Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Fall Quarter

Tomorrow is the first day of instruction for the UC Davis undergraduates. Yep, a Thursday. Not many schools start a term on a Thursday, but we do. We're talking 25,000-plus people suddenly populating the campus. A third of them are new and relatively unfamiliar to the university's geography. The other two-thirds haven't seen each other in months, which means they'll stop in inopportune locations to greet each other.

In other words, I'll steer clear of the Coffee House for a few days.

But for me, the fall quarter has been going for the better part of a month. And my 2011-12 school year is off to a fine start, mostly because the two fall teams for which I serve as the primary media contact -- men's water polo and women's volleyball -- are on track to enjoy their best-ever seasons.

Men's water polo holds an 8-3 overall record and a 5-0 mark against its leaguemates in the Western Water Polo Association. Oddly, two games from the loss column may be more impressive than any of the eight Ws: the Aggies fell to then-No. 5 Pacific in an 8-7 squeaker on September 3, and battled No. 6 Pepperdine to a 14-10 loss last weekend at the NorCal Invitational.

Every year, the top four teams in the CWPA Men's Varsity Poll comprises some order of Cal, Stanford, USC and UCLA, the four schools that traditionally play in the Pac-12. In the last four years, only two of the other 39 NCAA programs have managed to break up that superfecta. They were -- oh yes -- Pepperdine and Pacific.

Pacific did it during November of 2010, leapfrogging from sixth to fourth and pushing Stanford down to No. 5 for two weeks. For Pepperdine, it's a more distant memory -- the Waves finished the 2008 season at No. 2, with Cal nudged down to No. 6. Yet in the 2009 preseason poll, the regular crew ruled the perch: USC, Stanford, UCLA and Cal, in order.

Bottom line: cracking the top four is a rare achievement. Pepperdine and Pacific have done it, and appear in position to challenge again this year, holding No. 5 and No. 6. That UC Davis has played two of its best games against those teams -- even though the final outcome might not have been favorable -- speaks volumes about what this year's team can do.

Head coach Steve Doten set two goals for the 2011 team. One is to crack into the top 10, which his program last did in 2007. The other is to win the WWPA title, which earns a trip to the NCAA Championship.  He now has accomplished the first, with the Aggies moving up to No. 9 in Wednesday's poll. The second? Check back in November.

Fans can catch a glimpse of this team this weekend, with UC Davis hosting the eight-team Aggie Shootout tournament at Schaal Aquatics Center., starting with Friday's contest against 17th-ranked Cal Baptist. First sprint is 6 p.m.

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Aggie fans, go check out a women's volleyball match this year. There simply is no other way to say it.

Some brief history: UC Davis went 11-72 during the final three years of the Division I transition period (the Aggies still played a mostly D-II schedule during the first), then went 4-24 with a 1-15 conference mark in 2007. By many accounts, volleyball arguably had the toughest path to success -- the Big West has long been a highly successful conference in the sport, boasting six national champions and 14 Final Four participants in its history. When the Aggies began facing Division I teams in 2004, six members of the conference had made the NCAA tournament the year before. (To illustrate, consider that four members of the ACC made the NCAA basketball tournament in 2011.)

Enter Jamie Holmes, now in her fourth year as head coach.

UC Davis went 12-16 in Holmes' rookie season of 2008, a seemingly miraculous jump. The following year, the Aggies went 20-10 – the first 20-win season since 1996 - and finished second in the conference. Last year's team challenged for the conference title until an injury bug struck in the final weeks.

This year, UC Davis enters conference play with a 14-1 mark, setting a record for the best start in program history, and has received votes toward the AVCA Top 25 poll first the first time in the Division I era. Among the 14 victories: Tulsa, which went 31-2 and won the Conference USA title in 2010; Missouri, which advanced to the Sweet Sixteen last year; and Northern Colorado, tabbed to win the Big Sky Conference championship this season.

The next great challenge will be the Big West, a league that fielded three 20-match winners last year. Leading contenders Long Beach State, UC Santa Barbara and Pacific compare quite favorably overall with the vanquished Tulsa and Mizzou on the Rich Kern RPI and Pablo Rankings (two empirical ranking systems followed by volleyball's more astute followers).

But alas, the matches are not played on paper, as the saying goes. The Aggies will use the next eight weeks to show whether or not they truly belong with the conference's elite and, by extension, in the NCAA tournament. Can they do it? Is this the year UC Davis women's volleyball achieves something that seemed almost impossible just five years ago?

The Big West slate starts with a road match at Pacific within hours after this post, written Wednesday, Sept. 21. If you catch this too late, or you don't want to drive down to Stockton, come out to the Pavilion on Saturday. UC Davis takes on UC Irvine, a program that ranked in the Top 25 last than two years ago (before getting knocked out by your very own Aggies).

So there it is... check out a women's volleyball match this year. There simply is no other way to say it.

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On a serious note, it was with great regret that I could not attend the memorial service for John Hardie, an event held last Saturday at the Davis Community Church. I feel a double kinship to Hardie, who passed away on Sept. 1 and who earned a touching mention in Mike Robles' last blog entry for his contributions as a timekeeper at UC Davis football games.

For starters, he once was effectively an SID for the athletics department during his early days of service on campus. Before Jim Doan became the first full-time "sports publicist" for the Aggies, the position reported to ASUCD, not the athletics director. Hardie, among many other duties in his role as business manager, wrote press releases and compiled records for UC Davis athletics.

On a more personal note, John's son Doug is one of my best friends in the world. We both graduated from Davis High 21 years ago and have remained close ever since. In the week following John's passing, Doug enlisted my photographic skills to capture an image of the Weier Redwood Grove in the UC Davis Arboretum, one of his father's treasured locations on campus. The photo would adorn the cover of the program at John's service.

I took several shots, all using a technique called "long exposure," in which the camera shutter is held open for unusually long durations. If the shutter speed is too fast, the image will be too dark and you lose detail. If it's too slow, brighter details like the sky or the sunlit foliage get washed out. Thus, getting the final image comes down to finding just the correct number of seconds to hold the shutter doors open.

Ah yes, 'twas as if John himself insisted that my timekeeping was as precise as his.

- Mark Honbo, Assistant Athletics Communications Director

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