Monday, October 21, 2013

Pac-12 | What we learned from Washington volleyball’s win over Stanford

Nation’s top serving team matches up with nation’s top blocking team … and serving wins out
  • #6 Washington def. #7 Stanford 3-2 (14-25, 25-21, 25-11, 22-25, 15-12)
  • next: #6 Washington @ UCLA | Oct 25 | 8PM | Pac-12 Networks

In the end, a game of inches. A ball barely in or out. A slight, but illegal, contact with the net during an attack or block attempt. A serve that drops barely beyond the reach of a receiver.

Washington's Krista Vansant (16) celebrates a point in a 3-2 win against Stanford
-photo by Shutter Geeks Photography

As two of the nation’s best teams battled to a dramatic finish Sunday afternoon, it was clear that the littlest things would have the biggest impact. And, in front of nearly 5,000 loud fans at Alaska Airlines Arena, it was the home team that made the little things count, as #6 Washington defeated #7 Stanford in five memorable sets.

It didn’t start out that way. Washington is the best serving team in the land, leading the nation (328 Division 1 teams) in aces per set, with many other non-aces keeping opponents off balances and out of system. But the Huskies began set one with a string of relatively easy and uninspired serves. Stanford was happy to oblige, as setter Madi Bugg was able to use a string of near-perfect passes to disguise an increasingly deadly array of attacks. With freedom to choose, Bugg most often sent her two All-American middles—senior Carly Wopat and sophomore Inky Ajanaku—racing to the right pin on slides. By set’s end, the two had combined for 7 slide kills en route to a rout: 25-14.

“We were uncharacteristic,” said Washington coach Jim McLaughlin. “We weren’t hitting our shots. We were kind of acting like we were afraid of them.”

Stanford's Carly Wopat and Inky Ajanaku
listen to instructions on the Stanford bench
-photo by Shutter Geeks Photography
When top teams square off, easy set wins are tough to duplicate. Last season, Washington won twice by the unthinkable scores of 25-10, 25-10, only to have Stanford claw back for a dramatic—if dispiriting—comeback win. So although the first set was 25-14, it only counted 1-0 in the best-of-five scoring, and the Huskies knew it.

With Stanford up 2-1 in the second, Melanie Wade delivered the Huskies’ first ace of the match. With improved serving, the Huskies took away several of Bugg’s options, and UW was able to sideout more efficiently. At the same time, Washington’s passing slowly improved, and setters Jenni Nogueras and Katy Beals were able to deliver well-paced and well-placed balls to Krista Vansant. It lit a fire under Vansant, who never cooled off the rest of the way.

At 9-9, Wopat connected on the first slide of the second set, but it marked the beginning of the end for the talented middle. Wopat came in hitting just a hair under .500—the third-best percentage in Division 1. But as Stanford’s offense had to adjust to better and better serving, Washington all but shut the senior down. After starting the match with 3 kills on 6 attempts in the first set, she tallied just 2 more kills and 3 errors on a mere 9 attempts over the final four sets. She would end the night hitting just .133.

“Our serving was so on point, said Washington middle Lianna Sybeldon. “It made their serve receive a lot harder, which made it just that much harder to get (Wopat) up.”

At 12-12, Ajanaku attempted a tip, but was called for touching the net. It marked the start of two more trends: the talented middle would record just 6 more kills the rest of the way, and it began a string of 7 net violations against the Cardinal, an unusually high number for any team at any level (neither Stanford coach John Dunning nor his players seemed to dispute any of the calls.) Often, the problem seemed to be sets too close to the net—again forced by Washington’s relentless serves. With UW leading 21-18, Vansant completed a run of six straight serves with an ace at the feet of Brittany Howard, and the Huskies were soon able to tie the set scores 1-1.

“I thought the best thing,” said McLaughlin, “was just getting our tails handed to us, then coming back and playing really well.”

“That’s part of our identity,” he continued. “We’re a team that can get better in a match. We didn’t do that last year. I liked the look in the girls’ eyes after set one.”

Stanford leads the nation in blocking, and in the third set, it outblocked Washington 3-0. But if there was ever proof that serving and passing trumps blocking, it was the third set’s 25-11 final score. Stanford’s servers grew tentative, allowing Washington’s setters to use all their weapons. Three players—Vansant, Wade and Cassie Strickland—had 4 kills apiece in the set while four different players served aces, including two from Beals. Vansant’s defense, which has been her biggest improvement this year, was once again on full display. She had four digs in the set—many of them spectacular—on her way to a team-high 20 for the match.

“After our block started getting in better spots,” said Vansant, “I started seeing the ball a lot better. There were a few seams, but it was easy to fill those seams.”

Washington's Cassie Strickland gets one of ther
13 digs against Stanford
-photo by Shutter Geeks Photography
Washington’s other outside hitter, Strickland, also had a big night, with 12 kills on 26 attempts. As the match wore on, she won a series of jousts at the net against much-taller players. But after the match, McLaughlin wanted to talk about another stat: her 7 hitting errors.

“That almost shot the team in the foot,” said McLaughlin. “She’s gotta be responsible and take some ownership for that. That’s more important than winning a joust.”

“I love jousting,” Strickland admitted. “But (McLaughlin) gave me a look on balls that I hit out and in the net—dumb plays I shouldn’t do. I’m growing, but I still have a lot more room to keep growing.”

Still, Strickland’s fourth kill of the fourth set tied the score at 18, as the teams continued to trade points. With Stanford up 19-18, Vansant made another amazing dig, but Bugg fed Ajanaku for a quick that landed in by the barest of inches. And, often in this set, that had been the case: the Cardinal’s disciplined hitters (just 8 non-block hitting errors the entire match) finding a way to get the ball just inbounds, while Washington had just a few find their way barely outside. Often, in the blink of an eye and without benefit of replay, it seemed calls might have gone either way. But, in the end, none of those would have made a difference.

For the Huskies, the fifth set was the reward for all the improvement they had made as the match progressed. The Cardinal slide was no longer a weapon. Vansant kept rally after rally alive with her digs, then came up big when it was her time to hit.

“Our new philosophy,” said Vansant, “is if they don’t hit clean, we made them pay. If they can’t kill it on us, then I’m gonna kill it on them.”

The key play came at a strange moment, with the Huskies leading 4-2. After a long rally feature two more Vansant digs, Bugg abruptly set Ajanaku, even though her middle hadn’t transitioned. Ajanaku made an athletic move, but seemed distracted by Wade’s persistent jousting. Ajanaku tried to push a ball off Wade’s hands—but missed completely, and sent the ball past the endline.

Despite two Stanford timeouts, the Ajanku error continued what would be a 5-0 run, with Vansant serving, giving Washington enough of a cushion to withstand a 7-2 Stanford surge. With UW leading 10-9, it was Nogueras' turn to call a slide, and Sybeldon—who finished with 6 kills and no errors on 19 attempts—put it away. From then on, the teams traded points until Vansant got the final two kills, giving her a season high 23 for the match, with just 4 hitting errors on an exhausting 54 swings (.352).

At the end of the match, Washington erupted in celebration, but their glee didn’t linger. McLaughlin and his players were businesslike, even subdued, in their victory, knowing full well that sweet victories are often short-lived. They still have to play in Los Angeles this weekend, then will enter the second half of the conference season with targets on their chests—as a team to beat. They know that Stanford will get the home court during next month’s Palo Alto rematch. And they know the postseason will be an entirely new season, one where the lessons learned from this win against Stanford may be more important than the win itself.

  • The Huskies, who lead Division 1 in aces per set, added 10 more in the match, led by 3 from Jenna Orlandini. Stanford had just one ace.
  • Several Stanford hitters had huge nights offensively. Rachael Williams and Jordan Burgess had 13 kills apiece and Brittany Howard had 14, with all three combining for just 8 hitting errors (only 1 for Howard.) Stanford won the blocking stats 11-8, but the teams were even except for Stanford’s 3-0 advantage in the 3rd set.
  • Washington is sometimes led by its right-side attack, but not against the Cards. Kaleigh Nelson had 9 kills and 9 errors on 38 attempts, while Kylin Muñoz recorded just 4 kills and 2 errors on 16 swings.

Photos courtesy Shutter Geeks Photography


  1. Congrats to the Huskies for a great match.

  2. That was a thrilling, thrilling match, and it was fantastic it turned out our way. Nice recap!

    Spellcheck: Inky in the caption, no additional "k".

  3. Great blog! Thanks for the analysis. I was courtside at the match and was surprised that, as a team, Stanford was much more athletic. They were stronger, leaner and quicker than the Huskies. I'm used to seeing the Huskies as the best trained team on the floor, but not last night! Hope that doesn't come back and bite them later.


[It's okay to comment as "Anonymous," but please feel free to share your name and/or alias.]

Have your friends discovered Volleyblog Seattle? Number of unique visits: