This is a Husky volleyball season like none other: The national championship will be decided in UW’s backyard, at KeyArena. “You got to take advantage of this opportunity,” Coach Jim McLaughlin says.
SEATTLE -- The road to the Final Four is also the road to Seattle this year.
KeyArena will host the NCAA semis and finals in December for the first time. This gives the fifth-ranked Huskies the unique chance to win a national title in their own backyard.
Head coach Jim McLaughlin and his team are embracing this challenge. They are determined to compete for the national championship in front of their home crowd.
“You got to take advantage of this opportunity. Not every city gets the Final Four and here it is. The whole volleyball world’s coming to our city,” McLaughlin reminds his players -- often.
Washington gets a sneak peak at the arena this weekend, as the Canadian National Team visits Seattle for two exhibition matches, the first played at KeyArena on Friday at 7 p.m. Admission is $10 and free for children 12-and-under, and a ticket stub from Friday earns free admission into Saturday’s rematch, which will be at Alaska Airlines Arena at 6 p.m.
Senior libero Jenna Orlandini says having the Final Four here in town does provide an extra edge.
“Knowing that it’s at KeyArena and knowing that it’s in our hometown just gives us that much more of an edge and a chip on our shoulder to go get it,” she said.
“We’ve always had that in the back of our minds. We want to do it this year.”
The Huskies have started their quest to make the hometown Final Four at 4-0.
Last weekend the Dawgs clinched their sixth Northwest Challenge title in Portland, Ore. They dominated host Portland State and Boise State in three sets each. Gonzaga put up more of a fight in Washington’s last match in the tournament, but Washington eventually shut down the Bulldogs in the fifth set.
Tuesday night at its home opener at Alaska Airlines Arena, UW stayed undefeated by skating to victory over neighboring Seattle University in three sets.
“Ever since it was official that we’re going to play at KeyArena, it’s been like, ‘2013, it’s going to be here!’” senior setter Jenni Nogueras said last week.
“It’s a big motivation. I think it’d be not cool if it’s here and we’re not in it.”
Entering his 13th year as head coach for the Huskies, McLaughlin knows how to take the Dawgs to the finals. He has led UW to the NCAA tournament 11 consecutive years. He’s gotten the Huskies to the regional round seven times, into three Final Fours, and all the way to winning the national championship in 2005.
“There are indicators along the way where you think, ‘Wow, we’re meeting [high] standards. The vibe of the team is good. The leadership is good. We’ve got a chance,’” McLaughlin said.
“We’ve made good progress and I challenge them to continue to make this progress. If we do, then we have a chance.”
With the wealth of experience on the roster, the Huskies may prove him correct.
Washington features four seniors, all of whom are key leaders in McLaughlin’s formula. Outside hitter Kylin Muñoz was an American Volleyball Coaches Association All-Pacific Region honorable mention in 2012. Nogueras has spent four years learning to run the Husky offense. Orlandini entered this season third in UW history for career digs. And Gabbi Parker has shown excellent versatility adding time at middle blocker as well as outside hitter.
The middle blocker spot is the position facing the biggest changes this year, but early sings are positive. Along with Parker, sophomores Melanie Wade and Lianna Sybeldon are both off to hot starts offensively, increasing their production significantly. Wade has nearly half the kills through four matches that she did during her entire freshman season, with 30 kills so far on a .509 attack percentage. Sybeldon has 26 kills, averaging 2.00 per set, and is hitting .420, up from an impressive .400 as a frosh.
The Dawgs have six non-conference matches remaining, starting with two against the Canadian National Team this Friday and Saturday. KeyArena and Alaska Airlines Arena will host respectively.
To wrap up non-conference play, the team will fly to Illinois for matches against University of Illinois and Loyola University Chicago. The Huskies come home for two more matches before Pac-12 competition begins Sept. 25 against Washington State.
Although the season is just beginning, the Husky volleyball team knows every match and every set count toward earning their spot at KeyArena in December.
“Nothing goes unnoticed anymore. We’ve been focusing on stuff that sometimes gets overlooked. Little details here and there,” Nogueras said.
“We’re trying to get a very solid foundation so that down the road we can concentrate on that bigger goal.”
Reaching that goal will be extra special for Kylin Muñoz, a Monroe, Wash. native.
“I played [at KeyArena] for basketball tournaments when I was younger,” she said. “I’ve been to Sonics and Storm games.
“I’ve been looking forward to this. The greatest thing is playing at home in Seattle.”
Junior All-American outside hitter Krista Vansant, already in UW’s top-10 in career kills per set and points per set, has two goals for the season.
“I really want to be accountable for everything I do as well as obviously win a national championship. But on a smaller scale, I just want to become the best teammate I possibly can for everyone,” Vansant said before the Huskies’ season opener.
Muñoz, Nogueras, and Orlandini have similar aspirations to help the team.
“The thing that impresses me about this program is the commitment and maturity,” McLaughlin boasted. “When you mature, you start to understand things at a higher level and understand how you can have an impact. You get good for the greater good of the team. That has to be the motive.
“And at some point all the ducks are lined up in a row and you can win a championship.”
This season, the end of that row is just down the street from the UW campus.