Thursday, November 22, 2012

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

Arizona State 3, #5 Washington 1 (25-29, 16-25, 25-23, 25-20)

  • next: #5 Washington @ Washington State | November 23 | 8PM | Pac-12 Networks
  • Tournament Selection announcement | November 25 | 1PM | ESPNU

Gabbi Parker (c) signals to Kylin Munoz (L) and Melanie Wade (R) during action against Arizona State
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann

When Thanksgiving rolls around, it makes sense to be hungry.

Arizona State and its freshman hitter Macey Gardner (19 kills) proved far hungrier than the Washington Huskies, who could not deliver enough home cooking to avoid a painful—and potentially tournament-damaging—loss on Wednesday night.

The Sun Devils’ victory will not knock Washington from the postseason, of course. But it may give the tournament selection committee an excuse to give Washington a low seed—or even no seed at all. Only the top sixteen teams in the 64-team tournament are seeded, and only those top 16 host the first two rounds of the playoffs.

The first two sets were a wash, as Arizona State dominated the first, and Washington the second. But early on, it was obvious the Sun Devils were trouble.

ASU coach Jason Watson belongs to the same coaching fraternity as Washington’s Jim McLaughlin. Both employ elements of the “Gold Medal Squared” system, born at BYU, where Watson was once head coach. Simply put, the Huskies faced another team fully familiar with their blocking scheme, their defensive alignment, and their emphasis on serving and passing.

As it turned out, serving and passing made all the difference. ASU’s serves floated, dipped and curled, flummoxing both Gabbi Parker and Kelly Holford early and often. At the same time, the Devils had little problem with jump serves from Parker and Cassie Strickland, and were usually in system.

“They (ASU) served great,” said McLaughlin. “We had to switch the formation, and never really settled down and passed at a high level.”

Even so, the match could have gone either way. In the third set, Washington registered 7 stuff blocks, but ASU stepped up its defense, getting amazing one-fisted digs from Caitlyn Francis in the back row. But leading 23-21, McLaughlin ran out of substitutions, forcing Kaleigh Nelson to serve, and setter Jenni Nogueras to play the front line.

Nelson served well, but Alexis Pinson killed a quick in the middle. Strickland—who had been playing some impressive defense of her own—failed to get back in transition, and sailed the next point out of bounds. Consecutive Washington timeouts could not overcome poor passing and ASU’s smart distribution, and the Devils ran the table with a 5-0 run.

By the fourth set, all of Washington’s hitters except for Kylin Muñoz (15 kills) seemed tired. Amanda Gil failed to jump on an overpass and a subsequent set. Nelson uncharacteristically missed on several tool attempts. Both Parker and Strickland failed to retreat behind the 10-foot line in transition, giving ASU too many easy digs.

“It’s just people missing their assignments, people thinking about the wrong things, people feeling sorry for themselves,” McLaughlin said.

“I’ve seen this team when we’ve had a vibe when it was just intense, and we were fighting hard,” McLaughlin continued. “You can make an error and you can pout, or you can kick it into gear and make the next play. And we tended to make 2, 3, 4 plays in a row that were bad plays.”

One of McLaughlin’s core mantras is that players should embrace mistakes. Like it or not, he says, we humans tend to learn more from our errors than our successes. Rather than dwell on what happened, he implores them to learn why it happened, and to take steps to correct the fundamentals that led to those mistakes.

Clearly, the Huskies needed another outside hitter, but star Krista Vansant was on the bench in street clothes, her foot still in a walking boot from the ankle sprain suffered in last Friday’s win over Oregon.

“Ky Muñoz was very good,” said McLaughlin. “I just wish she’d held some other people accountable.”

McLaughlin said he would have pulled Strickland if he had someone else on the bench. “Cassie missed a coverage,” he said, “and all of a sudden Cassie missed a play, and now she’s rolling every shot. And we had to go with her.

“She’ll learn that lesson. I think. I hope.”

Tied at 20 in the fourth set, Muñoz made a rare error, serving long. Nogueras made a poor choice to set Gil, who was out of position and was blocked by Whitney Follette. Looking confused, the Huskies allowed a too-easy quick by Follette, then Gardner aced Strickland. The final point was an Erica Wilson tool off the block, and ASU had pulled off closing 5-0 runs in two consecutive sets.

“We were underneath the ball, we couldn’t regulate our speed,” said McLaughlin. “You lose yourself if you’re not thinking the right things, and looking for the right things. You panic a little bit and you can lose yourself a little bit. And we did.

“It’s a discouraging thing. But if we can figure it out, it’s better now than in the tournament.”

One of McLaughlin’s core mantras is that players should embrace mistakes. Like it or not, he says, we humans tend to learn more from our errors than our successes. Rather than dwell on what happened, he implores them to learn why it happened, and to take steps to correct the fundamentals that led to those mistakes.

The Huskies will enjoy a Thanksgiving feast—their 22-6 record this season offers plenty to be thankful for—then spend parts of each of the next three days in Pullman, where tomorrow night’s 8PM match against Washington State looms even larger. (A bonus: the wonderful and irrepressible Al Scates is scheduled to do the commentary for the Pac-12 Networks.)

Washington State won just its third conference match last night, defeating Arizona 3-1. The loss might kill Arizona’s tournament hopes, especially if it loses to Arizona State Friday. All three WSU Pac-12 wins have come at home.


  1. Your commentary of the match is spot on. Let's hope the team has a chance to get over the disappointment of the loss, and learn the lessons from this game in time for the match against the Cougs. They always present a tough challenge for the Huskies, particularly in Pullman.

  2. Just like any other team, when you take out the star player, it's tough to adjust to the loss. Hopefully they will have figured this out by tomorrow's match with Wazzu - get a win there and they may still end up in the top 16...


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