Monday, September 3, 2012

Pac-12 | What we learned from Washington’s second weekend

Huskies now 6-0, have yet to drop a set in nonconference play

Thursday, September 6 | 7pm: Seattle U @ #7 Washington
Friday, September 7 | 7pm: Long Beach State @ #7 Washington

Purdue flew into Houston last week undefeated and ranked seventh in the nation. The team’s star hitter, Ariel Turner, is the reigning Big Ten player of the year and was a 2011 First-Team All-American. The Boilermakers were 27-5 last season, it’s only losses came to Top Ten teams.

And Washington crushed them.

The final score—25-21, 25-17, 25-9—was more lopsided than even the most ardent Huskies fan might have expected. The final set, in particular, was a complete wipeout.

Washington celebrates a point against Purdue in Rice University's Fox gym
-photo by Jim Hilton
As big as that win was, it was equally telling that the Huskies showed no significant letdown in dispatching LSU and Rice, although both opponents kept it close. As much as anything, it speaks to the fact that coach Jim McLaughlin has kept the competition wide open for all but Krista Vansant’s OH1 position (though McLaughlin would undoubtedly say EVERY spot is always subject to each week’s numbers in training and in matches, even Vansant’s.)

So what did we learn when Hurricane Isaac blew the Huskies to Houston (from the tournament’s original venue, Baton Rouge)?

In the modern game—at every level—championship teams are built with two top-flight outside hitters who are also great passers. Teams without that rare combination have to work harder in other areas to compensate.

Vansant—the Pac-12’s Offensive Player of the Week and Tiger Classic MVP—can certainly hit, and she’s making significant progress on her passing. If she keeps improving, she can be half of a winning combination.

The pressing question is whether a stellar OH2 can emerge as well. Junior Gabbi Parker seems the obvious choice, and—on a good day—she can hit with anyone in the Pac-12.

In Houston, however, Parker showed that she has plenty of room for improvement. Against Purdue, Parker hit just .071—4 kills, 3 errors on 14 swings. It was a repeat performance against LSU—only .038, 7 kills and 6 errors on 26 attempts.

Against a determined Rice team, however, Parker was unstoppable—11 kills, no errors on 20 swings (.550). As she’s shown since arriving at Washington, Parker battles to forget prior plays. That works well when she’s confident, but when she makes an error or two, it shows in her expressions and body English, and opponents can smell her frustration.

In nine sets over the weekend, Parker committed 5 service errors (out of a team total of 19). If she can knock that total down just a bit, and if she can hit the reset button after each and every point, she could give Washington the 1-2 punch to win the tough matches.

Coach McLaughlin’s decision to move senior Kylin Muñoz to the right side looks like a winner. Last season, Muñoz was too predictable on the left side, too often unwilling to tool the block late in the set.

On the right side, however, Muñoz has shown an impressive ability to mix her shots. She had a combined 25 kills and just 4 errors in the three matches, a muscular .375 average. Against Purdue, she had 7 kills and no errors on 15 attempts (.467). Those are big-time numbers.

McLaughlin has also decided to continue last season’s move to a two setter (6-2) offense, adding sophomore Kaleigh Nelson to the mix as the second right side hitter. Nelson also had a huge weekend—6 kills and no errors against Purdue, and 11 kills, 1 error on 14 swings (.714) against Rice. Over the nine sets, she had 23 kills and 5 errors on 43 attacks (.418). Impressive.

In the matches ahead, we’ll see if McLaughlin experiments with switching Parker and Nelson. Since right side hitters don’t pass (that’s left to the libero and the OHs,) the decision may hinge on which of the two can handle passing chores better. If either starts passing nails—look out.

And—in the spirit of McLaughlin’s focus on competition for playing time—freshman Cassie Strickland will be pushing to step in for either Parker or Nelson if either falters.

UW outblocked its three opponents by a combined 29.5 to 11. Amanda Gil had 12 blocks in nine sets; Kelcey Dunaway had 8 blocks against Purdue alone.

While we can chalk up much of that success to good technique, the Huskies’ quality serving deserves much of the credit. When opponents struggle with tough serves, disciplined blockers immediately recognize that the opponent’s setter has limited options. Especially against Purdue, the Huskies made the right read time and again, stuffing the Boilermakers 13.5 times.

While Dunaway has not been a major offensive threat, she has proven to be an effective server. She’s worked hard on her defense during her serving rotation (the libero is subbed out), and can float the ball for plenty of aces. Both Parker and Strickland are capable of delivering jump serve bombs, and both setters (Jeni Nogueras and Katy Beals) have a good sense of serving to target.

More than once this season, serving will determine which team wins a big, close match. The Huskies are off to a good start.

  • With three more victories, Washington's nonconference undefeated streak reaches 37 matches in a row, dating back to 2008 (a razor-thin loss at Hawai’i.)
  • Washington is the only Top-25 team in Division 1 not to drop even one set this young season. During their current match win streak, the Huskies have won 111 of the 112 sets they've played. The only set they've lost during that nonconference stretch was last season during a 3-1 victory last season at Long Beach State. Long Beach State comes to Seattle for a rematch this Friday night.

WRITTEN BY Jack Hamann | PHOTOS BY Leslie Hamann


  1. Some thoughts: nice to see Kaleigh Nelson do well. Although in the Rice match it was noted that Rice was serving to her most of the time. Is this a weakness? Summer Ross's transfer might turn out to be a helpful in the long run.
    Be interesting to see what they do with Malanie Wade, with the emergance
    of Lianna Sybeldon, do you play her this week or do you think about red-shirting her.
    Do you stay with the 6-2?. Winning National Championships with a 6-2 are rare.


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