Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Pac 12 | First big test: Bruins and Huskies square off in Seattle

Okay, sports fans: The NFL ruled it a touchdown, the Seahawks beat the Packers, and we can all move on to the OTHER big sports story of the week.

When you pick tomorrow’s paper off your doorstep, Seattle Times contributor and Friend of the Blog Terry Wood has an advance look at the big Pac-12 volleyball showdowns this week at Alaska Airlines Arena (it’s also available online, but how will you wrap your fish?)

As usual, some of Terry’s gems were squeezed by other sports news, so he once again shares the full version with Volleyblog Seattle’s loyal readers …

Special to The Seattle Times

Interesting: In the latest college volleyball coaches’ poll, Washington ranks fifth in the country—and just fourth among Pac-12 teams.

This week the No. 5 Huskies (11-0, 2-0 Pac-12) get a shot at the No. 4 and No. 3 teams, UCLA and USC, in their toughest challenges so far in their month-old season.

Washington coach Jim McLaughlin
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
The Bruins (9-2, 1-1), the defending NCAA champions, visit Alaska Airlines Arena Wednesday at 7 p.m. USC (13-1, 1-1), a Final Four participant last year, plays at UW Friday at 6 and, following football’s “blackout” theme, UW is asking fans to wear black that night. The Pac-12 Network will air both matches live.

This is likely the toughest one-two punch the Huskies will face at home this season. Could be, UW coach Jim McLaughlin says, though no one is a pushover in the Pac-12 these days.

“There are no surprises in this conference,” said McLaughlin, whose team opened Pac-12 play last week with hard-fought 3-1 wins over two second-tier conference foes, Washington State (10-4, 0-2) and Arizona (9-4, 1-1).

“It’s like the NFL; everybody has a shot,” McLaughlin said. “San Francisco lost this week. So you never know.”

The athletic Bruins, No. 1 a week ago, fell last week at USC in a tough four-set match. Two days later USC was upset at home by Oregon. The Ducks (11-0, 2-0), with three wins vs. top-25 teams, jumped to No. 2 in the coaches’ poll, their highest poll position ever.

The Huskies have one top-25 win, over No. 13 Purdue. UW is a skilled young team (three freshmen -- setter Katy Beals, hitter Cassie Strickland and middle Lianna Sybeldon -- flow in and out of the lineup) in search of consistency.

“This team has played really well in spurts, and we play well at the end of games,” McLaughlin said. “Our body of work is moving in the right direction.

“But at some point you should flip the switch on, the motor goes, and you turn it off when the lawn’s cut. You don’t take breaks in between. That’s the message we’re telling our team.

At some point you should flip the switch on, the motor goes, and you turn it off when the lawn’s cut. You don’t take breaks in between. –Washington coach Jim McLaughlin

“Everybody is getting better,” he said. “I’m only disappointed in that there isn’t as much transfer. I don’t think we played yet like we’ve practiced. We practice at a higher level than we’ve played. At some point the games reflect our practices to a T. But I’ve seen a very nice high end that’s getting better.

“It’s more the mental side of things than it is the physical, allowing your body to do what you’ve trained it to do,” he said. “If you really train it right, in stressful situations your body is going to do what you train it to do. We’re learning how to do that, and we’re getting better at that, but we still have a ways to go.”

“The mind is the deal,” McLaughlin emphasized. “If we can think the right thoughts and stay on task and keep the edge and the focus, great. Once you lose that, it’s really hard to get back.

“That’s the issue with this team,” he said. “I think we’re physical enough. I think we’re fast enough. Everyone wants to point out that we have three starting freshmen, but I don’t look at it that way. These kids are learning, getting better and they’re talented, so they’re going to play.

“So I like where we’re at and I think we’re going to be ready for this battle. And it’s going to be a battle.”

McLaughlin says for now he remains committed to running a two-setter (6-2) offense.

“I’m trying to find a way to get the top kids on the floor,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of tweaking the system to allow your best players to play. If you’ve got two kids who can play tight end, maybe you should go to a two tight-end system. That’s the way we approach it.

“I like it (the 6-2) right now, but it could change as people develop and continue to develop. We’ve got two good setters. If one becomes just an outstanding setting and the numbers reveal that, then we could go back to a 5-1. But right now I like the direction of the team, both on offense and defense.

“(Junior setter) Jenni Nogueras has improved a lot,” McLaughlin said. “I think we’ve figured out how to talk to her. I think we’ve shown her a better model that she can grab onto. She’s grabbing onto our program instead of just having these feelings that come and go.”

How about Beals, the freshman? “Katy Beals is growing,” he said. “We’ve thrown her into the fire, and it’s hot. She’s responding to it and getting used to it.”

Strickland earned a start against Arizona and hit well, but she has been erratic with her high-velocity jump serve (17 service errors vs. 7 aces).

“There’s not a habitual movement in place on her serve,” McLaughlin said. “There are little things that are happening that we can fix mechanically. She’s not going to be very, very consistent until she regulates all those mechanics.

“At some point she’s going to miss 15 percent of her serves if she’s going for it. I want her to go for it and miss some serves. But I don’t want her to miss over 20 percent.”

Junior hitter Gabbi Parker has also exhibited hot-and-cold patterns. When she’s cold, the high-revving Parker tends to send attacks wide or long. During the late stages of UW’s back-and-forth win in the match-deciding fourth set at Arizona on Saturday, she posted three straight attack errors.

“She knows it,” McLaughlin said. “We’re working on it in practice. It happens in practice, it happens in games. I just want her to approach it, to conquer it mentally.

“Just say, ‘Hey, this is what I’m working on.’ Cherish the error in practice. Think about it. Cherish it. Don’t run away from it. Figure out what the problem is, then fix it. Right now she’s running away from it and it will come back to get you.

“If it happens in a game, you’ve got to let the thing go and get on to the next play. The thought pattern is different, and she’s learning how to manage those thoughts. We’ve got some things in place that are going to help her conquer that thing, I hope.”

  • UW ranks second in the conference in hitting percentage (.318) and sixth nationally. In Pac-12 hitting percentage, Sybeldon ranks first (.449), sophomore Kaleigh Nelson fourth (.401) and Kylin Munoz, a senior from Monroe, sixth (.387).

 “Kaleigh and Ky have great numbers,” McLaughlin said. Sophomore Krista Vansant, last year’s conference freshman of the year, leads UW in kills with 134 (3.83 per set; 10th in the Pac-12).
 “When she’s good, I love watching her play,” McLaughlin said. “But I want to watch her play and love every moment I watch her. She can have lulls in her game. She understands that and she’s working on it.”

  • Since 2004, UW is 8-0 vs. UCLA at home but 4-4 on the road. During that span, UW is 6-2 at home vs. USC, including a 3-0 loss last year, and 3-5 on the road.

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