Serving and passing are key, but defense could make the difference
- THU | 8PM | #6 Stanford @ #3 Washington
|Defense should be key when Washington hosts Stanford Thursday|
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
Almost always, it comes down to Washington vs. Stanford.
Since 2003, four teams have dominated the Pac-12/Pac-10 standings: Stanford, Washington, USC and UCLA. In every one of those seasons, at least 3 of those 4 schools have finished in the top 4 of the final conference standings. In 2013, UCLA finished 10th. Last season, USC did the same. Otherwise, all four teams have always finished in the top 5 in each of the past 12 seasons. So far in 2015, they are once again the four leaders of the
In 11 of the past 12 seasons, Stanford has finished no worse than a tie for second. For Washington, those numbers are 8 of the past 12. From 2004-09, and again the past two seasons, the Cardinal and Huskies finished 1-2, with Washington coming out on top in 2013 and 2005. Late last November, UW handed Stanford its first loss of the season. (Two weeks ago, Washington stuck USC with its first loss of 2015.)
And so, Stanford is back in Seattle this week. A Cardinal win all but assures USC its first title since 2011. A Washington victory offers hope that can catch the Trojans for a share of the crown. The Pac-12's unfortunate unbalanced schedule means Stanford and USC met just once this season, an opening-week USC victory in Palo Alto, sealed by Samantha Bricio's back-to-back kills to make it 15-13 in the fifth set.
On paper, Washington should be favored Thursday night. Stanford is a much less intimidating team after the regrettable loss of All-American Inky Ajanaku to a knee injury over the summer. Hitter Jordan Burgess has struggled with her own ailments, and setter Madi Bugg—robbed of key hitters—has not been as dominant during this, her senior year. The nation's best freshman, Haley Hodson, has picked up much of the slack, but seems to wear down when her team asks her to carry too much of the load.
The Huskies, on the other hand, get better by the week. Washington has injuries of its own: sophomore opposite Carly DeHoog is still recovering from an ankle injured in practice, while sophomore outside hitter Courtney Schwan is back from her own ankle tweak, although she seems too inclined to rely on tips and roll shots instead of trusting her powerful right arm. DeHoog's absence has given setter Bailey Tanner a chance to shine as on opposite during her front-row rotations, while Schwan's hiatus gave freshman Destiny Julye a chance to build confidence as an occasional starter.
What, then, must Washington do to defeat Stanford this week?
When elite teams collide, the winner of the serving and passing game usually wins the match. Washington excels in both categories, but the margin will be thin. In UW's loss in Palo Alto last month, senior libero Cassie Strickland consistently missed her jump serve bombs, especially down the stretch. The Huskies will need all six servers to be at the top of their game.
When Washington passes nails, Tanner and fellow setter Katy Beals have all their options. You'll know the Huskies are on a roll if you see plenty of sets to the right side, especially when Stanford has Bugg blocking during her front-row rotations. In those matchups, Tanner and fellow oppositie Crissy Jones will need to hit high and hard and kill close to 40 percent of their attacks.
The best indication that Washington is in sync will be the number of sets to senior middles Lianna Sybeldon and Melanie Wade. Sybeldon leads the nation in hitting percentage, and is playing like a First Team All American. If she and Wade are getting lots of touches—as both hitters and blockers—you can assume the Huskies are clicking. If, instead, most sets are headed outside, it could be a sign of trouble. It should be obvious that, in the best case, sets are spread everywhere, making it tougher for Stanford to defend.
And, speaking of defense, the Huskies may shine here most of all. Strickland may sometimes struggle at the service line (though she was very effective last weekend against Arizona State and Arizona), but she is a fearsome force during long rallies. All across the lineup, UW finds ways to keep the ball in play, usually to the frustration of opposing hitters. Schwan made some incredible saves in Arizona. Beals is playing the best defense of her career. Kim Condie is making the most of every opportunity.
Finally, Stanford drew just 2,200 fans in it's narrow five set victory over Washington last month. They won the final set 15-13. Last season, Washington packed more than 8,000 fans in Alaska Airlines Arena when the Cardinal came to town. Could another big crowd on Thursday make a difference?
Maybe you'll want to see for yourself.