Usual suspects to decide title

It’s the final weekend in the Conference USA volleyball season, and the usual suspects are grappling for the title.

USF (25-5, 11-0) holds a one-game lead on Cincinnati and Louisville, but must travel to both needing a pair of victories to lock up the Bulls’ third regular-season title.

It comes as no shock that those three teams are fighting for the No. 1 spot considering that the league’s coaches predicted in their preseason poll the trio would hold the top spots. For the Bulls though, the pressure is fulfilling those expectations.

“It’s pressure either way,” USF coach Nancy Mueller said. “We’re going to come in with an attitude to compete, but we can’t let all of that get in our heads.”

In the previous seven seasons of C-USA volleyball, USF, Louisville and Cincinnati have owned the conference. The three teams have combined to win five of the seven C-USA Tournament titles and have either shared or won outright every regular-season crown.

In the old divisional format, the triad’s supremacy was even more pronounced. When the league was formed in 1995, they played in three divisions: red, white and blue. USF won the red division in ’95 and ’96, as did Louisville in the white. Cincinnati was the top dog in the blue division in 1996. The following year, the league switched to two divisions, American and National, but the league standings kept the status quo. USF remained No. 1, winning the National division in ’97 and ’98, while Louisville held the top position in the American.

A year ago, Cincinnati was a game better than USF and Louisville, as the Bulls finished 13-3 in C-USA, losing to both the Bearcats and Cardinals.

“I think they’re fired up to play,” USF coach Nancy Mueller said. “These two teams are traditionally, along with us, the three top teams in the conference. I think a rivalry has formed, and that always adds to the fire.”

Not everyone thinks the Bulls bear the brunt of the pressure this weekend. Considering the Bulls have to go on the road to Cincinnati (19-6, 10-1) Friday and Louisville (21-4, 10-1) Saturday, there’s a burden on every team to contend for a conference crown.

“I think the pressure’s on everyone,” senior Michelle Collier said. “Whoever shows up to play will get it done. We’re on the very level where anyone can win. It’ll all be how the start of the match goes.”

Regardless of the Bulls’ performance against Cincinnati and Louisville, USF is assured a first-round bye in the C-USA Tournament, as are the Bearcats and Cardinals. The winner of the conference tournament in Chicago earns an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.

“It would be great to win (a C-USA title) in my last year,” Collier said. “But win or lose, we know we have the C-USA Tournament next week, and anybody can win that. You start over 0-0. So this weekend, we know that win or lose, we have to move on and be ready for the tournament.”