Stanford Cardinal (31-2, 16-2 Pac-10)
Tournament History: Six NCAA Championships, 17 Final Four berths, 25 Sweet Sixteen appearances, 27 NCAA Tournament invitations
How They Got Here: Automatic Bid, Pac-10 Champions
Who They Beat to Reach Sacramento: Santa Clara (3-0); Sacramento State (3-0); No. 16 Cal Poly (3-0); No. 8 UCLA (3-1)
Main Players: Setter Bryn Kehoe is known for her big, infectious smile after her team makes a huge play and this season, she's had plenty reason to smile thanks to a trio of big-time hitters in middle blocker Foluke Akinradewo and outside hitters Alix Klineman and Cynthia Barboza. Obviously, with The Cardinal ranked second in the nation with 17.63 kills per game, Kehoe has done an outstanding job distributing the ball and finding the hot hand and individually she is among the NCAA elite with 14.50 assists per game. In four tournament games, she's upped her game even further, collecting 17.23 assists per game while guiding Stanford to a .375 hitting percentage and 20.46 kills per game. One of her favorite targets happens to be Akinradewo, who is equally dangerous hitting the slide as she is the quick attack and has put down 4.08 kills per game at a nation's-best .502 clip, only two points behind the all-time NCAA rally-scoring record set by Florida A&M's Maria Andonova in 2004. Barboza and Klineman are two of the best back-row attackers in the country and they aren't too shabby up at the net either, as both are recording just over four kills a game. Akinradewo, Baroboza, and Kehoe all earned AVCA First Team All-American honors, while Klineman, the Pacific Regional Freshman of the Year, picked up second team accolades.
X-Factor: Gabi Ailes has proven to be one of the toughest defenders in the Pac-10, averaging a team-leading 4.33 digs per game and is well on her way to becoming one of the greatest back-court players Stanford fans have ever seen. She has broken numerous records this season and is only five saves away from taking control of Kristin Richards single-season record for digs established in 2004, the last time the Cardinal won a national championship. John Dunning's crew is known for their superior offense, but for his squad to come away with two victories this weekend, Ailes will have to supply the defense to give Kehoe another chance to set-up a kill. With USC, Penn State, and California all having power players on their roster, a huge game from Ailes will provide the necessary defensive stops to give Stanford its seventh national title.
Did You Know?: Stanford leads all institutions with the number of NCAA All-Tournament selections, with 41, followed by Nebraska (23), UCLA (18), Hawai'i (13), and Long Beach State (13). Former great Kristin Folkl is the only athlete to have been named to the all-tourney squad all four years. Last season, Foluke Akinradewo, Cynthia Barboza, and Kristin Richards earned spots on the All-Tournament team.
USC Trojans (29-4, 14-4 Pac-10)
Tournament History: Three NCAA Championships, Eight Final Four berths, 18 Sweet Sixteen appearances, 25 NCAA Tournament invitations
How They Got Here: At-Large Bid, Third in Pac-10
Main Players: Asia Kaczor is the undisputed star of USC, rallying her team to victory after victory. Listed as an opposite, the 6-5 senior can hit from a variety of spots on the court and bails her team out with thunderous kills. Averaging 5.11 kills per game at a .303 clip, Kaczor will be a handful to stop and teams better come prepared for the Polish onslaught. Outside hitter Jessica Gysin is a crafty attacker who doesn't have a lot of power, but gets her kills thanks to a high volleyball I.Q. and fellow senior Diane Copenhagen is coming off of a abdominal injury suffered midway through the season and peaking at the right time, evidenced by her double-double of 13 kills and 12 digs against Texas in the regional final. Running the show is sophomore Taylor Carico, a quarterback whose signature move is the "310" kill, an attack off of the second touch; in addition to her 12.73 assists per game, she is averaging 1.07 kills per game at a .334 clip. Kaczor was named an AVCA First Team All-American, while Carico was named to the second team.
X-Factor: Zoe Garrett doesn't make a lot of noise, considering all of the sets go to the antennas, but she'll be very important in keeping the defense honest this weekend. When set well, she can go off with her slide attack, as demonstrated against St. John's in the Sweet Sixteen with her 13-kill, zero-error performance. She is also second on the team in blocks after totaling 117 this season. If Carico can get Garrett involved in the offense early, the Trojans will be sitting pretty.
Did You Know? Southern California holds the record for most consecutive NCAA matches won. From November 8, 2002 to September 11, 2004, USC accumulated 52 straight wins, thanks in large part to its back-to-back national titles in 2002 and 2003; its streak was broken on the road by Illinois in five games. In second place is Penn State, who triumphed 44 straight times from August 31 to December 7, 1990, losing to Nebraska in the Elite Eight.
No. 1 Stanford vs. No. 5 USC - The Skinny: USC will rely on the powerful Kaczor to get kills, but Gysin and Copenhagen have come on strong as of late and the better they do hitting from the left side, the greater the chance the Trojans will come away with a victory. In addition, freshman Geena Urango has a nasty jump serve that has given teams difficulty in the past. While Stanford could have problems stopping Kaczor, USC faces the same dilemma when matching up with Akinradewo - her ability to be a huge factor in the match will depend on the passing. Barboza has had some troubles when teams target her in the passing rotation, but freshman Cassidy Lichtman has been rock solid and Ailes and Klineman are improving with each match. With the perfect pass, Kehoe has so many options to work with - along with Akinradewo, Barboza, and Klineman, she can rely on Franci Girard in the middle and Erin Waller on the right side. The third meeting in 2007 between these Pac-10 rivals, this semi-final has all the makings of a classic with all the offensive weapons on both sides, but in the end, defense could be the biggest decider in the match.
Penn State Nittany Lions (32-2, 20-0 Big 10)
Tournament History: One NCAA Championship, Six Final Four berths, 21 Sweet Sixteen appearances, 27 NCAA Tournament invitations
How They Got Here: Automatic Bid, Big 10 Champions
Teams They Beat to Reach Sacramento: Siena (3-0); Albany (3-0); Michigan (3-0); Brigham Young (3-0)
Main Players: There isn't a more physically imposing left-side duo than 6-4 Nicole Fawcett and 6-3 Megan Hodge, as they are averaging 9.07 kills and 1.59 blocks per game. Set the high ball to the antenna and more often than not, the outside hitters will terminate the ball for a quick point. Setter Alisha Glass is one of the most improved players in the country, making better decision with the ball and improving her feel for the game in her sophomore season. One of her favorite targets is middle blocker Christa Harmotto, as the 6-2 quick hitter is recording 3.13 kills per game at a blistering .494 pace. In addition, the 2007 Big 10 Player of the Year uses her great lateral quickness to seal off any seams in the block, rejecting 1.68 attacks per game. Freshman Arielle Wilson displaced incumbent middle Melissa Walbridge during the preseason and hasn't looked back, as she leads the team in blocks per game with 1.84 while also putting away 2.35 balls at a .427 clip. The emergence of Wilson, this year's Big 10 Freshman of the Year, gives the Nittany Lions another offensive weapon to use and makes it difficult for other teams to develop a solid game plan that will work in the end. Penn State joined Stanford as the only school with four AVCA All-Americans this year, as Fawcett, Harmotto, and Hodge earned first team nods, while Glass was voted to the second team.
X-Factor: With California's one-two punch on the outside, the play of right-side hitter Blair Brown and setter Alisha Glass could be very important. Finding a way to stop Angie Pressey and Hana Cutura will depend on how the duo set up the block, enabling middles Christa Harmotto and Arielle Wilson to close off any gap. Currently, Glass and Brown are averaging .97 and .91 blocks per game, respectively.
Did You Know?: In four NCAA matches, Penn State is hitting an astounding .502, which would absolutely smash the old record of .369 established by Long Beach State back in 1995. The Nittany Lions hit a tournament high .602 against Albany in the second round, recording only four hitting errors. Fawcett made three hitting errors and still hit .538, while Christa Harmotto made the only other error for PSU and still had a .750 clip. By comparison, Stanford (.375), California (.323), and USC (.304) trail Penn State by a wide margin, though the Big 10 Champions had probably the easiest sub-regional of the whole tournament.
California Golden Bears (26-7, 12-6 Pac-10)
Tournament History: One Final Four berth, Three Sweet Sixteen appearances, 11 NCAA Tournament invitations
How They Got Here: At-Large Bid, Fourth in Pac-10
Main Players: Defeating a senior-laden Nebraska team headed up by Sarah Pavan is never an easy task, but to do it in three games in just an incredible feat, especially on a neutral court. Somehow, California devised a game plan and stuck to it perfectly, pulling out the greatest volleyball victory in school history. Starting off the conference season with three consecutive losses can be difficult for any team to overcome, but the Golden Bears turned to seniors Angie Pressey and Ellen Orchard to right the ship. Pressey, standing at only 5-8, is one of the most dynamic attackers in the nation and no matter who is standing in front of her, she'll find a way to put the ball down, averaging 4.19 kills per game. Orchard's play has solidified Cal's defensive presence at the net, as her 1.63 blocks per game have helped her team be among the best blocking teams in the collegiate ranks. The 6-3 quick hitter has also done her best to keep opponents from ganging up on the outside, posting 2.56 kills per game at a respectable .332 clip. Hana Cutura needed some time to adjust to the college game, but the 6-3 outside hitter has proven to be one of the hardest hitters in the nation in just her sophomore year, as Nebraska found out last Saturday after seeing many of her 23 kills go off the block or straight down; for the season, she is averaging 4.25 kills per game. California found itself with two AVCA All-Americans on its roster heading into Thursday's match-up with Penn State, as Pressey garnered first team accolades, while Cutura was recognized as a second team All-American.
X-Factor: In 2004, Bryn Kehoe became the first freshman to lead a team to a national championship in a 5-1 format and Rachel Holloway became just the second in 2006, though Holloway technically shouldn't be mentioned in the same breath as Kehoe, considering she was a redshirt freshman at the time. Carli Lloyd has the opportunity to join Kehoe and Holloway if she is able to guide the Golden Bears to two victories this weekend. Averaging 12.84 assists per game, the 5-11 native out of Bonsall, Calif. needs to be on top of her game to deliver picture perfect sets and avoid the huge Penn State block. If she plays calm and collected, California will have an excellent chance at continuing its dream season; on the flip side, if her ball location is all over the map, it could get very ugly, very fast.
Did You Know? This is California's first trip to the NCAA Final Four. By contrast, this will be Stanford's 17th journey to the national semi-finals, while USC and Penn State are making their eighth and sixth appearance, respectively. Other schools to have just made the Final Four once include: San Jose State (1984), Texas-Arlington (1989), BYU (1993)\, Michigan State (1995), Wisconsin (2000), Arizona (2001), Tennessee (2005), and Santa Clara (2005).
No. 2 Penn State vs. No. 10 California - The Skinny: Penn State's big block will be a formidable obstacle for any team to overcome, but California will need precise passing to give Lloyd a chance at fooling the block and setting up her hitters. Opposite Morgan Beck is an inconsistent hitter, but Cal will be looking to her passing more than anything else and the play of libero Kristin Kathan will be key. The Nittany Lions are shredding opposing defenses with ease, but how they respond to the Golden Bears defense will determine their fate. They will also need to play good back-row defense to complete its superior attacking and blocking. If California doesn't let nerves get in its way, this could be a very interesting match for all to see.
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