How an unexpectedly successful season came to a sudden end
- #5 Nebraska def. #1 Washington 3-1 (25-17, 21-25, 25-20, 25-21)
|Washington fell one win short of the Final Four|
-Volleyblog Seattle file photo by Leslie Hamann
And so it ends. Again.
For the second year in a row, and for what feels like the umpteenth time the past decade (actually, the fifth time,) Nebraska played looser and hit harder than Washington. Again, when two talented teams squared off in a big match that mattered, the Huskies team fans had seen all season seemed MIA.
Sports are like that. Only 64 of 320 teams make the tournament, and 63 go home without the trophy.
When two otherwise top teams meet for all the marbles, the smallest differences matter. When we distill Washington's 3-1 loss to Nebraska, it pretty much comes down to serve and pass. Those basics have been the Huskies' bread-and-butter all season, and when executed, they allow setting, hitting and blocking to fall in line, as they did in set two (a 25-21 Washington victory.)
But serving is a highwire act: you've got to push it right to the edge. When it works, you're golden. When you get conservative—as the Huskies did after committing 5 first-set service errors—a talented opponent eats you alive.
It steamrolls from there. Washington's pin hitters stopped trying to attack high hands, giving Nebraska too-easy stuffs and digs. Instead of establishing power attacks before deploying tips and roll shots, UW went soft too early and too often. The Huskies gave the Huskers too many second chances.
Late in the tournament, time seems to speed up. In August, two hours in the practice gym can seem an eternity. In December, those two hours on an NCAA sport court zip by. "The past 48 hours have been a blur," Washington coach Keegan Cook said after the match. "In the tournament, folks try to pull you in every direction."
Keegan, of course, praised his seniors, a compliment they deserved. Cassie Strickland played with the passion and intensity that are the trademark of her four years. Despite inopportune periods of less-than-stellar passing, setter Katy Beals found ways to feed middles Lianna Sybeldon and Melanie Wade. Losses like these sting seniors the most, but those four have no reason to hang their heads. No UW class has ever won more matches over a four-year period.
Wade, in particular, drew Cook's praise. "From the moment Jim (McLaughlin) announced he was leaving, Mel stepped up. She's been our leader from the start." And, throughout this year's tournament, "she's been the unsung hero of our team."
Cook also singled out Associate Head Coach Leslie Gabriel. "We couldn't have done any of this without her. She is absolutely amazing. She works long and hard. I can't say enough about how important she has been to this program."
When Cook stepped into his post-match , time finally stopped racing. All around were the faces he had helped coach for three seasons—all with 30 or more wins, all with just 3 losses per year. At the first summer practice, few predicted this team's success.
Now those faces were stained with tears. Shoulders slumped under the weight of finality—no more training sessions with these same 15 young women, their coaches and staff. Anger. Frustration. An uncontrollable urge to keep playing.
Cook knows those feelings will pass. Pride of accomplishment trumps angst. The bonds of teammates last a lifetime.
"I told them that I may never again coach such extraordinary people," said Cook. "I thanked them for the privilege."