Saturday, December 8, 2012

NCAA | What we learned from Washington’s Sweet 16 loss to Nebraska

Nebraska 3, Washington 0 (25-14, 25-21, 25-23)

OMAHA—There was a point, more than halfway through the second set, when the Washington Huskies came alive.

Nebraska setter Lauren Cook (2) points to teammate Hannah Werth (44) after a rally against Washington
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
After being hammered in the first set, UW fell into a 1-6 hole in the second. For the next 25 serves, the teams traded points, UW getting kills from four different players, and NU scoring big on its right-side attack. Nebraska led 19-13.

Nebraska’s Gina Mancuso attacked into the net, sending Washington freshman setter Katy Beals to the service line. Beals launched a difficult floater, Nebraska’s Lauren Cook got a tough pass, allowing Melanie Wade and Gabbi Parker to stuff a Mancuso, Cook’s only option.

That, in a nutshell, is how Washington’s offense has worked all season.

Washington's Cassie Strickland (8) and Melanie Wade (5) block against Nebraska's Meghan Haggerty
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
On the next rally, Mancusco—aware of the block—hit it wide right. Beals served another gem; this time Wade and Kylin Muñoz closed the roof on Mancusco. The Huskies were within two, 17-19, and Nebraska coach John Cook called his second time out.

On Beals’ fourth serve, the Huskers finally got a decent pass, and Cook went to Mancuso again, this time for a kill. A long rally followed, leading to a maddeningly simple decision that changed the game.

Nebraska dug a Washington attack, but not cleanly. Mancusco got the third touch, with little choice but to send across a free ball. But instead of an easy lob, she made a forceful push to the deep corner. No one was home. The lead was once again four, a gap that was never closed.

With a home crowd behind them and memories of a bitter 2010 Sweet 16 loss to Washington still in their minds, the Huskers were aggressive at every opportunity. By comparison, the Huskies were not.

We’ve seen it before. Two teams are evenly matched. Neither is used to losing. The team that falls behind gets tentative. Players start thinking about not getting blocked, about not hitting it out, about not making a mistake.

Meanwhile, the team with the lead plays with abandon. Jump serves boom. Impossible balls are dug. Balls that might be tipped are blasted.

Washington coach Jim McLaughlin
in a sea of Nebraska red
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
Sometimes this season, the Huskies have been the team that plays with abandon. But in some of their losses—including Friday’s Nebraska match—they are the team afraid to lose.

“When you play the game like we play it,” says Washington coach Jim McLaughlin, “anything can happen. You can’t phone it in.”

In volleyball, everything starts with passing. A good server knows when passers are frustrated or even afraid. When Nebraska’s Lara Dykstra served bullets for a 7-point run, you could see both on the face of at least one Washington player.

During other Husker runs, the same kinds of balls that UW hitters were tipping were being pounded by Nebraska. And the Washington tips were simply too easy, too obvious.

“We didn’t handle the environment right, that’s the lesson we have to learn from,” said McLaughlin. “We can’t be like a thermostat, we can’t let the outside influences adjust us. We were high and low.”

There are some silver linings. At several crucial junctures, the six Huskies on the court included three freshmen and two sophomores. McLaughlin has a lot to work with in the years ahead.

And the six teams Washington lost to this season (twice to Stanford) all qualified for the tournament, four reached the Elite 8 (Stanford, USC, Oregon, Nebraska), and—as of this writing—three could reach the Final Four. What it means is the Huskies are an elite team, chasing just a few other elites.

McLaughlin is already looking forward to more years with his younger athletes.

“They’re good players. They’re good people. Every day in practice is great being around them.”

As big as the crowds are in Omaha, and as loyal as they are, they don’t seem all that intimidating. The stands are a ways from the court, the sound echoes more than it permeates, and fans are church-service silent during run of play, often eerily so.


  1. Any thought on the chances of the NCAA approving a medical redshirt year for Amanda? When is she expected to receive the decision?

    1. Amanda--the only Huskies player to stick around for the Oregon/Nebraska match--tells us the appeal has been filed, and that she hopes to hear in a month or so.

  2. tentative described what we saw looking at a computer screen ESPN3. It certainly wasn't one of their better performances this year. Next year hopefully they advance to a more business like mindset versus the emotional, good at home but overwhelmed on the road against a partisan loud crowd.
    We still loved how they finally woke up but it was too late.
    What do you think Amanda's and Kylin's chances are with the quizzical NCAA on their one more year appeals?

  3. We need a middle attack, especially the ability for one of our middles to slide out and make a kill from the outside post. That's how Oregon changed the complexion of their match against Nebraska. Once Nebraska had to look for the slide out, things opened up for the rest of Oregon's attack. - Bob

  4. If I could ask Jim 2 questions, this is what they would be...

    1. Jim, in your opinion, do you think the high risk serving helped or hindered your team's performance this year? With an ace to error ratio of .56, it didn't really seem to help.

    2. Why didn't you use the middle attack more? Teams that scouted you didn't really bother with blocking the middle and were able to put up solid blocks on the pins. With a couple of your middles hitting over .400, it would make sense to get them involved more.


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