Yes, the official inauguration of the newly formed Pac-12 doesn’t happen for another four months, but I thought I’d give you the lowdown on what’s in store for the conference next year now. For the next few weeks, I’ll take a look at the sports that will feature all 12 schools in the conference. These include:
Women’s Cross Country
Women’s Track & Field
Unfortunately, due to financial constraints and Title IX issues plaguing Cal Athletics, Pac-12 Baseball will still only field 10 teams next year with new entrant Utah. Colorado had been considering adding baseball upon the announcement of entering the conference, given that the other 11 schools all had baseball teams. With the Golden Bears dropping baseball (in addition to the 99-year old Men’s Gymnastics program), though, one would think there is less impetus now on CU to add a baseball team. (Softball does not field all schools at the moment.)
This week, the focus is on Volleyball. It’s not a comprehensive, player-by-player look, but rather a commentary on the teams and their futures.
Last season, the Pac-10 enjoyed another specatular year. No team went undefeated in conference play, as is the norm in Pac-10 volleyball, and the conference was able to net six teams in the 64-team NCAA tournament. In fact, half of the teams in the Quarterfinals and Final Four hailed from the Pac-10. The unfortunate part is that all of those teams were on the same side of the bracket, thereby preventing the theoretical all-Pac-10 Final Four.
Conference co-champion Cal (winning the conference on a tie-breaker with Stanford) ended the season on the wrong end of a Championship Match against 4-peat champion Penn State. Stanford, meanwhile, earlier in the season broke the Nittany Lions 100+ match winning streak, spanning four seasons and three consecutive national championships, only to fall to USC in five sets in the NCAA Quarterfinals in Columbus, OH. Seven years removed from its undefeated championship season, USC was the only team in the conference to sweep both matches of the conference champions during the regular season, only to have the tables turned on them in the Final Four in a three-set sweep by the Bears. UCLA, hoping to ride the momentum of being ranked in the Top-10 of the AVCA Coaches Poll for a good portion of the season, in addition to an early season shocker against Stanford, finished the regular season 22-9, but concluded its postseason run in Austin after a 3-0 decision in the second round against the Longhorns. Washington, while not as dominant as their championship teams earlier in the decade, still proved formidable to many teams in the conference until falling in straight sets to Cal in the NCAA quarters.
Arizona, victim of a first-round exit against Northwestern, seemed to have finally turned the corner in the uber-competitive Pac-10 under 19-year Head Coach Dave Rubio, taking several of the traditional powerhouse teams to five sets – on multiple occasions. Oregon seemed to be a team on the rise and kept several conference matches competitive. Arizona State, who finished with the same conference record as the Ducks, was another team that kept matches competitive in the Pac-10, even winning a match against Cal IN Haas Pavilion, but unfortunately had the dubious mark of particularly bad play in non-conference matches, going 6-7. Oregon State is still trying to find its place on the Pac-10 volleyball stage, ultimately netting only two conference wins, both against winless-in-the-Pac-10 Washington State. Both teams suffered through sub-10 win seasons.
For Colorado, the Buffaloes once again played second fiddle in the state in women’s volleyball to their rival Rams of Colorado State, finishing 10th in the 11-team Big-12. Utah, meanwhile, also stood in the shadow of their instate counterparts at Utah State, finishing 3rd in the top-heavy Mountain West.
Outlook – 2011
The Pac-10 has always been a different beast when it comes to women’s volleyball. Yes, Penn State has won the past four national championships (with three of them coming at the hands of a Bay Area team). Yes, Florida, Texas, and Nebraska all have had periods of prolonged success that would make almost any school blush in pride. Unfortunately, none of those teams have had the kind of conference play that the Pac-10 has had. The Pac-10 is undoubtedly the strongest volleyball conference in the country. It’s a fact that coaches have acknowledged time and again, both in interviews and in Top-25 polls. Many people have made light of the fact that it takes a truly special Pac-10 team to play all nine teams twice in ten weeks and survive to win the national championship. But alas, it has been done many, many times.
With the inauguration of the Pac-12 volleyball season, very little in terms of competitiveness in the conference will have changed. This is a conference that cannibalizes itself every year, lending some critics in State College and Lincoln to claim in years past that the champion of the Pac is not nearly as strong as their respective teams, citing the usual blemishes on the conference champion’s record. While those claims have substantially diminished in recent years, in part because of the increased spotlight on Pac-10 play as well as recognition that Penn State really WAS head and shoulders better than everyone else in the nation (except perhaps last year, although Cal fans will argue that point), the fact remains that there has not been a Pacific conference women’s volleyball NCAA champion since Washington did it in 2005.
That said, the new conference brings new questions to the forefront as well as some familiar ones. Will Utah and Colorado make a difference in the conference race? Can Cal keep its status as the top-team in the conference? Can Arizona continue its ascent into the conference elite? Will Oregon have a breakthrough season? Who stands out amongst the traditional conference powers? Will attrition shakeup conference standings? Can the conference return to getting three teams in the Final Four? And most importantly, who has the best chance of hoisting that golden trophy in San Antonio in December? If there’s one thing that’s a certainty for next season, its that whoever wins the Pac-12 will have gone through a gauntlet of teams and most certainly deserved it.
People talk about how much of a shock Utah (and Colorado, to an extent) is in when they start to play Pac-10 football. "This is the big league now," is a common refrain heard amongst various Pac-10 football homers across all four current states. However, if people think that the new schools are going to be in for a surprise in football next fall, then fans of the Buffs and Utes are about to subjected to an all-out jolt of reality come next September that will probably be far more shocking than the football play.
For Utah, it’s a massive culture change. The Utes have never been particularly competitive at volleyball, and certainly don’t bring a storied history to the conference like the other teams. For them, given that recruiting classes haven’t been comparable to most Pac-10 teams and the level of competition in the Mountain West has them only playing two games of extreme importance (Colorado State), expect them to finish in the lower half to lower quartile of the conference the first few years. My personal opinion, though, is that they’ll warm up to Pac volleyball fairly quickly and at least try to break into the top-half of the conference. Rest assured, though, they are in for some very rough growing pains, though.
For Colorado, this is probably the worst-case scenario for them. Unlike Utah, the Buffs do have some history of success, but the past few years have not been kind to them. Competing in the same conference as Texas and Nebraska was hard enough, but they occasionally could pull a top-half conference finish in some years. Next year, though, despite a sub-par 2010 season, could easily rank as the worst in Buff history. They simply do not have the firepower to compete with almost anyone in the current Pac-10. They could even challenge for conference bottom dweller. That’s not to say that they could surprise people and win more matches than expected – rather, it’s an indictment of the team at-present and what’s projected for next year in comparison to the other teams. If they had been entering the conference even three or four years ago, the prognosis wouldn’t be as bad; entering the conference now, however, is very bad timing for the volleyball team and will probably result in a long, long road to a recovery to relevance.
For the other 10 teams, not much is expected to change at the bottom. Washington State and Oregon State are still expected to not be particularly good, especially given their conference competition. Arizona State has some people intrigued, but I think the general consensus is that they’re still a few years out from becoming a perennial tournament team. Oregon, of the four teams who didn’t make the tournament this year, probably has the best chance to take the next step to playing in December. For Arizona, the success of last year is looked to be improved upon, and the Wildcats hope to advance beyond the first round this time around.
Where things get really muddied for the conference is in the top-five teams. It’s almost as though you could take the five of them and pull them out of a hat and there you go, you have your final standings. USC, right now, looks to be the beast of the best, primarily because no one is sure how Cal will do without their top-player from 2010, Carli Lloyd, while SC brings back almost everyone on the team from 2010. The Trojans swept Cal, but got swept by Stanford during the regular season; at the end of the season, they beat the Cardinal to get to the Final Four, but got schooled by the Golden Bears the next weekend. Stanford looks to take a big fall from conference co-champions because the Cardinal don’t have the firepower of graduating senior Alix Klineman waiting in the wings – if they did, that player wasn’t anywhere near close to playing at that level last season. Stanford looked anything but competitive against Cal in both of its conference matches in 2010, but beat eventual-champion Penn State on a neutral court 3-1 in September. As for the Bruins and Huskies, they lose quality players, but they also bring in highly touted freshmen, so both teams could either be really, really good, or simply good.
Finally, a word on the schedule. Volleyball fans will either love it or really hate it. Non-conference play will continue to be in August and September, so that aspect doesn’t change. What does change is that everyone will lose a weekend of non-conference play. Why? Because according to an insider at Volley Talk, they’re doing the round-robin format! All teams will play each other twice during the season, meaning that the conference schedule will now be a whopping 22 games for each team. To accommodate the introduction of Utah and CU, the conference schedule needed to be expanded. In order to please coaches (who wanted to keep at least some non-conference games), the expansion was only by one weekend, and the season still needed to end by the end of November. That brings up the issue of not having enough weekends of play in order to play the round-robin. Rivalry fans should take note now – the first conference game for ALL teams will be their traditional rival (Buff and Ute fans should stir the pot now). However, instead of the traditional Friday/Saturday schedule with the occasional Sunday or Thursday game for television, this first match of the season will take place mid-week on a Tuesday or Wednesday evening. In addition to playing a non-conference weekend slate just before, all teams will play the following weekend to begin round-robin play with their travel partners that Pac-10 fans are used to. Obviously not ideal, but it serves the purpose of fulfilling the round-robin. The conference will also institute an all-rivalry weekend to end the season during Thanksgiving weekend, so each team opens and closes their conference schedule against their rival.
The full schedule for all Pac-12 teams should be released within a few weeks once all teams have finalized their non-conference matches and tournaments.