The No. 13 USC women’s volleyball team (11-1, 0-0) looks to extend its 11-match winning streak this weekend as it opens Pac-10 play in Arizona against No. 19 Arizona (11-0, 0-0) and Arizona State (10-2, 0-0).
Since dropping their first match of the season against Michigan State, the Women of Troy have eased past their competition with 11 straight victories heading into conference play. But USC coach Mick Haley knows his team needs to continue its solid all-around play if it wants to have success against the stronger teams in the Pac-10.
“I expect us to play hard,” Haley said. “I look forward to opening the conference and playing these two teams. I think the whole fun of college volleyball is getting to the meat of your schedule and getting challenged. I expect some good battles.”
USC opens the weekend in Tucson against Arizona tonight at 7 p.m. The undefeated Wildcats are hitting .264 as a team with a 13.16 kills per set and 2.24 blocks per set average. Arizona is third in the Pac-10 with a 1.68 service aces per set average.
The Women of Troy will have to contain either junior outside hitter Tiffany Owens or senior middle blocker Jacy Norton of Arizona to come out with a victory. Owens has 144 kills this season (3.89 kps) and 107 digs (2.89 dps), while Norton leads with her strong play at the net. She is fourth in the Pac-10 with 45 blocks (1.32 bps).
“We have to challenge both of those kids,” Haley said. “They’re two big point scorers for Arizona, and we have to shut down one of them and keep the rest of the team at bay.”
Unlike USC, Arizona has yet to have a letdown this season. And although USC expects to win tomorrow, Haley is the first to admit the match will be very difficult against a top-tier team in the conference.
“We can’t give them anything free, and we can’t look past them,” he said. “We have to go in there and, if we want to start the conference right, we have to be the first people to beat them.”
USC and Arizona have split their last four matches in Tucson.
Following tonight’s opening match, USC will take on Arizona State Saturday at 7 p.m. USC has won 26 straight matches against the Sun Devils dating back to 1995, but the match away from the Galen Center will present a challenge to Haley’s squad.
Arizona State is hitting .254 as a team with a 12.51 kps. The Sun Devils lead the conference with a 3.03 bps average due in large part to senior outside hitter Paige Mittelstaedt’s 58 blocks (1.29 bps).
“I think that that’s one of the keys for them. They have to block a lot of balls to win,” Haley said. “We have to be very smart and not give them a lot of opportunities to block. If we cover for our hitters well, we can hold them down there.”
Arizona State junior outside hitter Sarah Reaves may represent the strongest challenge for USC this weekend. She leads the Sun Devils with 181 kills (4.31 kps) and is second in the Pac-10 with a 5.04 points per set average.
“We have a lot of respect for Sarah, really a fine player for them,” Haley said. “She has to have one of her best games every night if they’re going to win.”
The return of USC junior outside hitter Kimmee Roleder — who missed last weekend’s victories against Portland and Fresno State — to accompany the strong play of sophomore outside hitter Alex Jupiter will help USC in Arizona. Senior outside hitter Jessica Gysin remains a game-time decision tonight as she is still nursing a hamstring injury that kept has kept her out of the last two matches. If she can’t play, junior Geena Urango or freshman Katie Fuller will replace Gysin in the lineup.
Regardless of who is on the court for USC, Haley is sure his team is ready to compete in a tough conference that has a whopping seven teams ranked in the top 25 this season. USC’s quest for a Pac-10 title begins tonight.
“It’s going to be hard because we really haven’t been challenged yet,” Haley said. “Both of these games will be a real intense challenge for us. We just have to step up and take that challenge.”