Saturday, November 23, 2013

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

Gabbi Parker rises to the occasion as Huskies close in on Pac-12 title
  • #3 Washington def. #23 California 3-2 (25-19, 23-25, 25-17, 23-25, 17-15)
  • next: Oregon State @ #3 Washington | November 27 | 6PM

It was the gutsiest serve of the night.

With the Huskies leading 16-15 in the fifth set—match point—Gabbi Parker elected to serve a bomb. Like all jump serves, it was a high risk/high reward proposition, on a night when Washington’s opponent, California, had already won a fair share of rewards.
Washington's Gabbi Parker (11) and Cassie Strickland
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann (2012)
It would have been easy for Parker to take something off her serve. After all, the senior outside hitter had rarely been at the service line this season, operating most of the year as a spot substitute on the front line. And she had already contributed two magnificent plays within the previous two minutes, putting Washington in a position to turn what looked like a sure loss into an extraordinary win.

Parker has been in this position before. Last season, Washington trailed eventual national runner-up Oregon at home when star hitter Krista Vansant went down with an injury. Up stepped Parker, who had the match of her career, virtually willing the Huskies to maybe their most improbable and dramatic victory since 2005. Afterwards, Parker pointed out that she played like she practiced—that is she trains with an intensity that allows her to step in whenever needed.

Friday night in Berkeley, she was needed. Washington had won sets 1 and 3 convincingly, but fell far enough behind in sets 2 and 4 that late rallies in each set could not stave off two 25-23 setbacks. Cal again grabbed the lead in set five, as outside hitter Christina Higgins—who ended with a career high 21 kills—was all but unstoppable. With the Bears up 6-5, Higgins scored 5 of Cal’s next7 points, building a seemingly insurmountable 13-10 advantage. Washington countered primarily with Vansant—who led all players with 28 kills for the match—but Vansant wouldn’t be able to do it all on her own.

As Vansant rotated to the service line, Cal’s defenders knew that UW setter Jenni Nogueras’ favorite target would be opposite hitter Kaleigh Nelson. All night, the Bears had keyed on Nelson, neutralizing her 48 swings with clockwork digs, holding Nelson to just 14 kills and 5 errors—an unintimidating .188 mark. Two nights earlier, Stanford’s defenders had also focused on Nelson, and by the end of the Cal match, Nelson looked hesitant, often running under the ball and not hitting with her usual snap.

Middle Lianna Sybeldon had taken up much of the slack, connecting for 13 kills on the night. But on a night when too many Washington passes sent its setters all the way to the net, the middle was a tough option with the match on the line.

On the rally following Vansant’s serve, Nogueras pushed a ball to Cassie Strickland, who responded with a big swing to close the gap to 13-11. But Cal brought it to match point, staved off when Nogueras made a spectacular set once again to Strickland, who landed her fifth kill of the night to make it 14-12, and bringing Katy Beals to the service line.

After a short rally, Cal’s Lillian Schonewise appeared to hit the winning attack, sending the Bears’ bench onto the court in celebration. But down referee Ami Filimaua called a net violation—a ruling not strenuously contested by Cal—and the Huskies were within one.

As the teams returned from a Cal timeout, Washington coach Jim McLaughlin subbed Parker for Strickland. Cal called a play that had worked all night: a Schonewise slide. On every other occasion, Schonewise had attacked over 5-8 Strickland. But 6-2 Parker was ready … and stuffed the attempt. The score was tied. Beals served a ball that clipped the net, but Cal handled it and a nerve-wracking rally continued, thanks in part to a spectacular Vansant dig. Once back in system, Beals looked to Parker, who slammed it home for UW’s first match point.

Cal tied it on a Michelle Neumayr kill—she had 17 for the match—but Beals’ nifty quick set to Sybeldon gave Washington another match point. It also forced McLaughlin to make a snap decision: whether Strickland should re-enter the match to serve, or hand the ball to Parker. Strickland might have been the easy choice—both players have effective jump serves, but Strickland has far more experience on defense.

McLaughlin went with Parker.

Without hesitation, Parker walked far back from the endline, and tossed the ball high. She blasted a jump serve as if she had been doing it in matches all season. High risk. Cal could not convert. High reward. The ball came back to Washington, and final kill of the match went to Vansant, her 28th of the match.

Parker, elated, was once again on the court as her team celebrated a come-from-behind victory. This one, however, may be the one that wins the Pac-12 championship. And Parker deserves a fair share of the credit.

  • Libero Jenna Orlandini had a huge night. Many of her 29 digs were eye-popping, even as Cal seemed determined to swing for the corners, where scouting reports say Washington is most vulnerable. Orlandini withstood a barrage of cross-court attacks, often sending digs precisely to the hands of the setter.
  • The Huskies had a 16-5 blocking advantage, led by 8 block assists and one solo block by Melanie Wade. Sybeldon had 6 more block assists, and Vansant—who doesn’t often show up among the blocking leaders—added 5.
  • With the win, Washington maintains a one game lead over Stanford. The Huskies return home for a Wednesday match against Oregon State—still winless in the Pac-12—and a Friday Senior Night against Washington State, currently in 11th place in the Pac-12. Stanford heads to Arizona, where USC lost a few weekends ago, then closes by hosting Cal. The NCAA Tournament bracket will be announced Sunday afternoon.
  • UCLA was a finalist in the first NCAA women’s volleyball championship in 1981, and has missed the tournament only once. Last night in Westwood, the Bruins led Arizona State 11-7 in the fifth set, but went on to lose the set and the match. The Bruins are now 14-13 on the season. Despite a decent RPI in the mid-40s, UCLA must win at least one more match to ensure a .500 mark, the minimum required to be eligible for postseason play. All this from a team that won the national championship just two seasons ago, with several of the same players on the roster.
  • It looks certain that two of the top four seeds will be Texas and Penn State, with undefeated Missouri a likely third. The fourth top seed will almost certainly go to the Pac-12 champion, either Washington or Stanford. The four regional hosts (for rounds 3 & 4) are USC, Illinois, Nebraska and Kentucky. Of those four, Washington would probably be least likely to want to return to Omaha. The Cornhuskers are still the second-place Big Ten team, despite being swept 3-0 last night by Purdue. Nebraska plays bottom-dwellers Iowa and Indiana before wrapping up the season next Saturday night hosting Penn State.


  1. So happy for Gabbi, she so much deserves this opportunity. Must be disappointed of sitting on the bench in most of her senior year, but she is upbeat, cheers for her teammates, and happy for the win and success of her team.

    Still quite concerned that Huskies is not very tough and consistent on the road.

  2. My thoughts also, Gabbi has been so supportive, while serving in the fill in role, says a lot about her character. Both of my daughters had her as a teacher in Jim's summer camp, and they really liked her. It was an exciting win, but I couldn't help but remember that their best player Gehan was not in the line up. After getting our clock cleaned by Stanford, to barely beat Cal without their best hitter is worrisome. Every season has ebbs and flows, I hope this was our ebb in time for a surge to the final four.


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