Thursday, April 26, 2012

Washington volleyball recruit Melanie Wade knows she’s tall, thank you

This morning, Volleyblog Seattle spoke by phone to University of Washington recruit Melanie Wade, who officially enrolled for the fall quarter this week. The 6’5 hitter is a senior at Palo Alto High School, in the shadow of Stanford University. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Volleyball recruit Lianna Sybeldon fell for Washington early

This afternoon, Volleyblog Seattle spoke by phone to University of Washington recruit Lianna Sybeldon, who signed a 2012 letter of intent last week. The 6’2 middle blocker is in her final weeks of high school in Folsom, California, east of Sacramento.  Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:

Inaugural Collegiate NCAA Sand Volleyball National Championship begin this Friday

Summer Ross, the freshman Pepperdine sand volleyball star who played indoors with Washington last fall, will be among the favorites to win the inaugural NCAA/AVCA Collegiate Sand Volleyball National Championship this weekend in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Ross, of Carlsbad, CA, partners with effervescent junior Caitlin Racich of Santa Barbara.

Washington volleyball confirms final recruit for 2012

Palo Alto’s Melanie Wade, ranked among the nation’s top high school seniors, is officially the fourth and final member of the Washington Huskies’ 2012 freshman volleyball class.

Melanie Wade
Sources confirmed that the University of Washington received Wade’s acceptance letter this week. The university’s athletic website reports that she’ll join the team this fall.

Wade, listed at 6-feet, 5-inches, has played both middle and right side. There should be strong competition at both positions this fall, with the graduation of senior middle blockers Bianca Rowland and Lauren Barfield, and the departure (for the Pepperdine sand volleyball team) of freshman right side hitter Summer Ross.

Wade grew up in the shadow of Washington rival Stanford; her Palo Alto High School team won back-to-back California D-1 state championships the past two seasons.

Wade was included on several prep All-American lists, and has competed in the USA Volleyball junior system.

Washington’s strong 2012 freshman class also includes setter Katy Beals (Austin, TX), libero Cassie Strickland (Huntington Beach, CA) and hitter/middle Lianna Sybeldon (Folsom, CA).

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Courtney Thompson ready to compete for Olympic volleyball spot

It was 6am, and the sun was rising. On the streets and in the plaza of Cataño, joyous volleyball fans were still celebrating. And Courtney Thompson and her Lancheras teammates were out there with them.

“It was amazing,” Thompson says. “It’s the reason I decided to play in Puerto Rico.”

Courtney Thompson (center) exhorts her team during the Puerto Rican professional championships.
Thompson, the former University of Washington All-American, is now back on the mainland after the all-night Caribbean party. Next week, she’ll head back to Anaheim, continuing her four-year quest to be selected to the team representing the United States at the London Summer Olympics.

But, for a few more days, she’s relishing what it felt like to help win a professional volleyball championship in a country that understands and appreciates her sport.

“I had opportunities to return to the European leagues,” she said, “but—as corny as it sounds—I wanted to go where I could play for more than just me, where it was more than just a job. It was a very calculated decision.”

Thompson first signed with Cataño two years ago, for a team that had no history of winning. “Maybe the worst team ever,” she remembers. But Thompson and her teammates turned it around, leading the Lancheras deep into the playoffs that season.

In 2009, Thompson opted for the European pro leagues, where most members of the USA National Team play (and where star American outside hitters can earn salaries in excess of a million dollars.) Thompson, one of the shorter setters among the international elite, was overlooked by several teams, and signed with Zeiler Konizset. She promptly led her team to the Swiss championship.

This winter, however, her heart returned to Puerto Rico. “The Puerto Rican league begins in January, which allowed me to be home (in Kent, WA) for Christmas, something I couldn’t do if I played in Europe. One of my brothers is in the military and the other has just gotten married. We weren’t sure when we’d next get the chance to be together again.”

And even though the level of play—and amount of pay—is higher in Europe, Thompson longed for a chance to demonstrate her leadership. “As a setter, you’ve got to locate the ball, no matter where you play,” says Thompson. In Puerto Rico, she’d also get a chance to help a team play better than anyone expected.

Her Cataño team started strong, bolstered by fellow USA teammates Angie Forsett (Cal) and Jessica Jones (Minnesota), but struggled with injuries throughout the season. The team mounted an inspired charge throughout the playoffs, and shocked everyone by sweeping heavily-favored Caguas 4-0 in the best-of-seven Finals. Thompson—wildly popular for her on-court passion—was named Championship MVP. Fans in the packed arena swarmed the court and were ready to party.

“There were, like, 7,000 people waiting for us in the plaza,” said Thompson. “These are good, hard-working, mostly blue collar folks, and they are absolutely proud of their city. It was the first championship in any sport that the city had ever won, and they were ready to celebrate.”

With another championship under her belt, Thompson rejoins what is likely the best women’s volleyball team on the planet. The US National Team may have its best collection of athletes ever, including a bevy of great setters. Lindsay Berg (Minnesota) may have the inside track on one of two setter slots on the 12-person London roster. The battle for the second opening will be epic, featuring Carly Lloyd (California), Nellie Spicer (UCLA), Alisha Glass (Penn State), and, of course, Thompson.

“I don’t look like much, and it isn’t always pretty,” says Thompson, “but I expect to give it my best shot.”

As if she knows how to do it any other way.

  • On April 19, Thompson will be at Washington’s Hec Ed Pavilion at 3:30pm. She’ll participate in a scrimmage with the 2012 Huskies’ team, now in their second week of spring practice.
    CLARIFICATION (11:00am, 4/19/12): Thompson plans to attend today's scrimmage, but will not participate in the drills.
  • Next up for the US National Team is the Grand Prix competition. The 12 players on the London Olympics roster won't be named until July.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Former UW volleyball star Courtney Thompson wins another title

Courtney Thompson knows how to win.

In 2005, she led the University of Washington volleyball team to its first national championship. The following season, she was named the outstanding volleyball collegian in America. Last year, playing professionally, she was the starting setter for Switzerland’s champion.

MVP Courtney Thompson celebrates Catano's 4-0 series sweep to win the Puerto Rican professional championship. Fans placed a wrestling-style belt around her shoulders, decorated with the Lancheras' mascot, a ferry boat.

Last night, Thompson added another crown, leading her team to the Puerto Rican professional championship. Thompson, a Kentlake High graduate, was named the MVP of the finals.

In some ways, last night’s victory may have been the most unlikely. The opponent was mighty Caguas, the New York Yankees of the Puerto Rico professional league. The Creoles have been to the finals twenty times; they had not lost consecutive matches in three seasons. Their setter is well-regarded Michelle Nogueras, older sister of University of Washington setter Jenni Nogueras.

Thompson’s team, the Cataño Lancheras, were Sad Sacks by comparison. The team had a long history of losing, and entered the best-of-seven final series as definitive underdogs.

But Thompson transformed the Lancheras, whose nickname refers to the ferry boats which connect Cataño with San Juan. In a profile titled “Worshiped in Cataño,” the Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevodia said “Thompson won over fans with charisma on the court,” and with her leadership and intensity.

“Mothers wrote letters to the team,” says University of Washington assistant coach Keno Gandara, “praising Courtney as a role model for their daughters. And Courtney wrote personal letters back. They love her there.”

The Lancheras shocked Caguas by winning the first three matches of the best-of-seven Finals. The championships were moved to a larger arena to accommodate the swelling crowds.

Last night, Caguas, leading two sets to one, took the lead in the fourth set. Thompson and her teammates--including former California All-American Angie Forsett--fought back, winning both the fourth and fifth sets, earning a four-match sweep and the title. It was Cataño’s first championship.

For the past four years, Thompson has been a member of the US National Team. She’ll now return home for the biggest battle of her volleyball life: trying to make the cut for team that will represent the USA at this summer’s London Olympics.

If USA head coach Hugh McCutcheon is looking for a setter who knows something about winning …

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

No sentimental sendoff for volleyball legend Al Scates

[this report includes a video link, below]

WESTWOOD, CA—A true legend gets ready for the final home matches of his 50-year career. The weekend’s checklist seems pretty obvious:
  • Dozens of alumni fly in from everywhere? Check 
  • The university prepares tear-jerking tributes? Check 
  • Fans pack the arena? Check 
  • A weekend full of sappy sentimentality? Not quite.
UCLA men's head coach Al Scates
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann

UCLA men’s volleyball coach Al Scates, whose tenure and success may never be surpassed, managed to avoid a saccharine exit when his team tangled both Friday and Saturday with visiting BYU.

How sour was it? Here was BYU head coach Chris McGown, speaking to the BYU school newspaper after the Cougars split the weekend series with the Bruins:

“The way Scates went about arguing his point was completely contrary to not only league rules but also sportsmanship and ethics.”

Harsh words to direct at a fellow coach who has won 21 national championships.

UCLA triple block vs. BYU
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
McGown—son of another volleyball coaching legend, Carl McGown—was talking about the conclusion of Friday’s match. Which actually concluded Saturday. Which was a BYU win. Then a tie. Then a BYU loss. Then a tie. Then a BYU win.

Got it?

“I’ve never seen a sporting event with such a bizarre ending in my life,” said Karch Kiraly, in the stands to root on his old Bruins’ coach.

In Friday’s fifth set, with BYU serving at 16-15, redshirt freshman Josue Rivera served a ball to the back line. The line judge called it long; the up ref overruled. Ace serve, end of match, BYU joyous.

But Scates was not done. He challenged the call, and not gently. After twenty long minutes, BYU was stunned (to say the least) to be called back out of the locker room. The score was set at 16-16, and play continued. A few minutes later, the Bruins prevailed 20-18.

According to McGown, both he and his players were so upset with the outcome, no one could sleep after Friday’s match.

Saturday evening, many dozens of disappointed fans were turned away from the Wooden Center as the weekend’s second match was sold out. Inside, both the Cougars and Bruins were still seething.

During the day, BYU officials had filed a complaint. Three hours before Saturday’s match, the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation decreed that the score of Friday’s fifth set would once again be reset to 16-16, to be concluded before the start of Saturday’s match. The conference called in veteran referee Rick Olmstead to officiate the match; Olmstead had spent the day in Malibu officiating five hours of women’s sand volleyball between USC and Pepperdine.

UCLA had first serve for the continuation of Friday’s match. BYU—on the strength of a kill and a block— quickly won 18-16. McGown chest-bumped his assistant coach, as two BYU players performed backflips in front of the partisan crowd. [see Volleyblog Seattle video]

The scheduled Saturday match began 15 minutes later; UCLA won in a rout. McGown blamed his team’s sleepless night; UCLA players credited the desire to send their coach out with a win.

Most BYU players did not stick around for the post-match ceremonies honoring Scates and his wife. If they had, they would have witnessed five decades of Olympians, All-Americans and national champions join their coach all posing for what should long be an iconic photo of men’s volleyball history.

50 years of UCLA men's volleyball alumni pose after coach Al Scates' final home regular-season match
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann

The biggest crowds and the best jobs in American collegiate volleyball are in the women’s game. But watching the passion and power of the men’s game was a reminder of what a big deal this could become throughout the Northwest, Arizona and the Rockies. Among Pac-12 schools, only USC, UCLA and Stanford sponsor men’s volleyball teams. Fans in the rest of the conference should be making the kind of noise heard in Westwood this weekend to insist the men’s game is played everywhere.

Do you agree? Let us know.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Summer Ross and sand volleyball partner win big vs. USC

MALIBU, CA—The sky was brilliant blue. The Zuma Beach sand grew warmer as the temperature inched past 75 degrees. It was spring, but Summer was in heaven.

Pepperdine's #1 sand volleyball dual Caitlin Racich and Summer Ross in action against USC
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
“I love this,” Summer Ross beamed. “I can go to school and play nothing but sand volleyball.”

Ross, a freshman, is half of Pepperdine’s #1 sand volleyball dual, after spending the fall playing indoor volleyball for Washington. Ross and irrepressible teammate Caitlin Racich are among the favorites to win the inaugural AVCA/NCAA sand championship later this month.

During a break in a daylong combination dual/pairs competition against USC, Ross talked about her transfer to Pepperdine. “I get to see my brother (Pepperdine men’s volleyball player Chase Ross) every day. It’s really great.”

Summer Ross blocks against USC at Zuma Beach
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
Also great for Ross is the chance to play sand ball year round. “No more indoor for me,” she says, “It’s just sand.”

Ross says she left Washington on good terms, and says she stays in touch with her former Huskies teammates. She’s on a sand scholarship with the Waves, which means she is not eligible for the indoor team in fall.

But on the beach, Ross shows much of what made her special at Washington. Her defense is relentless, keeping rally after rally alive by instantly sticking out her forearms in near-perfect point-saving platforms. She plays with little outward emotion, rarely getting rattled by a lost opportunity. The same redirections, roll shots and dinks that sometimes baffled Washington fans are deadly weapons in the sand.

Against USC’s #1 dual of Sara Shaw and Geena Urango, Ross’s shy demeanor stood out next to her buoyant Pepperdine partner. Racich, a junior, plays with abandon, but sees the court well. Neither athlete makes many unforced errors.

“Sand is so different from indoor,” Racich said. “You have to be great at every volleyball skill, and you need to be ready to defend every inch of the court.”

Among those in the sun-drenched crowd of about 200 was USC indoor coach Mick Haley. Haley says he’s happy USC is the first (and, so far, only) Pac-12 school to compete in sand. “It’s definitely an advantage in recruiting,” he says, adding “for now.” But, he says, “I’d like all the Pac-12 schools to be playing in both fall and spring.

Stanford is building a campus sand arena for 2013. USC is also building it’s own campus complex, complete with bleachers. No other Pac-12 schools have yet committed to next season.

Pepperdine's Summer Ross
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
Ross and Racich breezed past Shaw and Urango during the morning team dual competition, as Pepperdine won 4 matches to 1, to go 10-0 in team play this season. During the afternoon, Ross and Racich stayed unbeaten on the day, winning three matches to capture the pairs tournament, defeating USC’s Natalie  Hagglund and Katie Fuller in straight sets. The Waves and Trojans should be among the top contenders during the AVCA national championships at the end of April. And several players on both teams have their eyes on bigger prizes.

The London Olympics are this summer; the host in 2016 will be Rio de Janeiro.

“Beach ball is huge at the Olympic games,” Haley says, “and there is a demand for televised matches that will stretch next season and beyond.”

“Rio,” says Ross, “is definitely on my mind.”

  • Both teams wear tank tops and shorts, a noticeable (and, some say, welcome) contrast to the skinny bikinis worn by pros and Olympians.
  • Racich was a high school teammate of the late Sam Wopat. Wopat, a Stanford sophomore, took her own life last month just before final exams. "It hurts," Racich says. "The Wopat family needs all the love we can give."
  • While Washington's indoor team began spring training this week, Haley held team drills in January, to accommodate sand.
  • A refreshing difference in the sand game: no line judges. The up ref makes line calls, and asks players to help  with out-of-bounds calls when they can.

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