Bearcats' duo key to success

One of the most potent kill-producing combinations in the country will be on display when Cincinnati plays host to Big East rival Notre Dame in a nationally-televised match on ESPNU this Sunday at 5 p.m ET.

When the two teams currently perched atop the Big East standings take the court, viewers can expect to see a lot of UC senior setter Annie Fesl and senior outside hitter Stephanie Niemer.

The two have developed into one of the most effective tandems in the history of Bearcat volleyball. Niemer leads the Big East and ranks fourth in the nation averaging 5.29 kills per set, while Fesl is second in the conference and seventh in the country with 11.84 assists.

Their efficiency is a primary reason Cincinnati has climbed to No. 21 in the latest American Volleyball Coaches Association's Top 25 and is tied atop the Big East standings with Notre Dame.

"Without those two, we wouldn't be where we are today," said Reed Sunahara, who is in his 11th season as head coach of the Bearcats. "They've worked hard for three years to get to this point."

While both players were blessed with an abundance of physical talent, their individual success is the product of hard work in every aspect of the game.

A middle blocker while playing at St. Henry High School in Erlanger, Ky., Niemer moved to the outside the moment she arrived at Cincinnati. She progressed from playing only in the front row as a freshman to never leaving the court as a junior.

"The day she stepped foot on campus, we made her an outside hitter," Sunahara said. "She's not a liability back there because she can pass, play defense and she can hit from the back row. She makes herself more of a weapon for our offense."

An honorable mention AVCA All-American in 2009, Niemer is currently third on the school's all-time kills list with 1,669, trailing Julie DuPont's total of 2,137 and Becky Tenkman's 1,843.
"Julie was great," Sunahara said. "She was our first All-American. Stephanie might not touch the career kill record, but I think overall her game could be the best."

Likewise, Fesl has been Cincinnati's starting setter since her rookie season and has led the Bearcats to an 86-33 overall record, a 37-9 record in conference play and a share of the 2008 regular-season Big East title.

Fesl needs 17 assists on Friday against DePaul to become the second in Bearcats history to reach the 5,000 mark, but Laura Lauder's school record of 5,946 could be out of reach.

"Annie is one of the two best setters we've had in this program," Sunahara said. "She knows the system and what we want. We still give her some feedback and tell her what to run in certain situations, but for the most part she's running the team on her own."

It helps to have a terminator like Niemer, but Fesl keeps the opposing defenses honest by using her other hitters.

"Annie definitely knows her hitters," Niemer said about the only setter she has played with during her collegiate career. "She knows what they need, and she knows who to get the ball to at the appropriate time."

The driving force behind the Bearcats offseason training regimen was a five-set loss to the Irish last season. That outcome ultimately cost Cincinnati a share of a second consecutive Big East title.

"This offseason, we started growing a stronger bond between us, both on the court and off the court." Fesl said. "Being captains and working together, not only to improve ourselves, but to improve the team as a whole. We both know it's our last shot and we want to go out with a bang and leave our mark here at Cincinnati."

Thanks to a new level of chemistry between its senior captains, Niemer and the Bearcats' attack have been virtually unstoppable this season.

During a come-from-behind victory over then-No. 5 Illinois during the Big Ten/Big East challenge, Niemer had a match-high 28 kills. The following day during a sweep of Purdue, she recorded a season-high with 32 more kills.

What makes their effectiveness even more impressive is when a set or match is on the line, everybody in the gym knows where the set is going, and Niemer is almost always going up against a double block.

"When big matches come around and Annie is setting me, it's a position I love to be in," Niemer said. "I love to be the go-to player who gets things done when needed."

Expect Niemer to get a lot of swings on Sunday when Notre Dame visits Fifth Third Arena, where Cincinnati has won 34 consecutive matches since falling to St. John's in four sets on Oct. 7, 2007.

Sole possession of first place in the Big East could be at stake if both teams win their matches on Friday night (the Fighting Irish at Louisville and the Bearcats at home against DePaul).

"It's a match I've been looking forward to the whole season," said Fesl, whose sister, Megan, played for Notre Dame. "There's a lot of revenge built up from last year, and I really want to beat them this year. It's two of the best teams in the Big East playing. It's at home for us, and it's on TV. I think it's going to be a great matchup. I can't wait."

The good news for the Bearcats, and bad news for their opponents, is that UC has yet to play at the level their players and coaches believe is possible. When they do, the 2010 Bearcats have the potential to be the best team in the program's history.

"I think this team could be the best," Sunahara said. "We've got to start clicking on all cylinders. We haven't done that yet, but luckily we've been winning. Once we can do that, this will rank as the best team I've had here."

Around the nation

Team of the week: Washington showed that it would be a force to be reckoned with in the Pac-10 by posting home-court victories over then-No. 5 USC in five sets and a sweep of No. 12 UCLA. The Huskies bounced back from a four-set loss at Oregon on the opening weekend of conference play to defeat the Trojans, but it certainly wasn't easy. UW won the first two sets, but the Women of Troy dominated the next two to square the match. When it looked like USC had the momentum, Washington used its defense to take control early in the fifth set and put the match away. The following night, the Huskies defeated UCLA for the eighth consecutive time to improve to 14-1 overall and 3-1 in conference play.

Florida tops initial RPI ratings: After winning eight of nine matches against ranked opponents, Florida starts on top of the NCAA's Division I Women's Volleyball Ratings Percentage Index. The Gators own victories over six teams in the top 16 of the RPI this season, including No. 2 Nebraska, No. 7 Iowa State, No. 9 Tennessee, No. 14 Florida State and No. 16 LSU. Florida's only loss was against No. 5 Penn State. The rest of the top 10 includes No. 3 Illinois, No. 4 Northern Iowa, No. 8 Minnesota and No. 10 Northwestern. The second RPI will be released on Oct. 12.

The week ahead: The top spot in several conferences will be on the line and a couple of teams need victories to stay in the race, but the marquee matches will be in the Pac-10, as No. 1 Stanford and No. 7 California head south to Los Angeles to face No. 8 USC and No. 12 UCLA. The Trojans play host to the Cardinal on Friday, while Cal visits Westwood. In the ACC, co-leaders North Carolina and Duke square off at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Friday. Later that night, a share of first place in the West Coast Conference will be on the line when No. 23 San Diego visits No. 25 Saint Mary's. In the Big 12, No. 11 Texas plays at Kansas State on Saturday in a match featuring two of the five teams currently in a tie for second place in the conference. On Sunday in the SEC, No. 22 Tennessee needs a victory at No. 15 LSU to avoid picking up a third conference loss just four weeks into the SEC schedule.

Quick sets

Brittany Hewitt broke Hawaii's record for hitting percentage in a single match during the rally-scoring era when she had 11 kills on 12 attacks (.917), during a three-set victory at New Mexico State. The sophomore middle blocker nearly became the second player with 10 or more attacks in UH history to record a kill on every swing … The Rainbow Wahine defeated Louisiana Tech to extend their winning streak in conference play to 29 matches, the longest active streak in the nation … During Florida's sweep of Arkansas on Sunday, junior setter/right side hitter Kelly Murphy recorded a career-high eight aces, which ties her for second on the Gators' single-game list. The record of nine was set by Aury Cruz against South Carolina on Oct. 26, 2003 … Senior setter Meredith Schamun had 57 assists during Rice's 3-1 victory over UTEP and became the school's career leader with 4,581. She surpassed Katie Meyer's record of 4,540, which had stood since 1991 and now ranks ninth on C-USA's all-time list … Junior outside hitter Ashleigh McCord had 20 against UTEP to eclipse the 1,000-kill mark … Utah swept BYU in the first match of the Deseret First Duel at Smith Fieldhouse. The Utes have won 13 of the last 16 matches against the Cougars and have not lost to their archrivals since Nov. 7, 2007. The rematch is scheduled for Oct. 29 at Utah's Crimson Court … Notre Dame defeated South Florida in three sets in the program's 1,000th match last Friday. Including Sunday's victory at Georgetown, the Irish have an all-time record of 640-361 and a 573-250 mark under current head coach Debbie Brown … Texas Tech snapped its 64-match Big 12 losing streak last Saturday with a five-set, home-court win against Kansas. The Red Raiders' last conference victory occurred on Sept. 12, 2007, versus Colorado.

Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.