The USC women’s volleyball team pulled out a gutsy victory on Wednesday night by beating No. 6 Stanford on the road in five sets, but for head coach Mick Haley and the No. 4-ranked Women of Troy (19-3, 9-2 Pac-12), there is much left to be accomplished on this road trip.
With Wednesday night’s win, the Women of Troy keep pace behind Washington (17-1, 9-1) in the Pac-12 conference standings. USC currently stands at second place behind the Huskies, trailed closely by Stanford at 8-3 in the conference. Tonight’s opponents, the No. 22 California Golden Bears, are not far behind at 6-4 in conference play.
In the wide-open race to the top, Coach Haley knows just how important this stretch of the season is for his team.
“By beating Stanford twice, we’ve put ourselves in a great position to win the conference championship,” Haley said. “That’s important because it gives you a chance at a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament. With Washington only having one loss and us having two losses, and Washington having to play Stanford and us again, it keeps us in the hunt as long as we take care of business.”
USC will face Cal (13-6, 6-4) in Berkeley tonight in a rematch of arguably the most exciting match of the season for the Women of Troy. When these schools last saw each other on Oct. 6, the two squads took each other to the limit at the Galen Center.
The match saw set scores as close as 28-26 and as lopsided as 25-11 (USC’s win in the third set), but the most thrilling set was certainly the final one. With the score tied at 13, senior middle blocker Alexis Olgard smashed home a set from freshman setter Alice Pizzasegola to push the game to match point, and Olgard and sophomore outside hitter Samantha Bricio were able to team up on a block to finish the match.
This time around, the Women of Troy will meet the Golden Bears after prevailing in their only other five-set match of the season — a historic win at Stanford. USC’s defeat of the Cardinal marked the first time the Women of Troy had beaten Stanford on the road since 2006, and it also completed a season sweep against the conference rival, something they have managed to do only three times in school history.
The win on Wednesday night featured a strong defensive effort from both the frontcourt and backcourt. The Women of Troy out-blocked the Cardinal 11-10 at the net, and senior libero Natalie Hagglund finally reached the pinnacle of the USC all-time leaderboard in digs. With her 36 digs at Stanford, she now has 2,095 for her illustrious career and is ranked fifth all-time in Pac-12 history.
USC’s defensive play at the net is an especially encouraging sign for the team after their blocking struggles against Arizona and Washington in the past two weeks. Stanford came into the game as the nation’s leader in blocks per game at 3.04, but with a team effort the Women of Troy managed to beat the best at their own game.
The squad will have to bring the same type of effort to the match tonight as Cal features three strong hitters in senior Adrienne Gehan, junior Christina Higgins and redshirt sophomore Lillian Schonewise. In the match on Oct. 6, all three had upwards of 10 kills, and Gehan was especially dangerous with 22 kills in the match.
“Gehan gets most of the points with Higgins being her support,” said coach Haley, scouting his opponent. “Really, we have to keep an eye on those two. If we do that, we have a good chance to win.”
Offensively, the Women of Troy will look to continue to spread the ball around on offense and keep defenses guessing. With four different players in double digits for points against Stanford, USC continues to show that they are a well-rounded offensive team with several weapons.
Along with Olgard and Bricio, Haley is looking to see production from outside hitters senior Sara Shaw and freshman Ebony Nwaenbu who had 16.5 and 23.5 points against the Golden Bears last time around, respectively.
“There are two things you look for,” Haley said of his team’s offense. “Certainly as a player gets hot you have to give them additional opportunities. The other side is that the other team always gives you something. We’re balanced enough that we can exploit many different weaknesses in a defense.”
As Hagglund looks to continue to climb the Pac-12 leaderboard in digs, look for Bricio to keep up a streak of her own. Wednesday’s match against Stanford was her 13th straight with at least once service ace. In fact, Bricio has only been shut out once this entire season as a setter — only Eastern Washington was able to keep her sinking line-drive serve off of the ground for an entire match.
The match tonight will begin at 6 p.m. in Haas Pavilion and will be broadcast on the Pac-12 Networks. If the Women of Troy pull off the win, it will be their first regular season sweep of the Bay Area teams since 2003.
Follow Kurt on Twitter @legen_daryKurt