Saturday, November 12, 2011

How did Washington beat Stanford?

It was late in the fourth set. Washington trailed Stanford by three points; Stanford led the match 2 sets to 1, and seemed poised to deliver perhaps the most disappointing defeat of the Huskies’ season.
After all, Washington had cruised to an efficient win in the first set, only to watch a late lead evaporate in the second. Perhaps shaken by their sloppy collapse, the Huskies were erratic in the third set and much of the fourth. Trailing 14-17, they watched Stanford setter Karissa Cook send a slide to freshman Morgan Boukather. Boukather, who came in with only 66 kills all season, ran to the pin and crushed the ball for the kill. Again. By the time the night was over, she’d record ten kills and no errors on 22 swings. Boukather—and Stanford—now seemed unstoppable.
Washington Coach Jim McLaughlin called what could have been his final time out of the match.
“We were siding out at, like, 53%,” said McLaughlin after the match, “but we ended that set at 73% We just got good.”
Good, indeed. Washington went on a three-point run, with kills by Krista Vansant and Bianca Rowland, and a Rowland stuff block. As the Huskies inched ahead, 21-20, Vansant sandwiched two more kills around another Boukather slide. With the Huskies serving tough and pressing the pace, Stanford committed three hitting errors, allowing Washington to send what looked like a sure loss into a fifth set showdown.
Washington's Krista Vansant (16) celebrates a point against Stanford
[Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann]
“We had faith that we knew we could come back and win this match,” said Vansant. “That’s what we said in every huddle: You can win this, you just have to believe.”
“It was good to see,” said McLaughlin. “First time I’ve seen us do it.”
But after four sets, Stanford had the better numbers: more kills, fewer errors, more blocks. Cardinal Coach John Dunning, perhaps feeling a little confident, started the final set with his best hitter, Rachel Williams, in the back row.
The strategy backfired. McLaughlin, you see, decided to start his best hitter, Vansant, in the front row. The first three points of the set ended with Vansant kills.
“She challenged the block,” McLaughlin said. “She was just full-tilt—I mean, she was giving it everything she had. We started her left front in that set just to make sure we ended the match with her up there. And it paid off.”
Stanford played amazing defense, and Boukather continued to connect. The Huskies’ largest home crowd of the season grew louder.
Washington's Jenna Orlandini (4) digs against Stanford
[Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann]
“It was a fun game,” said libero Jenna Orlandini. “They were making plays, we were making plays.”
In the end, Vansant was unstoppable. Williams had just one kill in the final frame; four of the Huskies’ five final points were Vansant kills; seven total for the set. She finished with 18 in all, on 59 swings (.203).
“Animal. Absolute animal,” said outside hitter Gabbi Parker of Vansant’s fifth set performance. “Amazing. I’m so proud of her. I’m so glad I have her on my team.”
This was a hugely entertaining match between two elite teams. How, then, did Washington beat Stanford?
The stat sheet shows that Stanford had 15 service errors to the Huskies’ 6. But that only tells part of the story.
True, the Cardinal served horribly in places, especially in the rotation spot shared by Kyle Gilbert (4 errors) and Lydia Bai (2 errors). But both Karissa Cook and Rachel Williams gave the Huskies fits with short serves that barely cleared the net.
“When you see a short serve,” said Orlandini, “you can treat it like a free ball, if you see it the right way. But if you don’t see it, it’s a really tough serve.”
But the Huskies adjusted, and countered with great serving of their own. Parker electrified the crowd with her jump serves. The student section thundered BOOM! on each of her shots.
“She’s been working on it all week,” Orlandini said. “And we were telling her, just rip it. Don’t roll-shot it, just rip it. It was awesome.”
In the fifth set in particular, Stanford setter Cook handled so many poor passes that she was rarely able to disguise her target, and the Huskies capitalized.
Last weekend’s losses at UCLA and USC were blamed, in large part, on poor passing. It got so bad that—for the first time this season—McLaughlin pulled Orlandini from the match.
“It sucked coming out,” Orlandini said.” I was sitting on the bench (in Los Angeles), like, this sucks. So this whole week, I was working, I was working hard to be the best, and make sure my spot is my spot. No one’s gonna come here and take it.”
The sophomore libero responded with such a good performance, that McLaughlin occasionally went to a rarely-used two-person serve-receive, with Orlandini and Summer Ross. That freed Vansant to focus more on her attack. Orlandini credited Ross, whose beach volleyball passing skills transfer well to the indoor game.
Washington's Gabbi Parker (11) connects against Stanford
[Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann]
“Summer, I think she passed like 70%. That’s awesome. She’s passing like a libero.”
With the luxury of better passing, setters Evan Sanders and Jenni Nogueras responded with better distribution, sending Parker a season-high 39 attempts.
“We really worked on her getting more swings, spreading out our offense in transition,” said Vansant. “She played awesome tonight.”
“We’ve been working on her being on the right step--second step—when we’re closer (to the net),” said Bianca Rowland. “Just speeding up the set. She’s made a lot of improvement in practice, and it’s finally showing in games. Everyone’s really proud of her.”
Parker finished with 16 kills (.231), a career high. She spread around the credit.
“I’m connecting a lot better with Evan, a lot better with Jenni. They’re really doing well spreading out the offense a lot more. Kudos to the setters, kudos to the passers for being able to get it to the setters. ‘Cause everybody did amazing to get it to me.”
Through most of the match, Stanford’s Williams (20 kills, 9 errors, 57 swings) and Washington’s Vansant (18 kills, 6 errors, 59 swings) cancelled each other out (except for Vansant’s valiant performance in the fifth set.)
Stanford’s Carly Wopat is one of the best hitters in country; last night was no exception. She had 11 kills and just one error on 33 attempts. (.303). But on this night, she, too, had an equal on the other site of the net: Bianca Rowland (11 kills, one error on 22 attempts).
Over the past five matches, Rowland has been on a roll that no one else in the conference—maybe no one else in the nation—can match:
  • vs. Arizona State: 10 kills, 0 errors, 22 attempts (.455)
  • vs. Arizona: 5 kills, 1 error, 15 attempts (.267)
  • @ UCLA: 14 kills, 0 errors, 21 attempts (.667)
  • @USC: 8 kills, 1 error, 19 attempts (.368)
  • vs. Stanford: 11 kills, 1 error, 22 attempts (.455)

That’s a combined 48 kills, 3 errors on 99 attempts. A .455 average overall—and a .500 average against the most recent three opponents, all of whom are rated in the nation’s top four this week.
Bianca Rowland (15)
[Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann]
And to think: earlier in the season, before McLaughlin switched to a two-setter offense, the big question was: why isn’t Bianca Rowland hitting?
“Her back was against the wall,” said McLaughlin. “And she made some changes and worked hard. She’s one of the greatest kids I’ve ever coached in terms of that improvement, that turnaround. She should be a first team All-American, the way she’s carrying this team. And she’s teaching these other girls how to do it.”
“A lot of times, we like to play for someone,” said Parker. “I feel like we were playing for Bianca tonight, because she was just on fire.”
That fire spread to the rest of the team. Before the match, McLaughlin had an inkling it might come down to which team could simply outlast the other.
“Jim said, ‘Who can fight the longest? Who can stay on task longest?’” Orlandini said. “And we did it. We proved it.”
“I’m glad,” said Rowland,” that we finally know what it feels to fight back and win a close match.”

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