Think about current SEC football, where this week six of its teams are ranked in the top nine. Or, as USC’s head women’s volleyball coach Mick Haley says, it’s like the old days in the ACC basketball tournament when you had all those great teams trying to make a 16-team NCAA field.
No matter the comparison, Pac-12 women’s volleyball teams had best be open for business every time they take the court.
“We just beat each other up,” Haley said matter-of-factly.
“It happens every year,” Oregon coach Jim Moore said with a laugh.
Perhaps, but this year it might be even tougher at the top in a league that has seen five of its teams be ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the nation in a regular season that is coming down the home stretch.
What follows, of course, is the NCAA Tournament and one of those teams, UCLA, is the defending national champion.
This year, could it be Stanford, defeated only just last night by USC for the first time in league play and ranked No. 1 in the latest AVCA poll? Or No. 4 Oregon? Or No. 5 UCLA? Or No. 6 Washington? Or No. 8 USC, which joined UCLA in the national semifinals in 2011?
“I’ve never seen it like this before,” said Haley, the former Texas and U.S. Olympic coach who took over at USC in 2001. “And not even when it was the Pac-8. And then the Pac-10.”
“I think we knew the conference was going to be solid this year,” said Stanford coach John Dunning, who like Haley joined his current school 12 years ago. “We knew every team was going to be better.”
Through last weekend with some awfully tough matchups still to come, consider some of these results within the Pac-12, where, as UCLA third-year coach Mike Sealy says, “When you have a big match every night for three months, it can be wearing”:
-- Stanford (24-3 overall, 16-1 Pac-12) stood 2-2 after back-to-back defeats in August to Hawaii and Penn State (currently ranked No. 2). Since then, the Cardinal won 22 in a row, but that includes escaping Oregon and UCLA in five sets each at home, and then winning in five sets at Washington and Washington State. Their first Pac-12 loss came last night in a 4-set match against USC.
-- Oregon (22-3, 13-3) opened the season 14-0 before that five-set heartbreaker at Stanford. “We were sick that whole weekend,” Moore recalled. “That was disappointing.” His team also lost in five at Cal, 15-13 in the fifth, and then got swept at home by Stanford for its third defeat.
-- UCLA (21-5, 13-4) lost to Nebraska early, and also to USC and Stanford, and then was shocked at Arizona in three. The Bruins have played in seven five-set matches this season, including winning 15-13 in the fifth at Utah. “It’s not an easy league,” Sealy said. “There are no easy nights and there’s enough physicality on every team so that every team can pose problems.”
-- Washington (20-5, 11-5) has also lived on the edge. The Huskies, once ranked No. 1 after getting off to a 15-0 start, have lost five of their last nine, at Oregon, twice to Stanford, and to USC and UCLA, and had to go five (17-15 in the fifth) to beat Cal. “You just can’t slip in any one area and if you do, you pay the price and you go home very sad,” 11th-year Washington coach Jim McLaughlin said.
-- And USC (25-4, 13-4) has had an up-and-down existence. The Trojans got out to a 13-0 start and has never gone longer than four sets in Pac-12 play. Six of their league wins have been in three; so have three of their losses, including a stunner at Arizona State, the same night UCLA lost at Arizona State and Oregon at Cal. But then they manage to give Stanford their first loss in 22-matches.
-- Arizona State is 17-12, 6-10. “Arizona State is a very good team,” said Dunning, agreeing that the Sun Devils are the kind of team that can mess up someone’s NCAA bracket. “They better get in. They don’t play well in the beginning of the year but then at the end they’re just killing people. They’re a scary team.”
-- Cal is 14-13, 8-9, and Arizona stands 14-13, 6-10. “If Cal had not had their injuries, they’d be right there in the mix,” Haley said.
And everyone seems to have escaped at one time or another from the last two teams in the league, Utah and Washington State.
“When you go to Utah you’d better batten down the hatches because you know you’re going to get a heck of a match,” Haley said. “It’s like that wherever you go in the conference. Washington State is another trap place. You go up there and take a deep breath or snooze you’ll get it handed to you.”
Haley said TV makes a difference in a league where the coaches are a Who’s Who of the sport.
“All these coaches are really good and continue to get better,” Haley said. “Another thing is we share all game films and can really analyze each other to the nth degree. And we weren’t on TV all the time like the Big Ten and now this year we have 82 matches on TV, which really puts you on call every night.”
TV also dictates an unusual schedule.
“The sequence that we play in matters,” Dunning said. “We play a lot of different days, like Wednesday-Thursday or Wednesday-Friday. This week we play Thursday-Friday and then Wednesday-Sunday. It’s an interesting schedule and can make for a tough week.”
Before UCLA won the championship last year, Penn State owned the title, taking it home a remarkable four years in a row. Three of those championship-match victories were over Pac-12 teams, Stanford in 2007 and ’08 and Cal in 2010.
Nebraska won it all in 2006, beating Stanford, which snapped a five-year Pac-12 title run: Stanford in 2001, USC in 2002 (beating Stanford in the final), USC again in 2003, Stanford in 2004 and Washington in 2004. So clearly in most years the road to the final goes through the West Coast. Since the women began competing in the NCAA in 1981, some version of the Pac-12 has won a total of 14 championships.
Can it happen again this year?
“The one thing that last year showed us is you just have to be great for two and a half weeks,” Sealy said. “So everything you’ve done leading up to that doesn’t really matter. If you’ve had an amazing season it can end at the drop of a hat. If you had a horrible season you can make an amazing run.
“It’s almost like you have to learn as many lessons as possible and detach from the results. You have to go out there and enjoy your team and have fun and enjoy playing because you really can’t control what happens once that playoff run starts.”