San Diego coach Jen Petrie asked simply, “Why not us?”
Why not, indeed.
Here are some things to consider about the second-ranked Toreros, who finished the regular season 27-1 and are riding a 24-match winning streak, the nation’s longest:
In the pre-conference season, they beat No. 7 Pittsburgh, which has only lost three times; swept Hawai’i, which will likely win the Big West this weekend; swept No. 8 Ohio State, the third-place team in the Big Ten; beat SMU, the third-place team in the American Athletic; beat the Pac-12’s Utah in five; swept the Pac-12’s UCLA; and lost just once, at No. 4 Louisville in four sets on September 2.
One loss. To a team that will be an NCAA Tournament top-four seed.
San Diego went 18-0 in the West Coast Conference, which included two victories each over No. 18 BYU, an NCAA tournament at-large lock; once-ranked Pepperdine, which was ranked early; and Loyola Marymount. Both might get bids.
But San Diego, while ranked No. 2 in the AVCA Poll, had an NCAA RPI heading into Saturday of No. 8. And the WCC is not the Big Ten, ACC or Pac-12.
Well, Breana Edwards, the graduate-student right side who transferred from Indiana for her fifth year and is having the season of her life, offered this:
“I know we’re solid in every position. We’ve been pushed in the preseason. Every fifth set we’ve gone to we’ve won. There’s not a doubt in my mind that we have what it takes.
“I mean, I played in the Big Ten and I don’t see why we’re any different than any team in the Big Ten. We have the power, we have the ball control and Gabby Blossom puts up amazing balls. She came from the Big Ten. And this conference presents its own challenges in a different way.”
There are observers who agree and certainly plenty who don’t.
A top-four seed?
What else can or could San Diego have done?
As Emily Ehman of the Big Ten Network and ESPN said in our weekly Zoom last Monday, assuming San Diego is not a top-four seed, “It sends a message to not only San Diego, but it sends a message to any non-Power 5 team that there is nothing that they can do unless they schedule as tough as San Diego did and go undefeated to allow you to get a top-four seed.”
The NCAA bracket that will be announced Sunday night has 64 teams. The top 16 play the first and second rounds at home. But the top four seeds, if they win their first two matches, are home for the third and fourth rounds, the NCAA regionals. It’s a huge advantage.
San Diego is 18-0 in the Jenny Craig Pavilion on as pretty a campus as you will find. That wasn’t lost on Edwards.
“I came on campus, and I don’t know if you’ve seen the campus, but it’s gorgeous, and I fell in love with it, and the girls are great,” said Edwards, a 6-foot-3 product of Rainer, Oregon, who is second on the team in kills with 301 (.324/set) and has 47 blocks. When San Diego won at BYU on Wednesday, Edwards had 18 kills with three errors in 31 attacks.
Edwards was looking for a different team for her graduate year. Her former Indiana teammate, junior Leyla Blackwell, who is from nearby La Jolla, is in her second season at USD. The 6-4 middle leads USD in blocks (141, 20 solo, 1.45/set) and has 181 kills while hitting .346.
“She told me how great the culture was and that was something I was looking for, a well-structured culture and a winning program,” Edwards said.
Edwards had good numbers for Indiana, but is having her best season yet. She’s a way better passer and her hitting efficiency has improved greatly.
“The coaching staff here has helped me develop so many different aspects of my game,” Edwards said. “I’ll come in and work with Alfie (assistant coach Alfred Reft) one-on-one. We’ve worked on changing minor aspects of my arm swing, footwork, all the little details.”
Another reason for hitting better is the addition of the aforementioned Blossom, the fiery Penn State setter who is also a fifth-year graduate student.
“She’s got tremendous leadership,” Petrie said, “and plays with an intensity that is contagious.”
Added fifth-year senior libero Annie Benbow, “Gabby Blosssom is a great setter and an amazing athlete and player and she’s really taken our team to the next level.”
Blossom is averaging 11.2 assists, 11th in the nation. San Diego is hitting ..290, 10th in the NCAA. Blossom is second on the team with 251 digs, has 41 blocks and 29 aces.
“It’s different people, a different coaching staff, a different style of play. I am so lucky to have been part of the Penn State program and now I’m getting to be a part of this program,” said Blossom, a 5-9 product of St. Louis who was a VolleyballMag.com honorable-mention All-American last season.
“We have a lot of really good weapons, which allows us to move the ball around, we pass really well and we have a lot of options,” Blossom said. “And our hitters do a really good job of bettering the ball.”
The hitting starts with Katie Lukes, a fifth-year outside who has 364 kills (.379/set), is hitting .282, is third in digs with 177, and has 13 aces and 56 blocks.
“I am so fortunate that the COVID year allowed me to stay one more year,” Lukes said, “because if it weren’t for that we never would have had a season like this, and us having six seniors brings a lot of experience, creates a lot of confidence, and I’ve seen even the younger girls blossom through us.
“There’s leadership on every part of the court.”
Said Petrie of the 6-2 product of San Clemente, California, “I am so happy for her. And for anyone in any program who weathered that storm of the COVID year, playing two seasons like that, and itt was just so exhausting, really, mentally and physically. To want to come back and do it again one more time, I’m just so thrilled and proud that they wanted to do it here and do it with us, knowing that we had a chance to do something special.”
Grace Frohling was the only USD player who was a VolleyballMag.com honorable-mention All-American last season. The 6-5 senior from Los Angeles has 292 kills (3.01/set), is hitting .322, has 91 blocks and leads with 30 aces.
“They’re so experienced,” Petrie said. “All season long it’s like coaching a professional team because all of these girls have been there, they’ve had experience playing in big-time matches and they don’t get rattled too easily no matter what the situation is.”
Not to be forgotten is the one youngster in the mix, sophomore Haley Stoner, a 6-1 middle who has 136 kills, is hitting .312 and is second with 94 blocks.
The libero is 5-3 Benbow, the product of Frisco, Texas, who is not only outstanding on the back row, but has 22 aces and 79 assists. For that matter, Blossom is like a bull in a china shop when chasing down a ball, but the rest of the team is ready to help.
“We should never be out of system,” said Petrie, who was a standout player at William & Mary in her day. “I don’t care what we’re passing like. Our second touch has to be that good no matter who we’re playing. We always look like we’re in system. And Gabby Blossom, it doesn’t matter where we pass it, she keeps it in system. We’ve worked hard on our non-setters being able to deliver the ball.”
San Diego is not some newcomer to the national scene. Since Petrie took over in 1999, the program has only missed the NCAA Tournament twice. In 2013 and 2018 San Diego made it to the third round. In 2019 USD won its first match and did that again in 2020.
Last season, however, BYU finished 20-8, 14-4 in the WCC, and in the first round of the NCAA Tournament got swept by Rice at Texas.
“Last year we didn’t have the finish we wanted and all of us knew we had to get back in the gym and really work, Lukes said.
“I think we have all the pieces and we’re very versatile. We can spread the offense and don’t rely on one person and we have tons of trust in each other.”
Which is why Blossom, who played in four NCAA Tournaments and won at least one match each time that past four years for Penn State said, “We’re really exciting about the postseason. We’re always thinking ahead but we always say we’re in the moment. But I think we’re getting better every day and I think we’re ready. The postseason is just so fun and anything can happen.”
Benbow is confident.
“Without a doubt this is the best team I’ve been on since I’ve been here and I’ve been on some great teams,” Benbow said.
So, the question begs: Why not San Diego?
“Why not us has been our motto all season long,” said Petrie, six times the West Coast Conference coach of the year. “And every time we walk out there and we’ve played some of what are the best teams in the country, it’s not like we haven’t come out victorious.
“We have big-time wins against really solid teams. And I think we’ve been upgrading our game.”
The NCAA selection show is at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Sunday and will be shown on ESPNU.