SEATTLE – For the third time in program history, the Washington Huskies are the champions of the Pac-12 conference, and UW did not feel like sharing. A sweep of rival Washington State was the perfect way to cap an incredible 26-2 regular season, with an 18-2 mark in conference play, as the Huskies finished one game ahead of last year’s champion Stanford. The 25-21, 25-21, 25-14 win in front of 3,811 fans still buzzing after an Apple Cup football win was made all the sweeter as it came on Senior Night, and all four Husky seniors played huge roles.
Fifth-ranked Washington honored seniors Kylin Muñoz, Jenni Nogueras, Jenna Orlandini, and Gabbi Parker after the match, going from a celebration with the Pac-12 trophy on midcourt of Alaska Airlines Arena, straight into senior ceremonies. Parker punctuated the victory with a kill on match point, on her only swing. Muñoz had four kills without an error, Orlandini had nine digs and two assists, and Nogueras had 19 assists, three digs and an ace.
The 18 conference wins is a school record, one more than the 2005 team that finished with a 17-1 mark, with two fewer conference matches in that period. Washington’s two previous Pac-12 (then Pac-10) titles came in 2004 and 2005, also both led by Head Coach Jim McLaughlin, currently in his 13th year at the helm.
“I was telling the girls, they put in so many days and hours. Three-hundred and forty days a year or so, you’re working hard. So the investment is so high,” McLaughlin said. “The gratification for all the hard work and the return you get is the most important lesson … And this is a big return, but there’s something bigger. We start a journey now that’s even bigger.
McLaughlin was referring of course to the NCAA Championships, which Washington will compete in for the 12th year in a row, and which finishes with the Final Four in Seattle at KeyArena on Dec. 19 and 21. The NCAA tourney bracket will be revealed this Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Pacific time on ESPNU. The Huskies will be expected to be one of the top seeds, and to host first and second round matches at Alaska Airlines Arena next week.
“We’ve done what we’re supposed to do (in the regular season)” said McLaughlin. “We need to stay process driven, we’ve got to make a couple improvements, and now we’ve got to go play as hard as we can and see if we can win some matches.”
While the seniors shared the win with their families on the court, they got plenty of help from the rest of the Husky underclassmen. Junior Krista Vansant was unstoppable with 19 kills on a .457 attack percentage, adding 14 digs and two blocks. Junior Kaleigh Nelson was also deadly with 10 kills and a .444 hitting percentage, as the Huskies hit .384 as a team, their best percentage in Pac-12 play, and fourth-best mark of the year.
Sophomore Cassie Strickland was big with five kills on a .308 mark, but also had a team-high 16 digs, and three big blocks and two aces. Katy Beals had 24 assists and an ace, and Lianna Sybeldon added six kills and three blocks.
After a red-hot start from both teams, UW hit .472 in the first set and WSU hit .467, the Huskies eventually began to get a wrap on the Cougars offense. WSU hit .146 in set two and just .067 in set three, as the Huskies pulled away to close out the sweep. Kyra Holt led WSU with 12 kills and Jaicee Harris added 10, as the Cougars fell to 18-15 and 5-15 in Pac-12 play. Washington has now won nine straight against its cross-state rivals.
Nelson killed the first swing of the match, and then Wade went back and dropped an ace off the defense on UW’s first serve. WSU tied it up early and the teams went back and forth, playing a very high level with few errors either way. Wade ended an incredibly long rally with a quick shot to the side for 8-7 Huskies. The Cougars bounced right back, however, with a 3-0 run to take a 10-8 lead until they missed serve. Muñoz put an Orlandini set off the blockers for a kill, and then WSU overpassed the Orlandini serve and Vansant stuffed it down for 12-12. Vansant then finished another to put the Huskies back up one, but WSU answered with a kill as the teams went back and forth again. A Nelson finish brought up the media timeout with the Huskies up, 15-14. Kyra Holt continued to produce off the UW block, and she had three kills over one span, the last of which made it 17-all, and then UW was aced up the sideline and the Huskies took timeout down 17-18. Out of the break, WSU missed serve, and then UW finally produced a WSU error, as Sybeldon and Muñoz blocked Holt for 19-18 and WSU took timeout. After that break, Strickland took a little off her serve and it rolled down for an ace. The Cougars sided out, but kills from Vansant and Muñoz got the Dawgs to 22-20 and WSU took its last timeout. WSU scored but Vansant punished another Nogueras set, and then Nelson hit in transition for set point at 24-21. Vansant served and the Cougars overpassed, with Strickland jumping up to hit it down for an eventual kill after WSU could not quite get it back in play, ending things, 25-21. The teams combined for only three errors in the set, with WSU hitting .467, but UW just outpacing them at .472. Vansant had eight kills to counter the seven of Holt.
Nogueras set up Nelson and Sybeldon for kills to start the second set, but WSU won three straight and five of six to take a 5-3 lead. The Huskies responded with five of the next six their way, with Sybeldon putting down another, and Vansant killing a Strickland set, then teaming with Wade for a block in the middle. Wade and Nelson had a stuff of Ver’Leea Hardaway in the middle for 11-9. Strickland put one inside the blockers on the left, and then Vansant had a kill in transition for 15-11 at the media timeout. WSU took two back out of the break, but Vansant stopped the run abruptly with a booming shot. Trading points, Wade got the side out twice with kills in the middle, and WSU took timeout down 16-19. But the Cougars, playing mostly clean up to that point, made consecutive errors out of the break as UW extended the lead to 21-16. Nelson put away a Nogueras set for 22-17, and Vansant took the Huskies to set point at 24-19 with another slam. The Cougars saved the first two and UW took timeout. After a short rally, Vansant used a deft tip over the block after bringing the heat all night, and it fell for the point to end it, 25-21. The Huskies outhit the Cougars, .297 to .146 in the set, as Cassie Strickland had eight digs and Vansant and Orlandini had five apiece. Vansant also added six more kills on 12 swings.
Washington started strong in set three, with a kill from Strickland and a back row spike from Vansant. Beals aced the Cougars and then Strickland posted a straight up stuff on the weak side for a 5-1 lead and a Cougars timeout. Holt had a couple big kills early to keep WSU close, but Sybeldon tipped for a kill and got another on a WSU net error for a 7-4 lead. Washington State got within one at 7-6 but Vansant put down a Beals set, and then had a solo block and WSU made another net error for 10-6. A WSU error had UW up five and then Strickland helped break it open, rising for a solo rejection of Marcelina Glab, and then after a Vansant dig, Strickland banged the set through the block for a 16-9 lead and WSU had to take time. The Cougars took two back after the break, but the Huskies responded with another 4-0 run to go up 20-11. Muñoz had two kills, one from the left pin and one from the right, and then Strickland lasered an ace off the defense and back into the seats. Two more big right arm swings from Vansant brought UW closer, and then Nogueras floated an ace for a 23-13 lead. Parker checked in late and immediately got a rejection of Jaicee Harris along with Nelson for match point. The Cougars held off one, but then Nogueras ran a back set to Parker who came around on a slide and ripped it off the blocker’s hands and out to give the Huskies the 25-14 win. Washington hit .385 in the third set, holding the Cougars down to .067.