Teams gear up for final stretch

The stretch run toward conference championships begins this weekend, and several of college volleyball's traditional powers are running neck-and-neck as they approach the finish line.

Ten conferences decide their champion and automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament during the regular season, but not all of the best races involve teams currently in the national rankings.

Some of the races have multiple teams still in the hunt, such as the Big West and Ivy League.

Other races have longtime rivals at the top of the standings, like the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Still others have intriguing storylines such as a team looking for its first title in the Pac-10, a last title in the Big 12 or trying to extend a streak of titles in the Big Ten.

Combine those stories with the continuing rash of upsets, and the last month of the regular season will provide enough intrigue to keep everyone on the edge of their seats.

Here is a brief look at six of the more competitive races and what makes them compelling.

Atlantic Coast Conference

First place in the Atlantic Coast Conference will be on the line when Duke visits North Carolina.

The Blue Devils, who were expected to be near the top of the standings, swept the Tar Heels on Oct. 8 at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The home team has won six consecutive matches since Duke escaped Chapel Hill with a five-set victory on Oct. 7, 2007.

North Carolina, picked to finish fifth in the preseason poll, dropped its next match at Georgia Tech, but since then has won five in a row to improve to 11-2.

The Blue Devils began conference play with seven consecutive victories, but lost at Virginia Tech and Florida State in the first and last match of a four-game road swing midway through the month of October.

Both teams have a three-match lead over Georgia Tech, but the Tar Heels still must travel to Florida State and Miami next weekend and play host to third-place Georgia Tech. Duke's remaining road matches include Maryland and Wake Forest.

The Blue Devils visit North Carolina State on Friday, while UNC plays host to Wake Forest.

Big 12

It's a two-team race between Nebraska and Texas after the Longhorns defeated the Huskers last week, but with no head-to-head matches remaining, UT will need help from an unlikely source if it plans to deny NU one final Big 12 title before the Huskers depart for the Big Ten.

Nebraska has only one match remaining against an opponent in the upper half of the conference standings -- at home against Oklahoma on Nov. 17. Its toughest conference road match might be its last -- at Texas A&M on Nov. 27.

The Longhorns have matches against the three opponents directly behind them in the standings, at home against Oklahoma and Missouri and at Iowa State in the regular-season finale. UT also has a home match against archrival Texas A&M.

Big Ten

Despite losing senior All-America outside hitter Laura DeBruler to a season-ending knee injury, Illinois has built a two and a half-match lead over Michigan and Penn State with four weeks remaining in the regular season.

The Nittany Lions visits Ann Arbor on Friday for a match that will identify which team has the best shot at catching the Illini.

Penn State still has an opportunity to win its eighth consecutive conference title, thanks in part to a having a showdown against Illinois on Nov. 13 at Rec Hall, where PSU has won 86 consecutive matches.

The trip to Happy Valley is just one of five the Illini will make during their last seven conference matches. Illinois also travels to Northwestern, Ohio State, Indiana and Purdue.

The Illini have won seven consecutive matches since losing DeBruler for the second time this season. Illinois won three of five matches when she was out with mono earlier in the season, one of which was a five-set loss at Nebraska, making the adjustment less traumatic.

What makes the Big Ten race even more exciting is that all three leaders have lost to unranked opponents this season, while the teams currently in fifth through ninth place all have at least one victory over a ranked opponent. So anything could happen.

Big West

The big story in the Big West is Cal State Fullerton, which is poised to claim its first-ever conference title.

The Titans grabbed sole possession of first place last weekend by defeating UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly to improve to 19-5 overall and 8-2 in the Big West. CSF set the school record for wins in a single season with Saturday's 20-25, 25-23, 25-18, 25-20 victory against Cal Poly and began the weekend with a critical 26-24, 25-17, 25-18 win over UCSB to sweep the season series for the first time ever. Since losing to Pepperdine on Sept. 10, The Titans have won 15 of their last 17 matches, losing only to Long Beach State .

CSF, which was picked to finish fourth in the preseason poll, has never finished higher than fifth place in the conference. If the Titans can survive this weekend at UC Davis and Pacific, which are currently tied for fifth with 7-4 conference records, their path to a first Big West title goes through the bottom of the conference standings.

Cal State Fullerton plays its final four matches against UC Irvine and UC Riverside at home, and then UC Irvine and Cal State Northridge on the road. Those teams have a combined 5-38 conference record.

The Titans already have completed their season series with the three teams directly behind the CSF in the Big West standings -- Long Beach State (7-3), Cal Poly (8-4) and UC Santa Barbara (8-4).

Ivy League

The winner of the Ivy League will be one of the first teams to earn a spot in the 2010 NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship, and Yale controls its own destiny in its quest to clinch a postseason appearance.

The Bulldogs, 14-7 overall and 8-2 in league play, avenged their only two Ivy League losses and went from first to third in the Ivy League standings by sweeping Princeton and Penn at home last weekend. With only four conference matches remaining, the Bulldogs are on the verge of wrapping up their second league title and NCAA tournament appearance in three seasons.

Yale plays host to Dartmouth and Harvard this weekend, and then concludes the regular season with road matches at fourth-place Columbia and last-place Cornell. Even though the Bulldogs control their own fate, they have the luxury of knowing their two primary challengers -- the Tigers and Quakers -- still have to play each other in the final match of the season.

It's no secret the team that finishes in second place in the Ivy League will not receive an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament, so the four remaining matches are essentially tournament contests.


The Pac-10 could very well come down to the Stanford-California match on Nov. 19 in Berkeley. But a lot could change before then, especially when considering the top four teams will collide in Northern California this weekend.

Cal (10-1) owns a one-match lead over Stanford by virtue of its four-set victory on the Farm on Oct. 22. USC (8-3) is currently third and UCLA (7-4) fourth, and one or two victories by either team would significantly alter the top of the standings.

The Bears, who are searching for their first conference championship, do have an advantage by playing five of its final seven matches at home. Cal plays host to USC and UCLA on back-to-back nights, while Stanford faces UCLA on Friday and USC on Sunday afternoon.

The Trojans are the only team to defeat Cal this year and are still very much alive in the hunt for the conference title. USC needs a victory on Friday because it plays five of its final seven matches on the road, including the regular-season finale at UCLA.

The Bears and Cardinal travel to Washington and Washington State the weekend of Nov. 12-13 before their showdown at Haas Pavilion.

Around the nation

Team of the week: Ball State took over the top spot in the West Division of the Mid-America Conference for the first time since 2002 with victories over Western Michigan and Northern Illinois. The Cardinals won the final two sets to defeat WMU on Friday, then dominated the Huskies in straight sets the following night with first place on the line. BSU improved to 20-4 overall and 10-2 in the MAC in head coach Steve Shondell's first season at his alma mater. The Cardinals, who are on the verge of locking down the top seed for the conference tournament, travel to Eastern Michigan, which is tied for second, and Central Michigan this weekend before returning home to face Toledo and Akron in their final two matches of the regular season.

FIVB World Championship: The United States Women's National Team defeated sixth-ranked Cuba 30-28, 25-23, 22-25, 25-23 on Wednesday in Matsumoto, Japan, to complete the first round of the FIVB World Championship with a 5-0 record in Pool C. The second-ranked Americans also defeated Thailand (3-1), Croatia (3-0), Germany (3-0) and Kazakhstan (3-0) in the opening round. The next match for Team USA is on Nov. 6 against the Czech Republic, which finished fourth in Pool B. The semifinals and finals are scheduled for Nov. 13-14 in Tokyo.

The week ahead: Rematches during the upcoming week will play a key role in deciding which teams remain in the hunt for conference titles. In the Big Ten, Michigan and Penn State face a must-win situation when the Nittany Lions travel to Ann Arbor on Friday. PSU swept the Wolverines during their first meeting on Oct. 2 to keep its hopes alive for an eighth-consecutive conference title. The loser of Friday's match could fall as many as three matches behind first-place Illinois with only three weeks remaining. Cal and Stanford get a chance to avenge Pac-10 losses when UCLA and USC visit the Bay Area this weekend. The Bruins, who upset the Cardinal on Oct. 9, invade The Farm on Friday, while the Trojans, the only team to defeat Cal, travel to Berkeley the same night. On Saturday night, North Carolina plays host to Duke, which swept the Tar Heels on Oct. 8. The bitter rivals are currently tied atop the ACC standings. Finally, LSU needs a victory over Ole Miss on Sunday not only to avenge its three-set loss to the Rebels on Oct.15, but to maintain contact with Florida in the race for the SEC championship.

Quick sets

Senior middle blocker Jaimie Thibeault had six blocks during Montana's five-set loss at Eastern Washington to reach 500 for her career. She is the only current Big Sky player to have 1,000 career kills and 500 total blocks. … Senior opposite hitter Karolina Bartkowiak had 19 kills to help Utah come from behind to post a five-set victory against BYU. She gave the Utes a 5-2 lead in the fifth set with career-kill No. 1,000. … Junior libero Kelly Haseman became the first player in Liberty history to record back-to-back 500-dig seasons when she had 19 during a five-set victory at Charleston Southern. … Louisiana-Lafayette senior libero Lindsay Brown had 17 digs during a four-set win against Arkansas State to record 500 digs for the second year in a row. … Charleston Southern senior outside hitter Amanda Hill became the third player in Big South history to put away 1,800 or more kills when she posted 24 during a five-set loss to Liberty. Senior libero Tricia Rodl recorded career dig No. 1,300 during the match to become the third Lady Buc to reach that mark. … Junior Rachelle Dejean posted 13 digs during Bradley's victory over Chicago State to become the 13th player to record 1,000 in a career. She needs only 14 more to move up to 11th place on Bradley's all-time chart. …Senior middle blocker Lindsay Baldwin became the 11th player in Nevada history to reach 1,000 career kills when she had 13 during a five-set victory at San Jose State. … Delaware State upset Maryland Eastern Shore in five sets to snap the Hawks' 36-match winning streak in Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference play. UMES had not lost a conference match since falling at home to Morgan State on Nov. 9, 2006.

Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.