Thursday, October 17, 2013

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

Lessons from Sampson and Cy Young propel Kaleigh Nelson and her teammates to a win over the Bears
  • #6 Washington def. California 3-0 (25-23, 25-21, 25-20)
  • next: #7 Stanford @ #6 Washington | October 20 | 4:30PM

For the past several months, Washington’s Kaleigh Nelson has thought about cutting her hair. Monday night, she told her stylist to let the scissors fly.

“I just wanted change,” Nelson said.

Washington's Kaleigh Nelson (6) and teammates cheer a point against California
-photo by Shutter Geeks Photography

When the Biblical Sampson’s hair was shorn, he famously lost his strength. So when Nelson started the first set of Wednesday’s match against California with a series of weak-hitting errors, one might have wondered if the woman with shorter locks had somehow misplaced her mojo. Nelson ended the very first rally by hitting the ball into the net. She ended the second rally with a net violation. With UW trailing 3-1, she was stuffed by Cal’s Michelle Neumayr.

“It was frustrating, making errors,” Nelson confessed.

With Cal leading 6-2, Nelson sailed a ball out-of-bounds. Her coach, Jim McLaughlin had seen enough, and called a timeout.

“I challenged her at that point,” said McLaughlin, “and I asked her, who is she? Is she this kid that can make a lot of errors? Or is she this kid that can stabilize and just hit shots?”

In practice this past week, McLaughlin talked a lot about consistency. Too often, he’d seen his hitters make errors or get blocked, and then resort to weaker, lower percentage attacks like tips or roll shots. His message: work through the inevitable momentum swings by focusing on the one or two shots you do best.

“I told them, if you’re gonna pitch in the major leagues, those guys have one or two pitches, and they throw ‘em. And they know the strike zone. And if you’re gonna win a Cy Young, you’re gonna know it even better. We talked about winning Cy Young Awards as hitters.”

The first point out of the timeout? A Nelson slam, straight down the right-side line. It was both a gift and a challenge from her setter, Jenni Nogueras.

“Gosh, I love that girl,” Nelson said. “Jenni was a stud. She’s a lot more vocal than she used to be. She gets on us, but that’s what teammates have to do.”

With the kill, Nelson rotated out, and the Huskies continued to struggle. At one point they trailed 12-6, as Cal’s hitters—and particularly opposite Christina Higgins—pounded the ball with abandon.

“(Higgins) can hit high and deep, she can put it down,” said Cal coach Rich Feller. “She’s pretty tough to defend.”

Nelson reentered the rotation with her team back within two, thanks to some timely hitting by teammate Krista Vansant. But Cal’s other big weapon, Adrienne Gehan, welcomed Nelson with a powerful slam for a point. On the next rally, however, Nelson answered with a smart kill off Gehan’s block attempt. Gehan accepted the challenge and delivered another kill, only to see Nelson pound cross-court from the right side, then a send a smart attack off high hands for yet another point. Three swings, three kills. And Nelson was back.

Hair or no hair.

“I wanted to stay consistent, keep going for my shot over and over again,” she said. “And not dwell on the fact that I started off not very strong. It’s all about finishing strong.”

And finish strong she did, tying with Vansant for 14 kills for the match. “She wasn’t herself,” said McLaughlin, “and then she became herself in a big way.”

But the biggest play was yet to come. With Washington trailing 21-20, Nelson hit a cross with power off the Cal block. Gehan again responded with a monster kill, and Vansant answered with a powerful shot of her own. Feller called a timeout with the score tied at 22. He wanted to make sure Higgins got a swing.

“The scouting report on Washington is the corners are open,” Feller said, “‘cause they play a bunched-in defense, everyone knows that. If you can hit it high over the block into the corner, you can probably get a score.”

With Vansant serving, Cal setter Joan Caloiaro delivered to Higgins on the right. But, for whatever reason—set too close to the net? block too imposing?—Higgins decided to tip, and the Huskies easily kept it in play. It wasn’t what Feller wanted.

“Nope, not at all,” he said. “With Washington’s defense, tips don’t generally fall. ‘Cause they’re so close in. Washington had zero blocks that first game. So my opinion would be, why not swing away at those, and see what happens?”

Instead, it was Nelson who had a chance to swing away, on a set from Nogueras, and she buried it down the line. After a Vansant service error, Nogueras trusted Nelson again, and—you guessed it—Nelson delivered. That made it 24-23, allowing Melanie Wade to complete the comeback with a service ace.

“We have some adversity? Respond to it,” McLaughlin said. “It’s the type of people we have, the type of team we have. That’s all it is. These kids can make some plays when it counts.”

“We’re working in practice on keeping the edge, staying competitive,” said Nelson. “A lot of that is staying aggressive: getting our feet to the ball, going after every swing, and not tipping. Making them earn the points, not giving them any extra points.”

And although Cal competed hard the rest of the match (“They’re the best team we’ve played so far,” said McLaughlin,) Washington refused to hand the Bears any gifts. After those first three errors at the top of the match, Nelson committed just one more the rest of the way. Vansant had 14 kills and just 1 error on 29 swings. As a team, the Huskies committed just two hitting errors in each of the final two sets, while the Bears had 12 errors over that span.

Jenna Orlandini had another stellar match for Washington, with 15 digs, some of them sensational. “She’s becoming a great player,” McLaughlin said, “In line with (former Washington All-American liberos) Tama Miyashiro and Candace Lee.” And the Huskies—who lead the 328 teams in Division 1 in aces/set—added 5 more aces, including 2 each from soft-serving Katy Beals and hard-serving Cassie Strickland.

Wiping her brow and readjusting her hair at the end of the match, Nelson was reminded of her unfamiliar coiffure. “It felt so weird to reach back and have, really, no ponytail.”

Turns out, she didn’t need it.

[10/17/13 | 3:45PM: corrects early version to note that Cal played Utah at home--not USC on the road--Sunday night]
  • The Pac-12’s Wednesday night matches continue to draw scrutiny from many conference coaches. After Washington drew large crowds last weekend against Arizona and Arizona State, the announced attendance was only 1,525. “I don’t know how good that looks on TV when there aren’t a lot of people,” said Feller. Feller wasn’t dissing the UW faithful—he was reacting to a two-year pattern of poorly-attended matches whenever the Pac-12 Network schedules a mid-week game.
  • Feller’s team had another reason to be concerned about the schedule: academics. The Bears played a night match in against Utah Sunday (a 3-1 loss to) then had classes and a film session Monday (“We couldn’t really practice Monday,” he said, “we were whipped.”) After a short day on Tuesday, the team flew to Seattle Tuesday afternoon. “I’m not sure how much trouble I could get in for saying something about that,” he said. “I will say that our team is going to miss double the number of classes this year than they have any year that I’ve been here. And that’s a hardship. It’s an extreme hardship on a student-athlete.”
  • The Bears won’t return home until Sunday, because the schedule has them playing Saturday night in Pullman. It begs the question: couldn’t the conference have scheduled that match for Friday?
  • Although the match was the only Pac-12 game of the evening, and although it was featured on the Pac-12 Networks, there were no broadcasters in Seattle. Instead, the play-by-play was called from a studio in San Francisco, as the announcers watched a video feed. 

Photos courtesy Shutter Geeks Photography


  1. Orlandini's digs are the biggest difference between last year and this year. Last year, she really wasn't very good and it hurt the team. If she keeps improving (this team has everything else) the Huskies have a chance to get to the Final Four in Seattle.


  2. Cal was home in Berkeley on Sunday against Utah, the USC road match was two weeks ago.


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