After dropping two straight matches on the road, the eighth-ranked USC women’s volleyball team is looking to finish the season strong coming off of two sweeps of their rivals from the state of Arizona in last weekend’s matches. Now only two tests remain: the ever-dangerous UCLA Bruins and the upstart Colorado Buffaloes.
The Women of Troy (24-5, 14-4 Pac-12) received a major shot in the arm after beating Arizona and Arizona State at home this past weekend and look to keep the momentum up as the regular season is only two matches away from its end. Though USC is mathematically out of the race for the Pac-12 championship with Washington, it is guaranteed at least the No. 3 spot in the conference and has a fighting chance at passing Stanford for runner-up.
All that remains between the Women of Troy and a favorable NCAA tournament berth this season are two schools that, on paper, should be no match for the talent on USC’s roster. This season, however, has told a different story. USC can attest to falling in matches that they should have in fact won — as recently as two weekends ago the Women of Troy were beaten by a Washington State team that is ranked second-to-last in the Pac-12 — and their opponents this week have had their share of surprise wins over the course of the season.
Wednesday’s opponent, UCLA (15-13, 6-12), is only a spot above Washington State in the conference standings but pulled off a surprise sweep against Arizona — a team that earlier this year swept USC — last weekend. Add in the factors of the crosstown rivalry and the game’s location in Westwood and this match doesn’t seem as much of a formality anymore.
When the teams last met, the then-No. 4 Women of Troy demolished the then-No. 11 ranked Bruins in four sets at the Galen Center as freshman outside hitter Ebony Nwanebu led the way with 17 kills. Senior middle blocker Alexis Olgard posted 13 kills of her own, and the Trojan defense came alive with three or more blocks from four different players. Since that time, both schools have dropped in the rankings (though UCLA’s plummet has been more precipitous), but USC head coach Mick Haley is expecting nothing less than a hard-fought match.
“We know UCLA still has a chance to get into the NCAA tournament,” Haley said. “I can’t imagine a tournament without a UCLA team in it, and they’re that close to not making it in. They’ll have to beat us to get into the tournament, so I would look for a very spirited effort by the Bruins.”
The Women of Troy will take the following day off for Thanksgiving and will then return home to face off against Colorado (16-12, 8-10) who has been the indisputable surprise team in the conference. Though they have a losing conference record, the Buffaloes have been able to take down mighty Washington, a feat that the Women of Troy have yet to accomplish this year. Friday’s match will be the first and only meeting between the schools this regular season.
As the season comes to a close, the play of USC’s younger players becomes magnified. Senior leaders such as Olgard and libero Natalie Hagglund are tried and true in late-season games, but the youthful core of this year’s team remains largely untested. Last weekend’s matches provided optimism for their future, however, and Haley is pleased with what he has seen from them.
“[Freshman outside hitter Elise] Ruddins looks more comfortable than she has all season,” Haley said. “I think she’s getting confident with her abilities. [Freshman setter Alice] Pizzasegola is starting to relax and compete. Nwanebu has been exceptional every week. When the kids are playing well and look like they’re having fun, that’s a great thing.”
Haley will look for similar efforts from his young players as they look to close out the season strong with two final matches in Los Angeles. After this weekend the team will look ahead to the NCAA tournament, where it have a chance to play their first few regional semifinal games at home in the Galen Center. In a tournament of 64 teams where anything is possible, securing games at home will be crucial.
Home or not, however, the Women of Troy expect to play hard and continue to strive for perfection approaching the season’s final game. Haley and the rest of the team have been set on their goal since the outset of the season; though winning the conference would have been nice, it would be nothing compared to a national championship — a goal that is still very much in reach.
“Right now we have eight matches, we figure,” Haley said. “Two in the regular season and six in the postseason. We want to win every set that we play, That’s what we’re looking for.”
Wednesday’s match will begin in Westwood at 7 p.m., and Friday’s match against Colorado will begin at 2 p.m. in the Galen Center. The match against UCLA will be broadcast on the Pac-12 Networks.
Follow Kurtis on Twitter @legen_daryKurt