Colleges collide for AU Classic

Sideline Scholars

It's rare that big-money schools send their elite teams to AU's tiny corner in Northwest, D.C.

A variety of St. Francises (Pennsylvania and New York) will drop by but nary a St. John's. Heck, Maryland won't even make the jaunt into the city, although maybe that's for the best, lest Terps fans storm Bender Arena while Eagles fans stay in bed to watch "Crossfire" reruns.

But for one weekend a year, those norms of college sports reverse.

That weekend is now as AU hosts Michigan St., Loyola (Md.) and San Diego in the AU Volleyball Classic. The No. 15 Spartans (6-2) have been a national force out of the Big Ten over the last decade, winning two conference titles and reaching the NCAA semifinal in 1995. The No. 21 Toreros (7-2) come from the volleyball-crazed West Coast and have made the NCAA tournament six of the last seven seasons.

While this year's field is stronger than the typical visitors to AU, it pales in comparison to last year's event when Penn St. and Florida came to town. Those schools have volleyball programs whose traditions rival those of their football programs.

AU Volleyball should be especially relieved that big-time opponents are coming to D.C. after starting the season with three weeks of grueling tournaments facing them on the road. The Eagles' first outing was in Florida, where they were stomped 3-0 by the No. 3 Gators.

One week later they traveled to Akron, Ohio for a date with No. 9 Penn State and saw a similar result. And last weekend, they were on the West Coast, home to the nation's most dominant programs, only to drop matches to No. 11 University of California-Santa Barbara and No. 14 Arizona.

Bender will surely be a friendly sight for the squad after a globetrotting start that has left them 2-7.

Now is the ultimate chance for the Eagles to turn it around. So far they have spent the season collecting "visions," as coach Barry Goldberg put it, for what they want the program to be. After observing the ways of the nation's great teams, they have a chance this weekend to show what they have learned. And with the tournament taking place in the comfort of their own home, this could be their best opportunity yet.

Not only is this weekend important because nationally recognized teams are in town. It's also the last chance for the Eagles' own element of national recognition to make noise in the AU Classic.

That element is Karla Kucerkova, last year's Verizon Academic Volleyball Player of the Year.

Goldberg said it would be good to win with Kucerkova, but that there's no urgency for the program to do so. But Kucerkova has been the undisputed best player in the Patriot League for the last two years. She won't be on the squad forever, so this year and this weekend are huge for the program.

The Eagles can always have a rigorous non-conference schedule, but eventual they are going to need to pull out a win. This is the best time for it.

If that happens this weekend, the nation's best won't skirt trips to AU because of their lofty stature. They'll do it out of fear of getting beaten.

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