Terry Wood Previews the Sweet 16
|Washington seniors Lianna Sybeldon (10) and Katy Beals (7) will be part of|
the Huskies' fourth straight Sweet 16 appearance tonight.
-Volleyblog Seattle file photo by Leslie Hamann
In case you missed it ... here is an expanded version of the report filed by our colleague Terry Wood for today's Seattle Times ...
BY TERRY WOOD
Special to The Seattle Times
With the postseason heat turned up, can one of college volleyball’s hottest teams keep its cool?
Composure will be key, believes senior middle blocker Lianna Sybeldon, as fifth-seeded Washington (30-2) makes its fourth round-of-16 appearance in her four seasons at UW when it faces 12th-seeded Ohio State (25-9) in a regional semifinal of the NCAA tournament in Lexington, Ky. ( , ESPN3).
Twice the Huskies have lost a regional semi, last year and in 2012, during Sybeldon’s three previous seasons. In 2013 the Huskies reached the Final Four yet, in front of 14,000 fans at KeyArena, fell hard on a big stage in a lopsided loss to Penn State in a national semifinal.
Playing with a different mix of players, including five fellow seniors, this year Sybeldon is the Division I leader in hitting percentage (.465) on the nation’s top-hitting team (.316). The Huskies feature one of the country’s most balanced, difficult-to-defend offenses and back it up with stellar defense. UW’s opponents have hit just .146, the country’s fifth-lowest percentage.
Ranked No. 1 in the final regular-season coaches poll, the Huskies have the tools to make another championship run. UW has made four Final Four appearances since 2004, winning a national title in 2005.
“I think we have a good chance, honestly,” Sybeldon says. “The biggest thing is that we don’t get that fear.
“We’re strong when we play with urgency, but not panic,” she said. “I think in the past we haven’t really learned how to find that balance. Hopefully with six seniors we’ll have enough experience to nip that in the bud before it even becomes an issue. I think that’s the biggest thing we need to overcome if we are to win this.
“Once the tournament starts, there’s a change in the way things feel, which I think is not a good thing,” she says. “So I think we need to fight that off harder this year. We have to remind ourselves that we should be treating each game the same, even if there is more on the line.”
“That’s a tremendous insight from a relatively young player,” says UW Keegan Cook. “This team’s mental strength and ability to focus are really valuable.”
UW has dropped just four sets while winning its last 13 matches. In a second-round match last Saturday at home, Michigan State opened the second set on a 5-0 run and eventually won 25-22 to even the match at 1-1. In the critical third set, MSU narrowed an early seven-point deficit to two before UW won 25-22.
“Even when we fell behind, we told ourselves, ‘We’re fine,’ ” Sybeldon said. “We have to keep in mind that we don’t have to go against them. They have to go against us.”
Cassie Strickland, UW’s acrobatic libero, concurs. “We realized that it was our errors,” she said. “It wasn’t anything that they did that made us think, ‘Wow, this team is good, we can’t keep up.’ It was, ‘OK, guys, come on. Let’s play our game. We know we belong here.’ “
What helps the Huskies summon a sense of calm is their depth and balance. Ranked eighth in kills per set, UW has a wealth of heavy hitters that allow setters to spread the offense around and keep defenses guessing.
Hard-hitting sophomore Tia Scambray leads Washington with 287 kills, followed by Sybeldon (273), sophomore Courtney Schwan (265), so skilled at mixing speeds of her attacks, sophomore Crissy Jones (227) and senior middle Melanie Wade (186). Freshman Destiny Julye has 132 and sophomore Bailey Tanner, a setter who at midseason began rotating in as a right-side hitter, has 86.
Last season former national player of the year Krista Vansant led UW with 565 kills; Kaleigh Nelson was a distant second (293).
“Krista is a phenomenal player,” Sybeldon says. “But in any tight situation opponents knew exactly where the ball was going to go. Now in a tight situation, even we don’t know where the ball is going to go.”
Strickland agrees. “We’ve got great outsides, great middles, great right sides,” she said. “We can attack from anywhere on the net or from the back row. I’m so proud of how we’ve come together as a team.”
Notes: Ohio State lost seven of its last 12 regular-season matches and finished sixth in the Big Ten. Six Big Ten teams reached the round of 16. UW, No. 1 USC and No. 14 UCLA remain of seven Pac-12 teams that reached the tournament. … This is the third time in four seasons that UW and Nebraska (28-4), seeded fourth this year, have been placed in the same regional. BYU (28-3), last year’s national runner-up, and UW have been in the same regional four years in a row. Nebraska eliminated UW in regional semifinals last year and in 2012. UW and Nebraska have faced each other in the tournament four times in the past 10 years. Nebraska is 3-1 in those matches; UW defeated NU in the 2005 national championship match.