No. 4 USC battles for Pac-12 supremacy

With three weeks to go in the regular season, the USC women’s volleyball team doesn’t have the luxury of letting up quite yet. This weekend they will hit the road and travel up to the state of Washington where two hungry Pac-12 opponents will be waiting for them: the unranked-but-dangerous Cougars of Washington State and the conference-leading Washington Huskies.

Efficient · Junior middle blocker Hannah Schraer has converted 114 of her 253 attempts for kills for a .344 hitting percentage this season. - Joseph Chen | Daily Trojan

Efficient · Junior middle blocker Hannah Schraer has converted 114 of her 253 attempts for kills for a .344 hitting percentage this season. – Joseph Chen | Daily Trojan

The fourth-ranked Women of Troy (22-3, 12-2 Pac-12) last saw these two foes less than a month ago, and virtually nothing has changed on paper for any of the teams. No. 3 Washington (24-1, 15-1) has gone unbeaten since its victory over USC on Oct. 27 and is currently in the middle of a 12-match winning streak. Washington State (17-11, 3-11) has performed as expected; they have lost four of their past five matches, but the one victory was an impressive sweep over Utah. The only noticeable difference coming into this weekend can be found in the rankings — this time around, the Women of Troy are the ones trailing closely behind the Huskies in the coaches’ poll.

USC senior middle blocker Alexis Olgard, however, knows that there is much more to her team than what can be found on a stat sheet. Though her team is behind in the conference standings and in the rankings, she has seen a big change in the demeanor of the locker room since the four-set loss to the Huskies.

“I think we’re more focused and determined,” Olgard said. “Playoffs are getting closer and closer each game and I know that none of us like the feeling of losing.”

Olgard was unstoppable last time out against Washington, recording 12 kills while recording a .429 hitting percentage. She could have had many more, but the Huskies were able to neutralize USC’s offensive attack by serving tough. USC head coach Mick Haley said the key to beating the third-ranked Huskies is beating their serving game.

“We didn’t make very good volleyball plays last time,” Haley said. “A lot of times, Washington forced us into those plays with their very aggressive serving. Quite honestly, that’s the only thing they do better than us at this point — they bring high velocity six times in a row serving the ball.”

A major problem for USC in their last match against Washington was their inability to get a good pass off of the serve; instead of having three or four options to go to off of a pass they would only have one good look, limiting their offensive potential. With weapons such as Olgard, sophomore outside hitter Samantha Bricio, and freshman outside hitter Ebony Nwanebu, passing will be crucial to USC’s success.

The deck will be stacked even further against the Women of Troy this weekend due to the match’s location. Washington plays very well in their own arena, a facility that regularly hosts around 10,000 fans. The Huskies are unbeaten this season at home and show no signs of slowing.

“They’re always strong in their own gym,” Olgard said. “They’ll have a sold-out crowd, so it’s going to be tough.”

Washington State has not played quite so well at home this season, but they did start the season with eight consecutive home wins. Though the media focus this weekend will certainly be on Friday’s game in Seattle, Haley stresses that Sunday’s matchup in Pullman is nothing to skim over.

“I’m actually as concerned about going to Washington State on Sunday as I am about Washington,” Haley said. “That’s the catch game right there. It’s a smaller venue, it echoes, it’s louder. We can’t just go this weekend to play Washington, we have to play both teams.”

The postseason implications for this weekend are massive. If the Huskies beat the Women of Troy, Washington will be in the driver’s seat for the remainder of the season. If USC wins, however, things could get a little more interesting. A Trojan victory would mean a possible share for the conference title at the end of the season due to the teams’ identical head-to-head record. With tough remaining matches against UCLA, Arizona and upstart Colorado, USC has more than enough motivation to pull out a victory in Seattle.

Several members of the USC squad are eyeing personal milestones as the season comes to a close. Senior All-American libero Natalie Hagglund has already set the USC all-time record in digs and will continue to chase the all-time Pac-12 record. Bricio looks to continue to carry the team offensively as she goes for yet another Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week selection. Already five-time Freshman of the Week Nwanebu has high expectations of her own this weekend.

“I want 22 kills,” Nwanebu said. “It’s my personal record, and I want to beat it.”

Such a performance would likely make Nwanebu the most accomplished Pac-12 freshman in quite some time — her five conference selections have her tied for the most all-time with current teammate Samantha Bricio, who also was named Freshman of the Week five times last season.

But as the team readies to travel north, it’s likely that no player is focused on her own individual achievements with the team’s ultimate goal in reach. The desire is there — all that’s left to do is execute.

Friday’s match against the Huskies will begin at 6 p.m., and Sunday’s match will begin at 1 p.m. in Pullman. Both matches will be broadcast on the Pac-12 Networks.


Follow Kurt on Twitter @legen_daryKurt