Sunday, December 7, 2014

NCAA | Jade Finau fits in as Washington volleyball returns to the Sweet 16

Jim McLaughlin’s subtle shift one ingredient in a win against Hawai’i
#3 Washington def. #23 Hawai’i 3-1 (25-20, 19-25, 25-16, 25-14)
  • #12 BYU vs #8 Florida State| Fri, Dec 12 | 4:00PM | Alaska Airlines Arena
  • #11 Nebraska @ #3 Washington| Fri, Dec 12 | 6:30PM | Alaska Airlines Arena
  • Regional Final | Sat, Dec 13 | 8:30PM | Alaska Airlines Arena

First Hawai’i, then Nebraska. It’s a volleyball fan’s dream. Do you have your tickets yet?

Washington's Jade Finau sets Melanie Wade (5) during the Huskies' 3-1 NCAA Second Round win against Hawai'i
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann

It was 7-7; the match tied a set apiece. Washington’s Jade Finau stared across the net. As Katiana Ponce, Hawai’i’s diminutive (5-3) serving specialist stepped to the line, Finau brought her cupped left hand a few inches from her mouth. And blew. A quick puff. Then her right hand, and another puff.

Jade Finau blows on her hands before a Hawai'i serve
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
“It’s something I’ve done since back in the 8th grade, when I first started playing,” Finau explained. “I used to do it because I would get super-nervous, and when I’m nervous my hands get super-sweaty. It’s been a routine ever since.”

As Ponce tossed the volleyball, Finau had reasons anew to feel nervous. With starting setter Katy Beals lost for the rest of the tournament to a knee injury, the hot spotlight was clearly on Finau’s hands. But with Hawai’i giving the Huskies fits to that point in the match, sweaty palms were not an option.

“I wasn’t really nervous,” she said. “Everyone has been so supportive, especially Katy.”

As tough as it is for the Huskies to be without Beals, it helps that Washington coach Jim McLaughlin runs a 6-2 (two setter) offense. Half the time, redshirt freshman setter Bailey Tanner is paired with either freshman Crissy Jones or freshman Courtney Schwan. During the other three rotations, Finau is paired with senior All-American Kaleigh Nelson. Nelson, however, is particularly close to Beals: they are roommates.

“Kaleigh and Katy have a really good connection,” Finau said about her teammates’ relationship both on and off the court. “I wanted to keep that going.”

Finau says she and Nelson “come from similar backgrounds.” Both players were overlooked redshirt freshmen when they first came to Washington, spending plenty of time on the sidelines their first and second years with the program. Nelson has used that connection to build Finau’s confidence.

Jade Finau and Cassie Strickland celebrate a Washington point against Hawai'i
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
“Kaleigh’s been pumping me up. Encouraging me. She’s always giving me pep talks. I think that’s why I try to set her so often.”

All that attention is paying dividends. In Washington’s first two NCAA matches, Nelson was set a combined 42 times over 7 sets, connecting for 9 kills against New Hampshire and 12 more against Hawai’i. Over that span, Nelson committed just one hitting error, for a stellar combined hitting percentage of .476

Back again to 7-7, third set. Ponce served, the Huskies passed, and Finau found Nelson on the left, where she pounded a kill down the line. Two rotations later, Finau again connected with Nelson, this time on the right, for a cross-court kill. With authority.

Krista Vansant (right) is now Washington's career leader with 1,878 kills
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann

For the weekend, Finau tallied 42 assists, including a first set dish to Krista Vansant that allowed Vansant to tie Christal (Morrison) Engle’s UW career mark of 1,859 kills. Vansant went on to smash the record with another 19 kills—22 for the night—on sets from both Finau and Tanner. In one stretch of the fourth set, Finau set Vansant for four consecutive kills. Tanner then came in to assist on three more Vansant tallies, including match point.

As Nebraska rolls into Seattle next, the spotlight on Finau will likely be a bit cooler. But she’ll still be blowing into her hands.

60 seconds before the start of each set, coaches submit their starting lineups to the official scorer. Hawai’i head coach Dave Shoji was surprised when Washington’s Jim McLaughlin made Jade Finau the Huskies’ first server of the first set, and Cassie Strickland the first server of the second set.

“We thought they would start in a different rotation,” Shoji admitted. “We wanted (Hawai’i outside hitter Nikki Taylor) to be against Vansant. And it didn’t happen in game one and two.”

In all four sets, Shoji wanted his setter, Tayler Higgins, to serve first. Higgins is the only Rainbow with a topspin jump serve, and “she was our best scorer as a server,” Shoji said. But, unlike Washington, Hawai’i runs a 5-1 (one setter) offense, which means the 5-9 Higgins spends three rotations on the front row, where she has to be able to block.

In sets one and two, Tia Scambray struggled, connecting on just 4 kills in 21 attempts. After Hawai’i won the second set, McLaughlin clicked the rotation forward, making Melanie Wade Washington’s first server. That meant that, for two rotations, Scambray would be on the front row at the same time as Higgins. From then on, she was far more effective (4 more kills on just 7 attempts). That, in turn, allowed Finau and Tanner to spread the sets more widely, as Hawai’i’s blockers had to pay more attention to Scambray. And, said Shoji, McLaughlin’s switch helped shut down middle blocker Olivia Magill. “They were on Olivia and she couldn’t get free,” he said.

Did Shoji consider making a rotation change of his own for the fourth set? “We thought about flipping it,” he said. “But we wanted to have our best server (Higgins) out there to start game four.”

After going 10-0 in the first round, only half the Pac-12’s ten tournament teams reached the Sweet 16.

The surprise story is in the Ames Regional, where Oregon State—a team that went 0-20 in conference play last season—hung on to beat Arkansas-Little Rock in extra points of the fifth set. Colorado almost followed suit, unable to convert a fifth set match point before falling to favored Colorado State.

Stanford, the tournament’s top seed, struggled all weekend, but managed to beat Michigan State 3-1 (25-20, 25-22, 24-26, 25-23.) The Cardinal next face Oregon State. UCLA will take on Penn State after taking care of Long Beach State 3-0 (27-25, 25-15, 25-14). Oregon advanced to the third round with a Friday night win against Santa Clara, and will meet North Carolina. The Tar Heels ended USC’s season with a 3-1 victory Saturday.

In the match to determine Washington’s next opponent, Nebraska needed five sets to hold off Utah 3-2 (25-23, 25-22, 23-25, 17-25, 15-11). That means Nebraska and Washington will square off in the tournament for the fifth time in the Jim McLaughlin/John Cook era. Each team has won twice and each match was filled with more than the usual drama.


  1. Great writing. Jade Finau has some big shoes to fill, but she's sure doing it. Soon she will have to patent those deadly back sets: the "Finau flip!"

  2. Not to diminish Christal Morrison's kill mark it should be noted that her record was during a time when sets went to 30. That amounts to 20% more game play for her record. Krista would have over 2000 kills with that extra 20%.

  3. Thanks for shining the well-deserved spotlight on Jade. Proud of our local "hometown" girl stepping right in, "no sweat." Good work, Jade! Onward and upward, Huskies!

    (BTW: I think there is an error in the caption of the photo of Jade and Cassie: "Jade Finau blows and Cassie Strickland celebrate a Washington point against Hawai'i" - Part of the caption from the first photo mixed in...?)

  4. What a time during the season to have to prove yourself. Jade got the job done! Good going Jade! I was also very impressed with Katy's support during the match of Jade and giving tips to her. I wish Katy a good recovery


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