Great expectations have proved something of a burden for the Loyola Marymount University women's volleyball team, but the Lions have a chance to make some noise this weekend in the 20th National Invitational Volleyball Tournament at UCLA.
Loyola plays its opener at 8 p.m. Friday against sixth-ranked UCLA, a team that may have revenge in mind. The last time these teams met, less than a year ago, Loyola scored the biggest victory in school history, knocking the Bruins out of the NCAA playoffs.
Loyola has the chance to make some more history in what is annually the nation's most prestigious invitational, but the Lions will have to play better than they have so far. The Lions, coming off Tuesday's match at Pepperdine, are 7-8 despite having most of the players back from last year and have lost to lightly regarded opponents such as the University of Portland last weekend.
UCLA is 11-3. The tournament field also includes top-ranked Pacific, the two-time defending NCAA champion; third-ranked Brigham Young, last year's winner of the invitational; 13th-ranked UC Santa Barbara and 18th-ranked USC.
Other opening-round games Friday in Pauley Pavilion are USC vs. UC Santa Barbara and BYU vs. Fresno State, both at 6 p.m., and Pacific vs. Texas-Arlington at 8 p.m.
Pacific has a 34-game winning streak and NCAA Tournament most valuable player Elain Oden, and BYU offers Mariliisa Salmi, the 1986 NCAA player of the year.
Most eyes in Pauley figure to be on the Bruins-Lions match because of last year's upset. But interest will start straying to other courts if the Lions can't make it competitive.
"Our problems have basically been people adjusting to different roles," Loyola Coach George Yamashita said. "We're having difficulty. UCLA has beaten some good teams. UCLA is physically really strong (but) if we can do what we're capable of doing it should be competitive. I just hope we can make a representative showing."
Loyola's most consistent player has been outside hitter Leslie Wohlford, who leads the team in kills with 132. Middle hitters Tiffany Miller and Lori Rodman are making the adjustment from being outside hitters last year, while Cathy Petrissans, who led the West Coast Athletic Conference in hitting percentage as a junior, is making the adjustment to the back row. Yamashita said she showed marked improvement there last week. Junior setter Seham Khalaf, filling the shoes of WCAC player of the year Andrea Fort, ranks among the leaders in the WCAC in assists at nine per game.
Loyola opened conference play over the weekend by winning at Gonzaga, then was upset at Portland. Pepperdine is clearly the class of the conference.
"We should finish second but we can't afford to lose any more games," Yamashita said. "We can't just walk into gyms and expect to win."
Especially not Pauley.