Undefeated Huskies face Cardinal challenge

The University of Washington volleyball team is taking a beating this season.

It hasn't happened on the court, where the second-ranked Huskies are 12-0 and more than capable of defending themselves. Rather, it's taking place on the Web, in the papers and in conversations in which volleyball aficionados are criticizing UW for playing what is perceived as a less-than-formidable schedule.

While Montana State will never be mistaken for Minnesota, and North Dakota State is certainly not Notre Dame, Washington has answered every challenge it has faced. The Huskies swept a two-match series at No. 6 Hawaii and powered past then-No. 13 Arizona last Saturday in Pac-10 action.

This weekend, UW has an opportunity to silence its skeptics for good when the Huskies make the trek to the Bay Area to square off against No. 13 California and No. 3 Stanford. Saturday's match against the Cardinal will feature the reigning Pac-10 champion (UW) against the reigning national champion. Talk about a chance to authenticate its pedigree.

"We're looking forward to the weekend," said Jim McLaughlin, the 2004 Pac-10 Coach of the Year. "We get an opportunity to go into two tough places, two tough arenas, and see how good we are."

Washington is unquestionably one of the most talented teams in the nation, with four AVCA All-Americans in its lineup. Junior setter Courtney Thompson, a first-team Pac-10 selection, became UW's all-time assists leader against Arizona State. Sophomore Christal Morrison, the 2004 Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and a second-team Pac-10 member, is back on the outside. Senior Candace Lee, who is on the verge of becoming the conference's all-time leader in digs, was a first-team Pac-10 and honorable mention All-American at libero.

Statistically, the Huskies are intimidating. Six of seven starters (depending on their rotation to open a match) and the libero return from last year's squad that won the first
Pac-10 title in the program's history and finished the season with a trip to the national semifinals and a 28-3 record. UW is the only team in the country that has not lost a game in 2005.

Washington's first victory of the year actually occurred in May. That's when the NCAA granted senior outside hitter Sanja Tomasevic a fourth year of eligibility. Tomasevic, who hails from Uzice, Serbia and Montenegro, was originally penalized one year of eligibility because of her late enrollment in college. The NCAA granted a petition filed by the university on Tomasevic's behalf because of circumstances beyond her control that delayed her ability to enroll in college -- the war in what was once Yugoslavia.

Tomasevic was a second team All-American in 2003 and would have been a candidate for postseason honors again last year had she not suffered a hand injury that required surgery. In last week's victory over Arizona, Tomasevic became just the third player in UW history to record 1,000 career kills and digs.

"She's an impressive kid," McLaughlin said. "As good as she is, that girl wants to get better every day. She's somewhat of a perfectionist and we've asked her to do more this year. People are ganging up on her a little bit, which opens up some other players."

Perfectionists are exactly the type of player McLaughlin wants in his program. Instead of focusing on wins and losses, he insists that his players concentrate on the day-to-day commitment that leads to improving as a player and a team every time they step on the court.

"We haven't been challenged in a game like we get challenged every day in practice," Tomasevic said. "It's so much harder to get a kill against my teammates than it is to get a kill against another team. People are saying at the beginning of the season we didn't play anyone. We say that they don't know what we face every day in practice. If we meet our standards and live up to our coach's expectations, I'm sure there is no team in the nation that can beat us."

One of the few teams that has been able to leash the Huskies is Stanford. The Cardinal won the last two meetings a year ago, including an NCAA national semifinal match in Long Beach, Calif. But in the other loss at Stanford, Tomasevic couldn't play because of her injured hand and that makes Saturday's match more exciting for her.

"I can't wait to play in their new gym in front of their fans," Tomasevic said. "Last year they sold out their gym for our match and it was crazy and loud. I didn't get to play because that was the week I came back from my hand surgery. That's why I am so excited to play.

"Last year, they were looking forward to seeing us because we knocked them out of the Sweet 16 the year before. Last season, they knocked us out to go to the championship match. So it seems like there is a little rivalry building between the schools."

The winner of Saturday's match will have a slight advantage in the quest for the Pac-10 championship. The Huskies would like to defend their title and become just the fourth school to win multiple conference championships. The teams will meet again on Nov. 3 in Seattle, and both will continue to be legitimate contenders for the national championship.

So is there any pressure on the Huskies to prove anything this weekend?

"There is pressure every day to meet our own performance standards," McLaughlin said. "You've got to compete your heart out every day you train or you're not going to get better. The team that continues to improve is the last one standing most of the time. And I've driven that point home every day."

Tomasevic expects the Huskies to be standing in San Antonio at the end of the season.

"We know that we are good," Tomasevic said, "But we also know that we are playing in the toughest conference in the nation. We can't relax. I hope that every team brings their 'A' game against us because that will get us ready for the NCAAs."

Team of the Week
Ohio University earned its highest ranking ever when the Bobcats jumped to No. 24 in the latest CSTV/AVCA Top 25 coaches poll. The Bobcats earned their first-ever appearance in the national rankings at No. 25 near the end of the 2004 season when they became the first Mid-American Conference school to crack the top 25 since Western Michigan in 1988.

OU improved to 14-2 overall and 4-0 in the conference with wins against Kent State and Eastern Michigan last week. The Bobcats extended their home-court winning streak to 32 matches with the victory over KSU. The last time OU lost a match at the Convocation Center was Sept. 28, 2002 against Ball State.

Ohio, which has a two-match lead over Miami in the MAC's East Division, will host Ball State and Toledo this week. The Cardinals and Rockets are both 9-5 overall and part of a three-way tie atop the West Division with 3-1 conference records.

Coming Attractions
The only two undefeated teams in the Mountain West Conference will go head-to-head on Friday when No. 16 BYU travels to Colorado State. The Cougars are 11-0 overall and 4-0 in the MWC, while the Rams are 9-3 overall and 3-0 in the conference. BYU was chosen as the favorite to win the conference title in the preseason coaches poll, while Colorado State was selected third.

Under first-year head coach Jason Watson, BYU is off to its best start since 1987. The Cougars feature junior middle blocker Lindsy Hartsock, who ranks third in the nation in hitting percentage (.471).

Colorado State is on an eight-match winning streak after coming from behind to beat Wyoming in five games. The Rams have now won 14 consecutive matches against conference opponents. Their rivalry with the Cougars is the longest in CSU history; Friday's match will be the 62nd meeting between the programs.

Rally Points
Senior outside hitter Ashley Musser had 10 service aces last week to break Navy's career record. She finished the week with 196 … Houston senior libero Jaci Gonzalez had 24 digs against Tulane to break the Conference USA record for career digs with 2,091 … Northern Iowa junior libero Patricia Dietz set a Missouri Valley Conference single-match record with 45 digs against Iowa … Tennessee senior setter Julie Knytych became the 10th player in Southeast Conference history to reach the 5,000-assist mark … Kansas senior setter Andi Rozum had 65 assists in a five-game win at Colorado to become the school's career leader. She finished the match with 4,328 and surpassed the old mark of 4,209 that was set in 1991 … KU senior middle blocker Josi Lima had 11 kills against Texas Tech to set a school record with 1,308 … Senior libero Amy Morris tied the Tennessee record with 36 digs against Louisville … Freshman outside hitter Katrina Zawojski set a Colgate record for kills in a four-game match with 31 against Holy Cross … Robert Morris junior middle blocker Janette Schneider set a Northeast Conference record with a .667 hitting percentage against Canisius and tied an NEC record with nine blocks against Niagara … Senior Shelly Sommerfeldt became the ninth player in Utah history to eclipse the 1,000-kill plateau, reaching the milestone against BYU … Evansville's Erica Haukap recorded career kill No. 1,000 against Illinois State, which ranks seventh in the program's history … Senior libero Suzy Wolford became the ninth player in Miami history to record 1,000 career digs (she eclipsed the 1,000 mark in a three-game win against Bowling Green) … Senior outside hitter Dani Nyenhuis recorded career kill No. 1,000 in North Carolina's win over Wake Forest … Ball State junior libero Amanda McCormick topped 1,000 digs for her career in a win over Buffalo … Senior outside hitter Holly Schetzsle became the seventh player in Ohio history to reach the 1,000-kill mark … Senior middle blocker Shaylen Jackson became the 13th player at Western Michigan to reach the 1,000-kill mark when the Broncos rallied from a 2-0 deficit to beat Northern Illinois … Pittsburgh head coach Chris Beerman picked up his 200th career victory when the Panthers beat Georgetown … Georgia Tech head coach Bond Shymansky earned his 100th career win when the Yellow Jackets beat Miami (Fla.).

Dave Reed has covered college volleyball for national publications since 1996.