Coming off a pair of sweeps of No. 4 Washington and Washington State last weekend, the No. 12 USC women’s volleyball team returns home to face its toughest challenge of the season, No. 1 California and No. 2 Stanford on Friday and Saturday respectively at Galen Center.
The Women of Troy’s (7-3, 2-1) modest two-game winning streak comes on the heels of a straight-set loss to UCLA at home Sept. 9.
“[Wins] make you feel pretty good as the team continues to gel and it shows we aren’t a one- or two-person team,” coach Mick Haley said. “Beating Washington on the road and sweeping them was exceptionally good and sends a message and now we can see if we do the same thing on our home court.”
While often relying upon senior outside hitter Alex Jupiter, who had nine and 10 kills against Washington and Washington State, respectively, the Women of Troy have seen junior Kate Fuller and sophomore Sara Shaw step in to supplement the USC attack.
Fuller, who has been alternating between the left and right side all season, has come on strong as of late, finishing with 12 kills to one error against the Cougars on Saturday.
Shaw, the 6-foot-2 Texas native, hasn’t been featured much this year, but last weekend she broke out with 23 kills between the two games.
“I think [Shaw’s] starting to play up to her potential and we always felt she could play like this,” Haley said. “We like to get the stability of them [Shaw and Kirby Burnham] bringing it every night and right now Sara’s hot.”
Playing its second first-ranked team this season, USC squares off against Cal hoping to avenge a three-set sweep at the hands of the Golden Bears in last year’s Final Four.
Cal is led by All-American senior outside hitter Tarah Murrey, who leads the Bears with 148 kills this season. Complementing Murrey on the outside is rising sophomore Adrienne Gehan, who is already on pace to shatter her career highs in kills (118, she has 103 so far this season) as the Women of Troy will have their hands full on the outside all day.
While Cal’s strong offense is no secret — it leads the Pac-12 in hitting percentage (.312) — it is it’s strong defense, especially at the net, that sets them apart from other top teams. Top in the Pac-12 in opponent hitting percentage, a staggering .094, the Golden Bears also send out three different girls who average more than a block per game (Kat Brown, Shannan Hawari, and Lillian Schonewise) and both Murrey and libero Robin Rostratter have combined for over 300 digs this season.
“Cal has got the same problems and advantages as we [USC] do and we match up pretty good against them with Jupiter versus Murrey on the outside and Kat Brown versus Lauren Williams in the middle to name a few,” Haley said. “They have a new setter [Elly Barrett] so they have some questions to answer there and I think they’ll have trouble with us and UCLA just like we will against them and Stanford.”
After their bout with Cal, the Women of Troy’s weekend doesn’t get any easier as they face Pac-12 rival No. 2 Stanford. The Cardinal boast what could be the Pac-12’s best defense, leading the conference with 17.88 digs per game and tied for first with 3.02 blocks per game. Though their blocking prowess can be mainly attributed to middle blocker Carly Wopat and her 1.67 blocks per game, the Cardinal’s passing defense boasts four players with 97 plus digs (Rachel Williams, Kyle Gilbert, Hannah Benjamin, and Karissa Cook).
Williams, a sophomore outside hitter, has been Stanford’s go-to player throughout the season as she leads the team in kills (168) and ranks among the team’s best in every relevant statistical category. Part of the Pac-12’s All-Freshman team last season, Williams has brought her game to new heights this year and despite her relatively average height (6-foot), she remains a force on the court.
“The thing about this conference is one-person teams won’t last and but if you have to rely on one girl night in and night out, they’ll end up losing their arms,” Haley said. “If we can control [Rachel] Williams then other Stanford players have to step up, but it’s definitely going to take a team effort to win these two matches.”