. I've been lucky to just stick with it; it's been my favorite spot on the court. I like having the control over the plays and having that leadership position."

Other leaders at USC, along with Bateman, are outside hitter Alex Jupiter and middle blocker Lauren Williams, who are also seniors. Their experience showed Friday as the Trojans beat Minnesota after falling behind 2-0. But Saturday, the exact opposite happened to USC; it had a 2-0 lead and then lost to Penn State 3-2.

Without standout hitter Falyn Fonoimoana -- the 2010 Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, who is ineligible this season -- USC must find other weapons as it continues through this fall.

"We have to not dwell on what happened and do the best with what we have," Bateman said of Fonoimoana's absence. "Our freshmen probably weren't thinking that coming in they'd have to contribute right away. But now they know their roles are going to be vital."

As for new No. 1 Cal, the Bears don't play Penn State in the regular season but are very used to facing USC in league play. Last year, the Trojans beat Cal twice but then fell to the Bears in the national semifinals in Kansas City.

"We were definitely hungry after that Final Four," Bateman said of the experienced USC players' reaction to not winning the NCAA title. "But those freshmen that were at the Final Four with us were just as hungry. And they all worked really hard this summer.

"The league rivalries make things even more fun. You're usually friends with other players throughout the conference. Like [Cal's] Tarah Murrey; we've been on multiple USA teams, and we're friends. And it makes it that much more competitive when we play each other."

Men's soccer notes

Nearly 8,000 fans came out to Cardinals Park to see No. 1 Louisville's men's soccer team defeat No. 6 UCLA 2-0 Saturday. It was a rematch of a cold, snowy showdown between the two schools last December, which the Cardinals won 5-4 to advance to the Final Four.

Elsewhere on Saturday, the team that defeated Louisville in last season's NCAA title game, Akron, avenged its only loss of 2010 and set a record in the process.

The No. 2 Zips' 5-0 victory against Cleveland State was Akron's 40th consecutive game at home without a defeat. The Zips are 38-0-2 at home dating back to 2008. The previous home unbeaten streak was held by Tulsa at 39.

Akron's only loss of 2010 was 2-1 at Cleveland State on Oct. 30.

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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