Saturday, November 17, 2012

Pac-12 | What we learned from Washington’s win over Oregon

#6 Washington 3, #4 Oregon 2 (26-24, 16-25, 21-25, 32-30, 25-23)
next: Oregon State @ #6 Washington | November 17 | 7PM

Gabbi Parker had been crying.

The junior outside hitter emerged from the post-match Washington locker room with salt-stained cheeks and smeared mascara.

And Parker was on the winning team.

Post-match tears of joy, Washington's Gabbi Parker
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann

Parker’s tears of joy were earned in a heart-pounding, ear-splitting, never say-die five-set victory over the Oregon Ducks. The match was surely the best of Parker’s career so far.

“A lot of history,” Parker said. “A lot of history with me and that team (Oregon).”

How wild was it?

It was a 21-inning baseball game, with the opposing team unable to score the winning run from third base twelve innings in a row.

It was a thirteen-overtime football game, with the winning team stuffing the visitors on twelve consecutive goal-line stands.

It was a soccer shootout, with the home goalkeeper stopping twelve straight potentially game-winning penalty kicks.

And, said an elated Washington coach Jim McLaughlin afterwards, it was undoubtedly one of the most gripping, entertaining and meaningful sporting events in the long history of Hec Ed Pavilion.

Washington and fans celebrate
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
As the fourth set started, the Ducks looked dominant. Oregon had let a 23-20 lead evaporate in the first set, conceding a desperate 6-1 Huskies run at the end. But the Ducks roared back in the second, crushing the home team 25-16.

In the third, Oregon led throughout, beating back several Washington runs, winning 25-21 going away.

And then, the fourth.

With the Ducks leading 1-0, UW’s star hitter, Krista Vansant, crumpled to the court. As the crowd of 4,136 watched in hushed silence, the sophomore hitter was helped off the court with what turned out to be an excruciating sprained left ankle.

Enter Parker.

All season long, the emotional hitter from Eugene had paced the sidelines, watching with frustration as 5-8 freshman Cassie Strickland earned most of the OH2 playing time. When she did enter matches, Parker was often high strung, pounding one ball for a kill, only to sail the next one out-of-bounds.

But this match, this situation, was different. Vansant is a sure-fire first team All-Conference star, and has been on the court virtually every minute of her first two seasons at Washington. The Ducks are a bitter rival, even more so for Parker, who attended high school just up the road from the Oregon campus.

But with Vansant out for the rest of the match, Parker and the Huskies had little room for error.

“I said to myself, ‘all right, it’s your turn’,” said Parker.

With the score tied at 8, Parker got the first kill in 5-1 run. Protecting an 18-17 lead, another big Parker point; ditto at 22-21. Tied at 29, Parker blasted a booming jump serve, leading to a stuff block, on the way to a dizzying 32-30 fourth set UW win.

“Krista goes down, and we actually upped the energy level,” said McLaughlin. “Just stayed positive. Kept fighting. Did the things we’re supposed to do.”

The fifth set looked to be all Oregon, as Alaina Bergsma and Liz Brenner seemed unstoppable on the way to match point at 14-11. But after an Oregon hitting error, Parker stepped to the service line. Her powerful jump serves are high-risk/high-reward, but the Ducks were not about to let an easy serve go unpunished. With the match on the line, Parker let it rip.

“I’ve learned that when I’m scared, I make more mistakes,” said Parker. “If I just go for it, I play really well.”

“Big time,” McLaughlin said. “She came in in a tough situation and responded. I learned a lot about her tonight.”

Oregon couldn’t handle Parker’s serve, and Washington’s dominant block made them pay. That brought Parker to the line for the Ducks’ third match point … and again she launched a bomb. This time, Kaleigh Nelson connected, and the score was tied at 14.

“There was no fear, no anxiety,” said McLaughlin.

Neither team was finished. The Ducks responded to nearly every challenge, and set up nine more Oregon match points. Each time, the Huskies had an answer:
  • Trailing 14-15, Oregon’s Katherine Fisher served wide
  • At 15-16, Brenner hit wide
  • At 16-17, Strickland blocked Bergsma (Bergsma, at 6-3, is seven inches taller than Strickland)
  • At 17-18, Parker smartly pushed her attack to a dead spot in the middle of the Ducks’ defense
  • At 18-19, Kelcey Dunaway and Kylin Muñoz blocked Bergsma
  • At 19-20, Parker tooled the Oregon block
  • At 20-21, Strickland aimed high off the Oregon block, getting a touch. The Ducks raced onto the court, thinking Strickland’s attack was long, but both the R1 (up referee) and the line judge immediately called the Oregon touch (which is how we saw it at courtside.)
  • At 21-22, Nelson tipped over the Oregon block
  • At 22-23, freshman Lianna Sybeldon surprised the Ducks with a nifty cross-court slam on a slide.

At 20-21, Oregon players call Washington's attack long, but Washington fans celebrate Oregon's touch
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann

As the Ducks punched and the Huskies countered, the din inside Alaska Airlines Arena grew ever louder. Because fifth sets can be decided in just 15 points, each coach substituted freely. In the end, McLaughlin made the smarter subs.

Oregon runs a classic one-setter (5-1) offense, so half its rotations have just two front-row hitters when All-American setter Lauren Plum is in the front row. Oregon coach Jim Moore made a costly gamble: he subbed in back-row defensive specialists to handle UW’s increasingly deadly serves. That meant Washington’s blockers could ignore back row attacks, and focus on just two hitters.

The Huskies, meanwhile, used its two-setter (6-2) system to greater effect, employing four hitters (3 front, 1 back) to all but neutralize any Oregon block. McLaughlin made situational subs, but always with his middles, looking to exploit matchups.

Tied at 23, Strickland stepped to the service line. The Huskies had run out of substitutions, so setter Jenni Nogueras had to rotate to the front line, and Nelson was in the back, a place she never plays. Also up front were Parker and freshman middle Sybeldon.

Like Parker, Strickland’s serve is shot like a cannon. Like Parker, she refused to use a safer weapon.

“You gotta go for it,” McLaughlin said. “I told ‘em we might have to hit some home runs at the end.”

Strickland’s serve kept the Ducks out-of-system, which led to a long rally, with numerous defensive gems, particularly by the liberos (Washington’s Jenna Orlandini and Oregon’s Haley Jacob.) Finally, Nogueras heard Parker screaming for the ball while in textbook approach position. Parker jumped as high as she ever has, and creamed the ball down the line.

It was now 24-23. Match point, Washington.

Earlier this season, the Huskies lost agonizingly close matches at home to Stanford, and on the road at Stanford, USC and Oregon. McLaughlin thinks fighting off so many set points offered huge lessons for the NCAA tournament.

“It teaches us not to hang our heads and keep on fighting,” said McLaughlin. “We haven’t had a match like this in a couple years. And you need it.”

After failing to convert one match point in set four, and twelve others in set five, Oregon had a chance to return to the favor. But Strickland’s serve was fearless, the Huskies dug every bomb from Bergsma and Brenner, and Nelson—screaming in on a back row attack—got the final word, recording her 14th kill, for the set and match. Nelson, remember, never plays the back row, and never hits from behind the 3-meter line in game situations.

“Kaleigh is a stud,” said Muñoz. “All her hard work this past week really showed on the court.”

Match point
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
“I don’t know if I’ve been part of a match like that here at Hec Ed,” said McLaughlin. “It was fun. It’s a match I’ll remember. So will they.”

  • The initial diagnosis for Vansant was a sprained ankle; x-rays were negative. She watched the rest of the match from the bench, and had to be helped each time the teams traded sides.
  • Alaina Bergsma may be the best right-side hitter in the nation, as her 31 kills on 63 attempts attest. But Washington’s block was much improved from when the teams met in Eugene, and many of Bergsma’s 12 hitting errors were stuff blocks.
  • If Bergsma is the best individual right-sider in a 5-1 offense, you’d have to look far and wide to find a better 6-2 right-side tandem than Nelson and Muñoz. All season, they’ve hit for high average and been the go-to when it’s time to stop an opponent’s run. Muñoz had 17 kill and 4 errors on 38 swings (.342), while Nelson added 14 kills on 6 errors on 34 attacks (.235). Their combined total, then, was at least the equal of Bergsma.
  • Parker’s heroics may have overshadowed a monster night by Strickland. After struggling against Stanford last week, the freshman had her best line of the season: 14 kills, just 1 error on 33 swings (.394). When Oregon studies the tape, they’ll have to figure why they couldn’t block a 5-8 hitter.
  • Oregon never advances far in the tournament, but there will be some ‘splainin’ to do if they fold early again this postseason. Bergsma and Plum will be first-team All-Americans, and Brenner will earn post-season honors. Middle Ariana Williams is a huge offensive force, while OH2 Katherine Fisher is deceptively powerful and quick—very much in the mold of UCLA’s Kelly Reeves.
  • As is his habit, Oregon coach Jim Moore slowed the pace of the match by having extended conversations with the officials. His antics—which included more than a few emotional outbursts—were completely ignored by McLaughlin and his players. Washington assistant coach Keno Gandara, however, made it clear during the match that he thought Moore’s constant complaining was a stall tactic. For the most part, referees Verna Klubnikin and Kathy Rogers refused to let Moore get under their skin, a big change from the Huskies/Ducks match in Eugene.
  • For most of the season, Washington and Oregon have been ranked in the nation’s top 7; both have risen as high as number 2. But neither the Eugene match nor the Seattle rematch were broadcast by the new Pac-12 Network. Last night’s classic contest should cause network schedulers re-think their priorities, especially since the programming they offered instead was two meaningless preseason men’s basketball contests: Sacramento State at Utah and Vanderbilt at Oregon.
  • In retrospect, an even bigger programming insult was the failure to broadcast the Stanford at UCLA match. Stanford is ranked #1, and the contest was the first women’s volleyball match in newly-renovated Pauley Pavilion. If nothing else, Stanford and UCLA are arguably the two most storied programs in Pac-12 women’s volleyball history. Preseason basketball? Sacramento State? Vanderbilt?
  • As usual, Washington leads the Pac-12 in attendance, and last night’s crowd of more than 4,000 was amazing, considering (1) it was a Friday; (2) it was raining; (3) roads and highways were gridlocked; and (4) the match got almost no advance attention from local media. UW women’s basketball gets a steady stream of media coverage yet rarely draws crowds even close to what volleyball attracts. “Our crowd was phenomenal,” said McLaughlin, “in every way, shape and form.” It's about time more media paid attention.

WRITTEN BY Jack Hamann | PHOTOS BY Leslie Hamann


  1. What a great post -- thanks for your informative blog. I look forward to it after every game, especially last night's phenomenal match!

  2. What an amazing match! I couldn't make it in person, but watched the stream online and kept tabs on the score via Twitter. Would love to see the 5th set made available to see online again, I could watch that one a few more times!

    Go Dawgs!

  3. "[Oregon] will have to figure why they couldn’t block a 5-8 hitter."

    They couldn't stop her because she is THAT good.

    Loved the article...until the end. What is your point regarding the UW women's basketball program? Seems to be that that team doesn't deserve the coverage that it gets because the program isn't as good as the volleyball program. I hope I'm just reading that wrong. I don't think it is necessary to dig at the wbb program to make the point that the volleyball program deserves more coverage.

    1. Our final comment was directed at our fellow media: if you can send reporters and cameras to other sports (like women's basketball), you can surely notice the crowds and success of volleyball. No dis to wbb intended ...

    2. I appreciate the response. Thanks for the clarification. Part of the reason for the coverage for UW wbb is the Storm, an advantage that volleyball doesn't have. Regardless of the coverage for wbb, it's unfortunate that volleyball doesn't get the coverage it deserves. I would also love to see more for volleyball, so I'm glad to hear you directly advocating for it. Thanks for doing your part with this blog as well!

  4. The match was a nailbiter even streaming the comments online during the 5th set. Way to go Dawgs!!! I had no idea KVS was out.

    I was equally disappointed with the lack of coverage. I love basketball but to your point, the junk pre-season games were exactly that, junk. On top of that, there are a ton of sports channels that could have featured #4 v. #6. UWTV, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPNU, ESPN4, ESPN10, Root, etc. In the very least, a tape delay. What a disservice to the best volleyball conference in the country.


  5. Jack, you mentioned recruits this weekend. Any chance of supplying names?

    1. Although some high school players (and their clubs) have posted announcements about their college choices, nothing is official until the National Letter of Intent is submitted and approved.

      We've yet to get any confirmation from the UW Athletic Department. Once we do, we'll contact the incoming players and post their bios and reactions.

  6. GREAT post! Thank you for providing such a gold mine of information and insight into one of the best and most suspenseful athletic contests I have ever witnessed in any sport. I was there and was wondering about the called tips that Oregon protested. They are hard to see from up above where we were sitting. Your information on coach Moore's tendency to always protest and your own view from courtside made me feel even better about this big win. - Bob

  7. Jack:

    Is there anyway the Pac-12 network or the UW athletic department (or you) could post a video or series of videos of that 5th set. It's a real shame that it's not available anywhere for replay.

    1. We'll pass along your request to the UW Athletic Department.

      In the meantime, someone has posted video of the final match point on YouTube:

  8. I would love to have the whole match! Pass it along!!


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