Volleyball witnesses influx of parity
UCLA's five-set victory over No. 1 Stanford this past Saturday did more than create a virtual three-way tie atop the Pac-10 standings. It demonstrated to everyone there isn't a team that is going to dominate women's volleyball the way Penn State did the past three seasons.
The upsets weren't limited to the Pac-10, where No. 7 Cal dropped a five-set decision at No. 8 USC and No. 13 Oregon fell by the same count at home to Arizona. In the Big Ten, the fourth-ranked Nittany Lions lost at Purdue and Indiana, and No. 6 Illinois went down at No. 18 Michigan. In the Big 12, No. 10 Iowa State lost at Kansas.
The net result was a shake-up in the national rankings and an infusion of confidence for many teams hoping to compete for a national championship.
The team that reaped the short-term reward was Florida, which assumed the No. 1 ranking for the first time since Dec. 3, 1996. With eight victories in nine matches against top-ranked opponents, the Gators earned their position on top of the poll.
"It's a really nice reflection of how hard we've worked this season," junior outside hitter Kristy Jaeckel said, "but at the same time, we all realize the game isn't played on paper and we still have something to prove every match. The target on our backs has gotten that much bigger."
Florida is one of only a handful of teams that has avoided losing to a lower or unranked opponent. During the first seven weeks of the 2010 season, there have been 20 matches in which higher-ranked teams were knocked off by teams ranked below them.
Last weekend alone, four unranked teams defeated opponents ranked in the top 13, and three teams in the top 16 lost to an opponent ranked lower in the poll.
"I don't think that this past weekend is an anomaly," said Florida head coach Mary Wise, who is only two victories away from No. 700. "We have just witnessed what is going to be true of women's volleyball from here on out.
"It's a combination of more talented players throughout the country, rally scoring and 25-point sets. It's like all the stars have lined up. What we've created is the 3-point shot and the parity of men's basketball."
Cal, Stanford and Washington are in a virtual tie for first place in the Pac-10, but the top of the standings will likely have a different look next week after the Huskies visit the Bay area for back-to-back games against the Cardinal and Bears.
"It's as balanced in the top half as it's ever been, and I think we're six or seven deep with teams having a shot at the tournament if things continue the way they are now," said California head coach Rich Feller. "Anything can happen in the Pac-10. It may be harder to win the Pac-10 than the national championship this year. It's just so difficult to go undefeated in this conference."
One look at the Top 25 reveals why the Pac-10 schedule is so demanding. There are four conference teams ranked in this week's top seven, five in the top 10 and six in the top 17. That's why dropping a five-set decision at USC the night after winning at UCLA allowed California to move up on the poll.
"You cannot take a night off, mentally or physically," said senior setter Carli Lloyd, who led Cal to the national semifinals in 2007. "You have to be really good every day. I love that about the conference. It prepares you for the postseason.
"I'm excited about how wide-open it is. I'm excited that there are teams beating each other. I like how the rankings change all the time. It's exciting to see that."
The Bears saw their 15-match winning streak come to an end, but with only three upperclassmen on the roster, Cal should be even better in the second half of the season.
"It's what your winning streak is in December that counts," Feller said. "That's when we want to be 6-0. We tend to fly under the radar a little bit, which is just fine with me."
While perennial powers hold a slight lead in the Pac-10, that is certainly not the case in the Big Ten. Of the three teams at the top -- Illinois, Michigan and Northwestern -- only the Illini have won a conference title, and the most recent one was 1992. Since Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1991, the Wolverines have never finished higher than a tie for third, and the Wildcats' top finish was sixth.
Michigan defeated Michigan State on Wednesday to improve to 17-2 overall, the best start in the program's history after 19 games. UM ran its conference record to 6-1.
"I've been here 12 years, and every year we say this it's the deepest the conference has ever been," Michigan head coach Mark Rosen said. "This year, without question, it's the most parity within the conference. From top to bottom, it's brutal."
The Wolverines lost nearly 55 percent of their offense with the graduations of Juliana Paz, Veronica Rood and Megan Bower, so it helps to have a leader like senior setter Lexi Zimmerman, the program's career leader in assists.
Zimmerman posted back-to-back triple-doubles to help the Wolverines defeat then-No. 6 Illinois this past Saturday and in-state rival MSU on Wednesday.
"It's incredibly wide-open," Zimmerman said. "Any team on any given night can beat anyone. That's what makes it fun and exciting. No matter who's on the other side of the court, you have a chance to win or lose, depending on how you play."
If the current trend of upsets continues through the remainder of the season, volleyball fans can expect that many conference races won't be decided until the final weekend of the season, and some surprising teams will make runs deep into the NCAA tournament.
"There was a time when you could pencil in which teams would make it to the Final Four," Wise said. "Now, with predetermined sites, great talent, great coaching, parity and 25-point sets, who knows who's going to be in Kansas City?
"It's great for the fans, great for the sport of volleyball and nothing but gray hair for the coaches."
Around the nation
Team of the week: Northwestern grabbed a share of first place in the Big Ten after defeating Iowa and then-No. 16 Minnesota last weekend at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The Wildcats improved to 15-2 overall, the best start in the program's history, and 5-1 in conference play for the first time since 2002. NU climbed four spots to No. 20 in the latest American Volleyball Coaches Association Coaches Poll, its highest ranking since Oct. 6, 1987, when the Wildcats were No. 15. A share of first place in the Big Ten will be on the line Friday when Northwestern visits No. 15 Michigan. The Wolverines played host to Michigan State on Wednesday night, while Illinois, the other team in the three-way tie, plays host to Purdue and Indiana on Friday and Saturday, respectively. The Wildcats conclude the weekend Saturday against the Spartans in East Lansing.
Killer instinct: Tyler Henderson, a sophomore outside hitter from the University of Tulsa, tied the NCAA record for kills in a single match in the rally scoring era when she put down 45 in a five-set victory at SMU on Oct. 6. Her total was the most since the NCAA shifted to 25-point sets in 2008. Henderson hit .470 during the match with only six errors on 83 attacks. She added 42 additional kills during a pair of three-set wins over UAB and now leads the nation, averaging 6.69 kills and 7.29 points per set. The Golden Hurricane extended their winning streak to 15 matches, while improving to 16-2 overall and 7-0 in Conference USA. Henderson became the first Tulsa player to be named the Sports Imports/AVCA Division I national player of the week after averaging 7.91 kills and 8.59 points per set while hitting .428 in the three victories.
The week ahead: A share of first place in several conferences will be on the line, and a pair of longtime rivalries will be renewed for the first time in 2010 as the second half of the regular season begins this week. In the Mountain West Conference, No. 16 Colorado State could open a two-game lead when the Rams play host to TCU on Thursday. The Horned Frogs could pull to within a half-game of CSU with a victory. In the SEC West, Ole Miss can forge a tie with No. 12 LSU with a victory Friday, while the Tigers need a win to keep pace with Florida in the overall race. And in the Atlantic 10, archrivals will collide Friday when No. 18 Dayton visits Xavier, with the Musketeers needing a victory to prevent the Flyers from opening a two-match lead. Finally, the first round of the Civil War takes place Friday when Oregon State travels to No. 17 Oregon.
Senior setter Chelsea Fowles dished out career assist No. 3,943 during the fourth set of Utah State's win at Idaho last Wednesday to become the program's all-time leader. Fowles, who recorded 48 assists against the Vandals to surpass Carrie Steverson's mark of 3,942, now ranks 10th in WAC history with 3,995. Junior setter Kellie Catanach became the fourth player in Duke history to surpass 3,300 career assists when she tallied 32 during the Blue Devils' sweep of North Carolina at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Coach Jolene Nagel became the third coach to record 150 ACC victories as Duke took sole possession of first place in the conference. Junior libero Haley Stein broke the Eastern Michigan record for digs in a single match when she scooped up 55 during the five-set victory over Western Michigan on Oct. 8, surpassing Ashley Cudney's total of 50 set on Oct. 7, 2006, against Northern Illinois. Stein also tied the fourth-highest total in NCAA Division I history in a five-set match. Senior middle blocker Hannah Stout recorded career kill No. 1,000 during Tulsa's victory over UAB on Sunday, becoming the program's fifth player to reach the milestone. Sophomore outside hitter Rachel Femling tied the Portland record with 10 block assists as the Pilots defeated San Francisco in five sets last Saturday. Portland recorded 30 block assists during the match; the second-highest total in school history. Senior libero Liz Coach had 14 digs last Friday against Ole Miss to break Auburn's record for career digs. She finished the match with 1,498, two more than the previous standard held by Gretchen Thompson. Purdue earned its first-ever victory over a top-five opponent when the Boilermakers came from behind to defeat Penn State in five sets last Friday night. It also was Purdue's first win over the Nittany Lions since Dec. 4, 1987, snapping a 43-match losing streak. Kansas recorded its first-ever win over a top-10 opponent when the Jayhawks defeated No. 10 Iowa State last Saturday. The highest-ranked opponent KU had defeated before that was No. 13 Texas A&M on Nov. 20, 2004. Lipscomb defeated East Tennessee State and South Carolina-Upstate to run its nation-leading regular-season conference winning streak to 29 matches. The Lady Bisons have not lost in Atlantic Sun play since Oct. 28, 2008, at Belmont University in five sets. Lipscomb took over the lead when IPFW stopped North Dakota State's 42-match Summit League winning streak on Oct. 1.
Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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