SEATTLE – The second half of Pac-12 play began with yet another high-drama slugfest for the Husky volleyball team tonight, but the Dawgs were able to push past an upset-minded Utah squad by a 25-16, 22-25, 26-24, 25-22 score at Alaska Airlines Arena. Juniors Krista Vansant and Kaleigh Nelson came up with kill after kill on the pins for Washington, which improved to 18-1 on the season and 10-1 in Pac-12 play.
Vansant led the way with 22 kills tonight, and Nelson had a new career-high with 20 while hitting .357, most of her kills over, around, and through the blockers on the right side. The Huskies had more kills, 64-53, but Utah hit for a higher percentage tonight, .270 to .246, and out-blocked the Huskies, 9.5 to 7.0. The Huskies were more dangerous at the service line, dealing seven aces and missing six serves while Utah had five aces but 11 errors.
The Utes (17-6, 6-5 Pac-12) have been one of the surprise teams in the league this season, and brought an RPI ranking of 17th into tonight’s match, along with four wins in their past five matches, so Head Coach Jim McLaughlin was happy to finish off the season sweep. Washington previously earned a 3-0 win in Salt Lake City on Oct. 5.
“I knew this would be a tough match, but on the positive side of it I think we can learn some stuff,” McLaughlin said. “They out-hit us, they out-blocked us, they out-dug us, but we out-served them. So that was a big stat, and at the end of each game we served tough. But we won, we got the big stat that counts, we won the match in a tough situation. Every challenge, we’ve got to prepare and understand that the margin is tight and everything is exposed. There’s lots of stuff we can get better at.”
Senior Jenni Nogueras had a double-double with 30 assists and 10 digs, senior Jenna Orlandini had 17 digs, and sophomore Cassie Strickland had 15 digs and was singled out by McLaughlin post-match for her excellent handling of the Utah serves.
Coming off the big road win at No. 4 USC last Sunday, Washington showed no signs of a letdown early on, racing out to a 10-3 lead in the first set. Leading 17-10, Utah had a 3-0 run to force UW to take timeout, but a couple Nelson kills and a kill for Strickland on a touch call rebuilt the lead to 21-15 and forced the Utes to take time. Washington ran off three more out of the break on Melanie Wade’s serve, with Sybeldon teaming on consecutive blocks, the first with Nelson on the left side of the net and then with senior Gabbi Parker on the right side. Nelson put down a Nogueras set to close out the first frame, 25-16, as the Huskies hit .278 compared to .179 for the Utes.
After trailing for the opening stages of the second set, the Huskies tied it up for the first time since 1-1 at 12-12 on an Orlandini ace that she floated right to the back line. Utah was then whistled for a rotation error, and a Vansant kill made it 14-12 and forced a Utah timeout. Utah snapped the 4-0 Husky run, but then kills from Vansant and Wade made it 16-13 Dawgs. But holding an 18-16 lead, the wheels suddenly fell off the Husky passing game, as Utah’s Lea Adolph aced Vansant twice in a row and then Orlandini couldn’t handle a third serve and Utah killed a free ball. It was a four-point run that put Utah back ahead by two and forced both Washington timeouts. Nelson broke the run out of the break and then Sybeldon tipped for a point to tie it back up at 20-20. But the Huskies were unable to get ahead, and Utah took three straight points from 21-all to 24-21. A service error cost them one set point, but then Shelby Dalton came in to easily finish the next rally and even the match with a 25-22 set win. Washington struggled on offense in the set, hitting just .154, while Utah hit .324.
Set three was destined to be a nailbiter throughout, as the teams were even through the first 10 points, but Utah made the first move, going on a 4-1 run to open up a 14-10 lead and force Washington into a timeout. Vansant converted out of the break and Utah followed with an error for 12-14. The Huskies then came back with a 3-0 run with some strong defense and consecutive kills from Nelson, Vansant, and Strickland with help from a Utah net violation for a 16-16 tie. The teams swapped points and several times the Husky fans deflated as UW had chances to take the lead but couldn’t convert. Vansant was blocked for 19-21 and the Huskies took their last timeout. Nelson got the side out back with another put-away and then Vansant served up an ace to tie it at 21-all. Nelson then tipped into the net for a heartbreaker, but responded with a big swing on the next point for 22-all. Utah killed quickly in serve-receive, but Nelson came through again. At last, the Huskies got another chance on their serve and Muñoz smartly tipped over for a kill and set point suddenly for UW at 24-23. Setter Kendall Cygan stunned everyone by taking the second ball and flicking it over into the middle for a kill, but then Muñoz had a huge left side swing for set point number two. Utah’s Erin Redd-Brandon tried to spike a tight ball near the net on the next rally, but Sybeldon and Vansant were there to deflect it back over and down for the set win, 26-24. Utah outhit the Huskies, .324 to .261 in the frame, but Vansant and Nelson each posted seven kills, and two Husky aces helped make the difference.
Carrying the momentum of the third set win into the fourth, it looked like the Huskies might make a break for the finish, as they opened up a quick 6-2 lead as Nelson had four more early kills. But Utah picked it back up with three straight points and it became clear it would not be a routine set after all. The Utes got all the way even at 9-9 with a stuff against Vansant, and Utah then went up 12-11 with a service ace and the Huskies took timeout. Sybeldon earned a pair of kills to keep the Huskies even, but Utah jumped on top with a 3-0 run for 14-17. McLaughlin decided against calling timeout, and Vansant put away a critical point off a Beals set to snap the run. Wade then slammed down an overpass off a Nogueras serve, and another Vansant kill in transition tied it up and forced a Utah timeout. The run extended to 6-0 with Nogueras notching another ace and producing two more Utah errors for 20-17 Huskies. Utah got a couple kills to stabilize, and then cut it back to one as Wade was hit by a serve as she tried to step out of the way. Nelson came through once again to make it 23-21 Huskies, but Redd-Brandon quickly answered. Utah made a costly service error for match point at 24-22, and on the next play, a booming Strickland serve was overpassed back to UW’s side, and Orlandini bump set behind her to Vansant who ripped it to the court to end it, 25-22. Again it was nearly all Nelson and Vansant on the finishing end, as both had seven more kills, Nelson hitting .412 and Vansant hitting .462.The Huskies will now look to avenge their only loss thus far this season, as Colorado comes to town on Sunday for a 3 p.m. match-up on Pac-12 Networks. The Buffs had a five-set win in Pullman tonight to move into fourth-place alone in the Pac-12 with a 7-4 record. Washington will retire former All-American and Olympian Courtney Thompson’s jersey at the intermission.