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USC Women Set to Test No. 1 Stanford : Volleyball: The Cardinal will have home-court advantage in NCAA regional semifinals. UCLA to play New Mexico.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Those young and inexperienced Trojan women volleyball players--they’ve gone and thrown a scare into big, bad Stanford.

And the Cardinal has reason to be concerned going into tonight’s NCAA West Regional semifinal match. Imagine if this USC team, with six new players (five of them freshmen), should walk into Maples Pavilion and topple top-ranked Stanford on its own court.

Stanford would never hear the end of it. And it would put an end to the Cardinal’s hopes of advancing to next week’s Final Four at Pauley Pavilion and taking the title away from longtime rival UCLA. The pressure is all on Stanford.

“We’re going to be taking them a little more seriously than we did the last two times we played them,” Stanford Coach Don Shaw said. “They’ve got nothing to lose. They’ve gone about as far as anyone expects them to go, and from here on it’s all gravy.”

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That seems to be the feeling among the Trojans as well.

“We can just go in there and have fun,” said middle blocker Stefanie Bodison, the only starting senior on the team.

After all, the Trojans have already done better than even they expected, especially considering that they were supposed to be rebuilding. “No doubt about that,” USC Coach Lisa Love said.

No. 14 USC (23-7) has yet to defeat any top-five opponents, but it has played some of them closely, and has beaten several teams in the top 15, most recently disposing of No. 9 Brigham Young in a first-round match at BYU, which was the Trojans’ first NCAA tournament victory since 1985.

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Before that, the Trojans extended No. 4 Pacific to four games, then defeated No. 11 Texas to end the regular season. One reason for the late-season success is that Bodison and 6-foot-5 Cica Baccelli, a transfer from Sao Paulo, Brazil, are finally getting help on the outside from hitters Marcela Morales and Katie Haller.

“The good news for us is, from month to month, we’ve matured and gotten better and better and better,” Love said. “We’re playing, in the last two weeks now, a lot better than we were in the two weeks prior to that. You just can’t ask for much more than that right now.”

The Cardinal (29-1), which relies on excellent ball control and the hitting of Southern California standouts Bev Oden (Irvine High School) and Kristen Klein (Marymount), defeated the Trojans in three games at Stanford, and in four games at USC. In the latter match, USC opened a big lead and threatened to take a 2-1 edge, but Stanford came back to win the game, 17-16, and then the match.

“That inexperience has cost them,” Shaw said. “But now it’s the end of the season, and I don’t buy the inexperience quite as much as I might have earlier in the year.”

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UCLA, which plays No. 8-ranked New Mexico in tonight’s other semifinal match, is trying against long odds to retain the NCAA title it seemed to win so easily last season.

One factor going for the Bruins, who have slipped to an un-Bruin-like No. 6 ranking and a 27-5 record, is that if they beat New Mexico and the winner of tonight’s Stanford-USC match, they will be playing at home in the Final Four Dec. 19 and 21.

“We certainly have the incentive to want to come back and play here at Pauley,” UCLA Coach Andy Banachowski said.

But first, the Bruins will have to get out of Palo Alto, where a strong Stanford team is playing after losing in regional play to UCLA at Westwood in each of the last three seasons. “Hopefully, that’s going to help us out,” Stanford’s Shaw said. “It’s nice to get what you deserve.”

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Still, the Bruins are controlling the ball much better than they did during the first two-thirds of the season, in which they lost to Stanford twice, in four and three games. UCLA has scored three-game victories over its last six opponents.

“We’re ready to play,” hitter Natalie Williams said. “We’re kind of sick of practicing; we’re as good as we’re going to be right now.”

In New Mexico (23-5), the Bruins will be up against an unusual offense, which uses two setters and four left-handed hitters.

“We just have to be aware of it--the fact that there are always going to be three hitters coming at us instead of two,” Banachowski said. “And to keep in mind that there are the left-handers over there and to make sure that we focus in on the (proper) hitting arm. It’s a minor adjustment.”

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While USC and UCLA are fighting to stay alive in the West Regional, Cal State Long Beach will be in Stockton, where three of the top five teams in the country will square off Friday night in the Northwest Regionals for the right to advance to the Final Four.

Long Beach, which plays No. 10-ranked UC Santa Barbara in one semifinal, is ranked No. 2 in the country behind Stanford. Hawaii is No. 3 and host Pacific No. 4.

As the the No. 1-seeded team in the region, the 49ers are not happy that their reward is a trip to Pacific instead of a walk to their own University Gym. “How they (the NCAA) can justify that is . . . interesting,” Coach Brian Gimmillaro said.

Fair or not, Long Beach still has to be considered the team to beat. All the 49ers have done is lead the nation in hitting, while compiling a 33-1 record. Hitters Antoinnette White and Danielle Scott have been overpowering at the net, and setter Sabrina Hernandez has run the offense effectively all season.

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Long Beach lost to Pacific in five games at Stockton on Oct. 5, and since then has won 18 consecutive matches--including the rematch against the Tigers.

“I don’t think we’re faced with problems of having any areas that we’re worried about,” Gimmillaro said.

The 49ers defeated the Gauchos (22-9) in both meetings this season, in four games at Santa Barbara and in three at Long Beach.

Should they make it three in a row, the 49ers will meet the winner of Friday’s Hawaii-Pacific match on Saturday.

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