Kristen Leigh Porter, Special to

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- In years past, California women’s volleyball coach Rich Feller has made the statement that winning the Pac-10 Conference title is tougher than winning the national championship. This season, his Golden Bears get the chance to find out if that's true.

Seventh-seeded Cal (29-3) faces Pac-10 rival and sixth-seeded USC (29-4) in Thursday’s second semifinal at approximately 9 p.m. ET at the NCAA Division I Women's Volleyball Championship in Kansas City, Mo., at the Sprint Center.

Fourth-seeded Penn State (30-5) plays ninth-seeded Texas (27-5) at 7 p.m. ET in the early semifinal, with the winners advancing to Saturday’s title match.

Cal is the lone program in the field without a national championship to its credit. Pac-10 teams have captured five of the last nine NCAA titles.

With a 15-3 conference mark this season, Cal claimed its first Pac-10 championship and received the league's automatic bid on a head-to-head tiebreaker over co-champion Stanford. Now it faces a USC team which earned victories in both regular-season meetings this year.

It’s the first postseason meeting between the two programs. Both were national semifinalists in 2007.

“The teams in the Pac-10 – we play each other, we know each other better than anyone else can possible know,” Feller said. “It comes down to little things and execution on your side more than what the other team will do.”

Seven Pac-10 teams were ranked in the top 20 in the preseason AVCA Division I Coaches Top 25 Poll, and six qualified for the postseason and are ranked in the current poll.

Cal swept Washington in Seattle Regional championship to advance to Thursday’s match. USC beat third-seeded Stanford in five sets in the Dayton Regional final.

“I’m so respectful of coaches in our conference because they always come up with something new,” said Trojans coach Mick Haley, who ranks fifth in career victories (777) and seventh in career winning percentage among active coaches. “They really study the films, they study games and the players are really attentive.”

USC beat Cal 3-1 on Oct. 9 in Los Angeles and 3-1 on Nov. 5 in Berkeley to take a 46-10 advantage in the all-time series. The Trojans have won 15 of their last 16 matches.

“Any team that makes this far is obviously going to be really talented, and it’s going to be a challenge, so I think them beating us twice isn’t as big of a deal as it seems,” said Cal sophomore middle hitter Shannon Hawari, who ranks fourth in the nation in hitting percentage (.428). “I think it’s good that we know our opponent and they know us. I think that’s going to make it a better game.”

With 10 freshmen and sophomores on its roster, the youthful Trojans have shown poise beyond their years in posting an 8-1 record in five-set matches. Outside hitter Falyn Fonoimoana – the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year -- averages 3.38 kills per set and freshman middle hitter Alexis Olgard is hitting .369. Both are probable starters along with freshman libero Natalie Hagglund, who averages 3.99 digs per set.

“I think we’re so lucky to have such a motivated group of freshmen,” Trojans junior setter Kendall Bateman said of the six-member class regarded as the nation’s top recruiting class. “We don’t really look at them as freshmen now. They’ve grown up so much since the moment they got here and they prepared themselves before they got here during the summer.”

But junior starters such as second-team AVCA All-American Bateman (12.41 assists per set), outside hitter and first-teamer Alex Jupiter (4.44 kills per set) and third-team middle hitter Lauren Williams (.425 hitting percentage) have carried the team to another level, according to Haley. USC has won 15 of its last 16 contests.

Cal counters with the likes of Hawari and senior setter Carli Lloyd (11.82 assists per game) and junior outside hitter Tarah Murrey (5.16 kills per set), both AVCA first-teamers. The Golden Bears rank third nationally in hitting percentage (.313) and blocks per set (3.06).

The Golden Bears defeated 10th-seeded Minnesota and site host Washington in regional play. Cal has yet to drop a set in tournament play.

“We talked about winning each match in three, and that’s a goal we have with the team, is to play our side of the court, and if we can do that, no one else should come out on top,” Lloyd said.