The women's college volleyball season starts Friday, and just like every year since 1995, the highlight of the opening weekend will be the Runza/AVCA Volleyball Showcase. This season's matches feature four teams ranked in the top seven of the preseason Top 25.
No. 2 Stanford will face No. 7 Nebraska at 7 p.m. CT on Friday, Aug. 29, followed by No. 3 Texas versus No. 4 USC. The Showcase will continue at 12:30 p.m. CT on Sunday when Stanford squares off against Texas and USC takes on Nebraska.
Not only will the Qwest Center crowd see four serious contenders for the 2008 national championship, but the matches also will provide the first glimpse of how the latest rule changes impact the game.
Adjustments to the rules include a more lenient interpretation of what constitutes a ball-handling error and a reduction of substitutions from 15 to 12. But the most noticeable change will be playing to 25 points during the first four sets. Set No. 5 will still be played to 15.
"I don't know if I have a feel for it," said Nebraska coach John Cook. "In watching the Olympics, especially beach volleyball where they go to 21, it happens fast and it puts a premium on every point. Can that create more upsets playing three out of five? That might be hard. But I think there are going to be a lot of close games. I'm pretty confident in that."
The rationale behind the second scoring change in eight years was to address what was seen as a lack of intensity during the middle of 30-point sets and to intensify the focus for players (and the excitement for fans).
With every point worth a little more, mistakes will be more costly than ever. That's why Nebraska senior outside hitter Jordan Larson thinks the new 25-point game could benefit the Huskers.
"When you switch to 25 points, it comes down to serving and passing," Larson said. "Who can do it the best and who can do it at crunch time. I think we'll have an advantage because we're a very good serving and passing team."
In a season of change, it's only fitting that the Showcase gets in on the action by adjusting its format from a bracket-style tournament to a conference challenge. That change is one reason the AVCA was able to assemble a field of programs that includes the past seven Showcase winners and six of the past eight national champions.
"We felt this was the way we could get the teams we wanted," said Kathy DeBoer, executive director of the AVCA. "I haven't looked at all the schedules of everybody around the country, but I can tell you there will not be another collegiate event this year until we get to the championship that has this much firepower in it."
Firepower is an accurate description of the players who will be competing in the four matches. Nine All-Americans will be on the court, including Stanford middle blocker Foluke Akinradewo, the reigning AVCA Division I National Player of the Year.
Texas has four returning All-Americans: outside hitter Juliann Faucette (first team), opposite hitter Ashley Engle (second), outside hitter Destinee Hooker (second) and middle blocker Lauren Paolini (third). Stanford returns three All-Americans: Akinradewo, outside hitter Cynthia Barboza (first) and outside hitter Alix Klineman (second). USC (setter Taylor Carico, second) and Nebraska (Larson, third) each has one returning All-American.
The four programs competing in this year's showcase have combined for 13 national championships, so it's highly likely that at least one of the teams will make the return trip to Omaha. In fact, two Showcase champions -- Long Beach State in 1998 and USC in 2003 -- went on to win the NCAA title, while four others finished as the national runner-up. A total of 18 participating teams advanced to the national semifinals.
That level of competition was one reason Stanford was willing to cancel a trip to Hawaii to play in the Showcase.
"I'm excited to go to Nebraska, but I am a little angry we cancelled our Hawaii trip," said Barboza, a senior. "It's really exciting to test ourselves against the best teams in the nation. Nebraska always has a great crowd, so it's fun to play there. But I could use a few palm trees and a beach."
While playing Nebraska and Texas is certainly no day at the beach, the real key to securing Stanford's participation in this year's Showcase was finding a format that would preclude a matchup with Pac-10 rival USC.
It's a good way to draw traditionally good teams to play in a great place, play good competition, but not worry about the conference lines.
-- Stanford coach John Dunning, on the Runza/AVCA Volleyball Showcase
"It's a good way to draw traditionally good teams to play in a great place, play good competition, but not worry about the conference lines," said Stanford coach John Dunning. "We wouldn't have gone there if we had to play USC. We get to play them at least twice anyway. So this is just perfect."
Despite playing in different conferences, the teams squaring off on Friday night have ties that bind.
USC head coach Mick Haley spent 17 seasons in Austin (1980-96), building the Longhorns into a national power. He led UT to its only national championship in 1988 and a total of four appearances in the Final Four.
Texas coach Jerritt Elliott was the interim head coach at USC prior to Haley's arrival in Los Angeles, and his recruiting efforts were the foundation of the Trojans' back-to-back national championships in 2002 and 2003.
Stanford and Nebraska will meet for the first time since 2006, when the Huskers defeated the Cardinal in the national championship at Qwest Center. Stanford leads the series 7-5, but Nebraska won the two most recent matches. Both teams would like nothing more than to meet again in the final match of the 2008 season.
"It would be nice to start the season and end the season with a victory there," Akinradewo said. "Their state loves volleyball. The crowd is not negative toward you, so that's a great thing. Being there with people who enjoy the sport is really nice."
The Cardinal are looking to join UCLA (1990-92) and Penn State (1997-99) as the only programs to appear in three consecutive national championship matches. Playing matches against Nebraska and Texas at Qwest Center may eventually help Stanford extend its record with a seventh national title.
"It will be awesome to play Nebraska there and play Texas there," Dunning said. "What a great way to start our season. It did cross my mind that the final four was there and that it would be good for our players.
"To me, it doesn't get any better. You can't be afraid of things like that. You can't care whether you are completely ready or not. You've just got to go do it because it's great."
With all the changes, one constant will be the Qwest Center and its appreciative volleyball fans. The facility will become the first to host college volleyball's two marquee events in the same season, cementing its position as the current epicenter of college volleyball.
"The one thing you can always count on in Omaha -- it's a college sports town," Cook said. "People's mindset here is college sports. They appreciate it, they like it and they want to go see it. That's what makes Omaha a great place."
No program has been as instrumental to the Showcase as Nebraska. The Huskers are making their seventh appearance in the event and will be the host for the fifth time. That relationship will continue for the next three years, since the AVCA is in the first year of a three-year contract with Qwest Center.
"It's great that the top programs that are competing for national championships are playing each other," Cook said. "That's what fans want to see and that's why our players at Nebraska come here -- they want to play big matches in front of big crowds. It's a great experience for them and great for the sport."
Dave Reed covers college sports for ESPN.com.