Thursday, November 14, 2013

Pac-12 | What we learned from Washington volleyball’s victory over UCLA

In a wildly entertaining match, Huskies prove that serving matters
  • #3 Washington def. UCLA 3-0 (25-22, 25-20, 25-21)
  • next: #4 USC @ #3 Washington | November 15 | 6PM |Pac-12 Networks

It ended, appropriately, with a service ace.

When Washington libero Jenna Orlandini dropped the final point just barely in front of UCLA’s back row defenders, it gave the Huskies a 3-0 sweep of the Bruins and capped a night when tough serving proved more potent than great hitting.
Washington's Jenni Nogueras (center, in white), and Krista Vansant (right) celebrate a point against UCLA
-photo by Shutter Geeks Photography
It was an engaging match, filled with as many improbable moments as college volleyball fans usually see in a season, including:
  • A player given a warning for taunting an opponent
  • A referee agreeing to replay a disputed point
  • A front-row setter in a 6-2 offense
  • A court-rattling kill by that same setter
  • A classic slide attack by a team that hasn’t run that play all season
  • Clutch serving by a player who’s served only a handful of times all season

But let’s start with the most memorable moment of all. With UCLA leading 6-5 in the third set, UCLA middle Zoe Nightingale slid behind setter Megan Moenoa for a right side attack. The Huskies’ dig attempt sailed out of bounds toward the scorer’s table. Washington’s Cassie Strickland took off in pursuit, stopped only when she slammed into the electronic readerboard mounted on the table’s side.

For a moment, the crowd was silenced. But only for a moment. Strickland popped up immediately, set her jaw, curled her lip and jogged back onto the court with the determined gait of the football player she once was [see: Washington volleyball recruit once played … football?]

Washington's Cassie Strickland (L) and Jenna Orlandini (R)
-photo by Shutter Geeks Photography
It was toughness, pure and simple; more toughness than displayed by UCLA’s talented Karsta Lowe, who tarnished an otherwise strong performance (16 kills, 4 errors on 32 swings) by taunting UW’s Kylin Muñoz after a first set kill pulled UCLA to within 20-19. That unusual (for volleyball) display drew a warning from referee Paula Martin, and came at the end of a rally made possible because Martin ordered a replay of the previous point after UCLA disputed down official Tom Givens’ call that the Bruins had not cleanly dug a ball.

UCLA tied the score at 20, completing a 7-3 run and forcing UW to call a timeout. But the replay, and Lowe’s taunt, didn’t intimidate the Huskies. Washington responded with a 5-2 run of its own, highlighted by two powerful Krista Vansant kills, one on the left and one on the right, and three consecutive stuff blocks to end the first set at 25-22.

The second set was more of the same, as UCLA again trailed 20-19, forcing Washington to regroup in a timeout. But this set was different, since UW had spent most or all of its allotment of 15 substitutions. Leading 22-19, Washington setter Jenni Nogueras stayed in the match and rotated to the front row, as opposite Kaleigh Nelson step back to serve for only the 36th time all season (The usual server in that rotation, Katy Beals, has served 302 times.)

Nelson responded with a service ace. Like so many Washington serves this season, she delivered a hard, flat knuckleball, extremely difficult ball for a passer to calibrate. Teammates Nogueras, Orlandini and Melanie Wade have a similar serve; Beals mixes float serves with deceptively frustrating short deliveries. All match long—all season long—Washington has forced opposing passers to send poor balls toward their setters, removing much of their opponents’ options. In UCLA’s case, Moenoa was rarely able to connect with middles Nightingale and Mariana Aquino; the pair combined for just 7 kills.

The most successful server of the night was Strickland, the only Huskies’ player to employ a crowd-pleasing jump serve. She tosses the ball high above the court, then launches what amounts to a powerful back row attack. While some teams are not bothered—it’s a serve often seen on the junior club circuit during high school—others find it tough to pass cleanly. Washington scored 11 points off Strickland’s serve, despite the fact she had just one ace and 5 service errors. But those 11 points compare to just 6 for Wade, the Huskies’ player with the second-most points off serve.

That, of course, made Nelson’s turn at the service line even more impressive. Her second serve at the end of the second set also made the Bruins scramble, resulting in a Lowe hitting error and a 23-19 lead. At 23-20, with Nogueras still in the front row, UW surprised UCLA by sending Sybeldon in motion, behind Nogueras on the right side. It was a slide—a standard play for teams that run a 5-1 (one-setter) offense—but not one of the tools used in a 6-2 (two setter) offense like Washington employs. Sybeldon ran it to perfection, as if it were something the Huskies used every match.

At set point, the service rotation came back to Strickland. She again launched a jump serve, the Bruins again couldn’t handle it. But this time the UCLA pass came over the net … right toward Nogueras. It was a classic overpass, a play that tall middles and outsides practice endlessly. It requires a front row player to jump high with perfect timing and slam the ball back down, something a shorter setter like Nogueras is essentially never called on to do.

But she was. And she did. And Nogueras pounded the ball like a middle blocker, causing her teammates to erupt in joy as the set ended.

Since the first NCAA Tournament in 1981, UCLA has been selected to participate every year except once. The Bruins are now 13-12, 4-11 in the Pac-12, and in danger of staying home during the postseason. The team has a lot of talent—Lowe and Kelly Reeves are the real deal—but they are an example of what happens when a team can’t take care of the basics, especially serving and passing. The Bruins committed 12 service errors, but serves that weren’t errors weren’t particularly tough for UW to handle. And their passing—aided by Washington’s strong serving—ultimately did them in.

In the third set, UCLA built an 11-5 lead, and hung on to lead 18-14 late in the set. But great serving by Wade and Strickland—and smart attacks from Vansant and Nelson—allowed UW to launch a 9-2 run, and they never looked back. That set up match point, where Orlandini delivered the final ace. It was, it certainly seemed, a fitting conclusion.

  • This was the Huskies’ third match in five days—and Friday’s 6PM match against USC makes it 4 in 7. The erratic schedule is one price volleyball pays for having most of its matches broadcast by the Pac-12 Networks. Another price is smaller and smaller home crowds. Just 1,734 were in attendance for UCLA—and it could get even worse Friday, when the start time conflicts with the televised Washington at UCLA football game. Despite increased television exposure, attendance throughout the league has continued to atrophy as matches are played on weekdays, many starting before Seattle rush hour ends.

Photos courtesy Shutter Geeks Photography

1 comment:

  1. Rest up ladies and send the other so-Cal team packing Friday. Boom! Point Huskes!


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