Powers to play in Big Four tournament
Four of the top five teams in this week's American Volleyball Coaches Association's Top 25 will square off this weekend when the University of Florida plays host to the inaugural Nike Volleyball Big Four Classic.
The tournament starts with No. 2 Stanford taking on No. 5 Texas on Friday at 5:30 p.m. ET, followed by No. 1 Penn State and No. 4 Florida at 7:30 p.m. The winners and losers will meet Saturday, and whichever team wins both of its matches will almost assuredly be ranked No. 1 next week.
Not only does the Big Four Classic feature teams at the top of the poll, it also includes four of the most successful programs in the history of Division I women's volleyball.
The participating programs have combined for 11 national championships, including a record six by the Cardinal, 25 appearances in the title match and 39 trips to the national semifinals of the NCAA tournament. At least one of the participating programs has advanced to the national semifinals in eight of the past nine years.
Since early-season rankings are predicated more on reputation and tradition rather than actual accomplishment, the Big Four Classic provides all four teams with an opportunity to earn their position at the top of the poll.
The Nittany Lions have won three consecutive national championships and own a 108-match winning streak, the longest in the history of women's volleyball. But only two of this year's starters -- senior right-side/middle hitter Blair Brown and senior middle blocker Arielle Wilson -- played a significant role in those accomplishments. In reality, this team owns a six-game winning streak and has yet to play a ranked opponent.
"This year, even though we're ranked the top team in the country right now, I don't really feel we're one of the top teams in the country," said Penn State head coach Russ Rose, one of two women's coaches to amass more than 1,000 career victories. "We'll know a lot more about a couple of the top teams after we play, or see them play, this weekend."
Stanford has five starters and its libero returning, including a pair of All-Americans in senior setter/outside hitter Cassidy Lichtman and senior outside hitter Alix Klineman, but 10 of the 14 players on its roster are either freshmen or sophomores. The Cardinal's 5-0 record includes victories against only two teams that earned a spot in last year's NCAA tournament.
That's why all four teams have a lot to prove this weekend to themselves, as well as volleyball aficionados around the country.
On Friday, Penn State faces the team it knocked out of last year's NCAA tournament, giving Florida an added incentive. If PSU and Stanford both win, the Nittany Lions would then get to play the most recent school to beat them. That loss occurred on Sept. 15, 2007, in five sets during a tournament at Yale University.
"The only bad part about the story is the number of times they have beaten us between now and then," Stanford head coach John Dunning said. "We've had some success early, so they're ready to go forward and play somebody great."
Three of Penn State's four titles came at the expense of the Cardinal, including those won in 2007 and 2008.
The Gators own the season's most impressive victory, the five-set win over Nebraska at the AVCA Showcase in Omaha. Florida also swept then-No. 9 Iowa State in their first match of the season and defeated No. 15 Colorado State at home last weekend.
"Florida's success up to this point in time makes them a great opponent," Rose said. "They beat Nebraska in Nebraska. There are a very small number of schools that are in that fraternity."
Texas is in search of momentum after dropping a three-set decision at home to Illinois and then surviving in five sets against Long Beach State on Saturday for the program's 1,000th all-time victory. The experience of playing those matches could prove to be an advantage Friday against Stanford.
Those matches also demonstrate how hard it is to replace All-American players like Destinee Hooker and Ashley Engle, as well as libero Heather Kisner.
Penn State is in a similar situation as it looks for a way to fill the positions held by four-year starters Alisha Glass, Megan Hodge and sophomore Darcy Dorton, who suffered a knee injury during the spring and has yet to be cleared.
Regardless of who prevails this weekend, fans of all four teams are virtually assured of a rematch. If not later this season in the NCAA tournament, then almost certainly when the Big Four Classic continues during each of the following three seasons, beginning with the 2011 edition which will be played at Stanford.
"I think its great the coaches got together and were all willing to do it," Lichtman said. "It's hard for the top teams to schedule because a lot of teams don't want to play you, and a lot of top teams don't want to play other top teams because it might have some consequences in the rankings. It's really cool for college volleyball that they stepped up and said 'Let's do it for the next four years.'"
When Rose conceived the idea, he was looking for ways to fill his schedule and guarantee his teams at least one weekend of high-level competition.
"I was looking for schools that I thought were good programs that have made great contributions to the sport in their areas," he said. "I wanted to go to different areas of the country. I've had a long relationship playing Stanford over the years, and we've had some home and aways with Texas. We've gone to Florida to play. They've never been here, but that will happen in a couple of years."
Another important benefit is playing opponents that will help coaches identify areas in which their team needs to improve before conference play begins.
"We've been playing some good mid-level teams and doing well against them," Lichtman said. "It is good to have that experience before we play Texas, who has the ability to really expose our weaknesses. The Pac-10 is a great conference and we have to be ready every week. It's good for us to play such high-level teams so early on."
For volleyball fans, it's an opportunity to see the sport's heavyweights go toe-to-toe and see which team really deserves to be No. 1.
Around the nation
Team of the week: No. 3 Illinois served notice it would be a force to be reckoned with when it went to Austin and swept then-No. 2 Texas, snapping the Longhorns' 25-match winning streak at Gregory Gymnasium with a 25-23, 25-18, 25-18 victory. Senior outside hitter Laura DeBruler had 17 kills for an average of 5.67 per set, junior outside hitter Michelle Bartsch hit .526 with 10 kills on 19 attacks, and junior outside hitter Colleen Ward finished with 11 kills and hit .310. Illinois earned sideouts on 44 of 60 (73 percent) opportunities. The following day, sophomore middle blocker Erin Johnson hit .909 with 10 kills on 11 attacks during a 25-9, 25-15, 25-15 victory against Florida A&M University.
ESPNU announces television package: Women's volleyball will get consistent national exposure for the first time thanks to an eight-week package of matches that will be televised on ESPNU and ESPNUHD. The schedule begins on Sept. 15 when Nebraska travels to Iowa State, and the coverage expands to doubleheaders on Sept. 29 when Kentucky plays at Tennessee and Hawaii visits New Mexico State. Five different conferences are part of the package -- SEC (five matches), Big 12 (4), West Coast (2) Western Athletic Conference (2) and the SWAC (1).
The week ahead: The Big 10 and Big 12 will go head-to-head when No. 3 Illinois visits No. 7 Nebraska for the Ameritas Players Challenge, which also includes No. 20 Dayton and Western Michigan University. The Huskers open the tournament on Thursday night against Dayton, face WMU on Saturday, and then square off with the Illini at 7 p.m. in a match being played at NU's Devaney Center. Illinois plays matches against the Broncos and UD at 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Saturday. Other matches pitting top 25 teams include No. 17 Florida State visiting No. 16 Kentucky and No. 25 San Diego travelling to No. 23 Long Beach State on Friday.
Northern Iowa's Bre Payton registered triple-doubles against Purdue, Minnesota, Baylor and Dayton to become the first player in Missouri Valley Conference history to record triple-doubles in four consecutive matches. Payton currently owns 11 career triple-doubles, the most of any Panther in school history. Boise State's Alisha Young set the school record for points in a single match when she finished with 33.5 during a five-set victory over Portland State on Sept. 4. The senior middle blocker registered a career-high 29 kills, one solo and seven block assists. With her fourth dig during the victory over then-No. 17 Florida State, Nikki Fowler became just the fourth player in Tennessee volleyball history to record 1,000 kills and 1,000 digs during her career. Drake University extended its program-best start to 9-0 with a three-set victory over UMKC on Tuesday night. Senior outside hitter Angela Bys tallied 12 kills in the Bulldogs' 3-1 victory over Wisconsin-Green Bay on Friday night to become the program's career leader. Tennessee is one of only four teams in the AVCA Top 25 that has not lost a set this season. The list includes No. 1 Penn State, No. 9 Washington and No. 10 Cal. Utah State improved to 6-0 with victories over Weber State, San Diego State, Seattle and Arizona State. It's the program's best start since 1979 when it began the year with 11 consecutive wins. The Aggies are receiving votes in the AVCA poll for the first time since the 2002 preseason poll. With its three-set win against Pittsburgh on Sept. 3, the Purdue volleyball program recorded its 700th victory in program history . Belmont's Deane Webb, already the program's winningest head coach, secured the 300th win of his coaching career when the Bruins outlasted Weber State in five sets. He has 138 victories at Belmont to go along with 28 wins at East Tennessee State and 134 at Indiana Wesleyan.
Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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