Thursday, November 5, 2009
Volleyball conference races heat up
By Dave Reed Special to ESPN.com
The final month of the women's volleyball regular season got under way Wednesday night, and if the Big 12 is any indication of what might happen, a lot of conference champions won't be crowned until the final week.
Just when it looked like Texas was taking a major step toward winning its first outright conference title since 1997, Iowa State came from behind to snap the Longhorns' 27-match regular-season winning streak and pull to within one match of UT atop the Big 12 standings.
The Cyclones used a 9-3 run to wipe out a 9-6 deficit in the fifth set and secure a 22-25, 25-22, 25-15, 20-25, 15-12 win at Hilton Coliseum.
Instead of having a three-match lead over Iowa State with six matches to play, the Longhorns' advantage was suddenly cut to one match. UT is now 18-1 overall and 13-1 in the Big 12, while the Cyclones are 20-3 and 12-2.
Despite having its margin for error drastically reduced, Texas is still in the driver's seat. While the Longhorns have two road matches against teams in the upper half of the conference standings -- at No. 20 Baylor and at Oklahoma -- the Cyclones have to play Nebraska and Oklahoma at home and Texas A&M on the road during their final six contests.
Another race that likely will come down to the wire is in the Pac-10, where No. 4 Washington, No. 5 Stanford and No. 7 UCLA have started to separate themselves from the pack in the battle for the most prestigious regular-season championship in women's volleyball.
The Bruins (18-6 overall, 8-3 in the Pac-10) climbed into a tie for second place in the conference with victories at Cal and Stanford last weekend. It marked the first time UCLA won both matches in the Bay Area since 2000 and put the Bruins in position to challenge for their first Pac-10 title since 1998.
Senior Kaitlin Sather leads a surging UCLA squad.
It's no coincidence UCLA found its stride just as senior outside hitter Kaitlin Sather returned to full strength from right-shoulder surgery in 2008 that forced her to miss all of last season.
Sather posted her 12th double-double of the season with 14 kills and 20 digs to help the Bruins snap an 18-match losing streak against Stanford (15-6, 8-3 Pac-10). She started the weekend with 11 kills and 12 digs against Cal and was named Pac-10 Player of the Week for the first time in her career.
While the Bruins went into the season with an abundance of talent, they did not have the same level of experience. That's why UCLA was able to bring Nebraska's 90-match home-court winning streak to an end, and then stumble against Cal State Fullerton five days later.
If UCLA beats archrival USC on Friday, the Bruins will be no worse than second heading into the Nov. 13-14 weekend, when they play host to Washington State and Washington.
Washington (19-2, 9-2 Pac-10) holds a one-match lead heading into this weekend's home matches against Stanford and No. 13 Cal. The Huskies face six ranked opponents during their final seven matches. Stanford, which won the past three Pac-10 championships, has five ranked opponents remaining.
Every Pac-10 team has at least one victory over a ranked opponent, so there is no such thing as a sure victory. But if UCLA wins all of its remaining matches, the Bruins will earn at least a share of its eighth conference title.
There also is a three-team scramble for the top spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference between Florida State, Duke and Georgia Tech.
The Seminoles (21-2, 12-1 ACC) have a one-match lead over the Blue Devils (21-4, 11-2 ACC) heading into their Friday night showdown in Tallahassee. FSU defeated Duke for the first time in 13 matches on Oct. 10 and can take a two-match lead over the Blue Devils and Georgia Tech with a victory on Friday night.
The Yellow Jackets (16-7, 10-3 ACC) are the only ACC team to defeat Florida State this year, winning the final two sets by two points apiece at Tully Gymnasium. The Noles visit Georgia Tech on Nov. 14.
Duke plays its next four matches on the road and has a home date remaining against archrival North Carolina, so the Blue Devils need a victory Friday if they hope to win a share of their third title in four years.
Florida State moved up to No. 16 in this week's American Volleyball Coaches Association Top 25, the highest ranking in school history. What the Seminoles really want is their first conference title since winning the 1998 ACC tournament and their first appearance in the NCAA tournament since 2002.
No. 9 Florida's 18-year reign as SEC champion is in jeopardy. The Gators (16-3, 10-2 SEC) trail No. 11 Kentucky (20-2, 10-1 SEC) by a half-match and travel to Lexington on Nov. 22.
Kelly Murphy and the Florida Gators are trying to defend their SEC title.
UK had a chance to claim at least a share of the title for the first time since 1988 last year, but the Wildcats dropped a pair of five-game decisions during the month of November -- including a loss to Tennessee in the final match of the regular season -- to give Florida its opportunity.
Kentucky won in Gainesville for the second year in a row on Oct. 2, but saw its eight-match conference winning streak stopped by the Lady Vols. In addition to winning its next five SEC matches, the Wildcats likely will need to defeat Florida at home and Tennessee on the road in back-to-back matches to claim the conference title.
The Gators have won six consecutive matches without losing a set since losing at LSU on Oct. 11. Florida plays four of its final six conference matches at home, but travels to Tennessee and Kentucky on Nov. 20 and 22, respectively.
No. 19 LSU (15-5, 9-2 SEC), which plays at Florida on Nov. 13, is still in the hunt for its first SEC title since winning three in a row from 1989-91. The Tigers have six conference matches remaining, but the Gators are the only opponent with a winning record. LSU would probably need to win all of its remaining matches and then hope the Gators beat Kentucky to earn at least a share of the SEC championship.
No. 25 Saint Mary's (16-4, 8-1 WCC), which owns a one-match lead over No. 22 San Diego (15-5, 7-2 WCC), is trying to win its first West Coast Conference championship. The Gaels play at San Francisco and Santa Clara this weekend, before returning home for a showdown with the Toreros.
USD leads the all-time series 40-7, including a 17-5 record at Saint Mary's. The Gaels have not defeated USD at home since 2005, but they are 9-0 at McKeon Pavilion this season.
Saint Mary's used victories over Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine to break into the national rankings for the first time since Sept. 19, 2005.
One conference race that is close to being called is in the Big 10, where No. 1 Penn State is looking to capture its seventh consecutive title.
The Nittany Lions (24-0, 12-0 Big Ten) travel to Wisconsin on Friday and Iowa on Saturday and then return to Rec Hall to play host to No. 5 (tie) Illinois (18-3, 10-2 Big Ten), which trails Penn State by only two matches.
The odds are certainly with the Nittany Lions, who have won 68 consecutive home matches and lost just one set at Rec Hall this season. They also have won 57 consecutive Big Ten matches.
With its victory over Minnesota on Friday, Penn State matched the 88-game winning streak posted by UCLA men's basketball from 1971-74, the fourth-longest streak in all sports, according to the NCAA.
Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.