Saturday, October 8, 2016

College | Courtney Schwan leads Washington over Oregon

Schwan's serving, attacking hand Ducks their first Pac-12 loss of 2016 

  • #8 Washington def. #20 Oregon 3-0 (25-20, 25-18, 25-23) 
Washington outside hitter Courtney Schwan
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann

EUGENE—Oregon was up 23-21 in the third set, on a 6-2 run. Washington's Crissy Jones, who'd had a sub-par night, rose to stuff Oregon's Lindsey Vander Weide to close the lead to one. 

And Courtney Schwan stepped to the line. 

Schwan, a junior outside hitter, was riding one of the best nights of her career, slamming 14 kills and 3 errors on 42 swings. But all season, her serving had struggled. It was something she had worked hard all week to correct.  

"Find a seam," she said, repeating a mantra. "Pick a girl you're going to go after and hit no spin after no spin. Good serve after good serve." 

UW's Kara Bajema (15) puts up a block during a 3-0 win at Oregon
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann

And so she served. The rally that followed was epic, with extraordinary defense on both sides. UW setter Bailey Tanner reached back to punch an apparently hopeless ball back into play. Freshman libero Shayne McPherson made an eye-popping athletic dig. Finally, junior outside hitter Tia Scambray connected on her 9th kill of the match, sending Schwan back to the line with the score tied at 23. And once again, she repeated her mantra. 

"Contact the ball a lot higher," she told herself, "and hit it on the heel of my hand." 

She served an ace. 

Oregon's Lindsey Vander Weide (8) is aced by UW's Courtney Schwan
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
On a team with no superstars, Schwan is too often overlooked. She attacks with discipline and precision, and against the Ducks, she was keenly aware of attacking the angles. 

"Oregon is a great defensive team with big blockers on the outside," said Washington coach Keegan Cook "I thought Courtney attacked the cross-court with a lot of power and a lot of confidence. Man, she took some tough swings in some tough situations." 

"I saw that the block was moving outside on me," said Schwan, "so I kept hitting sharp (across court.)" 

More than that, Schwan was connecting with the ball at its highest point, often hitting above the block and slamming the ball not far from the ten-foot line. "It's footwork and keeping the ball in front of me," she said, even though some of her most impressive kills came when she had not fully completed her transition. And more than in previous seasons, Tanner is willing to set her in the back row. 

"I do like hitting back row," Schwan said, with a smile. 

Another Schwan skill—passing—was a big reason UW won each of the first two sets rather easily. Much was due to the emergence of McPherson, who has improved enough that teams are forced to serve all three Huskies' passers: McPherson, Schwan and Scambray. "They tried to target Shayne early on," said Cook, "and she held up. The whole night. We want to have three good receivers, where opponents don't get to key in on any one person. And tonight we had that. That's a story in and of itself." 

By the third set, Oregon had improved its own passing enough to keep it close. But UW never stopped serving Vander Weide, acing her four times, including Schwan's floater to make it 24-23. The final point went to Jones, only her fifth kill of the night. Despite hitting just .083, Jones had a great night at the service line and made several stellar digs to keep long rallies alive. In fact, winning long rallies may have made the difference in the final set. 

"When one part of their game isn't working," said Cook, "great players find a way to contribute."  

For Oregon coach Jim Moore, another frustrating night against Washington
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann

  • The Huskies got a scare when freshman middle blocker Kara Bajema went down with an apparent ankle injury just before the post-second set break. After receiving treatment in the locker, she ran back out onto the court with her teammates at the start of the third. "They taped it up," said Schwan, "and Kara said, 'Let's go!' She's definitely a fighter." "We had about 15 seconds left (before the start of the third set) to write a number on the lineup," said Cook. "She said, 'Give me a shot.' She's got some grit." Bajema finished with 12 kills and just 3 errors on 20 swings (.450). 
  • In a season of anemic Pac-12 volleyball attendance, Oregon's Matt Court had a decent—and often loud—crowd of 3,136. There were, however, very few UW fans in the arena, despite the fact that the Huskies play Oregon in football the next day. Were UW football fans planning to drive down to Eugene Saturday morning? Or did the UW Athletic Department do a poor job letting its pigskin loyalists know that they could have supported Huskies volleyball while they were in Eugene? 

Monday, September 12, 2016

College | Huskies keep amazing nonconference streak alive with win in Hawai’i

UW has now won 77 nonconference matches in a row; Jones and Bajema honored as UW climbs in the polls

  • #6 Washington def. #14 Hawai’i 3-2 (25-23, 17-25, 28-26, 23-25, 15-13)
  • Sept 15 | 5PM | #5 Washington vs. Maryland @ USC
  • Sept 16 | 5PM | #5 Washington vs. Oklahoma @ USC

Washington's Tia Scambray jousts at the net during the Huskies' 3-2 win over Hawai'i in Honolulu
-photo by Hawai'i Athletic Department

There are plenty of reasons Washington has a hard time scheduling quality nonconference opponents. Last night offered another.

Despite playing on their home court in front of 6,856 fans, the Hawai’i Rainbow Wahine could not put away their Northwest nemesis, as Washington eked out the narrowest of victories, 3-2 (25-23, 17-25, 28-26, 23-25, 15-13). Watching the match on Hawai’i’s live stream, here’s what we saw:

  • The turning point came at the end of the third set, with the teams tied in sets at 1-1, and Hawai’i at the service line with a 24-20 lead. The Huskies won the point on a Crissy Jones kill, launching an 8-2 run that ended in a 28-26 UW set victory. The biggest star of the streak was outside hitter Tia Scambray, who landed three great serves—including deadly missiles down the line—to bring tie the score at 24. In all, Washington fought off 6 set points to win the third.

  • Jones was an enigma. The junior outside hitter recorded 22 kills with 4 errors on 60 swings (.300), earning tournament MVP and Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week honors. She plays all six rotations, and may be one of the Huskies’ best back row attackers in several seasons. And yet, an eye-opening number of Jones’ front row attempts were tips. On the one hand, Hawai’i was not great at covering short attacks (see Nikki Taylor, below). On the other hand, Jones seemed to pass up far too many attempts to pound the ball, something an elite opposite simply has to do, even when sets aren't perfect.

  • Scambray and fellow junior Courtney Schwan will likely continue to be the most under-publicized outside hitter tandem in the nation. They are both outstanding passers, a growing Washington outside hitter tradition. Scambray attacks with abandon, even after making a hitting error. Schwan seems to be overcoming last season’s tendency to tip when under pressure, and smartly uses the block. Against Hawai’i, Schwan had 19 kills and just 2 errors (.415) and Scambray added 16 kills with 8 errors (.186).

  • For the first time in many seasons, Washington is running a 5-1 (1 setter) offense, and junior setter Bailey Tanner has been outstanding. Against Hawai’i, she ran a quick tempo offense that, frankly, asked a little more of her pin hitters than they were able to deliver. That could turn out great, however, as Scambray, Schwan and Jones have a chance to get into better position in transition, knowing that smart, quick sets are on the way, often creating attacks against single blocks. Tanner, like Wisconsin All-American Lauren Carlini, is comfortable across the front line, setting strong blocks and attacking when needed.

  • Kudos to two freshmen: middle Kara Bajema and libero Shayne McPherson. Hawai’i servers drilled McPherson in the second set, eventually forcing coach Keegan Cook to employ a two-person serve receive (Scambray and Schwan) in certain rotations. But McPherson hung tough, and had just one awful pass the rest of the way. Bajema—the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week—was terrific throughout, aggressively slamming over-passes, confidently pressing her hands over the net when blocking and playing scramble defense like a back row player. Washington will benefit as Bajema gets more comfortable on quicks, especially as Cook burns multiple substitutions for his MB2 platoon, Destiny Julye (attacking) and Avie Niece (blocking.)

  • Hawai’i outside hitter Nikki Taylor had a career-high 29 kills, but her 70 attempts took a toll. By the fifth set, she appeared to be bothered by pain in both her elbow and knee. During the Huskies’ final push, Taylor was unable to pick up tips or chase shanked balls, and was often hidden on serve receive. In a razor-thin match, Washington’s comparatively balanced attack proved the difference.

The win in Honolulu extends some pretty amazing Washington streaks.
  • UW has now won 77 nonconference regular season matches in a row.
  • The Huskies’ last nonconference loss was 8 years ago, on September 13, 2008, in Honolulu, when Hawai’i prevailed 3-2 (20-25, 27-29, 26-24, 25-14, 16-14).
  • Washington also lost to Hawai’i in Honolulu on September 7, 2002, by a 3-1 score (26-30, 30-22, 30-27, 30-28), a match where the Wahine’s Kim Willoughby recorded 38 kills.
  • Between 2002 and 2008, UW had just one other nonconference loss, to Texas on August 26, 2006 in Madison, WI, by a score of 3-2 (30-24, 23-30, 30-27, 28-30, 15-13).
  • Overall, the Huskies are a jaw-dropping 148-3 in nonconference regular-season matches since the first weekend of 2001.

And so … if you were an opposing coach of a top-tier team, how eager might you be to schedule a match in the far reaches of the Northwest against a team that almost never loses? Even in a year with no true seniors, playing on the road in front of a huge audience, the Washington Huskies find a way to win nonconference matches.

Washington is now #5 in the AVCA Coaches Poll and #4 in the FloVolleyball Poll. In both polls, Nebraska, Texas and Minnesota are #1, #2 & #3. Kansas is #4 in AVCA and #7 in FloVolleyball.

With UCLA’s loss to San Diego and Wisconsin’s loss to North Carolina, Washington (8-0) is one of only five remaining undefeated teams in the AVCA Top 25. #1 Nebraska is 6-0, #4 Kansas is 9-0, #9 BYU is 9-0 and #17 Santa Clara is 9-0.

Washington State is 8-1 in nonconference play. It’s only loss was to Purdue, a 7-1 team that beat Stanford this weekend. The Cougars beat UC Irvine, a team that swept USC 3-0.

The Cougars are hitting .307, seventh best among all Division 1 schools (Washington is #24 at .281). WSU is holding opponents to .116, #5 in the nation (UW is #52 at .162). Washington State ranks #7 in blocks per set, with 3.23 (the Huskies are #45 with 2.55.)

Washington starts Pac-12 play in 9 days, when it hosts WSU. But before and immediately after, UW makes two trips to USC’s Galen Center.

This Thursday and Friday, the Huskies play Maryland and Oklahoma, the third year of a four-year deal where the Terrapins and Sooners meet the Huskies and Trojans on rotating home courts.

USC’s Mick Haley is not a fan of the series—Wisconsin backed out after the first year of the series when the Badgers lost to both Southern Cal and Washington in Seattle. Haley hints that SC and UW are working on a new deal with higher-ranked opponents starting in 2018.

The strangeness of this week’s contests are that both Haley and Keegan Cook will be able to scout each other’s team just days before UW again travels to Galen to meet USC on September 23. Although Washington and Southern Cal tied for the 2015 Pac-12 title (both were 18-2), the conference’s ridiculous unbalanced schedule means that this will be the only UW/USC meeting of the season. Likewise, Washington will only see UCLA once, at home the night before Thanksgiving.

Sorry, Pac-12, that’s just wrong.

Monday, August 22, 2016

College | Great opening weekend … in Oregon

As the college season’s nonconference matches begin, the action is in Eugene and Palo Alto

Biggest west coast draws of Week One:
  • Fri | Aug 26 | 4:00PM | Eugene | #1 Nebraska vs. #10 Florida
  • Sat | Aug 26 | 3:30PM | Eugene | #1 Nebraska vs. #2 Texas
  • Sun | Aug 27 | 1:00PM | Palo Alto | #3 Minnesota @ #11 Stanford

This weekend, fans in Oregon's Matt Court will see the most-anticipated inter-conference matchups this side of the NCAA Tournament.
-photo by Leslie Hamann
If you’re a fan of women’s college volleyball, you’ve got to get yourself to Eugene this weekend.

In most years, the Pacific Northwest—if not the entire West Coast—is a nonconference wasteland. The Pac-12’s elite—Washington, Stanford, UCLA and USC—rarely wrangle top teams from the power conferences into their home gyms during August and September. Two seasons ago, Wisconsin came to Seattle and got waxed, prompting Badgers’ coach Kelly Sheffield to back out of a four-year deal with the Huskies and USC.

Nebraska, Texas, Florida ...
and Oregon's irrepressible Jim Moore
-photo by Leslie Hamann
But this weekend is different. #1 Nebraska and #2 Texas—the two teams that squared off in last December’s title match (the Huskers won) face off Saturday afternoon in Eugene, followed by #10 Florida vs. Oregon. The night before, Nebraska faces Florida and Texas takes on the Ducks. That’s some good volleyball, folks.

Down in Palo Alto, #11 Stanford, #3 Minnesota and San Diego play a round-robin. Minnesota, Nebraska and Texas were all in last season’s Final Four (Kansas was the other), and all three are among the favorites to return, along with Stanford, Washington, #4 Wisconsin, Florida and #12 UCLA.

The Huskies head to the Beltway this weekend for a Saturday match at James Madison and a Sunday game against American University. As usual, Washington’s nonconference schedule is light on teams with imposing RPIs … their own real marquee date is September 11 at Hawai’i.

Sadly, volleyball gets buried in the saturation of college football coverage, and it’s tough to draw crowds before classes begin in late September. Some schools in the Midwest pay opponents to come to their gyms for nonconference volleyball matches. Many power schools are loathe to schedule tough competition for fear of upsetting the RPI ratings used to seed the NCAA Tournament. And more than a few schools are likely scared away by Washington’s nonconference record: since the first weekend in 2001, the Huskies have only lost four nonconference matches: twice to Texas and twice to Hawai’i. They are 141-4 since, likely to be riding a 78-match nonconference win streak when they arrive in Honolulu.

If you can’t get to those Midwestern sites each December for the Final Four (Columbus in 2016, Kansas City in 2017), you could do worse than making a trip to Eugene this weekend.

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