Saturday, October 20, 2012

Pac-12 | What we learned from Washington’s loss to Stanford

#2 Stanford 3, #5 Washington 2 (10-25, 28-26, 10-25, 26-24, 15-7)
next: California @ #5 Washington | October 20, 2012 | 1PM

[See also: UW falls to No. 2 Stanford]

Let’s not sugarcoat it: the Huskies choked.

In sets one and three, Washington absolutely demolished Stanford, holding the Cardinal to just 10 points in each. In both sets, Stanford hit for negative average (-.175 & -.034), and were outblocked by a combined 9-1.

Stanford's Madi Bugg sets from her knees
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
So, where was that Huskies’ team in the other three sets? They lost two set points in the second frame, fooled by an Inky Ajanaku tip, stung by a rare Kaleigh Nelson hitting error (one of only two for the night), and then finished off by two right-side Carly Wopat slides (more on that in a moment.)

In the fourth set, a Nelson/Amanda Gil block set up match point, but freshman Katy Beals—who leads the Pac-12 in service aces—served long. Brittany Howard, who had struggled all night, hit a cross-court kill from the left, and Ajanaku blocked an ill-advised Krista Vansant back row attack.

Less than two weeks from Halloween, Stanford emerged from the dead, and never looked back.

“You only have so many opportunities in life,” said Washington coach Jim McLaughlin. “If we make one more play, we’re out of here in four, maybe even three.”

For most of the match, and certainly on the stat sheet, Washington was the better team. But Stanford shook off the two 25-10 skunkings, and was tougher at set point than the Huskies proved to be.

When elite teams meet, the outcome is usually decided by such otherwise hard-to-measure differences. Stanford expected to win. Washington, it seemed, had the possibility of losing in the back of its mind.


Gabbi Parker (11) attacks
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
When we look at the numbers, it’s hard to fault any one player. Washington’s setters—Beals and Jenni Nogueras—had the luxury of great set distribution thanks to generally stellar passing. For the match, Vansant, Kylin Muñoz and especially Nelson all had big-time performances. Oregon has Alaina Bergsma, but Washington’s Muñoz/Nelson may be the best right side combo in the nation.

Washington’s head-scratcher is at OH2. Cassie Strickland was a liability on offense, just 3 kills and 4 errors on 23 swings (negative .043). In limited action, Gabbi Parker was equally ineffective, just one kill and two errors on 7 swings (negative .143).

The two players bring dissimilar tools to a match. Both have booming jump serves, though we only see Strickland serving of late. Against Stanford, Strickland had fewer service errors than usual (2), and kept the Cardinal passers on their toes throughout.

Although the 5-8 Strickland has hops, she is mostly ineffective attacking against other elite teams; she is often blocked and frequently resorts to tips. Parker, on the other hand, is streaky: she can be big and powerful and confident one moment, only to become frustrated and indecisive after an error. A player like Parker needs more playing time to get her groove.

Strickland seems to get the starting nod because her defense is often exceptional. As we’ve noted before, she has the same ability Summer Ross had to pay attention to the other side of the net and get to the ball. Even when Strickland’s on the front row, it’s like having a second libero.

It can make for thrilling volleyball. Tied at 2 in the first set, the two teams launched an epic rally. Time and again, an attack seemed sure to hit the court, but a Husky or a Cardinal found a way to keep it going. We haven’t yet seen the tape, but it felt as if the ball went back and forth across the net 25 or more times, often after spectacular Strickland saves. In a dozen years of watching Washington volleyball, we can’t remember a longer or better rally. (It was finally won, by the way, by a smart Vansant block, deftly redirecting a soft Stanford attack.)


The Huskies have the best blocks/set average in Division 1, but outblocking both Oregon and Stanford did not produce wins.

Both the Ducks and Cardinal exposed a hole in the Huskies’ block: the right side. Bergsma brought Oregon back from the brink by hammering away on the right, while Stanford’s Carly Wopat ran right side slides that connected when it mattered.
Stanford's Carly Wopat (2) connects on a slide
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann

Setting the right side depends, of course, on good passing and digging. Early in each match, neither the Ducks nor the Cardinal did much right-side damage. But both schools upgraded passing as the match progressed, and Washington’s block on that part of the net grew less effective.

Blocking the opponent’s right side attack is primarily the responsibility of the outside hitters. Vansant plays every minute of every match, and teams usually serve at her to slow her approach and wear her down. Neither Strickland nor Parker block as consistently well as Muñoz and Nelson, although Strickland’s exceptional eyework allowed her to stuff the much taller Ajanaku in the third set.


McLaughlin tends not to encourage emotional displays. “Toughness isn’t about screaming and yelling,” he says. “Toughness is about nailing your serves and hitting the ball in bounds.”

McLaughlin’s 2005 team—his best-ever so far—was led by Courtney Thompson, an unabashed emotional leader. No one worked harder than Thompson, and her technical skills improved relentlessly. But it was often her emotional, outward displays that inspired those around her. She simply refused to lose, and her teammates played better because of it.

When Washington held and then lost set points against both Oregon and Stanford, no obvious leader emerged. Of the current Huskies, none seems comfortable in that role. Against the best teams, that may prove to be a continuing liability.


For much of the season, Washington has been one of five Pac-12 teams ranked among the nation’s top seven. As the first half of conference play draws to a close (Sunday against California), the Huskies have wins against UCLA and USC and losses against Oregon and Stanford.

Washington players Jenna Orlandini (4), Jenni Nogueras (9), and Melanie Wade (5) celebrate a Kaleigh Nelson (6) kill
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
Washington will see all of those teams once again, though only the Ducks will travel to Seattle. The Huskies still control their destiny, with a chance to win the conference or, barring that, to host the first two rounds of the tournament.

McLaughlin admits that he remembers the losses more than the victories, but—like most top coaches—he points out that we humans tend to learn more from adversity than from success. His 2012 team has an opportunity to study how they let two very winnable matches slip from their grasp. If they learn those lessons sooner rather than later, they could be very dangerous indeed in the postseason.


Both teams started three freshmen each, and outstanding sophomores like Vansant, Nelson and Stanford's Morgan Boukather played major roles.

Folks, this promises to be a thrilling rivalry for several years to come ...

  • Washington freshman Melanie Wade played the entire match at MB2. She attended Palo Alto High School, in the shadow of the Stanford campus.

“Mel went into the game and stepped it up,” said fellow middle blocker Amanda Gil. “I’m incredibly proud of the way she blocked.”
“I thought she did a hell of a job,” said McLaughlin. “I really did.”

WRITTEN BY Jack Hamann | PHOTOS BY Leslie Hamann


  1. Strickland in the front row is not working. Gabbi plays well when she actually see's playing time. We can't put Gabbi in a game to get us out a rotational pinch, and not expect her to feel the pressure. When Gabbi is relaxed in warm-ups, she puts the ball down, hard. Let Gabbi start the game and settle in. My money says Sybeldon could probably get the job done as well, she's athletic. No reason we cant groom her as a middle while getting her playing time outside.

    1. The argument that Gabbi needs more playing time seems moot, if she looks relaxed in warm ups thats great but matches are not a relaxed environment. The argument that she needs time to settle also seems silly as she has had a few/couple more years to relax and get into her groove in this program than Strickland has. Across the board, the ability to kill a ball is not all that matters, and strickland brings a fire and determintation to the court while also adding that defense and passing that washington needs.

    2. Im not saying to settle in to the program in general, settle in to the match. No one walks on the court at 100% first point of a match, but I'd rather have them settle in at a score of 2-2 than 22-22. You're in a very different mindset at 0-0 then at 22-22, sure the point difference is the same, but one of them seems a little more urgent.

      I think it might be different if Cas was playing opposite, but OH is a go to position. Every team we face has their strongest blocking scheme against the OH, because thats the strongest hitting position in volleyball. If we were creating 1 on 1 opportunities for Cas, it might work, but our middle hitting isnt established enough to keep the middle blockers honest in the middle, they close that seam every time.

    3. I think you just identified the real problem. It's not a question of playing Strickland vs. Parker. It's the fact that the middle hitting isn't established.

      The block in the middle is world-class. But the offense is very suspect. At no time in the Oregon or Stanford matches was Washington able to rely on the middle to make a difference offensively at crucial moments. In fact, in set 4 vs Stanford, during an incredible Munoz serving streak late in the set, our middle made an unforced offensive error that stopped the momentum and Stanford went on to force a 5th set.

      Strickland's height is a problem at times on offense, but if our middles would step up and be as explosive offensively as they are defensively, UW would never lose another match.

    4. EXACTLY :) It is weird how someone so anonymous and a stranger to me can read my mind....guess I am not the only one thinking that the middles need to be figured out :) Oh, and Sybeldon on the outside....I think not.

  2. You didn't count Madi Bugg, the second setter in the 6-2 and, at times, the most important of Stanford's four freshmen starters. I'm sure JMac wishes the Cardinal had left her back in Palo Alto and let Karissa Cook set the whole match.

    1. Good catch, John. Stanford did, indeed, use four freshmen throughout most of the match.

      The prospect of Stanford/Washington matchups in the years ahead should have volleyball fans pretty excited ...

  3. Why didn't Kelcey Dunaway play during this important match?

    1. We all know that in Jim's system, playing time is earned at practice. So, the answer is simple. Melanie Wade beat Kelcey and Lianna at practice this week. Actually, I noticed how her blocking and hitting have improved so much compared to earlier in the season. All in all, I have to agree with previous posters that our middle attack needs to improve significantly to keep opposing blockers from cheating to the outsides.

  4. Don't think there are going to be any Wade doubters after the Cal match.

    She had 6 kills, no errors, 7 block assists, 3 service aces and 2 digs!!

  5. This team is going to win the title. I can feel it! Sultandawg


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