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PALO ALTO, CALIF—No later than 60 seconds before each set, coaches submit that set’s lineup and serving order. It’s a chess match most fans don’t see: each team trying to out-guess its opponent, hoping to maximize strong rotations and avoiding bad mismatches.
In his team’s decisive fourth set at Stanford, Washington coach Jim McLaughlin figures he guessed wrong.
|Stanford celebrates a point against Washington|
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
Although Stanford has now won 21 in a row, no team has played them tougher of late than Washington. In Seattle, the Huskies let set and match points slip away in a game UW otherwise controlled. In Palo Alto, UW was the dominant team for much of the first, third and fourth sets. But Stanford again emerged the victor.
“It’s disappointing,” said McLaughlin. “I believe we can beat them.”
It all came down to that one rotation with the match on the line. Stanford freshman setter Madi Bugg’s serves were strong and precise, and the sub-par passing of Orlandini, Vansant and Cassie Strickland limited Katy Beals’ setting options. Stanford had its best passers in the back row, and hot hitters in the front.
“If you don’t pass well, you’ve got one option,” said McLaughlin.“ Against Stanford, you’ve got to use all options. You’ve got to keep it pretty balanced to keep them off-balance.”
In the third set, that’s precisely what the Huskies had done. Washington had lost set one 23-25 on two costly Vansant miscues and six team service errors, including three by senior Kylin Muñoz. Muñoz—whose great serves were key to beating Cal the previous night—had the worst serving performance of her career.
The Huskies had also lost set two—in a complete blowout that was worse than the 25-11 score would indicate. The Huskies headed to the intermission having been frustrated and humiliated by Stanford’s exceptional serving and relentless defense, particularly by libero Kyle Gilbert and freshman hitter Brittany Howard. The Cardinal had neutralized Washington’s vaunted block by sending across a steady stream of tips.
“It just put a lot of pressure on us,” said McLaughlin of his lockerroom talk. “I just talked about responding to the adversity: could we respond?”
“It’s a pride thing,” said Vansant. “We can’t get beat like that, even if we’re on the road. They’re a great team. I give them all the credit in the world. But we can’t just roll over and die.”
“And, then, we just did simple things,” said McLaughlin about his team’s resurgence in the third and fourth sets. “We did it with a lot of energy. And put some pressure on them.”
With better passing, the sets were widely distributed. Freshman Melanie Wade had several big-time quicks for kills, and a huge block at 22-20. Washington’s defense turned the tide, holding the Cardinal to .034 on the strength of 6 blocks and acrobatic digs by Orlandini.
“We just decided we’re going to go all out,” said Vansant. “We’ve got nothing to lose.”
But in that final fourth set, Vansant couldn’t pull through. She looked tired and—rare for her—visibly frustrated. At one or two key points, she couldn’t deliver a needed pass or kill.
“I’m going to hold her to a standard that’s maybe tougher than most,” said McLaughlin. “Because I think she’s got it in her to be really good. She’s got to believe in what she does, and do it with greater consistency. The pressure was on. We’re running under the ball, and we can’t get good swings. She knows that.”
“Jim putting all that pressure on me is really going to be good for this team,” Vansant said. “It will help us in the long run.
“I have to play better. I really need to step up.”
Dominant in stretches, Stanford nonetheless looked vulnerable. Of the six sets the Huskies have dropped to the Cardinal this season, four came down to just one or two plays. None more frustrating, though, than that fourth set in Palo Alto.
“We got stuck in one rotation,” said McLaughlin. “One rotation. We gotta go back to Seattle and fix it.”
“We’ve just got to stay on it, and keep working hard in practice,” said Vansant. “We’ll get ‘em eventually. If we have to play them in the Final Four, we’ll play them in the Final Four. It’ll happen. And we’re ready for that.”
- It’s always tough to travel to the Bay Area, but the schedule-makers did the Huskies no favors. This time of year, basketball starts elbowing volleyball out of preferred playing dates. After finishing the Utah match Sunday afternoon, Washington had to play in Berkeley on Wednesday and in Palo Alto the next night. “Right now, we need a lot of rest,” said McLaughlin. “So, we’re gonna take three days off. And just rest. Rest our minds, our bodies, our hearts. And come back with some energy.”
- Melanie Wade, who attended Palo Alto High, had two cheering sections in Maples Pavilion: family and friends dressed in purple, and former high school teammates in their school color green. Junior Gabbi Parker also had a big rooting section: high schoolers whom she had coached during summer volleyball camp.
- Stanford freshman outside hitter Jordan Burgess, who left last week’s Oregon State match with an ankle injury, returned to the lineup. Burgess is the Cardinal’s second-leading hitter, averaging almost 3 kills/set, but struggled (8 kills, 8 errors) against the Huskies.
- Stanford now has a 21-match win streak, the longest single-season win streak of Dunning’s 12-year tenure. Stanford was the unanimous #1 team in this week’s AVCA coaches’ poll. It was also tops in the Volleyball Magazine media poll (one vote went to Penn St), and ranked #1 in the NCAA’s RPI.
- During one six-match stretch in early October, the Cardinal were push to—and won—a fifth set four times. The closest call was in Seattle, where Washington couldn’t convert set point in the second set, and gave away match point in the fourth.