PALO ALTO—It looked—for one team—like an early preseason match.
The Washington Huskies looked tentative. Much of what Stanford did on offense seemed to surprise them. They looked for all the world as if they were learning a new system.
Which, of course, they were.
For the second night in a row, the Huskies looked completely out-of-sync in a loss to a Bay Area opponent. Unlike the previous night in Berkeley, there were no rotation errors on serve receive. But there were plenty of out-of-position blockers, ill-timed sets and easy-to-dig attacks. They played like teammates who were just getting to know each other.
Let the second-guessing begin. Washington coach Jim McLaughlin’s decision to suddenly implement a two-setter offense in the middle of a successful season looks like the obvious explanation for ugly road losses to Cal and Stanford. Neither opponent served all that well. Both opponents handed Washington a steady stream of in-system opportunities. Neither opposing setter was all that imposing.
Yet, the Huskies failed to take advantage.
If the newly-inserted 6/2 system was to blame, McLaughlin wasn’t having any second thoughts.
“No, not at all,” he said as his team headed out of Maples Pavilion. “I really like it. I don’t think it’s a function of the system, I think it’s just, we gotta have better execution.”
|Washington's Kylin Munoz (24) and Krista Vansant (16) scramble to cover a Stanford block|
[Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann]
When two top teams meet in any sport, seemingly little things can make a big difference. And on this night, UW did almost all the little things wrong.
ATTACKING WITHOUT AUTHORITY
For the match, both teams had exactly 111 attempts each. Stanford committed 20 hitting errors; Washington just 17.
But while 46 of the Cardinal’s attacks went for kills, the Huskies landed just 29. That huge disparity was the symptom of all that went wrong.
In general, Washington passed well. But setters Evan Sanders and Jenni Nogueras were erratic, often putting up balls that were two meters or more off the net.
“They gotta put the ball up a little better,” said McLaughlin. “But they know that.”
With less-than-ideal sets, UW’s outside hitters—and especially Krista Vansant—often ran under the ball, depriving them of power or forcing them to make the ball sail. Too many of the attacks were easy to dig, allowing Stanford to win that category by a mile, 59 digs to just 40 for the Huskies.
LACK OF ON-COURT LEADERSHIP
Washington has three seniors: Bianca Rowland, Lauren Barfield and Evan Sanders. In the 6/2 offense, all three spend half their time rotated out. Of those who do stay on the court throughout—junior Jenna Orlandini and freshmen Vansant and Summer Ross—none stepped up to lift the team when it needed it.
Ross had an impressive weekend, combining her usual defensive focus with smart offense.
“She’s been pretty stable,” McLaughlin said after the match. “I was proud of her performance last night and tonight.”
Vansant had the worst two matches of her young career, unable to adjust to Cal and Stanford’s quick, athletic blockers.
“We just gotta work on it,” McLaughlin said of Vansant. “She’s just gotta hit high and deep. But we’ve gotta give her better swings.”
Neither freshman, as might be expected, is a vocal leader. There’s little doubt that will happen, but it isn’t their role this year.
Orlandini is having a solid season, but on the elite Pac-12 teams, setters or big-time hitters usually provide the emotional spark, with liberos supporting that effort. Jo (as her teammates call her) is a leader, but not THE leader this team needs when the chips are down.
THE HUSKIES WERE TOO PREDICTABLE
|Washington's Jenni Nogueras (9) sets against Stanford|
[Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann]
Throughout the weekend, a huge portion of the Huskies’ attacks came from the left side, often cross-court. When Vansant and Kylin Muñoz make a good approach and get a big jump, they can pound with anyone. But Muñoz rarely hits line, allowing the opposing libero to camp in the corner. And when Vansant is impatient, she is too easily blocked.
Both Cal and Stanford got decent production from the right side and from back row attacks. The Huskies are capable of both, but—perhaps because several players were in unfamiliar positions in the 6/2—they had limited success hitting from those two positions.
Finally, the UW setters may be too focused on finding a rhythm with their middle blockers. In McLaughlin’s system, middles are not expected to carry the offensive load, but when they do attack, their hitting percentages should be high. Against Stanford, Rowland hit just .182; Barfield merely .143.
If history is any indication, Jim McLaughlin probably didn’t get much sleep after the Stanford loss. And he’ll undoubtedly be in the office again Sunday, perhaps cooking up a new scheme for Oregon and Oregon State.
And around the league, opposing coaches are likely scratching their heads about McLaughlin’s Bay Area surprise. If nothing else, he’s given the rest of the league something else to worry about in the second half of the season. How will we prepare for Washington? And what happens if the team has enough training time to actually feel comfortable with the 6/2?
“You don’t play well every night,” said McLaughlin. “We gotta fix what we need to fix, and get better.”