Saturday, November 2, 2013

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

Red alert: Washington uses right side Nogueras/Nelson connection to great effect
  • #3 Washington def. Utah 3-1 (25-16, 22-25, 26-24, 25-22)
  • next: Colorado @ #3 Washington | November 3 | 3PM | Courtney Thompson jersey retirement

Utah is used to wearing red. Friday night in Alaska Airlines Arena, the Utes were seeing red.

In volleyball, “red” it the term for a right-side set, delivered with the setter’s back to the hitter. During Washington’s four-set win, Utah found itself defending more than 60 attacks from the right side.

Washington's Jenni Nogueras (9) sets a red against Utah
-photo by Shutter Geeks Photography
“I like to set the red,” said Jenni Nogueras before the match. “And Kaleigh (Nelson) likes to hit it.”

In a two-setter offense, each setter is paired with an opposite for all three rotations that each is on the court. Earlier this season, Nogueras and Kylin Muñoz were linked, while Nelson was matched with setter Katy Beals. That changed after Washington defeated Utah in Salt Lake City.

“They have Cassie (Strickland) in one of my rotations,” Nogueras explained. At 5-8, Strickland is an effective, but rarely dominating, outside hitter, earning her spot with sparkling passing and defense. “They want someone who can take the offensive load during those rotations,” said Nogueras, “and Kaleigh is comfortable hitting that long distance red I like to set. I trust her and I think she trusts me.”

Against Utah, Nogueras trusted Nelson enough to set her 42 times, an impressive number for a 3-rotation player in a four-set match. “I loved it,” said Nelson. “I loved that Jenni trusts to set me the ball that often.

“I love being the go-to,” she continued. “My arm’s a little sore, but I’ll bounce right back.”

Washington's Kaleigh Nelson, hitting from the right side, attacks on one of her 42 attempts against Utah
-photo by Shutter Geeks Photography
At the most crucial point of the contest, setting red made all the difference. Utah had evened the match at one set each with improved passing and serving, and remained neck-and-neck during the third. After two consecutive Utah stuff blocks gave the Utes a 21-19 lead, coach Jim McLaughlin called his final timeout of the set.

“It was a battle,” said Washington libero Jenna Orlandini. “We just kept putting pressure on them. They were gonna break.”

And the breaks came right away. Nelson blasted a kill with power before Krista Vansant tied the score with a service ace. Nelson, though, tried an ill-advised tip and put it right into the net. “My main goal is to stay aggressive,” Nelson said.” Whenever I made an error tonight, it was because I was tipping the ball.”

After a highlight-reel Orlandini dig, Nogueras trusted Nelson with another red, and watched it slam past the Utah block.  With Utah up 23-22, another Nelson kill again tied the score, sending both Nogueras and Nelson to the sidelines to make way for Beals and Muñoz.

All night, Beals had been connecting well with all her hitters except Muñoz, who had only two kills to that point. But, like Nogueras, Beals decided to trust red, and Muñoz executed a textbook tip, barely clearing the fingertips of Utah’s imposing double block. After Utah responded with a setter dump, Muñoz stayed on the left for a crushing cross-court kill. The Huskies won the third set on a Vansant/Lianna Sybeldon block.

Washington's Jenna Orlandini (in black) digs a ball to setter Katy Beals (7)
-photo by Shutter Geeks Photography
“It took us awhile to get going,” said McLaughlin. “When we didn’t play well in set two, we had to change our tactics.” Specifically, he said, the Huskies revised their blocking scheme, taking away Utah’s cross-court and quick opportunities. “We made them hit line. Once we figured that out, we started touching balls, and they made some errors. I thought we made a good adjustment.”

The Huskies had clear talking points for the night. “You know there are going to be ebbs and flows of the game,” said Orlandini. “All games have ebbs and flows,” said Nelson. Both players meant that a Washington team that has lost just once all season has learned not to panic when an opponent goes on a run. Against Utah, Vansant suffered a huge ebb at the end of set two, being aced twice, hitting a ball long and tipping when she should have swung hard. But she stormed back the rest of the way, recording 22 kills—her second-highest total of the season—and stepping up the rest of her game. “Krista kicked in and dug the ball like crazy,” said McLaughlin.

As is his habit, McLaughlin pointed to areas that need continued improvement. For one, he thought his setters were pushing too many balls beyond the antennas. “If you’re going to err, you gotta err inside. We were erring outside, and hitters were falling away with no power. But we can fix the thing.”

But mostly he was pleased. He was happy about Strickland’s passing (“She passed at 83%; that’s unheard of.”) He was happy about Nelson’s hitting (“She hit high and flat and scored high seam.”) He was happy about serving (“When we serve tough—and that’s part of our identity—we can make things happen.”)

The Huskies only loss this season came in Boulder, at the hands of Colorado. Now it’s the Buffaloes’ turn to play on Washington’s home court. Huskies fans can only hope that Colorado will see a lot of purple and gold.

And, of course, red.

  • During the break between sets one and two Sunday, Washington’s Tyee Club will conduct a ceremony retiring former University of Washington All-American Courtney Thompson’s jersey. It will be the first time a woman athlete’s jersey will be retired in the long history of UW athletics. Softball star Danielle Lawrie will have her jersey retired next spring. “Coaching Courtney, there were no good days,” said McLaughlin with a smile. “They were all great days.”

Photos courtesy Shutter Geeks Photography 

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