Saturday, October 3, 2015

College | Washington volleyball meets its Destiny in win at UCLA

Huskies freshman steps in when Courtney Schwan goes down 
  • #5 Washington def. #11 UCLA 3-0 (31-29, 25-16, 25-15) 
  • Sun, Oct 4 | 1:00PM | #5 Washington @ #2 USC 

Washington freshman Destiny Julye (R) and her teammates defeated UCLA 3-0 in Los Angeles
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann

LOS ANGELES--It was first set, and Washington led UCLA 21-22. Sophomore outside hitter Courtney Schwan—the Huskies best pin hitter this season—had already slipped in three roll shots for kills, and attempted another. This one was dug, and the Bruins won the point on a slide to tie the score at 22. 

But Schwan was unexpectedly finished for the night. At the end of the rally, she injured her left ankle, and had to be helped to the bench. Suddenly, the Huskies seemed in big trouble. 

In the huddle, libero Cassie Strickland turned to her teammates and said, "It doesn't matter who's on the court. We are Washington, and we fight hard right now." Her fellow senior, middle Lianna Sybledon said, "Let's do it for Courtney." 

On the bench, Washington's only freshman felt the heat of hundreds of eyes in Pauley Pavilion. Destiny Julye, a Southern California girl, was coach Keegan Cooke's only option to replace Schwan. 

Washington's Courtney Schwan (4) is comforted by teammate Crissy Jones as Schwan's ankle gets initial evaluation.
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann

Julye felt pressure even before the match began. Warming up, a contingent of almost 100 supporters cheered with every practice attack, and moaned with every miss. 62 of those fans were players and parents from Tehachapi High, 100 miles north and a two hour bus ride away. Their coach, Sheri Deeswanted her players to see what the next level looks like, especially the size and speed of the college game. 

"Destiny looks quicker and stronger," said Dees, who had not talked with her team about the very real possibility that Julye would not play. "I wanted them to support and cheer all of Destiny's teammates," she said. 

But there she was, the set on the line, expected to carry her share of the load. Her first few attacks were tentative, but at 23-23, she stuffed UCLA's Reily Buechler and sent the sizeable purple contingent into a brief frenzy.  

"I was nervous," she admitted later, "but my coaches and teammates told me to go in and do what we do in practice." 

The Bruins tied the score at 24, then both teams played the set of the season so far. Both served tough, both passed nails, both swung hard, both dug impossible balls. "We told our hitters, swing away," said Cook. "I told them they were in a position to write their own story. 

In all, each team overcame three set points, until—with UW leading 30-29—the final kill of the set went to Julye. 

Washington's Crissy Jones celebrates a point against UCLA
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann

Sets two and three were also won by Washington, but in far less dramatic fashion, although Julye also had the final kill in the second frame. This was Washington's first match of the season against a ranked team, and a chance to win in a venue where they have sometimes struggled. There was plenty to like, but a few real keys to the match: 

Washington's senior middle blocker is showing All-American form, and was the key to the Huskies' offense. Because her teammates passed and dug so well, setters Bailey Tanner and Katy Beals went to Sybeldon early and often, good for 13 total kills.  

The key point of the entire match may have been at 24-24 in the first set. Sybeldon clobbered a Tanner quick set, only to see the Bruins turn a spectacular dig. Moments later, Tanner set another quick, with the same result. In a decision as rare as any you'll see in college volleyball, Tanner went back to Sybeldon for a third quick, and this time it hit the Bruins' side of the court. 

"I was grateful that Bailey gave me three shots in a row," said Sybeldon. I wanted to put it away. 

From its formidable block (outblocking the Bruins 17-8 for the match) to its relentless scrambling (61 digs in just three sets), the Huskies frustrated UCLA's hitters at every turn. Tia Scambray was credited with 5 block assists, but 3 were actually solo stuffs of much taller Bruin Hayley Lawless Strickland had 19 digs, but Scambray was equally tough with 12, as was Tanner with 11 digs. The Huskies out-hit the Bruins .225 to .070. 

"Everyone's been working their butt off in practice to play defense and dig more balls, and all our hard work showed tonight," said Strickland, who credits the team's time on sand courts for its splashier defensive skills. 

Besides Julye, two other bench players—both senior defensive specialists—came up big in the crucial first set. Kim Condie and Justice Magraw each took turns making big serves and crucial defensive plays, including a Condie ace and a Magraw pancake dig. As UW ran out of subs during the extended first set, players played out of position without missing a beat. 

Washington setter Katy Beals (L) and Justice Magraw are all smiles after a narrow first set win.
-Volleyblog Seattle by Leslie Hamann

  • After the match, Cook said Schwan's injury will be evaluated before he can determine when she might next be available. Schwan was on crutches but in a good mood, considering. 
  • Washington fans filled several rows of Pauley Pavilion. Nine Huskies went to high school in California, and folks wearing purple often cheered longer and louder than the home blue and gold. 
  • Stanford fell to 1-2 in conference play for the first time in what seems like forever when the Cardinal lost 3-1 in Tempe to undefeated Arizona State. 
  • If Seattle fans ever needed a reason to tape a Seahawks' game for later viewing, it will be Sunday at 1PM when undefeated Washington takes on undefeated USC at Galen Center.  

Monday, September 28, 2015

College | Washington volleyball’s Courtney Schwan continues to impress

Huskies remain undefeated, but still searching for “go-to two”
  • #5 Washington def. Colorado 3-0 (25-20, 25-17, 25-22)
  • Fri | 8:00PM | #5 Washington @ #11 UCLA
  • Sun | 1:00PM | #5 Washington @ #2 USC

Washington's Crissy Jones goes up for a block during a 3-0 victory over Colorado
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
It takes at least two.

In modern college volleyball, teams that manage to reach the third round (Sweet 16) of the NCAA tournament almost always have at least two go-to pin hitters, on the outside and/or opposite.

For the past couple of seasons, Washington’s go-to-two were now-graduated All-Americans Krista Vansant and Kaleigh Nelson. One of the biggest questions for 2015 was whether anyone could fill their substantial shoes.

After two vastly different matches during the first week of conference play—a 3-2 barnburning win over Washington State in Pullman, and a powerful 3-0 sweep at home against Colorado—the Huskies can answer half their hitting question.

Sophomore Courtney Schwan has firmly established herself as a smart and intimidating outside hitter. Attacking with controlled fury, she rarely gets blocked and uses the entire court, making her one of the nation’s top-two outside hitters in the nation when measured by hitting percentage (Pittsburgh’s Amanda Orchard is the other.) In the Pac-12, USC’s Samantha Bricio is the league’s runaway top player so far, but Schwan is in the conversation for second-best outside hitter in the conference.

Washington's Cassie Strickland (L) and Courtney Schwan recover after a long rally against Colorado
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann

But who is the Huskies’ number two?

Sophomore outside hitter Tia Scambray is a solid player, but not yet a break-out threat. She’s a good server, a consistent passer and a strong attacker, but at barely six feet tall, she is short for the Pac-12, and commits plenty of hitting errors, many of them blocks. Against Colorado, Scambray had just 5 kills and 4 errors on 17 swings (.059), and is hitting just .245 for the season, mostly against lesser opposition.

That said, Scambray was the OH2 last season, when UW went 31-3. Washington’s second-best pin hitter last year, Kaleigh Nelson, played opposite. And many top teams find their second go-to on the right side.

Sophomore Crissy Jones has all the tools to be the next Nelson, but her play has been inconsistent. Against Colorado, Jones had 5 kills and 0 errors on 10 swings (.500), a marked improvement from her 8-6-24 (.083) line Thursday night in Pullman.

Sophomore Carly DeHoog was Jones’ mirror opposite over the weekend, with a great game against WSU (8-0-19-.421) and a so-so match against the Buffaloes (6-3-15-.200). Washington coach Keegan Cook gave sophomore setter Bailey Tanner a few right-side rotations on the front row, something he says he might continue to do if Jones and DeHoog need extra incentive to up their production.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that Schwan, Scambray, Jones, DeHoog and Tanner share one important characteristic—they’re all sophomores. As each of them continues to grow, Washington’s four starting seniors—setter Katy Beals, libero Cassie Strickland, middle Melanie Wade and middle Lianna Sybeldon—are each at the top of their games.

Beals appears to have fully recovered from the knee injury that forced her to miss last season’s tournament. Strickland, quite simply, remains the Pac-12’s best libero, and may be tops in the nation. Against Colorado, Strickland had so many spectacular digs in one stretch that the crowd of 2,938 stood and chanted her name. Her powerful jump serve—good for 3 aces and 2 serving errors last night—is rivaled only by USC’s Bricio for its ability to rattle passers.

No D1 volleyball team in the land has a pair of middles like Wade and Sybeldon. Both are among the nation’s elite in hitting percentage and in blocks per set. Each is in peak physical condition—Sybeldon improved her strength and absolutely crushes the quick set while Wade is noticeably faster and more confident.

Great middle blockers, however, are only as good as their passers. Unless outside hitters can consistently deliver great passes to setters, middles won’t be an option. As the Pac-12 schedule ramps up considerably this week with matches against UCLA and unbeaten USC, keep an eye on the passing, especially when Bricio is serving.

And if it takes two to reach the Sweet 16, what does it take to win it all? Usually three go-to pin hitters. That’s been Penn State’s not-so-secret key the past decade, and that’s what teams like Washington ultimately hope to achieve.

Members of Washington's 2005 National Champion Team cheer on
the current team against Colorado. Top: Courtney Thompson, Tama Miyashiro
Bottom: Jessica Veris, Carolyn Farny
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
  • In Palo Alto last night, USC and Stanford were tied at 12 in the fifth set. The Trojans had blown a 6-1 early final set advantage, but knew they had Bricio on their side. Several long rallies later, Bricio hammered home the final three USC points for a crucial 3-2 win (26-24, 19-25, 20-25, 25-17, 15-13). Bricio finished with 27 kills and 5 aces. It was the only meeting between the two teams this season, yet it drew just 3,492 fans to Maples Pavilion. By comparison, Washington packed 8,646 into Alaska Airlines Arena last season when #5 Washington beat previously-undefeated #1 Stanford 3-1.
  • Cassie Strickland wore strips of tape on her injured hamstring last night, but appeared to play with her regular abandon. The injury—sustained the previous week in Oklahoma—almost caused her to be scratched from Thursday’s lineup against Washington State.
  • At halftime of the Colorado match, the crowd acknowledged five members of the 2005 National Championship team: Carolyn Farny, Darla (Myhre) Van Winkle, Jessica Veris, Tama Miyashiro and Courtney Thompson. Among those who couldn’t attend because they are currently assistant coaches at other universities are Sanja Tomasevic (Miami), Stevie Mussie (Penn State) and Danka Danicic (UT-San Antonio). Add Brie (Haggerty) Brenner, head coach at Defiance (OH) College. [Thanks to alert reader David Maag].
  • Former Washington All-American Krista Vansant is on US National Team roster this week as the team attempts to qualify for an eventual 2016 Olympic berth. Yesterday, Vansant had two kills in limited action as USA rolled over Costa Rica 3-0. USA faces Canada later today and Cuba tomorrow afternoon. The top four teams at this   tournament in Mexico meet in January to try to grab the North American slot for the Rio Summer Olympic Games.
  • Five Pac-12 teams are among the top 11 in this week's AVCA Coaches' poll: #2 USC, #5 Washington, #6 Arizona State, #8 Stanford, and #11 UCLA. Arizona is #14 and Oregon fell to #22.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

College | Washington Volleyball looks strong, even if schedule is not

Huskies begin Pac-10 play knowing they can dominate lower-rated opponents
  • Tonight | 7PM | Washington @ Washington State
  • Sunday | 6PM | Colorado @ Washington
[Report corrected 5:03PM 9.24.15]

Washington opens the Pac-12 season  tonight in Pullman
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
On paper, the Washington Huskies look pretty powerful. Under first-year coach Keegan Cook, UW went 10-0 during nonconference play, dropping just one set (at Oklahoma) in four weeks of competition. Their .381 hitting percentage is the best—by far—in the nation (Penn State is second at .336.) They rank 7th in kills per set (14.65), 8th in assists per set (13.61), and 8th in blocks per set (3.00).

And, oh yeah, they've held their opponents to a .099 hitting percentage, third-best in the nation.

Unfortunately, none of those wins have come against a ranked team. The collective record of Washington's 9 opponents (they played Cal State Northridge twice) is 54-54. The Huskies are ranked #6 by AVCA coaches, but real tests are still to come.

Tonight, the Huskies are in Pullman to face WSU. The Cougars lost their nonconference opener to Radford, but have not dropped a set since. Like Washington, however, none of Wazzu’s opponents have cracked the rankings, and none of WSU’s matches were against teams from any of the five power conferences (Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12, ACC and SEC.) [9.24.15 | 5:03PM | CORRECTION: Texas Tech, whom Washington State defeated 3-0 (25-22, 25-14, 25-18) on September 18 in Lubbock, is a member of the Big 12.]

Washington State’s big weapon is Kyra Holt, who ranks 13th in the nation with 4.55 kills per set. Holt played poorly in WSU’s Seattle match last season, and did not play in the Pullman rematch. That latter contest will be on the mind of UW senior setter Katy Beals, whose season ended with an injury on ancient Bohler Gym’s floor.

On Sunday, the Huskies open their home conference season at 6PM, roughly 90 minutes after the conclusion of the Seahawks’ 2015 home regular-season debut. Under normal circumstances, the match would draw a decent crowd because the opponent is Colorado, the program that’s handed UW one-third of all its losses the past two seasons (2 of 6.) Both defeats were in Boulder, a plane ride the Huskies will not be taking this season, since this is the year they play Colorado and Utah only once each (no Utes in Alaska Airlines Arena in 2015.)

To Colorado coach Liz Kritza’s credit, she scheduled some tough nonconference opponents this year, getting a big 3-2 at home against #17 Florida State, and picking up 0-3 losses to #1 Penn State and #9 Illinois. Last night, however, CU laid a big egg in Salt Lake City, losing its Pac-12 opener to a middling Utah team, 3-1. It was an ugly match: Colorado’s .169 hitting average was actually better than Utah’s .146—both teams committed 27 errors, and the Buffs outblocked the Utes 15-11. Colorado, however, has two potent weapons in Gabby Simpson and Alexis Austin, even if Simpson has struggled of late (86 hitting errors on 368 swings, .171)

UW lost just two players from last season’s 31-3 team, though they were big ones: Krista Vansant and Kaleigh Nelson. The star of this year’s 10-0 has been 6-1 sophomore outside hitter Courtney Schwan. A local player from Auburn, WA (Bellarmine Prep), Schwan’s .433 hitting percentage is 16th in the nation—and the best of any outside hitter in the country. The top 15 are all middle blockers, including two Huskies: #2 Lianna Sybeldon (.508) and #10 Melanie Wade (.455).

Wade appears trimmer, quicker and more powerful this season, and Sybeldon plays with her typical abandon. Libero Cassie Strickland seems to fully embrace the leadership mantel, and setter Bailey Tanner plays with a noticeably greater confidence. Most strikingly, this UW team looks big and fit—hours spent in the weightroom with strength and conditioning coach Henry Ruggiero appear to have paid dividends.

  • #3 USC is the Pac-12 cream of the crop so far this season. Last night, Mick Haley’s team beat #13 UCLA 3-0 in Westwood, to go 13-0 on the season. The biggest of the Trojans’ nonconference wins was a 3-0 sweep of 2014 National runner-up #10 BYU. Haley has done it without former star Ebony Nwanebu, who transferred to #2 Texas in the offseason (only to injure her ankle after leading Texas to a big win over #4 Nebraska.) Trojan senior Samantha Bricio has been a beast, leading the nation in points per set (combined total of kills, blocks and aces.)
  • #8 Stanford will be a great test for USC when the two teams meet for the only time this season, Sunday in Palo Alto. The Cardinal had a lost weekend earlier this month—John Dunning’s first-ever back-to-back 0-3 losses in his 15 seasons at Stanford, to #1 Penn State and unranked North Carolina. Star middle Inky Ajanaku will miss the entire season after injuring her knee while competing with the US National Team this summer. All-American outside hitter Jordan Burgess has been hobbled with shoulder problems, often reduced to a back row role. Even so, the Cardinal opened conference play with a 3-1 win in Berkeley, led by freshman Hayley Hodson with 18 kills.
  • #13 UCLA attracted an impressive crowd of 4441 for last night’s USC match. But at Cal, the attendance was only 1,065 for rival Stanford, and Utah drew a mere 617 for its upset of Colorado. Most Pac-12 schools have yet to start classes, but even so, attendance continues to be a problem in the Pac-12 Network era. It’s not so much that folks are staying home to watch the matches on TV (the network’s ratings are still modest). Instead, fans remain unhappy about the wildly-fluctuating schedule (Sunday at 6PM, Wednesday at 7:30PM, Thursday at 8PM, etc.) that the broadcast schedule dictates. Even worse, the network increasingly covers Washington matches without sending announcers to Seattle—they sit in a studio in the Bay Area and talk as they watch the video feed. The Huskies lead the conference in attendance year in and year out, but the game suffers badly when the attendance in the stands keeps shrinking throughout the league.

Monday, August 31, 2015

College | Pac-12 volleyball nonconference season opens against opponents big and small

#7 Washington goes 3-0 but #8 USC makes biggest splash | Seattle U gets big win

Washington's Cassie Strickland and Tia Scambray
-2014 file photo courtesy Shutter Geeks Photography
In Pac-12 volleyball, nothing is more imbalanced than the first four weeks.

On the one hand, schools like #8 USC and #2 Stanford traditionally seek out several top national opponents to tune up for the tough conference schedule. This year, USC matches up with—among others—#18 North Carolina, #12 BYU, #10 Kentucky, Creighton and Pepperdine, all front-line opponents. Stanford’s schedule includes #1 Penn State, #18 North Carolina, #6 Illinois, Duke, Minnesota and Texas A&M, perhaps the toughest nonconference lineup in the country.

All across the Pac-12, teams try to schedule at least one marquee matchup. #16 Arizona has #3 Texas and #22 Ohio State; #15 Arizona State has #6 Illinois and #9 Colorado State; #21 Colorado faces #1 Penn State, #6 Illinois and #14 Florida State; #11 Oregon takes on Florida and Nebraska, both tied at #4. And so on.

On the other end of the spectrum, both #7 Washington and unranked Washington State have scheduled teams that finished the 2014 season with relatively modest RPIs. Neither has an attention-grabbing opponent during the first four weeks, and the Huskies could enter the Pac-12 part of the season without being seriously tested.

In the Pac-12, scheduling philosophies fall into three general categories:
  1. Get tough. Some coaches (USC’s Mick Haley, Stanford’s John Dunning) want their teams to face adversity early. Defeating opponents with high RPIs pays off at tournament time, when RPI helps determine which 16 teams get to host the first two rounds. Fans, of course, enjoy seeing top teams from other parts of the country.
  2. Start slowly. Some coaches figure that success during the Pac-12 part of the schedule is what matters most, and all but ignore RPI implications. These coaches treat early season matchups essentially as part of extended preseason training, even if fans have little to look forward to. This season, Washington’s home nonconference schedule includes Buffalo (2014 RPI: 173), Murray State (114), two matches against Cal State Northridge (46) and St. Mary’s (162). None of those teams is currently ranked; Murray State is 3-0, St. Mary’s is 2-1, Buffalo and Cal State Northridge are both 0-3.
  3. Play ‘em if only they’d come. Many Pac-12 teams travel across the country to face schools from other top conferences. But, with few exceptions, other power conference teams refuse to head out west, where they almost always lose.

Over the weekend, UW earned three sweeps in the annual Northwest Challenge, easily defeating Gonzaga, Portland State and Boise State. Three sophomore hitters—Courtney Schwan (4.0 kills per set, .444) Tia Scambray (3.3 kps, .300) and Crissy Jones (3.0 kps, .440) were the offensive stars across the three matches. Senior middle Melanie Wade had a hand in 16 blocks (1.78 blocks per set), while senior setter Katy Beals and sophomore setter Bailey Tanner each tallied 4 aces. Senior libero Cassie Strickland had a stellar weekend, averaging 4.38 digs per set. As a team, UW outhit its three opponents .363 to .132.

USC was the weekend’s biggest winner, defeating both North Carolina and 2014 National runner-up BYU at Galen Center. Trojan All-American Samantha Bricio led the way, averaging 5.80 kills per set, and was named the Pac-12 Player of the Week. It's all the more impressive considering USC snuck into the NCAAs last season with a 16-16 record, and saw All-American Ebony Nwanebu transfer to Texas in the offseason.

Stanford was without a star of its own: All-American Inky Ajanaku is out for the season with a knee injury. Even so, the Cardinal swept both Texas A&M and Minnesota, as senior Jordan Burgess averaged 4.0 kps. Haley Hodson was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Week after averaging 3.17 kps.

Colorado lost to #23 San Diego, then upset #14 Florida State. The Buffs also defeated Oklahoma, dropping the Sooners to 0-3. Washington will play Oklahoma in Norman in three weeks, and the Sooners were thought to be the toughest team on UW’s nonconference schedule.

In Berkeley, Seattle U (3-0) raised eyebrows with a 3-0 sweep of California (2-1). Jelena Vujcin had a big weekend for the Redhawks, averaging 3.33 kps. Including 9 against the Golden Bears.

Pac-12 schools suffered other early losses. Oregon State, coming off its best season in a decade, lost to both Wichita State and #17 Hawai’i. Utah lost to Lipscomb, a team with a 2014 RPI of 39, just behind the Utes’ 37. UCLA lost 3-0 to Loyola Marymount (44 RPI in 2014.) Washington State lost to Radford before sweeping both Elon and East Tennessee State.

  • In 2001, Jim McLaughlin started his Washington tenure by going 1-2 that first weekend, beating Purdue, but losing to BYU and Texas. This past weekend, McLaughlin started his Notre Dame career by going 1-2, beating Middle Tennessee State, but losing to Bowling Green and Cleveland State. Over three matches, the Fighting Irish have been out-hit .251-.196. The Notre Dame roster includes just one senior and two juniors.
  • The USA Women’s National Team is now 6-1 in World Cup play, and has taken the overall lead in the 12-team race for two 2016 Olympic berths. The most recent matches—against Peru, Algeria, Kenya and Argentina—have all been 3-0 blowouts. In three sets, Algeria managed just 14 total points (25-7, 25-2, 25-5). USA’s final four matches are against Cuba (2-5), Russia (6-1), Japan (6-1) and Dominican Republic (4-3)
  • Congratulations to Brooke Niles and Karolina Sowala, women’s winners of the National Volleyball League’s Seattle Championships over the weekend at rainy/windy Alki Beach. Dave Palm and Eric Zaun won the men’s title.

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