Friday, November 20, 2015

College | It was an ugly volleyball match, but Washington will take it

Huskies find a way to win; DeHoog surgery ends her season
  • #2 Washington def. Oregon 3-1 (19-25, 25-21, 29-27, 25-21)

Washington was tested, but found a way to hold off Oregon
-Volleyblog Seattle file photo by Leslie Hamann

It was a pretty poor call. Actually, a poor non-call.

In the second set, unranked Oregon led #2 ranked Washington 13-9, after winning the first set 25-19. During an extended rally, Oregon libero Amanda Benson shot an ugly set the width of the court. The Ducks got a kill, and Benson flashed an I-just-got-away-with-something expression. The Huskies now trailed by 5 and were hopping mad. Washington head coach Keegan Cook called a timeout.

“I told them we needed to be great on OUR side of the net,” said Cook. “It’s up to us to communicate with each other, and understand that we don’t expect to get any help from the refs or from Oregon.”

Sometimes pep talks work. The Huskies came out of the timeout and got a quick kill from Courtney Schwan. Schwan then stepped to the line and served 4 more points, including three block assists from Lianna Sybeldon. Time and again, Oregon’s serve receive struggles gave their setters few options, allowing Washington’s blockers to load on Duck pin hitters.

“Oregon was using a two-person serve receive,” said Cook. “We told our servers to find the seam.”

After a hitting error ending the streak, Crissy Jones connected off the block, sending Cassie Strickland to the line for another long service run. In the end, it was a 9-1 string, enough cushion for a set two Washington win.

In the third set, Washington trailed 20-16 when Schwan again got the kill, this time a nifty push off the block. A majority of Schwan’s 12 kills this night were off-speed. Rarely blocked but often dug, she finished with 44 attempts and 4 errors for a .182 average.

“Benson had a big night, 32 digs,” said Cook of Oregon’s libero. “And a couple of times, Courtney missed while trying to hit high hands. The tips and roll shots gave her confidence, which sometimes is what you have to do.”

Washington’s other outside, Tia Scambray, also struggled early (12 kills, 7 errors on 33 attempts, .152), but was studly down the stretch. As Washington’s passing improved, its pin hitters faced more and more solo block attempts, and Scambray did a great job tooling outside hands.

Even so, Oregon was in position to win the crucial third set, but threw it away with three consecutive service errors, allowing Washington to escape with a 29-27 win.

The Ducks—needing at least one more win in its final three matches to be tournament-eligible—kept it close in the fourth. With the score tied at 15, freshman Destiny Julye did something she’d been doing all night—coming in as a quick sub and getting a much-needed kill.

“Destiny can take a hard swing when we need it,” said Cook. On this night, he offered, she was the Huskies’ “super-sub.”

Cook could use Julye because Bailey Tanner had recovered from an illness, and was able to set in the back row and hit opposite in the right. That lineup saves substitutions, allowing Cook to insert Julye and defensive specialist Kim Condie in key situations. Both delivered, including a big serve ace by Condie.

In the end, the Huskies didn’t fold because they are arguably the most balanced team in the nation. They have two legitimate All-Americans in Sybeldon and libero Strickland, but don’t need either to dominate in order to win. Even so, it was Sybeldon and Strickland who provided the leadership and grit at the end of each of the final three sets, all wins. Sybeldon finished with an eye-popping 11 block assists and 1 solo block (plus 9 kills), while Strickland contributed 22 digs and countless moments of encouragement and inspiration.

“Great teams have to find a win ugly matches,” said Cook.

  • Cook confirmed that sophomore opposite Carly DeHoog had surgery today and is done for the season. It was earlier reported that DeHoog had injured an ankle during a practice session.
  • The Huskies won despite being outhit .236-.211, a rare occurrence for Washington. All other stats were close except one: UW outblocked the Ducks 15-8.
  • #1 USC maintained its one match lead over #2 Washington with a 3-1 over Arizona in Tucson. Samantha Bricio tallied 23 kills for the Trojans.
  • If you missed the match, you were not alone. Several Pac-12 volleyball matches this week and next have 4PM start times, including this one. The reason: men’s preseason basketball on the Pac-12 Network. For the past several seasons, the network has decided not to air several epic volleyball matches once the seemingly endless basketball season tiptoes in with nonconference play. In most cases, the basketball opponents are small conference cupcakes—volleyball had to vacate Matthew Knight Arena so the Duck men could host (*cough*) Savannah State (2014-15 RPI: 330). The 4PM volleyball start times are an improvement over no coverage at all, but barely. Frankly, sticking volleyball at the kids’ table during its all-important final two weeks of conference play is an insult to women athletes, especially given that volleyball is the one major collegiate team sport in which women are the main attraction (more than 1,000 schools offer women’s volleyball while just a handful offer men’s). Next week, UW has to play at Utah at 4PM, while USC’s seniors get their big sendoff in a 4PM Friday match against Cal. Insulting.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

College | Washington volleyball’s prospects as the NCAA Tournament looms

UW’s balance and passing will be key
  • #2 Washington def. Oregon State 3-0 (25-19, 25-10, 25-21)
  • Fri, Nov 20 | 4:00PM | #2 Washington @ Oregon

Washington has the tools to make a deep NCAA Tournament run
-Volleyblog Seattle file photo by Leslie Hamann
It’s that time of year. The same question every day.

How do we think Washington will do in the NCAA Tournament?

The short answer: just fine.

The Huskies (25-2, 15-2) are currently ranked #2 in the nation by the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA), a poll of 64 Division 1 head coaches. The #1 team is USC (27-1, 15-1); its only loss was to Washington on October 30. UW’s only two losses were on the road at USC and Stanford (18-6, 12-4), teams the Huskies defeated on return matches at home in Seattle.

After last night’s 3-0 win over Oregon State in Corvallis, Washington has just three remaining Pac-12 matches: at Oregon (14-12, 8-9) this Friday, at Utah (9-18, 3-13) next Wednesday, and at home next Saturday against Washington State (15-14, 4-13.) The Ducks are on the tournament bubble, since teams with a losing overall record are not eligible. Likewise, the Cougars could come into Alaska Airlines Arena needing a victory to be tournament-qualified. Last season, a record 10 Pac-12 schools made the cut.

If UW wins its final three matches, it can share the Pac-12 title only if USC loses at least one more match. The Trojans are at #23 Arizona (17-11, 7-9) tomorrow, at #24 Arizona State (19-8, 8-8) Sunday, and finish at home against #11 UCLA (21-5, 12-4) Wednesday and California (9-18, 3-13) next Friday. Thanks to the Pac-12’s much-lamented unbalanced schedule, USC only played #7 Stanford once this season, a 3-2 win in Palo Alto.

When choosing the 64 teams for the NCAA Tournament, the committee relies heavily—though not exclusively—on RPI rankings. As of Monday, Washington was ranked #6, calculated 50% by its W-L record, 25% by its opponents’ W-L record, and 25% by its opponents’ opponents’ W-L records. As usual, the Huskies are downgraded by the relatively weak records of its nonconference opponents, despite the boost it gets from winning almost all of its tough Pac-12 matches.

The tournament selection committee would be wise to downplay Florida’s #4 RPI: the Gators (20-5, 12-4) are currently the fourth-place team in the SEC. Likewise, Kansas (23-2, 12-2) is overrated with a #5 RPI, thanks to the perennial weak competition in the Big 12. Currently, Minnesota (24-3, 16-1) has the #1 RPI, Texas (23-2, 13-1) is #2, and Southern Cal is #3. Texas, by the way, was swept October 28 at TCU (18-8, 8-6), and—like Kansas—plays in the underachieving Big 12.

Washington will unquestionably be one of the top 16 seeds when tournament brackets are revealed one week from Sunday. That means they will host the first two rounds, likely drawing teams from throughout the nation. The danger is that the committee will ship #8 Hawai’i (23-1, 13-0) to Seattle for the fourth time in the past six postseasons. The Rainbow Wahine, playing in the Big West Conference, have an RPI of only 27.

The real fun comes when the committee seeds the top 8 teams for the four Regionals. The top team in the Pac-12 will go to San Diego. Texas will certainly be assigned to Austin. Minnesota is a near-lock for Des Moines. Which means either Washington or USC will probably head for Lexington.

It’s the next four seeds that make it interesting. Would the committee send either Penn State (24-4, 13-4) or Nebraska (23-4, 14-3) to the same regional as Washington? Penn State just lost back-to-back matches to Minnesota and Michigan (18-10, 8-9). The November 28 Penn State @ Nebraska match could hold a clue.

As of today, USC, Washington, Minnesota and Texas would be reasonable choices to reach the Final Four in Omaha, with Nebraska, Penn State and Stanford with reasonable shots to emerge. Last season, BYU went all the way to the Finals, and could again be a factor.

And could UW go all the way? No team has two better middle blockers. Few, if any, teams serve, pass and play defense like the Huskies. As always, passing is absolutely key, and can make up for the fact that UW has more solid depth than absolute greatness at the pins. That, however, can get you to the Final Four.

  • In Washington’s 3-0 win last night against Oregon State, setter/opposite Bailey Tanner saw limited action. Reportedly “under the weather,” her time on the bench gave freshman Destiny Julye a chance to shine at opposite (8 kills, 0 errors, 12 attempts; .667) and sophomore Jade Finau plenty of quality minutes at setter (13 assists, 2 aces, 4 digs.) But balance was key, as the Huskies got terrific offense from sophomore opposite Crissy Jones (9 kills, 1 error, 19 swings; .421) and sophomore outside Tia Scambray (10 kills, 1 error, 19 swings; .474). Sophomore outside Courtney Schwan (9 kills, 3 errors, 26 attempts, .231) also looked solid.
  • Michigan’s 3-1 victory last night over #4 Penn State was the Wolverines’ first-ever win on the Nittany Lions’ home court. It came on the heels of Michigan’s upset over #4 Ohio State in Columbus, a win that ended a miserable 1-6 Michigan skid.

Friday, November 13, 2015

College | Washington volleyball avenges defeat by beating Stanford at home

Huskies’ balanced attack frustrates short-handed Cardinal
  • #3 Washington def. #6 Stanford 3-1 (23-25, 25-18, 25-18, 25-15)

Washington outside hitter Tia Scambray had 11 kills in a 3-1 victory over Stanford
-Volleyblog Seattle file photo by Leslie Hamann

Stanford never caught a break.

With a workmanlike 3-1 victory last night at Alaska Airlines Arena, #3 Washington never offered #6 Stanford a chance to catch its breath. No matter what the rotation, the Huskies just kept pounding.

Actually, Stanford’s only real break was a bad one: likely National Freshman of the Year Haley Hodson was a last-minute scratch, removing a chunk of offense from a team already crippled by the loss of All-American Inky Ajanaku to a summertime injury. Stanford later reported that Hodson was injured in practice earlier in the week and is day-to-day.

Little-used sophomore Sidney Brown made up for 9 of the usual 15 kills Hodson averages in a four-set match. Oft-injured Jordan Burgess kicked in with 14 kills—6 above her average--all but closing the hole left by Hodson’s absence.

But if Stanford had hits, it had many more misses. And the Huskies were the reason.

Stanford’s serves were mediocre, allowing Washington to stay in system and make plenty of hay through the middle. Lianna Sybeldon—the nation’s leading hitter measured by percentage—hit .517 on 17 kills, 2 errors and 29 attempts. Melanie Wade played error-free until the very end, adding 11 kills and 2 errors on 15 swings (.600). When Washington passes well, there is no more fearsome middle duo in the nation.

On the pins, sophomore Courtney Schwan gave the Cardinal fits. Capable of hitting strong, especially cross-court, Schwan disguises her much-softer roll shots to the point of making opposing defenses look foolish. Time and again, Cardinal defenders were back on their heels, only to have a Schwan soft attack fall at their feet. Few of Schwan’s 8 kills had much mustard.

Tia Scambray started slowly, but continued to demonstrate how sheer guts (and good hops) can overcome a shorter stature. Unlike Schwan, Scambray seems loathe tips and easy free balls. Many of her 11 kills practically splintered the hardwood, and a powerful fourth set back row attack on a broken play all but sealed the match.

Even without Hodson and Ajanaku, Stanford has plenty of weapons. But over the final three sets, its hitters could never find a Washington weakness. Blocking was superb, leading to a 13-5 team block advantage. And, as usual, libero Cassie Strickland and the rest of the Huskies’ defense frustrated Stanford by keeping long rallies alive. Strickland had 20 digs, while four of her teammates were also in double figures.

It all adds up to a dilemma for Washington opponents. Sybeldon is a likely repeat All-American (First Team this year,) who might be neutralized with sufficiently tough serving. But Washington’s offense doesn’t play favorites: if one lane is blocked, setters Bailey Tanner and Katy Beals find another. If you shut down USC’s Samantha’s Bricio, the Trojans are vulnerable. If Stanford’s Hodson is scratched from the lineup, the Cardinal can be beat.

But the Huskies have no equivalent weakness. After avenging their only two losses of the season, Washington again demonstrated depth. And depth could take them deep into the tournament.

  • The Alaska Airlines Arena crowd of 3,697 was a disappointment. Last season, these same two teams drew in excess of 8,000, also on a weeknight. The 8PM start time on a school night—to accommodate a national ESPN broadcast--undoubtedly deserves some of the blame.
  • Stanford coach John Dunning expressed frustration to referees Louis Ventura and Robyn Filimaua about a few of Sybeldon’s attacks. The senior middle sometimes redirects with a sweeping motion, that can look like an extended push. All across volleyball, officials seem to allow slightly longer contact than the rules used to proscribe.
  • Yesterday was the start of the early National Letter of Intent signing period for high school seniors. Washington head coach Keegan Cook confirmed three incoming athletes, all from the state of Washington. 5-7 outside hitter Shayne McPherson comes from Kennedy Catholic. 6-1 outside hitter Kara Bajema attends Lynden Christian. 6-1 middle Avie Niece will graduate from Bellevue’s Newport High. A fourth 2016 recruit, a defensive specialist from San Diego, is expected to sign during the spring signing period.

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