Monday, November 10, 2014

College | Washington volleyball’s “modest” setters strive not to be “chicken”

Katy Beals and Bailey Tanner have big impact while garnering little attention
#2 Washington def. #11 Oregon 3-0 (25-20, 25-18, 25-20)
#2 Washington def. Oregon State 3-0 (25-17, 25-15, 25-15)
  • #2 Washington @ #22 Colorado | Thu, Nov 13 | 5PM
  • #2 Washington @ Utah | Sat, Nov 15 | 6PM

Washington setter Katy Beals sets against Oregon St
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
In the big-time world of collegiate and professional sports, there are plenty of big-time egos. Players who pound their chest, gyrate after a making routine play or thrust a boastful jersey toward the camera.

And then there is Katy Beals.

Beals is one of two setters on arguably the best college volleyball team in America right now. Her Washington Huskies are undefeated (25-0). Of all the athletes playing for all 328 Division 1 schools, only defending National Champion Penn State’s hitters have a higher team hitting percentage (.353 to .326). But those Huskies hitters don’t land all those kills unless Beals and fellow setter Bailey Tanner are doing something right.


“It’s all the hitters’ doing,” answers Beals. “We just throw the ball up there, and they do the work. All the credit goes to them.”

Yeah, sure.

In volleyball, the spotlight always shines brightest on those who pound the ball. But that can’t happen without someone consistently converting a wide variety of passes and digs into effective, hittable sets. On other elite teams, setters like Penn State’s Micha Hancock, Wisconsin’s Lauren Carlini or Stanford’s Madi Bugg get plenty of publicity. But on a powerhouse team full of current and future All-Americans, Beals and Tanner get very little attention.

“Katy is just Steady Eddie,” says Washington Coach Jim McLaughlin. “She’s playing fast. She’s getting up good, hittable balls. She knows what she’s good at, and will milk it. Bailey, on the other hand, when her mechanics are good, she’s good. She’s tall, she’s got a good arm. But she’s also got good feet. When she’s coordinating her body, she sets any ball she wants.”

Washington setter Bailey Tanner sets against Oregon St
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
McLaughlin, a former setter, has always required his setters to arrive at practice 30 minutes before the rest of the team. This season, Beals and Tanner often spend extra time after practice with their opposite hitters, Kaleigh Nelson and Crissy Jones, respectively. “We practice after practice, to get reps and make sure we have that rhythm,” says Beals. “The emphasis,” says Tanner, “is to be quick and consistent. Just put up a hittable ball, beat the block, and just let the hitters do the work.”

There again, modesty. But if you watch the game carefully, you’ll see just how much more important UW’s setters are than they let on. In 3-0 victories against both Oregon and Oregon State this past weekend, Washington hitters often faced just one blocker on their attacks. Time and again, opposing middle blockers stood frozen, unsure of whether Beals and Tanner were going to set Lianna Sybeldon or Melanie Wade in the middle, or shoot it outside to Krista Vansant, Tia Scambray, Nelson or Jones on the pins.

“Our passers (Vansant, Scambray and libero Cassie Strickland) are doing great job,” says Tanner, “so their middles can’t leave. They get caught up on our middles—who are hitting for super-high efficiency--and they can’t dedicate on our wings.”

Liz Brenner, Oregon’s All-American senior, agrees. “They (Washington) run that 6-2 (two-setter offense) and they fire on all cylinders. They don’t have a weak hitter, so you can’t cheat and go camp on one. That definitely makes it difficult to play defense and block against.”

Beals, in particular, has become a master a disguising her sets, forcing defenders to delay blocking decisions or to simply guess where the ball might be headed. “I do make a pretty late decision where I’m going,” she admits.

Washington's Kaleigh Nelson (6) tips over the Oregon State block.
[see upper right inset of pen inscription "fighter" on left wrist of OSU's Amanda Brown (17)]
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
And this season, McLaughlin has emphasized a much faster offense, requiring setters and hitters to be able to anticipate each other’s moves. That, in turn, means Washington’s hitters have to make themselves available after every pass, dig and block attempt. If you’re watching, you’ll see a lot of exhausting back-and-forth, as hitters sprint from the net back to behind the 10-foot-line and back to the net again, over and over and over, whether or not the ball is set their way.

“They all work so hard to get up in transition,” says Beals. “Especially our middles. They’re awesome.”

Every team practices high-risk, high-reward plays during training, moving front-row hitters in patterns across the net (slides, combos, etc.) and setting back-row attackers. But in the heat and pressure of an actual match, most setters tend to get conservative, forgoing the more complicated options for safe sets to the pins. Notably, however, Washington has been less reluctant to run shifty plays this season, and McLaughlin credits both setters.

“The goal is not to be a chicken.” –Bailey Tanner

“The goal,” says Tanner,” is not to be a chicken. I like being able to jack a backset or do a long ‘go’ (timed outside set). I want to be able to set anyone from anywhere.”

Beals, a junior, is from Austin, Texas. When she first came to Seattle, she seemed excessively shy, perhaps homesick. That apparent reticence, however, was mostly ingrained modesty. That, and an uncommon ability to keep her emotions in check. “Sometimes I wish she’d be a bit more high and low,” McLaughlin admits. “But it’s just her personality. Pretty conservative girl. She’s consistent; it comes along with it.”

Bailey Tanner (center) watches teammates from sidelines of Oregon State match
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
Beals parents have since changed jobs, and now live in the Seattle area. That allows her family to attend every match and offer support, if needed. “I go home, maybe, once a month,” she says. “Just being able to relax and kind of get my mind off of everything and just be able to hang out with them has, I think, helped me a lot.”

“And,” she smiles, “I get to see my 8-year-old brother grow up.”


  • Washington remains ranked second in this week’s AVCA coaches’ poll, trailing only Stanford. The Huskies have won their last six matches in 3-0 sweeps; Stanford has dropped seven sets in that same stretch. Over the past 10 matches, the Cardinal have lost 12 sets, compared to just 3 for Washington.
  • For several weeks, Ball State head coach Steven Shondell has cast the lone vote for Washington at #1 in the AVCA poll. This week, five other coaches voted Washington #1, in each case switching from voting for Stanford in previous weeks: Courtney Draper (South Florida), James Finley (Seattle U), Shaun Kubferberg (Howard), Steve Opperman (Duquesne), and Kelly Sheffield (Wisconsin). Washington Coach Jim McLaughlin does not participate in the poll, but all five Pac-12 coaches who do vote named Stanford #1 and Washington #2. Those coaches: Liz Kritza (Colorado), Mike Sealy (UCLA), Mick Haley (USC), Rich Feller (Cal) and John Dunning (Stanford.)
  • 4,803 fans attended Friday’s match against Oregon at Alaska Airlines Arena. That made it the highest-attended home match of the season anywhere in the Pac-12, surpassing the 4,779 who saw Colorado at Oregon.
  • 3,781 fans attended Sunday night’s match when Washington hosted Oregon State. That was the largest Sunday attendance in the conference this season, besting the 2,620 who saw Stanford play in Eugene.
  • Coach McLaughlin said after Friday’s match that national media seem to want to talk about nothing other than the November 26 Stanford @ Washington match, a potential #1 vs. #2 showdown between unbeatens. Both McLaughlin and his players insist the topic never comes up in their locker room, and that a one-match-at-a-time ethos prevails. It’s not too early for fans to start thinking about that contest, however, and tickets are still on sale. While the UW student section may be empty (Thanksgiving is the next day), it’s a perfect opportunity for volleyball coaches to buy blocks of seats for their school or club team.
  • Washington and Stanford are both 14-0 in Pac-12 play. With six matches remaining, they each have a six-match lead over UCLA, Oregon and Arizona, the three teams tied for third place at 8-6. You can be certain, then, that Washington will be one of the 16 seeded teams in the NCAA Tournament, and therefore host Rounds 1 & 2 of the Tournament in four weeks. The four schools that won bids a couple years ago to host Rounds 3 & 4 the following week include Minnesota, Iowa, Louisville and … Washington. That offers Seattle fans lots of opportunity to witness great volleyball in person between now and the Final Four, hosted this year by Oklahoma City (in the home of the former Seattle Sonics, by the way.)


  1. They both are great setters, and Bailey can really be the best in the future.

  2. If Washington beats Colorado at Boulder, Huskies will have a undefeated season for sure this year, Stanford is not even a factor.

    1. Stanford a non factor? That is a bold statement considering the weapons they have. Any team with Inky on it is a force.

      I am tired of the NCAA rankings and their lack of respect for our program. The Stanfords and Penn States of the world always garner more attention even when the numbers we've put up say we should be #1 at this point. Why is Penn State with 3 losses still in the top 10? Their history of course. If we had 3 losses we'd be out of the top 10 or nearly so. Whatever though let's do this thing all the way to 2014 Nat Champs!

    2. While I may usually be the last one to defend the NCAA, the rankings you are complaining about are from the AVCA and voted on by college coaches across the country. It may or may not be accurate, but hard to be upset when two undefeated teams from the same conference are ranked 1 and 2.

  3. I love that our setters don't resort to those cheap shot over in 2's that Madi Bugg and Micha Hancock do way too much IMHO.

    1. They can't, since playing a 6-2 they're always backrow and thus can't hit a ball above the net inside the 10-ft line.

    2. Thank you for the clarification, still learning this great sport.

    3. Cheap shots?
      Bugg is hitting .352 and Hancock is hitting .410 on 1.82 and 2.30 attempts per set respectively.
      Pretty nice weapons if you ask me.


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