Sunday, November 18, 2012

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

#6 Washington 3, Oregon State 0 (25-15, 25-13, 25-22)
next: Arizona State @ #6 Washington | November 21 | 8PM

It can be easy to overlook the tallest players on the court.

We’re talking about middle blockers. Washington uses four: seniors Amanda Gil and Kelcey Dunaway, plus freshmen Lianna Sybeldon and Melanie Wade.

Washington's Kelcey Dunaway
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
In the modern era, middle blockers are rarely a team’s dominant player: they don’t play the back row (except when serving), and they are tough to set except when passes are near-perfect.

At Washington, the four middles combined have received just 16% of the team’s sets this season. Like middles on most teams, they connect for kills at a fairly high rate; Sybeldon leads all UW hitters with a .415 percentage. But the position produces fewer than 1 in 5 of the team’s total kills.

On the court, middles never rest. Next time you’re at a match, watch the feet of a good middle: could you move that explosively, that often, with that many jumps? It’s exhausting just looking at them.

One Pac-12 coach confides that middles have become the toughest position to recruit: talented high school middles often say they’d rather move to the outside once in college. Middles have too much work, too little glory.

But Washington has managed to assemble a middle quarter than can and does make a difference. These four play big-time defense.

The Huskies’ blockers lead the nation this week, with 3.29 blocks per set. Amanda Gil (1.74 blocks/set) is tops in the Pac-12 and trails only BYU’s Nicole Warner among all Division 1 players.

Washington's Amanda Gil
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
As we saw against Oregon the night before, the middles’ eyework and their discipline on the swing block all but shuts down back row attacks. That frees back row defenders to focus elsewhere, and was key to libero Jenna Orlandini’s 23 digs.

As we saw against Oregon State, Huskies middles make other defensive contributions as well. The Beavers put up several block attempts themselves, but time and again, Dunaway was ready, covering those attempts by stretching her arms in a perfect platform. Gil added a dig, and used the full defenders’ toolbox of one- and two-handed touches to keep rallies alive.

How could a team like the Beavers scout Washington’s middles? All season long, Washington coach Jim McLaughlin has mixed and matched all four. Would OSU face Sybeldon’s big hops on the quick? Wade’s powerful middle slams? Dunaway’s penetrating push across the net? Gil’s savvy in detecting a cross rather than line?

As it turned out, Saturday was Senior Night, and McLaughlin went with Gil and Dunaway the whole way. They combined for 7 kills on 15 attempts, and helped hold OSU to just .144 for the match.

“This weekend was really special for us,” said Dunaway. “It was the first time that our offense was hitting the shots that we saw ourselves execute in practice.”

Once the NCAA Tournament begins, coaches from other conferences will face the unenviable task of figuring out which middle combination McLaughlin will throw at them next. All hitters hate to be blocked, hate to have great attacks dug. All blockers hate to have their rejections dug. Teams will overlook Washington’s middles at their peril.

The Oregon State match was also the first time in two seasons that sophomore outside hitter Krista Vansant did not play. Her sprained left foot was in a walking boot, and she watched the match from the bench, where she cheered on her replacement, junior Gabbi Parker.

“It’s so weird not having Krista,” said Gil. “But Gabbi really stepped it up.”

Washington's Gabbi Parker
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
It’s hard to say enough about Parker’s performance the previous night against the Ducks. After Vansant’s injury on the second point of the fourth set, Parker brought precisely the attitude the Huskies needed. At every opportunity, she jumped high and swung hard, avoiding the fear-of-making-an-error mentality that often plagues replacement players late in tough matches.

Parker was particularly impressive at the service line. Her risky-but-powerful jump serve might have handed the Ducks the victory if it had gone into the net or out-of-bounds. But under tremendous pressure before a fired-up crowd, Parker had the guts and focus to keep bombing away. Her explosion of tears after the match’s final point released a torrent of emotion—she knew darned well that she had gambled and won. More important, she knew that gambling was the only option against a team as talented as Oregon.

“Every player steps in every practice,” said McLaughlin. “Every one of them has to earn their keep. Gabbi’s fighting every day, every week. And it’s paid off.”

Parker was equally impressive against the Beavers. She recorded an astonishing 6 service aces in three sets, to go with 5 others from Kylin Muñoz and one each by Katy Beals and Cassie Strickland.

“When you have serving going, then the kids are focused,” said McLaughlin.

“We have to win the serve and pass,” said Dunaway. “Then everything else will come.”

  • McLaughlin admitted he was a little worried about a letdown after Friday’s five-set marathon win over Oregon. “It was so emotional, we spent everything we had,” McLaughlin said. “But we came out and played steady. It was an opportunity to practice the back-to-back games we’ll face in the tournament.”
  • Two Seattle-area OSU seniors made their final collegiate visits to Alaska Airlines Arena, and both had strong performances. Kennedy High School graduate Ashley Eneliko led all hitters with 11 kills. Tall and strong setter Megan McBride of Auburn Mountainview High had 23 assists and six kills, many powerful setter dumps with her deceptive left hand.
  • Forget March Madness brackets … volleyball fans can now enter their own tournament pools thanks to Northwestern Mutual and the NCAA. Visit their Facebook page to request an email alert when the brackets are available next Sunday afternoon.

WRITTEN BY Jack Hamann | PHOTOS BY Leslie Hamann

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