In the 2010 NCAA Women's Tournament, Penn State did what no one thought was possible - it won its fourth straight national title. The feat was unprecedented and somewhat unexpected based on some key graduations a year earlier. In the final they played against an excellent Cal team in its first ever NCAA finals after the Golden Bears had their best season ever.
We may never have had a team ranked 8th in the nation prior to the playoffs come out of the tournament with the national championship. This fact would be a surprise if the team in question wasn't Penn State, a squad that has done nothing but win for the last four years. In previous years, they've entered the Final Four with a talent level that was head and shoulders above the competition. Not so this year. But still they leave Kansas City with yet another NCAA title for the trophy case.
Only a few teams had challenging matches last weekend, but in the end few of the matches turned out to be very difficult for the winning teams. Cal showed some serious poise in beating Stanford for the Pac-10 Conference title. Penn State made quick work of Northwestern, beating them in three sets. Florida topped LSU in four sets. Each of these winners are playing like a team wants to be playing going into the playoffs.
The last weekend of regular season play did not go as planned for a few of the top teams. There is no worse time for a bad loss than right before the playoffs, but Cal, Hawaii and Penn State will all have to hope to re-callibrate for the first round. Just as I was jumping on the Cal bandwagon and remarking about how good they looked beating Stanford, they got shaky on me.
The NCAA brackets were released on Sunday and we now know who'll be facing who on the Road to the Final Four. Three-time champs Penn State have what looks like the easiest road to the Final Four, with the toughest teams to beat being Arizona and LSU. No. 1 Florida will need to get through Texas or Illinois to make the Final Four while Stanford will likely face USC in the Dayton Regional. As usual, there were a few surprises in the mix this year. I know the seeding is based on strength of schedule and records among other things, but there are some questionable choices that ended up among the 16 seeded teams.
This may not be the easiest year to pick the Final Four teams, but I thought I'd put myself out on a limb anyway. It will be a hard-fought road to Kansas City this season and though there is a good chance we'll see some new faces in Round 2, I think when the dust has settled, the top teams will still be standing.
As much talk as there has been about parity this year and the possibility of a surprise winner or two, the playoffs to this point have been pretty predictable so far with just a few exceptions. Northern Iowa was the biggest flameout. After being ranked No. 10 in the nation in the AVCA Coaches Poll they received an inexplicable No. 5 tournament seed. The high seeding didn't help them though, they lost in five in the first round to an unseeded and unranked Missouri squad.
Say what you like about the seedings, but it seems that the top teams are still alive for the Regionals this weekend. If you want to be the National Champ, you should by definition be better than everyone else. So your path to the Championship really shouldn't matter. You should be able to beat anyone that comes your way.
Volleyball is not a sport that lends itself well to brawling. Though matches get heated, players often exchange words and bad blood is not unheard of, the fact that teams are separated by a net saves us from some of the hand-to-hand combat that sports like hockey, basketball and football inspire. If there was to be fighting, you'd expect it to be between the players on the court whose adrenaline is pumping and whose dreams are on the line. But this past weekend the near-brawl happened not on the court, but on the sidelines.
After a quiet first few rounds, the upsets abounded in the Regionals. I'm not sure anyone could have predicted that we'd be going into the Final Four without the top three seeds. Two out of the three didn't even make it to the Regional Final. No. 1 Florida, No. 2 Nebraska and No. 3 Stanford were all eliminated in grand fashion in what was the weekend of the underdog.
I don't usually get all gushy about setters. As a former hitter and blocker, I usually reserve my affection for other hitters and blockers. But a great hitter is nothing without someone who can deliver the ball in the right place at the right time. Hitting and blocking are the glitz and glamour of our sport, so sometimes setters can go unnoticed. Not true in the case of Carli Lloyd, Cal's senior All-America setter.