An Upset-Filled Opening Weekend

No. 17 Michigan State opened their 2013 season with victories over St. Francis, Towson, and Virginia Tech but dropped a match to Pacific.

If the first weekend is any indication, the women’s college volleyball season is going to be something to behold with a promise of plenty of twists and turns before the final four teams gather in Seattle on December 19 for the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship.

There were upsets, near misses and general unpredictability as things got rolling around the country.

To wit: Last week’s No. 1 in both the AVCA and VBM polls, defending-national-champion Texas, went to Hawaii, got upset by Hawaii, struggled to beat San Diego in five, and then watched as San Diego beat Hawaii in five.

And in what might have been the biggest surprise of the opening weekend, No. 10 Nebraska was stunned by Auburn in St. Louis. Auburn, which had only one victory over a top-10 team in its history, also beat host Saint Louis and Louisiana-Monroe before traveling across the Mississippi River to beat Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.

Accordingly, this week’s poll is quite a bit different than the first that came out two weeks ago before anyone played and likely will have more moving and shaking than any of the others between now and championship time.

Texas is now No. 4, Hawaii went from No. 11 to 8th, and San Diego jumped all the way from receiving votes to No. 14. For the record, the Toreros, who opened that tournament with a four-set win over the University of Texas-El Paso, came in just off the AVCA’s top 25 last week at No. 26.

Texas rebounded with a 3-0 victory over UTEP before beating San Diego in five. After the Hawaii match, UT coach Jerritt Elliott said he expected a tough battle “ … and Hawaii is so good at home. We needed to put our team in some stressful environments and playing in front of nearly 9,000 people is a stressful environment.

“We also needed to be able to learn about our team,” Elliott continued. “A lot of our team is back, but there are different pieces and teams are better. There are a lot of things I can take away from this match to become a better defensive team. We weren't able to sustain any kind of defensive pressure. We'll get better.”

San Diego got big tournaments out of middle Katie Hoekman and libero C’era Oliveira, a senior from Honolulu who had a special trip home.

"I am so proud of our girls,” said San Diego coach Jennifer Petrie. “The fact that they were able to come back from the tough loss to Texas the night before, and to turn around and play on that level, is just amazing. And to beat Hawaii in Hawaii is just so amazing.”

The next group of highly ranked teams fared well, which ensures that this weekend’s Nike Volleyball Big Four in Austin, Texas, will be everything we could hope for. That gathering has Texas, Penn State, Stanford, and Florida.

Penn State cruised past Syracuse and Louisville in three sets each and moved from second into the No. 1 spot in the poll. The Louisville match pitted sisters Deja McClendon of Penn State, a three-time All-American, and freshman Maya McClendon of Louisville.

Stanford swept UC Santa Barbara in three and moved up from No. 3 to No. 2 in the poll.

Florida, gearing up for the big weekend at Texas, opened by beating hosting and beating New Orleans, Long Island University-Brooklyn, and Duke. Alex Holston, a freshman right-side hitter from Olney, Md., hit .436 (20-3-39) to set a record for a Gator freshman in their debut weekend.

The Gators, up a notch to 8th, make a stop at the University of Texas at San Antonio on Thursday before playing Stanford on Saturday.

“I was really impressed with Alex Holston,” Florida coach Mary Wise said. “For her to play the way she did and reset the record books, I don’t know if we could have asked for more from her. [Senior setter] Taylor Brauneis has been such a steadying presence for us. She doesn’t have high highs or low lows. She comes in and flies under the radar. She gets her job done and we’ll rely on her and Chloe to keep us focused when we head to UT-San Antonio [on Thursday].”

USC, up a spot to No. 3, repaid the trip back to West Lafayette, Ind., pitting Purdue coach Dave Shondell against the Trojans’ Mick Haley. They have in common that they’re two of the many products of Ball State now coaching Division I.

Purdue did take a set off the Trojans, who then swept Western Kentucky and Alabama A&M. WKU moved up from receiving votes to tied for No. 20 with Creighton.

Minnesota went 4-0, taking a trip to Birmingham, Ala., to sweep three schools from that state, Jacksonville State, host UAB, and Samford and also Georgia State. The Gophers held steady at No. 5.

“We were very happy with the level of competition and result,” second-year Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon said. “It was good for us to have the opportunity to play lots of players here. That was clearly one of our goals.”

Washington, which stayed at No. 6, swept Boise State and host Portland State, but then had to go five to get past Gonzaga.

“To be honest this match is a good match for us in many ways,” Washington coach Jim McLaughlin said. “It’s going to serve us well down the road. We lost our top player, Krista sprained her ankle, and we lost a couple match points, but we held together. We could have caved in but we didn’t. Gonzaga played great, they did everything right. Our offense played well, our defense broke down, but we can learn a lot from this match.”

Anchored at 7th is Michigan, a surprise participant into last year’s final four that went to Cincinnati and swept Clemson, Xavier, and Northern Kentucky. Things get a lot tougher for the Wolverines next weekend when they entertain Oregon State and No. 13 Oregon, which also went to the final four last December.

Speaking of which, the Ducks opened their own tournament with an easy win over Bryant before being shocked by unranked Ohio in three sets, causing their four-spot fall in the poll.

“[Ohio] played very well and at the end, they got loose,” Oregon coach Jim Moore said. “We have to make sure that we execute when we’ve got opportunities. We didn’t do that very much tonight.”

Ohio celebrated one of its biggest regular-season victories in program history. Sophomore setter Abby Gilleland was named the tournament’s MVP and was joined on the all-tournament team by junior outside hitter Kelly Lambert. Things don’t get any easier, however, for the Bobcats, whose home tournament this weekend includes Cincinnati, North Carolina, and Dayton, which fell out of the poll this week after going 2-1 this weekend.

Nebraska, a team loaded with young players (meet the Nebraska freshman class, ranked No. 1 in the country) opened with a victory over Louisiana-Monroe and salvaged the weekend by beating Saint Louis.

But in between was that loss to Auburn.

“I’ve been telling you we were going to have some growing pains, but the key was we bounced back,” Nebraska coach John Cook said.

It was only the second win over a ranked opponent in program history for Auburn (3-0), whose only previous such victory came over No. 24 Kentucky at home during the 2010 season. Nebraska had a higher hitting percentage than the Tigers (.218-.208), but a stingy Auburn defense and troubles in the service game for the Huskers proved to be the difference.

"It's a huge win," third-year Auburn coach Rick Nold said. "Nebraska's got a great program. I thought we did a great job of staying really aggressive when we really weren't playing that well. I thought before the game that we have two very different styles facing each other, and that if we stuck to our style of being a scrappy, aggressive team that would probably play in our favor. The girls never looked down and kept coming at them, and we got the win."

Michigan State finished their 2012 season with a loss to Big Ten rival Michigan, missing out on a spot in last year’s final four. It opened 2013 with victories over St. Francis and Towson, but then was swept by Pacific before beating host Virginia Tech in five. The Spartans dropped four spots to 17th.

Kentucky, down to receiving votes from 17th, went to Long Beach and lost to No. 15 Florida State in three, fell in five to No. 18 Illinois and then beat the host team in three.

“This tournament featured four very good teams who are all capable of winning big matches this season,” UK coach Craig Skinner said. “I think all of the teams will really benefit from this weekend as the season progresses.”

FSU also lost to Illinois but beat Long Beach State in five.

Kansas had a mixed weekend, going to Arizona, where it lost to Central Arkansas in four, swept Morgan State, and then stunned the home team in four, giving coach Ray Bechard his 250th victory. It wasn’t enough to keep the Jayhawks in the poll, however.

Some other results from ranked teams:

-- Iowa State moved to 11th from 15th as it swept South Dakota, North Dakota, and beat Texas A&M in four to give coach Christy Johnson-Lynch her 175th career victory;

-- Dayton’s Matt Affolder moved up from assistant to head coach when Kelly Sheffield took the job at Wisconsin. The first two matches saw the Flyers win in four over Tulsa and Northeastern, but their home tournament ended with a 3-1 loss to Missouri State and a subsequent drop from the poll.

-- Ohio State won and moved up to No. 16, but it wasn’t an easy weekend at Northern Illinois, where the Buckeyes swept Liberty but had to go five to beat Green Bay and the home team.

-- Wichita State, which busted the brackets in last year’s NCAA Tournament by advancing to the round of 16 by upsetting Arkansas and Kansas, beat North Dakota State, lost to Arizona State, and beat Utah Valley. The Shockers remain a receiving votes team.

-- And after rounding out the AVCA’s top 25 in the preseason poll, Creighton beat BYU and host Bowling Green and appeared tied with Western Kentucky on this week’s VBM poll.

-- Finally, the College of Charleston picked up where it left off last December, when it stunned second-seeded Miami in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Cougars went to Atlanta and knocked off the host Yellow Jackets in three sets to win the Georgia Tech Invitational.

“It was a great way to start the season,” said coach Jason Kepner, whose team opened with victories over Chattanooga and Florida A&M and followed up the weekend by defeating Charleston Southern in three Tuesday night.

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