Monday, October 14, 2013

Pac-12 | What we learned from Washington volleyball’s win against Arizona State

A small play becomes the biggest play of all …
  • #6 Washington def. #16 Arizona State 3-0 (25-21, 25-22, 25-16)
  • next: California @ #6 Washington | October 16 | 7:30PM

One split second. That’s all the time Washington's Krista Vansant had to make a decision that could change the match.

Washington's Jenni Nogueras (9) launches a backset against Arizona State
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann

It was the second set, tied at 22. Vansant had rotated to the right side. Arizona State served; Washington’s Cassie Strickland sent a perfect pass to setter Jenni Nogueras. As Vansant began her approach, Nogueras flicked a quick, but wide, backset her way. Across the net, ASU’s Macey Gardner coiled for a block.

What would Krista do?

In a match between two ranked teams using variations of the same system, the Huskies had jumped to a quick first set lead, then held on for a win. In the second set, the Sun Devils used a devastating 7-0 run to take and maintain a lead. The ASU streak included two stuff blocks, persuading several Huskies to dial back their attacks. Some even sprinkled in a few poorly-executed tip attempts.

Washington's Melanie Wade and Kylin Munoz (24) react to an Arizona State point
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
Just two nights earlier, during a streaky 3-1 win against Arizona, Washington coach Jim McLaughlin had decried his team’s lack of aggression. “We tip too much,” he complained, “especially in point-scoring situations. We gotta learn how to make them (opponents) pay. And you don’t do that by tipping.”

Sunday afternoon, senior opposite hitter Kylin Muñoz echoed those feelings. “We’ve been working on mental toughness and dominating our opponents. He (McLaughlin) wants us to be aggressive. We don’t want to be the team known for tipping.”

Early in the Arizona State match, Muñoz failed to follow McLaughlin’s advice. She had no kills in the first set, hitting many balls cross-court without much zip.

“It definitely frustrated me,” Muñoz said. “I couldn’t put a ball away. But I knew it would eventually come.”

With ASU leading 10-9 in the second set, the Devil’s 5’8 setter Bianca Areliano teamed with middle Whitney Follette to stuff a Muñoz swing. Something had to change. From the sidelines, Nogueras could see that see that she and fellow setter Katy Beals needed to push right-side sets further out to the pins. “ASU had weaker blockers on that side,” Nogueras recounted. “We needed to exploit that weakness.”

Three points later, with the Arizona State lead at 3, Muñoz decided to swing down the line instead of hitting cross-court. “I could see the blockers better,” she said. Two pinpoint Beals backsets led to two consecutive Muñoz line kills.

When Nogueras rotated back in, she made the same backset connection with opposite hitter Kaleigh Nelson. As ASU’s blockers started to scramble, Nogueras then called Vansant’s number for a combo in the middle and the Huskies finally forged ahead. The teams battled back-and-forth until that key moment, with the score tied at 22.

Throughout the weekend—against both Arizona schools—Vansant had been in a zone. Her serving had improved, her defense was the best of the season, and she had been hitting hard most every chance she could. But that Nogueras set at 22-22—to the right side, of course—drifted just beyond the antenna. In that brief moment, Vansant was forced to do something that many coaches call “manage the game.”

“That was the key,” said ASU head coach Jason Watson, “she (Vansant) managed it.”

Despite the no-tip mantra, and despite the overwhelming temptation of big hitters like Vansant and Gardner to pound the ball with the set on the line, Vansant’s instincts—honed from endless hours in the gym—told her to make a smarter play. She took a three-step approach, jumped high, pulled her hitting arm back in textbook attack position … and then gently delivered a tip. The ball arched softly above the fingertips of a very surprised Gardner, and in front of ASU’s back-row defense.

“She disguised it,” said McLaughlin. “She sold it.”

“She gave us what we thought was gonna happen,” said Watson, but camouflaged it so well that “we just didn’t respond.”

Now up 23-24, Vansant rotated to the service line. Her float serve was tough to handle, giving UW’s blockers time to recognize that Areliano had called a right-side slide for Gardner. Muñoz and middle Melanie Wade stuffed it straight down. At set point, Vansant delivered a wicked float. “The bottom drops out,” said McLaughlin. “It’s the play I’m gonna remember.”

“It was just pretty nasty,” Watson agreed.

Taking a 2-0 lead into the break was not necessarily reassuring to McLaughlin. All season, he’s been concerned about his team losing focus after getting ahead. Staying on task had been a big point of emphasis all week. He paid particular attention as the team came back out of the lockerroom for the start of set three.

“I’m looking at everything,” he said. “Looking at body language and the activity. Are we quiet? Are we itching to get onto the court? Are we looking up into the stands?

“And the girls were focused. And it showed. We got off strong. That’s the first time we’ve done that this year.”

How focused? Washington exploded to a 10-2 set three lead, largely on the strength of marvelous defense by libero Jenna Orlandini, sprinkled with big digs by Vansant and Nogueras.

“That’s one of the things we’ve worked on this year that we didn’t work on in other years,” said Nogueras. “We wouldn’t really have drills for defense before. Now we’re taking it upon ourselves to get digging reps, to have coaches hit on us. It’s really fun.”

ASU launched a brief run, but Nogueras ended it with another smart backset, this one to Muñoz. Like the coaches say, the senior setter was managing the game.

“They’re a team—by far and away—that manages the game better than anyone that we’ve played this year,” said Watson. High praise from a coach whose team upset defending national champion Texas earlier this season.

“Washington,” said Watson, “does that better than Texas, for sure.”

  • After attracting a crowd of nearly 5,000 Friday night, the Huskies drew 2,331 for ASU. It’s an impressive mark, especially on a rare sunny Sunday afternoon at 3PM while a tight Seahawks game was still in progress. By comparison, Oregon drew 2,072 for a match at the very same time against #1-ranked USC (a hard-fought USC 3-0 sweep.)
  • The Pac-12 Networks’ television schedule continues to scramble starting times and dates. Washington’s next match comes right away, a home contest against enigmatic California. The Golden Bears have 3-0 victories over UCLA, Arizona and Colorado, but lost 3-1 at home Sunday night to Utah.
  • Speaking of UCLA, the Bruins escaped in the battle for the bottom, needing 5 sets to squeak past Oregon State in Corvallis. UCLA is now 1-5 in conference play; the Beavers are 0-6.

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