Friday, December 01, 2006

Stuck in the middle

The (dirt) road to Omaha, Neb. for the women's volleyball Final Four just got a little bumpier.

Tonight at the Galen Center, the USC Women of Troy will face off against BYU in the second round of the NCAA women's volleyball tournament. The winner goes on to the regional semi-finals in Honolulu for a shot to advance to the Final Four.

I've watched the Women of Troy take the court numerous times this year, and I've seen them beat all sorts of opponents. The one thing I hadn't seen this season was what BYU pulled off last night in their first-round match.

After falling to UC Santa Barbara 30-27, 32-30 in the first two games, it seemed the Gauchos were on their way to the second round. And why not? After all, BYU hadn't come back from an 0-2 hole all season, and UCSB was undefeated after taking the first two games of a match.

And that's why they play the games.

BYU appeared possessed as the Cougars clawed back into the match with a slim three-point win in game three, followed by a convincing nine-point triumph in game four. When the deciding fifth game rolled around, BYU had the momentum and took the match.

That's why I'm worried about USC tonight. They had a - I don't want to say easy, so as not to deminish their opponent, but what other word is there? How about - middle-of-the-road Mississippi team in their first-round match. 'SC blew 'em away and by the end of the third game, head coach Mick Haley had emptied his bench onto the court.

All advantages point to USC:
  • They are playing at their home facility, the Galen Center with their band in the stands.
  • They have fresher legs, playing only three games last night compared to BYU's exhausting five-game match.
  • They survived a much tougher schedule than BYU, playing the country's toughest women's volleyball conference, the Pac-10.

The Women of Troy need to keep the pressure on BYU tonight, because any let up would allow the Cougars an opportunity to get back into this match. Even if USC gets up 2-0, they have to keep fighting until the final point is awarded. BYU is 3-0 this season after winning a five-game match the night before. USC, however, hasn't lost to a non-conference opponent this year.

I wouldn't think USC would lose this match, but BYU has consistent middle hitting. As for the Women of Troy, their offense comes from the outside, which I think favors BYU. Sure, USC has superior hitters, but consider this:

In football, offenses work to establish the run. They do this in order to free up the passing game. By establishing a strong running game, linebackers and defensive backs tend to cheat up to stop the run, allowing quarterbacks to exploit the secondary for big plays.

The same holds true for volleyball. At the beginning of a match, it's crucial to establish the middle. By doing so, the opposing middle blockers must respect an attack out of the middle. They then cannot cheat toward the outside and get an early jump on blocking a higher, slower set. Now when the setter goes to an outside or backside hitter, the opposing block is less likely to be sealed up.

Out of the middle, USC has potential to dominate opponents. Bethany Johansen, Kelli Tennant and Katelyn Bishop are extremely talented middles. They just don't get the looks that they should. Arguably it doesn't matter with big-hitters Asia Kaczor and Diane Copenhagen on the outside hitting over the blockers waiting below.

Still if USC is going to go deep in this NCAA tournament, they'll need some production out of their middles. Last night they got it from Kelli Tennant who equalled her season-high 10 kills and hit at a .389 clip. If she and her fellow middles can keep that up, USC should enjoy a lengthy postseason.

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