Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - December 2, 2011

Looking for some respect

Stanford is among seven Pac-12 teams in NCAA tourney with a low seed

by Rick Eymer

Here's a case where playing too many conference matches may have hindered seeding for the seven Pac-12 teams that earned a spot in the NCAA women's volleyball tournament, which gets underway this weekend at 16 venues around the country.

Sixth-ranked Stanford (21-7) serves as one of the hosts and will meet Sacred Heart (27-7) in the first round at 7 p.m. Friday in Maples Pavilion. Baylor and Michigan meet at 4:30 p.m. with the winners getting together Saturday night for the chance to gain entrance into the Sweet Sixteen, to be held at Florida.

The Cardinal is seeded 11th in the tournament despite impressive nonconference wins over NCAA participants Penn State (seeded eighth), Delaware, Duke and Florida.

That's still a better seed than unseeded Washington, California, Oregon and Arizona, which combined to go 33-2 against nonconference opponents. The only losses were to Hawaii (Arizona) and Minnesota (Oregon), both of which are hosting the first two rounds this weekend.

Penn State is also hosting and the Ducks beat them. The Huskies own a victory over Long Beach State, also an NCAA participant. Arizona beat ninth-seeded UCLA twice.

That's partly due to the 22 conference matches each team played this year, a decision made by the coaches themselves. They had also already decided to cut back to 18 conference matches in subsequent years.

No one can remember the last time there were no Pac-12 teams seeded among the top four nationally, and it's certain this is the first time no conference team has been seeded sixth or higher.

Two decisions made on the national level also affected choices made by the selection committee. The first was to guarantee that any of the top 16 seeds that wanted, could host the first weekend. The second decision was to avoid conference matchups in the first two rounds.

In the most recent AVCA poll, USC is ranked first, UCLA is at No. 4, Stanford is sixth, California is 10th, Washington is 11th and Oregon ranks 13th. Arizona is receiving votes.

"We only got to play six nonconference games," Stanford coach John Dunning said. "Our league wasn't able to show the rest of the nation what we could do. That made seeding very interesting."

The Women of Troy enjoy the seventh seed in the tournament despite their 25-4 record. Their worst loss was early in the season at Central Florida, which went on to set a school record with 20 wins this season. UCLA made the mistake of losing at Pepperdine (which hosts this weekend) in five sets. The seven Pac-12 teams in the postseason lost a grand total of five matches to teams not in the tournament.

Stanford won't need to concern itself with seedings, except for the fact that the last time the Cardinal won the national title, in 2004, it was seeded 11th and the regional was played at Florida.

That was also the year in which Stanford played its home games in Burnham Pavilion, Ogonna Nnamani had just returned from playing in the Olympics and the Cardinal began to get it right in match No. 26, a startling come-from-behind victory over then-undefeated and top-ranked Washington.

"The team knows all about that year," Dunning said. "We've made sure to talk about those things."

The Cardinal does have to concern itself with the Pioneers, which won the Northeast Conference title and will be playing its second NCAA tournament contest.

Sacred Heart has a California presence on its team, thanks to USC grad Rob Machan, who made sure to do quite a bit of recruiting in his old neighborhood.

Machan played for the Trojans and coached under Mick Haley before joining the Sacred Heart staff.

Former all-Pac-10 pick Kimmee Roleder, who played at USC for three years and missed her senior season with an injury, also showed up on the Pioneers' doorstep this year with a chance to play out her eligibility alongside her sister, Amanda, a Sacred Heart assistant coach.

"That's a big deal," Dunning said. "The USC connection definitely helps because they know what to expect and are familiar with us."

Perhaps Stanford's biggest worry will come after the season has been played out. The choice for team MVP might be difficult but trying to sort through Most Improved Player possibilities could prove to be a chore.

The Cardinal opened the season with a new offensive system and new weapons following the graduation of three All-American players.

Sophomores Rachel Williams (4.32 kills per set, 3.17 digs per set) and Carly Wopat (3.22 kills, 1.59 blocks, .393 hitting percentage) were asked to fill big shoes and both produced monster seasons. Both were named to the 14-player Pac-12 team this week. So did junior setter Karissa Cook (11.36 assists, 3.10 digs) who shared the position last year, and good cases could be made for redshirt freshman Lydia Bai (1.96 kills, 0.66 blocks) and several others who contributed to the success.

Hannah Benjamin (3.36) led the team in digs, with freshman Kyle Gilbert ranking fourth and sophomore Mary Ellen Luck ranking fifth for the defensive-minded Cardinal.

Hayley Spelman, Morgan Boukather, Jessica Walker and Stephanie Browne also put up impressive numbers in limited playing time.

Williams stayed on the court this year after subbing out of the front row last season and led the Pac-12 in double-doubles with 19. Cook also stayed in the rotation and recorded 18 double-doubles.

Despite its "worst" season since 2000, Stanford reached its 31st consecutive (out of 31) NCAA tournament. Only Penn State, the four-time defending champion, can make the same claim.

The Nittany Lions won last year's title with five losses; Stanford won in 2004 with six losses. Only USC has won a title with more losses (10) and that was the first year of the tournament in 1981.

Pac-12 teams have won 13 national titles and reached 23 championship games. Stanford is one of seven teams hoping to add to those numbers this year.

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