Thursday, September 24, 2015

College | Washington Volleyball looks strong, even if schedule is not

Huskies begin Pac-10 play knowing they can dominate lower-rated opponents
  • Tonight | 7PM | Washington @ Washington State
  • Sunday | 6PM | Colorado @ Washington
[Report corrected 5:03PM 9.24.15]

Washington opens the Pac-12 season  tonight in Pullman
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
On paper, the Washington Huskies look pretty powerful. Under first-year coach Keegan Cook, UW went 10-0 during nonconference play, dropping just one set (at Oklahoma) in four weeks of competition. Their .381 hitting percentage is the best—by far—in the nation (Penn State is second at .336.) They rank 7th in kills per set (14.65), 8th in assists per set (13.61), and 8th in blocks per set (3.00).

And, oh yeah, they've held their opponents to a .099 hitting percentage, third-best in the nation.

Unfortunately, none of those wins have come against a ranked team. The collective record of Washington's 9 opponents (they played Cal State Northridge twice) is 54-54. The Huskies are ranked #6 by AVCA coaches, but real tests are still to come.

Tonight, the Huskies are in Pullman to face WSU. The Cougars lost their nonconference opener to Radford, but have not dropped a set since. Like Washington, however, none of Wazzu’s opponents have cracked the rankings, and none of WSU’s matches were against teams from any of the five power conferences (Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12, ACC and SEC.) [9.24.15 | 5:03PM | CORRECTION: Texas Tech, whom Washington State defeated 3-0 (25-22, 25-14, 25-18) on September 18 in Lubbock, is a member of the Big 12.]

Washington State’s big weapon is Kyra Holt, who ranks 13th in the nation with 4.55 kills per set. Holt played poorly in WSU’s Seattle match last season, and did not play in the Pullman rematch. That latter contest will be on the mind of UW senior setter Katy Beals, whose season ended with an injury on ancient Bohler Gym’s floor.

On Sunday, the Huskies open their home conference season at 6PM, roughly 90 minutes after the conclusion of the Seahawks’ 2015 home regular-season debut. Under normal circumstances, the match would draw a decent crowd because the opponent is Colorado, the program that’s handed UW one-third of all its losses the past two seasons (2 of 6.) Both defeats were in Boulder, a plane ride the Huskies will not be taking this season, since this is the year they play Colorado and Utah only once each (no Utes in Alaska Airlines Arena in 2015.)

To Colorado coach Liz Kritza’s credit, she scheduled some tough nonconference opponents this year, getting a big 3-2 at home against #17 Florida State, and picking up 0-3 losses to #1 Penn State and #9 Illinois. Last night, however, CU laid a big egg in Salt Lake City, losing its Pac-12 opener to a middling Utah team, 3-1. It was an ugly match: Colorado’s .169 hitting average was actually better than Utah’s .146—both teams committed 27 errors, and the Buffs outblocked the Utes 15-11. Colorado, however, has two potent weapons in Gabby Simpson and Alexis Austin, even if Simpson has struggled of late (86 hitting errors on 368 swings, .171)

UW lost just two players from last season’s 31-3 team, though they were big ones: Krista Vansant and Kaleigh Nelson. The star of this year’s 10-0 has been 6-1 sophomore outside hitter Courtney Schwan. A local player from Auburn, WA (Bellarmine Prep), Schwan’s .433 hitting percentage is 16th in the nation—and the best of any outside hitter in the country. The top 15 are all middle blockers, including two Huskies: #2 Lianna Sybeldon (.508) and #10 Melanie Wade (.455).

Wade appears trimmer, quicker and more powerful this season, and Sybeldon plays with her typical abandon. Libero Cassie Strickland seems to fully embrace the leadership mantel, and setter Bailey Tanner plays with a noticeably greater confidence. Most strikingly, this UW team looks big and fit—hours spent in the weightroom with strength and conditioning coach Henry Ruggiero appear to have paid dividends.

  • #3 USC is the Pac-12 cream of the crop so far this season. Last night, Mick Haley’s team beat #13 UCLA 3-0 in Westwood, to go 13-0 on the season. The biggest of the Trojans’ nonconference wins was a 3-0 sweep of 2014 National runner-up #10 BYU. Haley has done it without former star Ebony Nwanebu, who transferred to #2 Texas in the offseason (only to injure her ankle after leading Texas to a big win over #4 Nebraska.) Trojan senior Samantha Bricio has been a beast, leading the nation in points per set (combined total of kills, blocks and aces.)
  • #8 Stanford will be a great test for USC when the two teams meet for the only time this season, Sunday in Palo Alto. The Cardinal had a lost weekend earlier this month—John Dunning’s first-ever back-to-back 0-3 losses in his 15 seasons at Stanford, to #1 Penn State and unranked North Carolina. Star middle Inky Ajanaku will miss the entire season after injuring her knee while competing with the US National Team this summer. All-American outside hitter Jordan Burgess has been hobbled with shoulder problems, often reduced to a back row role. Even so, the Cardinal opened conference play with a 3-1 win in Berkeley, led by freshman Hayley Hodson with 18 kills.
  • #13 UCLA attracted an impressive crowd of 4441 for last night’s USC match. But at Cal, the attendance was only 1,065 for rival Stanford, and Utah drew a mere 617 for its upset of Colorado. Most Pac-12 schools have yet to start classes, but even so, attendance continues to be a problem in the Pac-12 Network era. It’s not so much that folks are staying home to watch the matches on TV (the network’s ratings are still modest). Instead, fans remain unhappy about the wildly-fluctuating schedule (Sunday at 6PM, Wednesday at 7:30PM, Thursday at 8PM, etc.) that the broadcast schedule dictates. Even worse, the network increasingly covers Washington matches without sending announcers to Seattle—they sit in a studio in the Bay Area and talk as they watch the video feed. The Huskies lead the conference in attendance year in and year out, but the game suffers badly when the attendance in the stands keeps shrinking throughout the league.


  1. WSU could be top 5 finish in Pac 12 this year.

  2. The match between UW and WSU was a rollercoaster. Both teams struggled at certain points and WSU looked like they were going to win the match after they had won the fourth set. Unfortunately, WSU broke down mentally and UW came back with a force in the deciding set.


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