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Thursday, September 16, 2010
Stanford, Penn State among favorites

By Dave Reed
Special to ESPN.com

For the first time since Oct. 29, 2007, there's a new team at the top of the Division I women's volleyball poll.

Alix Klineman
Alix Klineman and Stanford are back on top of the polls after snapping Penn State's winning streak.

Stanford claimed the No. 1 ranking for first time since winning the 2004 national title after defeating Penn State last Saturday at the Big Four Classic and bringing to an end the Nittany Lions' 109-match winning streak.

After falling behind 7-1 early in the first set, the Cardinal dominated en route to the 28-26, 25-12, 25-18 victory, and became an early favorite to add to its record six national championships.

Stanford also dismantled No. 5 Texas in its first match of the tournament by a 25-16, 25-11, 25-16 count.

Based on the team's tournament performance, there is no doubt Stanford deserves to be No. 1. The voters also got it right by keeping Penn State at No. 2.

The Nittany Lions started the weekend by coming from behind to defeat No. 4 Florida, 20-25, 25-21, 25-14, 25-23, and displayed the ability to beat a top-four opponent on its home court.

The Big Four Classic, which saw top-ranked opponents from different conferences go head-to-head, was a highlight of the nonconference portion of the season. It gave fans an early look at which teams might have the best chances at making an extended run in the 2010 NCAA tournament.

Based on the first three weeks of the season, here are 10 teams that have a legitimate shot at capturing the 2010 national championship.

1. Stanford (7-0). Being the first team to sweep Penn State since Nebraska on Sept. 2, 2007, is proof the Cardinal have what it takes to win a seventh national championship. Senior outside hitter/setter Cassidy Lichtman is one of the most versatile players in the nation, and senior Alix Klineman provides the hammer on the outside. Stanford's ultimate success may depend on the development of freshman middle blocker Carly Wopat and classmate Rachel Williams on the outside.

2. Penn State (7-1). Stanford may have done Penn State a favor by lifting the 109-match gorilla off the backs of the Nittany Lions. Senior All-Americans Blair Brown and Arielle Wilson will continue PSU's tradition of strong players at the net, but the Nittany Lions need a complement to freshman Deja McClendon on the left side. If sophomore outside hitter Darcy Dorton returns to the lineup, the Nittany Lions could make a serious run at a fourth consecutive national championship. And don't forget Rec Hall is one of the regional sites.

3. Illinois (7-1). The only blemish on the Illini's record is a five-set loss at Nebraska, but they played that match without senior outside hitter Laura DeBruler and lost junior outside hitter Michelle Bartsch to an ankle injury during the third set. Illinois bolstered its lineup with the addition of junior outside hitter Colleen Ward, a transfer from Florida, and freshman outside hitter Jazmine Orozco, who had 20 kills and 18 digs against the Huskers. The Illini proved they can survive in hostile environments with a 3-0 win at Texas.

4. Florida (6-1). The Gators are one of only two teams to have victories over four ranked opponents. They opened the season with impressive victories over No. 9 Iowa State and No. 2 Nebraska at the Runza/AVCA Showcase in Omaha, Neb. Florida lost to Penn State in four sets, but bounced back the following afternoon to defeat Texas in five sets. The Gators are led by junior setter/right-side hitter Kelly Murphy, who has the ability to keep Florida in every match it plays.

5. Nebraska (9-1). Wednesday's come-from-behind victory over No. 11 Iowa State was impressive because the Huskers played well under pressure when sets were on the line and they dominated at the net, posting a 17-8 advantage in blocked shots. Nebraska also showed balance with senior Sydney Anderson and sophomore Lauren Cook both recording 26 assists. The Huskers improved to 4-1 against ranked opponents.

6. USC (7-0). Speaking of the ability to win in a hostile environment, USC's pulled out a five-set victory at Hawaii in front of nearly 8,000 fans at the Stan Sheriff. Junior outside hitter Alex Jupiter is the kind of player that can carry the Trojans offensively, and junior setter Kendall Bateman can deliver the ball. If junior middle blocker Lauren Williams, sophomore outside hitter Katie Fuller and freshman outside hitter Falyn Fonoimoana continue to provide balance. The Women of Troy will be tough to beat this season.

7. Iowa State (7-2). The Cyclones have been on the rise since Christy Johnson-Lynch took control of the program prior to the 2005 season. ISU has climbed into the upper echelon of the Big 12 and the national rankings, and is one of only eight programs to reach the NCAA tournament regionals each of the last three seasons. With five starters and their libero returning, the Cyclones are one of the most experienced teams in the country. The key to taking the next step will be the development of sophomore setter Allison Landwehr.

8. Texas (5-3). Don't be fooled by the Longhorns' early-season struggles. They have played one of the most challenging schedules in the nation, with all three of their losses coming against teams currently ranked in the top five. Last Saturday, UT nearly overcame a two-set deficit before falling at Florida in the fifth, 16-14. With dynamic players like senior outside hitter Juliann Faucette and junior middle blocker Rachael Adams, the Horns could take advantage of playing host to a regional at Gregory Gym and return to the national semifinals for the second year in a row.

9. Hawaii (8-1). The Rainbow Wahine have played a solid schedule, but it's hard to get a handle on how good they are because all nine of their matches have been played at home. Hawaii's only loss was against No. 10 USC, but it has also gone the distance in victories over No. 25 San Diego, Michigan State and Saint Mary's. Still, with a player the caliber of junior outside hitter Kanani Danielson leading the way, the Wahine will be in every match they play.

10. California (7-0). The Golden Bears have not lost a set so far this season, but their only true test was a visit to No. 25 San Diego during the second week of the season. Cal has one of the top setters in the nation in senior Carli Lloyd, a three-time member of USA Volleyball's A2 team. The big question is will anyone be capable of filling the void created by the graduation of first-team All-American Hana Cutura. So far, junior outside hitter Tarah Murrey has been the go-to hitter, but four other Bears are averaging 2.13 or more kills.

Around the nation

Team of the week: With victories over No. 5 Texas and No. 1 Penn State, Stanford became the only team to defeat a pair of top-five opponents on the same weekend this season. The Cardinal offense was red hot, hitting .321 during the two matches. During the match with Penn State, Stanford hit .389 against one of the best blocking teams in the nation. Senior outside hitter Klineman had 16 kills and hit .333, and senior outside hitter/setter Lichtman had 12 kills and hit .478. The Cardinal defense was just as impressive, holding the Longhorns and Nittany Lions to a combined .044 attack percentage.

Never say die: If the first conference match of the season is an indication of what is to come, Big 12 fans are in for an exciting season. No. 4 Nebraska rallied late during three out of four sets to defeat No. 11 Iowa State, 25-22, 24-26, 25-23, 28-26, Wednesday night. The Huskers overcame a 22-20 deficit in the first set, a 19-14 hole in the third set and survived five set points in the fourth set before ending the match on an 8-4 run. Nebraska finished with a 17-8 advantage in blocked shots, with senior right-side hitter Lindsey Licht and junior middle blocker Brooke Delano having a hand in seven apiece.

The week ahead: Conference action starts in the ACC, the Big 12 and the SEC this week, and several nationally-ranked teams will not get a chance to ease into their league schedule. On Thursday, No. 8 Texas visits Texas A&M for the first installment of the 2010 State Farm Lone Star Showdown. The Longhorns have won 12 consecutive matches against their archrivals, dating back to Oct. 16, 2004. In the SEC, No. 3 Florida (6-1) visits No. 22 Kentucky (6-4) on Friday and No. 18 Tennessee (8-1) on Sunday. If the Gators win twice, they'll have the inside track in the race for the conference title since both opponents will have to make the return trip to Gainesville in October. In the ACC, No. 15 Florida State (8-1) opens with a road contest at Miami (10-1), which has won eight in a row since losing at Oklahoma.

Quick sets

Nebraska senior libero Kayla Banwarth averaged 5.42 digs per set during victories over No. 20 Dayton, Western Michigan and No. 3 Illinois. A more impressive stat was she didn't have a single reception error on 61 attempts during the three matches. … Stanford senior outside hitter Alix Klineman became the 10th player in school history to reach the 1,500-kill plateau with 16 kills during the victory over Penn State. She completed her third double-double of the season with 10 digs. … San Jose State's junior defensive specialist Asia Casino served the final eight points of the fifth set as the Spartans overcame a 14-8 deficit to defeat Portland State 16-14. … North Carolina sophomore middle blocker Shelbey Bleke set a school record with eight total blocks during the Tar Heels' 3-1 victory against Rice. During a 3-0 victory over New Mexico State, she hit .769 with 10 kills on 13 attacks with no errors. For the week, Bleke hit .487 with 23 kills on 39 attempts with only four errors. … UIC sophomore middle blocker Janise Dismuke 3.47 kills and 1.13 blocks per set while leading the Flames to the team title at the University if North Florida's Best Western Invitational. It was UIC's first tournament championship in more than 15 seasons. … Two Big Ten teams remain undefeated after three weekends and they aren't the teams ranked highest in the polls. Indiana improved to 10-0 with victories over Robert Morris, Colgate, Niagara and Bucknell, and the Hoosiers are off to the program's best start since 1997 when they started the season 15-0. Wisconsin is 9-0 after defeating Milwaukee, Central Michigan, Toledo and Northern Illinois. … Tulane set a school record for the highest hitting percentage in a single match, recording 49 kills on 91 attacks with just four errors (.495) against Fairfield. … Eastern Michigan defeated Michigan State in five sets to win the Spartan Invitational at Jenison Field House and snap a six-match losing streak against MSU that began in 1993. It was the Eagles' first victory over a Big Ten opponent since defeating Iowa on Sept. 14, 2002.

Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.