Thursday, November 8, 2012

Pac-12 | What we learned from Washington’s win at California

#5 Washington 3, California 2 (25-22, 22-25, 16-25, 28-26, 17-15)
next: #5 Washington @ #1 Stanford | November 8 | 8PM | Pac-12 Network

BERKELEY, CALIF—At the end of the match—after set points and match points had come and gone and come again—the head coach smiled.

“It was a fun battle. What a great college volleyball match that was.”

And that was the LOSING coach, Cal’s always-classy Rich Feller. His counterpart, Washington’s Jim McLaughlin, felt exactly the same way.

“One of the most fun matches I’ve been involved with at UW,” said McLaughlin. “Character. Fight. Playing through adversity.”

Washington's Cassie Strickland (8) celebrates a point against California
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann

To win for the 20th time this season, #5 Washington (20-4) had to overcome match points in both the fourth and fifth sets, winning each in thrilling fashion.

And, as is so often true when two talented teams meet, it came down in the end to serving and passing.

After winning set one in fairly workmanlike fashion, the Huskies’ serving went south. There were a few balls into the net or out-of-bounds, but mostly it was serves that allowed Cal to run its full slate of options with ease. Cal setter Joan Caloiro dished early on to skywalking outside hitter Christina Higgins, who finished with 18 kills. Too often, she also found either Shannon Hawari or Correy Johnson on the right side, where UW has proved vulnerable against top teams the past few weeks.

Cal won the second set, holding Huskies’ star Krista Vansant to just one kill that frame, and permitting UW—the nation’s top blocking team—just two blocks. The third set was more of the same, as the Bears won going away, 25-16.

Before the start of the fourth set, McLaughlin talked to his team about serving.

Washington's Krista Vansant (16) celebrates a point against California
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
“Jim told us, we’re not serving tough, we need to serve tough,” said freshman middle blocker Melanie Wade. “And that will help our blocking. We were serving too safe, I think.”

Wade—playing before a contingent of family and friends wearing sparkly purple shirts—had a big night, with 9 kills and 4 block assists. But she was just one of four freshmen who helped turn it around.

Freshmen Katy Beals had an erratic night setting, but started to find her targets as the passing improved. Freshman Lianna Sybeldon brought energy when Amanda Gil slowed down and Kelsey Dunaway was missing block opportunities.

But it was freshman hitter Cassie Strickland who had the biggest impact of all. Her powerful jump serve was dialed in. She found holes in the block on her attack, tying a career best with 11 kills. But most of all, she played defense, digging a barrage of tips, roll shots and big attacks, often at crucial moments.

“Cassie got in good spots,“ said McLaughlin, “and just pressured ‘em.

“It’s just fun playing with her.”

Tied at 23 in the fourth set, Strickland shocked the Bears with a kill from the middle. Johnson, however, brought Cal to match point with consecutive right side kills. Kaleigh Nelson responded with a fearless slam, extraordinary for its riskiness at that stage of the contest. Kylin Muñoz then served two bullets, throwing Cal out-of-system, and allowing Washington to pull it out 28-26.

Things looked bleak for the Huskies midway through the fifth set. Cal built a 10-6 lead, mostly on right-side attacks. The Bears were getting touches on the Huskies’ hits, allowing defenders to dig UW time and again. It looked very much like Washington was in for a heartbreaking loss reminiscent of the 5-set match it dropped at USC two weeks ago.

McLaughlin began making wholesale substitutions, bringing in Gabbi Parker and Kelcey Dunaway. Beals stepped to the line and made three marvelous serves. Helped by big-time digs from Vansant and libero Jenna Orlandini, Parker recorded two consecutive kills, to tie the score.

“Gabbi came in,” said Strickland, “and just played big time.”

“I think we served tougher,” said McLaughlin. “We just went for it serving. They were off the net. It’s really tough to stay in a rhythm on that angle when you’re way off the net.”

With the score tied at 13, McLaughlin had four freshmen and sophomore Vansant on the floor. A strong Sybeldon attack looked like a winner, but she was called for touching the net on her follow through. With Cal again at match point, Vansant got two consecutive kills, helped by a monster Strickland dig.

“A really good move,” McLaughlin called Strickland’s play.

At 16-15, Vansant rotated to the back row. Against the LA schools, that usually spelled doom for Washington. But Vansant served well, then came up with a picture-perfect dig.

“Heroic,” McLaughlin called it.

As the rally continued, Vansant called for the ball. Launching from the back row, she aimed for Cal’s middle blockers’ hands. And got the kill. And the set. And the first win in Berkeley since 2009.

To McLaughlin, the talent on the floor was evenly matched. Coming off a stellar comeback win just three days earlier against Utah, the coach said intangibles—like refusing to quit—were the difference.

“We hold every kid in our program to these values. Those things have to happen. Those things are real. And that’s why we’ve won a couple of close games that we didn’t win last year.”

  • The match was nationally televised on ESPNU, with USA National Team head coach Karch Kiraly handling the broadcast. Attendance at Haas Pavilion was only a few hundred; the Bears have had a difficult time attracting home crowds, even though they are just two seasons removed from playing in the National Championship match with national Player of the Year (now graduated) Carly Lloyd.
  • One of the most recognizable Bears the past few seasons was libero Robin Rostratter. You might remember her from the bright blue helmet she wore during matches—a safety measure after suffering a concussion. Rostratter, a senior, has not played at all this season, recovering this time from an injury to her hip and groin. If, as expected, the former walk-on does not play at all the rest of this season, she hopes get an additional season next year. And that helmet? The past two seasons, she’s worn one designed for tai kwon do. The next time she’s on the court, she intends to wear a new style, this one designed for rugby.
  • When Cal played in Seattle October 21, the Huskies held the Bears to its lowest hitting average of the season, just .073. In Berkeley, Cal won the hitting battle .282-.205. 

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