Commentary

Perils of Pac-10 play hits Stanford

Updated: October 11, 2010, 2:42 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

UCLA volleyball player Lainey Gera didn't have much of her voice left by Sunday evening. She'd had plenty to shout about over the weekend.

Although, Friday wasn't so great. Bay area native Gera's favorite baseball team, the San Francisco Giants, lost in extra innings to the Braves in the National League Division Series. This after Gera's Bruins had lost their volleyball match earlier in the evening to visiting Cal, 3-1 at Pauley Pavilion.

That defeat had been UCLA's second in a row and third in its past four matches. There was a good reason for that, though: It's called the perils of playing volleyball in the Pac-10.

[+] EnlargeGera
Don Liebig/ASUCLALainey Gera and UCLA had reason to celebrate this weekend.

Admittedly, raving about the difficulty of the Pac-10 schedule in volleyball is a lot like marveling over everyone being fast in an Olympic track 100-meter final. What else do you expect?

Since the NCAA tournament for volleyball began, in 1981, teams currently in the Pac-10 (women's sports weren't officially sanctioned by the league until '86-'87) have been the national champion 13 times … and the runner-up 13 times.

"I think it's exhausting physically when you face teams like that week after week," Gera, a junior libero/defensive specialist, said of Pac-10 play. "But mentally, knowing you're playing the best is awesome. Because if you're learning from it, when it comes to the postseason, you're going to be ready for anything that comes your way. We play the best of the best every weekend."

Including this past weekend. After the loss to No. 7 Cal on Friday, the No. 12 Bruins had No. 1 Stanford next. This is a squad with some of the most thunderous hitters in college volleyball, led by 6-foot-4 Alix Klineman. And the Cardinal had won the biggest match in the country this season, on Sept. 11, ending three-time defending NCAA champ Penn State's winning streak at 109 matches.

Gera said of facing the Cardinal: "I think our mindset was we had nothing to lose. We had no pressure on us. We had faced some of the top people in our conference early, and that helped us in figuring out what we needed to do against them. And it kind of all clicked against Stanford."

Did it ever. The Bruins handed Stanford its first loss of the season 3-2, and Gera's 25 digs had a great deal to do with that. Sophomore Rachael Kidder had 25 kills and 10 digs.

For her part, Gera credited the UCLA coaching staff for excellent scouting work. For those less familiar with volleyball, realize that digging is as much mental as physical. Yes, your instincts have to be hair-trigger sharp, and you can't be afraid of collecting bruises and floor burns. But you also must know personnel and tendencies.

"Our coaches laid out a really good game plan for our defense; we knew what we needed to do in the back row against every single hitter," Gera said. "We memorized their tendencies, so we knew where to be. Instead of just flying around, digging everything I could, it was more like the coaches told us what we needed to do. And I was in the right spot probably 80 percent of the time."

Which is a pretty amazing percentage even against a group of completely predictable hitters, let alone a team as good as Stanford.

As for the Bruins' coaching staff, things are different for the first time in more than four decades at the UCLA helm. Andy Banachowski -- who'd been affiliated with UCLA volleyball even before the Beach Boys released "Pet Sounds" -- retired this summer.

A member of two men's national championship teams as a Bruins player in the 1960s, Banachowski was still in college when he started coaching the UCLA women's program. It began in 1965, although no official records were kept the first three seasons he coached. After two years away following his 1968 graduation, he returned to lead the UCLA women. And over the next 40 years, he guided the Bruins to six national championships, three of them in the NCAA era.

Now, another Bruins alum is coaching the team: 1993 graduate Mike Sealy, also a national champion in his playing days at UCLA. He previously had been an assistant for the UCLA men and spent one season as assistant with the Bruins women.

So there was an orderly handoff from the legendary Banachowski to Sealy, Gera said.

"We have a new staff, and everyone else was probably thinking, 'UCLA -- rebuilding year,'" she said. "But in our heads, it was more, 'This is a new transition for us to get better, to get to that level we need to get to.'"

Which is not to say that UCLA has ever been very far from the top level in women's volleyball. The program's best season in the past decade was 2006, the last time the Bruins made the Final Four. But they had the misfortune then of facing eventual champion Nebraska in the NCAA semifinals at the Huskers' home away from home in Omaha, Neb.

The past three postseasons, the Bruins have lost in the regional final to Stanford, in the regional semis to Texas and in the second round to Baylor. That upset loss to Baylor at Pauley Pavilion last December ended up being Banachowski's final match, and Gera said she felt the Bruins were looking too far ahead in the NCAA bracket.

Gera said they won't make that mistake at any time this season. Excited as the Bruins were about upsetting Stanford -- improving UCLA to 12-4 overall -- it's right back to business: preparing for this weekend's road trip to face Arizona and Arizona State.

By that time, Gera might even have her voice back … although there may be more yelling to do for the Giants. They helped make her weekend complete Sunday with a ninth-inning rally to beat the Braves in Game 3.

The weekend that was …

• While the Cardinal volleyball team tumbled, most everything else continued full speed ahead for the Stanford sports juggernaut. The No. 1 ranked women's soccer team had a better trip to Los Angeles than the volleyball squad did, beating USC and UCLA, and improving to 11-0-2.

The Stanford men's cross country team is also ranked No. 1; it will be back in action next weekend. Oh, and the football matchup with USC went rather well for Stanford, too, didn't it?

• Penn State volleyball entered this season after back-to-back undefeated seasons, and having won three NCAA titles in a row. But the Nittany Lions already have lost more matches this season -- four -- than in the three previous years combined.

The past two defeats came on Penn State's road swing to the Hoosier State this weekend: the Lions fell 3-2 at Purdue on Friday and 3-1 at Indiana on Saturday. How odd to see Penn State in the middle of the Big Ten volleyball standings, but that's where the Lions are at 3-3.

• Three top-10 teams were upset in women's soccer Sunday: No. 4 Boston College (2-1 by Virginia Tech), No. 6 Florida (1-0 by Auburn) and No. 10 Texas A&M (4-0 by Texas Tech). The only top-10 upset in men's soccer over the weekend was No. 20 South Carolina beating No. 5 Tulsa 1-0 on Saturday.

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

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