Saturday, December 12, 2015

College | Once again, Nebraska ends a stellar Washington volleyball season

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 lockerroom, 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." 


  1. Jack - Very well stated (except there are only 13 on this year's team). It's possible that we may see a group of seniors this special again someday, but it will take a very long time.

  2. Congrats to the Huskies for a tremendous season. They played their matches with guts, poise and tenacity. They are truly great student-athletes that represent UW admirably.

    Conversely, the ESPNU announcers were absolutely terrible. From calling us Washington State and saying the Huskies from Spokane to mixing up the Huskers and Huskies, neither announcer seemed to have done much homework....except on Nebraska. Disappointing to say the least.

    I anxiously await the start of next season. Go Dawgs!

  3. Well, ouch. Every team but one goes to the locker room crying in this darned tournament. But hey! If you'd said to me in February, "How about Pac-12 champs, #1 Ranking and a shot at denying Nebraska a Final Four spot in Omaha?" I would have said, "Hell yes, and hand over that doobie." The team and coaches created a great season, so great it nearly became a dream season. I'm sad it's over . . . but I'm grateful and inspired by what this remarkable group of people have done . . . together.

  4. Whatever these women end up doing with their lives, I'm sure their competitive spirit and teamwork will serve them well. I hope they will always aim high off the block.

  5. Congratulations to the Huskies for their season. But when are the west coast folks going to realize that the PAC-12 is no longer the preeminent volleyball conference that it once was? Penn State has raised the entire B1G conference to national prominence, and with the addition of Nebraska, every team in the conference seems to have gotten better, which is as it should be. The PAC-12 co-champs of 2015 were taken down by the second-place finishers of the B1G and Big 12 conferences. The days of just showing up and saying "We're from the Pac-12" are long gone, folks. Get to playing better volleyball and maybe once again you'll rise to national prominence again.

    And now for my prediction: B1G champion Minnesota vs. B1G runner-up Nebraska in a rematch of the only game they played this season.

    Fred K.

  6. Its hard to second guess why the ladies were not up to task in that game. Nebraska seemed to be doing all the things we saw from the Dawgs all season long. We had a heck of a time covering the back court. Their block killed everyone including Sybeldon. Oh well, it is time to move on and think about all the successes these seniors have had.

    I will say that the RPI based seeding was more accurate than any of us PAC-12 fans would like to admit... The Pac-12 certainly was overrated with none of our teams getting to the Final 4. I just hope that if we get back to the dance next year we're not in Nebraska's bracket because they have become our cryptonite!

    1. It looked to me like the Huskies were a tad weary after gutting out a 5-setter 18 hours before. Ya think? Maybe they were incubating Ohio State's flu bug. But it showed up in the passing early, and in overall explosiveness.

      I have to call out Nebraska's outstanding libero, too. Their kill pct. was better than ours mostly because their libero was passing nails on some good Husky swings. And those danged Rolfzens were tall and fast enough in the back row to stop bouncers off high hands. And they had a terminal freshman, and very good block and dig-zone discipline... and . . .and. . . OK they played some great VB. I said it. grrrrrrrr

    2. Agreed about being tired but every other team is in the short rest boat. If we were as good as advertised we would have put away OSU in 3 and had more rest. Time for us to get rid of the easy scheduling early and play what is now the Elite "Big 14".

  7. It was very hard sitting in row 3 watching the team play Nebraska, knowing that we have played so much better throughout the year. But I think anonymous has the proper perspective, the Pac 12 is not the premium league it once was. The paradigm has changed. The Big 10 is the premium league and has shown it now for more than a few years and I think we are slow in acknowledging the shift. The results over the past couple of years should be proof positive let alone this year with no Pac 12 teams in the final four.
    A couple of times this year Jack has written about the Huskies RPI and our choice of playing teams with RPI’s in the triple digits during the preseason. Perhaps it is time to change that paradigm also. So what say during the preseason we take a week and do the following:
    Day 1 fly into the twin cities: afternoon
    Day2: play the golden gophers at noon, leave for Madison, Wi right after, 3 hr bus ride
    Day 3: play the badgers 6 pm game
    Day 4: bus ride to Chicago, off day
    Day 5: play northwestern mid day, leave for West Lafayette, In right after, 3 hr bus ride
    Day 6: play Purdue, 6 pm game, my alma mater, I might have to go along.
    Day 7: travel to champaign urbana, 2 hr bus ride, play Illinois
    Day 8: travel home, knowing you just played 4 or 5 of the top teams in the Big 10 and have a pretty damn good idea of your abilities and areas for improvement.

    Ok, I know it is too aggressive even for 18 year olds but this approach seems so far superior to the approach we have been using. We play preseason teams that do not represent the level of play we see in the NCAA championships. And if we really want to be in the final four every year, which is my metric, I really believe we need to play tough teams outside our league.

    On another note did anybody else watch the wahines work to hang with Minnesota. They did such an outstanding job, pushed the gophers to a game five, they gave it everything they had, what a good job of covering the block, covering the setter dump, wish it was us playing like that.

    And later watching the florida/Texas match what a gutsy performance by Florida, no one knows what might have happened if the linesman hadn’t blinked at the wrong time and made such an egregious error at a critical time. Why do we have to live with that kind of egregious officiating? Even Karch Kiraly, the commentator, was at a loss to say something except sometimes you get a bad call and you have to move on. However, In a 15 point match at that critical juncture, it made a big swing. It happened to us last year. When you think of the thousands of hours of hard work the team puts in to get to that point, and a line judge makes such a bad call it really begs for an instant replay system, at least at the play off level.

    1. Jim you make a great point about the Florida vs Texas 5th set totally egregious line call on a Floria ball completely in. It would have made it a 7all tie I believe, and Florida has good momentum on that point. They say a bad line call can't determine the fate of a match. In this case it did. Texas didn't win fairly. They've got to get a replay system in place. - Stephen

  8. Will we move to a 5-1 next year? Seems like all the top teams are running it rather than a 6-2. Seems like Bailey is the perfect person for that role with her height.

  9. I am just now getting to the point where I can deal unemotionally with the latest loss to Nebraska; and the permanent loss of Lianna Sybeldon whose skills included quickness, power, anticipation, determination, and grace. However. . . . life goes on.

    To me, the essential difference between UW and Nebraska was athleticism, exemplified by quickness in changing directions, hand speed in receiving and digging, setting effectively when the pass was not perfect, and anticipation that enabled them to move to an ideal defensive spot more often than UW. Sorry to say so, but Beals and Wade (while very good players) simply were outmatched by their counterparts from Nebraska. Each time, over the last 4 years that UW found itself matched-up in the NCAA Tournament against a foe with better all-around athleticism, they struggled to play within their system with success.

    Moreover, Strickland did not have a good weekend and did not excel defensively against Nebraska. I never saw her fail to effectively receive/pass like that. One potential reason might have been that the UW players had to take some final exams the day the played OSU. It showed in Lianna's eyes pre-game, and she didn't have a great match against OSU (until the last set or two). Lastly, I can't help but wonder what happened to Schwann. How many "hard" balls did she hit? Was she injured? After she came back from her early season injury, she never regained the spark and power she demonstrated prior to that injury.

    All things considered, it was a great and enjoyable season. Looking forward, unless and until the UW Team level of athleticism rises to the level of the Big 10 teams (think Penn State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Minnesota), it is unlikely the UW will reach the Final Four.


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