Dec. 7, 2005
By Dave Reed
The Santa Clara volleyball team will be taking final exams this week, but the Broncos already aced their biggest test of the year last Saturday night when they upset fifth-seeded Stanford in the second round of the NCAA volleyball tournament.
Not only did SCU beat the Cardinal for the first time in 20 tries, the Broncos also advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history.
"It was a great feeling," said junior outside hitter Kim McGiven, who had a team-high 19 kills. "Being in the Bay Area, right next to them, we've always been the underdog. We've always been second to Stanford."
On Saturday night, Santa Clara was second to no one. McGiven led five players with double-figure kills and the Broncos hit .393 as a team, the highest hitting percentage against the defending national champions this season.
SCU had to come from behind twice. The Cardinal took game one and appeared were ready to force a fifth game when it built a 16-11 lead midway through Game 4. But the Broncos battled back and were able to stun the Maples Pavilion crowd with the 23-30, 30-19, 30-27, 31-29 victory.
"Our girls competed with a lot of toughness against the defending national champions on their home court," said Jon Wallace, who was named AVCA Pacific Region Coach of the Year on Wednesday. "Even though they played without a couple of key players, it was still Stanford."
Three weeks ago, Santa Clara didn't look like a team that was ready to make a run at a national championship. Nagging injuries and a case of complacency brought on by clinching the West Coast Conference championship in early November set the Broncos up for their only misstep of the season.
Consecutive losses at San Diego, at California and at home against St. Mary's College cost SCU its No. 10 ranking and possibly a top-16 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But it also gave the Broncos a new sense of urgency once the tournament pairings were announced.
"We approached our training as if it was the start of another preseason," McGiven said. "We ironed out the problems we were having and the things we were struggling with and I think it strengthened our team."
SCU began 2005 with seven consecutive victories, including a win over Arizona, a team it could see in the regional final. After a loss at Utah, the Broncos put together a 15-match winning streak that included an 11-0 start in conference play.
Santa Clara was one of the strongest teams on the West Coast throughout the regular season. The Broncos dominated the WCC, which had the fourth highest RPI during the regular season and sent five teams to the tournament.
If they continue to compete in the tournament the way they did earlier in the season, the Broncos latest winning streak could continue all the way to San Antonio.
"The conference teams helped us prepare for where we are now," said sophomore middle blocker Annalisa Muratore. "We knew that as tough as the conference was, it was only going to get tougher. The conference prepared us physically and mentally for the tournament."
Santa Clara's next opponent will be a familiar one. The Broncos will face conference rival Pepperdine on Friday night at Stanford. SCU won both of its matches against the Waves during the regular season, a 3-0 victory in Malibu on Oct. 2 and a sweep at the Leavey Center on Oct. 28.
Pepperdine advanced to the Palo Alto regional by defeating then-No. 22 BYU and then-No. 12 USC in Los Angeles last weekend. The Waves snapped an 11-match losing streak against the women of Troy and improved to 19-11 overall. Pepperdine is making its sixth appearance in the Sweet 16.
"I love playing a team that I'm comfortable with and that our team is comfortable with," said Wallace, who spent seven years as an assistant coach at Pepperdine. "It's better to play them than a team we know nothing about because if our team is comfortable, we're going to play well. "I'm not saying we're going to win, but we'll play well and compete, and that's all I can ask."
The other regional semifinal will feature Ohio University and Arizona. The Bobcats (33-2) earned their first appearance in the Sweet 16 by defeating Alabama and host Ohio State in the first and second rounds.
The Wildcats (24-5) beat Utah State and Utah to reach the round of 16 for the seventh time. Their next victory will be No. 400 for head coach David Rubio.
Regardless of who Santa Clara may face, Wallace is pleased to be playing at Maples Pavilion again.
"We're calling Maples our Santa Clara North gym," he said. "The colors are very similar, the feeling is very similar and our girls fell very comfortable over there."
If the Broncos can pass two more tests, they'll advance the most exciting finals week of their careers.