Though the USC women’s volleyball team has won 10 matches in a row and is now 6-0 to start Pac-12 play, they know as well as anyone that the hard work is just beginning.
After sweeping both Oregon State and Oregon on the road last weekend, the Women of Troy will hit the road again this weekend to take on the No. 22 Arizona State Sun Devils and the unranked Arizona Wildcats.
The Women of Troy, currently ranked No. 1 overall by the Coaches Association, are off to their best start in seven years in conference play — their six consecutive wins matches USC’s start of Pac-10 play in 2006.
That year, the Women of Troy reached the NCAA Regional Semifinals, otherwise known as the Sweet 16. This team might have even more potential than the 2006 squad.
With a core of veteran leadership made up of seniors Natalie Hagglund, Alexis Olgard and Sara Shaw, among others, the team has quickly meshed to become one of the top squads in the nation. After one hiccup in nonconference play — a loss to USD on Sept. 13 —the Women of Troy have gone on a scorching run.
“In preseason, we were still trying to find our connections and our rhythm,” Shaw said of her team’s progression. “We have new players playing, and it’s a time to get connected. I think conference is more about execution and making those plays and finding everyone’s strengths and weaknesses.”
In order to sustain their undefeated conference mark, the Women of Troy will have to go into Tempe and Tucson this weekend and play in two tough road matches. USC head coach Mick Haley — who won his 1,200th career match as a collegiate head coach on Sunday — acknowledged the difficulty of playing on the road in Arizona.
“This [road trip against Arizona and Arizona State] is even harder,” Haley said, comparing the challenge this weekend to last weekend’s trip up to Oregon.
Haley also recognizes the difficulty of going up against Arizona State, a team that took USC to the wire at the Galen Center last year before handily defeating the Women of Troy in Tempe later in the season.
“They just matched up well against us,” Haley said of Arizona State’s 2012 lineup. “We couldn’t seem to handle the situation; we didn’t play well but they played very well. In this conference, that happens.”
Of course, last season the Sun Devils didn’t have to match up against USC freshmen sensations Ebony Nwanebu and Elise Ruddins, both outside hitters who have taken home Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors this season.
The Sun Devils opened the season with seven straight sweeps against non-conference opponents but have since slipped, falling to a 13-5 overall record with a 2-4 record in conference play. They do, however, hold home-court advantage quite well, losing only one match out of six in Tempe this season. The Women of Troy will hope to hand them home loss number two to avenge last season’s defeat.
“Last year I remember [Arizona State] was out to get us,” Shaw said. “I think we can expect that for this year too.”
Sunday’s opponent, the Arizona Wildcats, are unranked, yet have the exact same overall record as their in-state rivals. The Wildcats, however, have a better conference record at 3-3 and have only lost one match out of 11 at home. USC will look to their efficient offense to make quick work of Arizona.
The Women of Troy feature an offense that aims to go on the attack. By bringing in an extra setter, the offense has more options when it gets the ball. Not surprisingly, freshman phenom Nwanebu — who led the team with 11 kills against the Ducks last week — is supportive of the offensive style.
“We have so many weapons,” Nwanebu said of her team’s offensive prowess. “It’s not the setter just giving the ball to one person or two, they can give it to three different people or even the back row. The opponent never knows where the ball’s going to go.”
Another factor that might affect the Women of Troy this weekend is their national ranking. Currently, USC is ranked No. 1 in the nation and, though it’s a great honor for the team, it can also be a burden at times.
“For the past few weeks whoever has been ranked number one has lost,” Shaw noted. “So I’m kind of excited we won last weekend and didn’t get jinxed like everybody else. But we try not to think about the rankings and try just to think about our play.”
Haley said he doesn’t put too much stock into the rankings at this point in the season, either.
“There are a lot of different things happening in the rankings,” Haley said. “But the reason we shy away from them a little bit is that it just puts a bulls-eye on you. That’s why they have the rankings, to create more interest in the matches during the season. So when you get that bulls-eye on your back, everyone wants to be the team to knock you off. That’s why nobody stays number one for very long.”
Regarding the rankings, Nwanebu summed up her team’s sentiments in one simple idea: play with the end in mind.
“You could lose and go from No. 1 to No. 21,” Nwanebu said. “It all depends on what you’re ranked at the end of the season.”
The Women of Troy open this weekend’s action on Friday at 8 p.m. in Tempe and will travel to Tucson for a 2:30 p.m. game on Sunday. Both games will be televised on the Pac-12 Network.
Follow Kurt on Twitter @legen_daryKurt