With only four games to go and the NCAA tournament right around the bend, the USC women’s volleyball team is approaching a two-week stretch that might define a season that once held so much promise.
The Women of Troy (22-5, 12-4 Pac-12) are now effectively out of the running for the conference championship but the team is still in position to earn a top seed in the NCAA tournament. They are third in the conference behind Washington (15-2) and Stanford (14-3) but are currently ranked No. 8 nationally and will hold the tiebreaker against the Cardinal should the two schools have the same conference record at season’s end.
USC might have been in a much better position in the conference had last week’s road trip gone better, but the Women of Troy suffered two critical defeats at the hands of No. 3 Washington and unranked Washington State, one of the conference’s worst teams. The trip marked the first time all season the Women of Troy have endured back-to-back losses.
“After those losses it’s all about figuring out who we are,” junior setter Hayley Crone said. “Actually, we don’t have much time to figure this out. We just have to move on really quickly and move on for the rest of the season.”
In order for USC to win out they must win four tough games, starting this weekend at home against Arizona and Arizona State and concluding next weekend against Pac-12 spoiler Colorado and crosstown rival UCLA. All of the teams on the docket for USC still have NCAA Tournament hopes and will be gunning to take down the Women of Troy, still considered to be one of the top teams in the nation.
The good news for the Women of Troy? All four of the remaining games will be played in the city of Los Angeles — three in the Galen Center and one right down the 10 freeway in Westwood. The bad news? One of those two losses came last weekend to a Washington State team that is currently second-to-last in the conference standings, and the loss in the fifth set came after USC held a 14-8 lead at match point.
Though head coach Mick Haley certainly wasn’t pleased with the weekend sweep in Washington, his message to his team all season has been to learn quickly from losses and move on. That mindset holds especially strong now, as the Women of Troy must endure a dogfight to earn a favorable seed in the NCAA tournament.
“I don’t think we have any choice about whether to recover,” Haley said. “We only have four more matches and then the tournament starts. We’ve put ourselves in a bad situation and we don’t want to make it worse.”
The biggest question mark at this point in the year is likely the younger side of the squad. While the talent of stars such as freshman outside hitter Ebony Nwanebu and sophomore outside hitter Samantha Bricio is unquestionable, their experience in pressure-filled situations — especially in tournament play — is minimal at best.
“It’s tough on them,” Haley said of his younger players finishing off a long season. “We have three freshmen and a sophomore in vital roles and it’s very difficult; they’ve not ever been through anything like this … It’s a severe challenge for them. I think they’ll get it, but when you’re going through it, it feels like a lot of weight on your shoulders.”
The first test for USC this weekend will be the Arizona Wildcats (19-9, 9-7), a team that snapped an 11-match winning streak for the Women of Troy back on Oct. 20. The Wildcats currently stand fifth in the conference and are attempting to claw their way toward a berth in the NCAA tournament.
Sunday’s challenge will come against the Sun Devils of Arizona State (17-11, 6-10), a squad that was nationally ranked when they last faced USC but have since endured a rough stretch and dropped to ninth in the Pac-12 standings.
Friday’s match against the Wildcats will begin at 7 p.m. at the Galen Center, and Sunday’s match against the Sun Devils will start at 11 a.m. at Galen Center. Sunday’s match will be broadcast on the Pac-12 Networks.
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