Dec. 5, 2012
UW vs Nebraska | Friday, 4:00 pm PT | Omaha, Neb.
TV: ESPN3.com | NCAA Bracket
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE - It was a play you won't find in any statistical recap. It didn't even keep the Huskies from dropping the third set of last weekend's raucous NCAA second-round match to Hawaii.
Supreme, unconditional trust.
Set point in game three last Saturday night inside roaring Alaska Airlines Arena. Washington, the 13th seed, is tied a game apiece with a two-loss Hawaii team that should be seeded and hosting its own subregional. The Rainbow Wahine appear to win the set as it spikes the ball in the center left area of UW's defense.
Then Huskies freshman wonder Cassie Strickland pounces across the floor like a python to dig the ball off the hardwood. The ball careens over to Washington's bench 10 or so feet to the left, well beyond the sideline boundary. Orlandini races past her coaches and teammates and through the interlocked, metal, padded chairs of its bench. With her back to the court, the junior libero leaps, puts her arms together at the wrists and catapults the ball back over her head and somehow over the net at a sharp angle - all before she came to a stop in the first row of spectators behind the bench.
Point Huskies, indeed.
"Yeah, that was fun," Orlandini said with her cool, native Southern Californian laugh prior to Washington (25-6) flying Wednesday to Omaha, Neb., for Friday's 4 p.m. Pacific NCAA regional semifinal showdown against its long-time tournament rival Nebraska (24-6).
"The thing that was tough about that one was it was a tricky angle. I was facing the other way, and I didn't know where the net was completely. Just threw it up into the air as high as I could. I couldn't really see what was going on below me, because I was looking up at the ball.
"I knew I was getting close to the chairs, but the only person I could see was Jim. And all I could hear him saying was `You're good. You're good. You're good.'
"I was like, `All right. I'm good.'"
Like I said, trust.
"It was a big play," Strickland said. "But I trusted her. I knew she could get it."
I sure as hell don't want to lose, you know? It was gnarly.
"Jo," as her teammates call her, just shrugged over her symbolic heroics.
"I mean, I didn't really care if I hit the chairs. I just wanted to get the ball over," Orlandini said. "I sure as hell don't want to lose, you know? It was gnarly.
"We just wanted it."
After Orlandini's save and after that game, the teams switched ends. The Huskies were down two games to one, their remarkable season of tests now on the brink of extinction. Seniors Kelly Holford, Kelcey Dunaway, Kylin Muñoz, and Amanda Gil gathered the rest of the Dawgs and repeated two words.
Did they ever. The hardened Huskies battled back to win game four, saving a match point when Gil blocked Hawaii's top hitter and then winning on a Muñoz ace. They then blitzed the stunned Rainbow Wahine in the decisive fifth game to advance to McLaughlin's seventh regional appearance in his last 10 years at UW.
This week, standing on Marv Harshman Court before practice, McLaughlin was still shaking his head over Orlandini's play.
"Those things go beyond ability," the 23-year coaching veteran said. "You don't train those things. It's those values that we believe in, that we hold our kids dear to, that take you beyond whatever ability you have. I think that's what really separates people.
"In the conditions we were in, for a lot of people it would be easy to wave the white flag and say, `I can't do this anymore.' But we were fighting. There was this want-to. We were going for balls that we really had no chance of getting. And you can get a return on that stuff. When everybody sees it, it can get contagious. It's a vibe you get.
"We just kept fighting. It was a good deal."
So is this: The Huskies have won their NCAA region three times - in 2004, '05 and `06. Nebraska rallied from down 9-3 in the fifth set to keep the Huskies from the Final Four in 2008. Then unseeded Washington eliminated second-seeded Nebraska in the 2010 regional semifinals in Seattle.
The dominant storyline entering this latest Huskies-`Huskers showdown is McLaughlin's post-match shouting and finger-pointing with Nebraska coach John Cook immediately after that most recent meeting. It almost turned into a coaches' brawl.
The confrontation was especially stunning for the revered McLaughlin, a usually quiet, introspective coach - "the sweetest guy, low key," Strickland calls him. Heck, Monday he was quoting me the Greek's definitions of love.
While that fracas is grabbing all the attention this week -- more on that later --it won't mean a thing to UW's players once Friday's match begins at Omaha's CenturyLink Center.
But what McLaughlin instilled in his Huskies this past summer, the basis for this season of uncanny resiliency, sure will.
HOW THESE HUSKIES EMPOWERED THEMSELVES
McLaughlin is regarded as one of the most accomplished and innovative coaches in his sport. His white boards that line UW practices are legendary.
Yet he is never satisfied with status quo. Not in his teachings. Not in his players. So this past summer, before the preseason, the coach charged his four seniors to lead players-only meetings. In them, the veterans were to ask the underclassmen questions.
"My thing was, every day or every two days they needed to spend some time with a teammate. And the point was, get to know something you don't already know about this person," he said. "Everybody's got a unique story in life. We can have all our perceptions and we can see things a certain way -- but you don't really know a person. You only get to know them through spending some real time.
The questions were not the superficial "Do you have a boyfriend?" or "What are you going to study?" either.
"Really finding out about their lives," McLaughlin said. "You change your opinion. You really understand everybody's got a story, everyone is dealing with stuff. Then you tend to appreciate people at a higher level, as a little `family.' You really understand what someone else is about."
The questions that helped formed this season-changing trust included: What motivates you? What do you want to do with your life? What challenges have you overcome?
The enriched, empowered Huskies now feel the answers they shared have formed an edge that could lead to Washington's first Final Four since 2006.
"Every team we've had here has been talented, but this year those intangibles are there," Dunaway said. "That's what matters. I think the team with trust and those intangibles is the team that goes the farthest."
The team with trust and those intangibles is the team that goes the farthest.
Strickland was new to the program as a human pogo stick from Huntington Beach, Calif.. She learned that she and Orlandini had the shared experience growing up in Southern California of moving in with their grandparents as freshmen in high school.
"My mom worked for Lehman Brothers bank, then that went under," Strickland said of her mom Nancy. "And then my grandparents were getting old, so we just moved in to help take care of my grandma.
"'Jo' and I both laughed of being in old houses with, like, `70s wallpaper, stuff like that."
Through these introspective team talks weeks before she even began classes at UW, Strickland also learned she and teammate Jenni Nogueras were similarly close in their relationships with their brothers and sisters.
"It was more like everyone wanted to know each other's life story. `How did you grow up? How many siblings did you have? Do you have good relationships with them? What have you been through?'" Strickland says.
"It was just interesting. Everyone wanted to listen. It was like Story Time in the Locker Room.
"We said what we've been through and how volleyball became important. It was cool. It got everyone to know each other on a deeper level. It allowed us to just connect, and understand each other better."
LOVE WORKS IN MYSTERIOUS WAYS
"Story Time in the Locker Room" has these Huskies as invested in each other as much as any team McLaughlin has had at UW.
"It was the upperclassmen taking it upon themselves to not just to hang out with the freshman or getting them used to everyone. It was really getting to know them. Because when you really get to know someone you love them," Orlandini said. "They are your family. And you don't want anything to happen to them.
"Before we got to know the freshmen. But we really wanted to love them and make them a part of our family more so than in the other years. I think getting to know someone on a personal level, especially new freshmen that you don't know a whole lot about, it unifies the team.
"We are very close-knit. So once you bring it on the court you want them to do well, because you love them."
As we all know, love works in mysterious ways.
It's far more than mere coincidence that this team, which has been ranked as high as No. 2, has denied match points and gone on to win an unheard-of four times this season.
UW was a point away from losing to No. 4 UCLA on Sept. 2 -- then rallied behind all-conference hitter Krista Vansant to beat the defending national champion in five games.
On Nov. 16, the Huskies denied then-No. 4 Oregon an unfathomable 14 match points -- fourteen! - two while rallying to win the fifth set 32-30. They then saved 12 more in the fifth set to put away the Ducks - who are 27-4 and fifth seeded in Friday's other regional semifinal in Omaha against 12-seed BYU (28-3) -- in the longest fifth set in school history, 25-23. It was one of the most remarkable wins in McLaughlin's remarkable career.
Then, last weekend, they wiped out Hawaii after being on the brink yet again.
"As you become teammates, it can't be superficial. It has to be real," McLaughlin said Monday. "I think those things are important."
He was again wearing his Cleveland Browns lanyard around his neck. It's his souvenir from spending days with the NFL team during a recent offseason, to learn how those coaches motivate and prepare pro football players.
"Teammates say and do things to make each other better. And when there is a little deeper meaning to those things it can have a better effect," he said. "There's a level of trust that you develop. It's more of an exclusive understanding; we understand each other.
"The Greeks explain it better than anybody. They have four or five definitions for love. Ours is that love that you want to the best for someone. You don't want them to experience bad things."
"WE DON'T FREAK OUT"
When the crowd of 15,000 or more in volleyball-mad Nebraska is roaring against them Friday, when the Cornhuskers are rallying, even if the Huskies are back staring down yet another match point against them, these Dawgs will be fully equipped to handle it all.
"They are talking about thousands upon thousands. The place holds 17,000 people and I'm hearing it might be sold out," McLaughlin said. "It's going to be a great atmosphere. It's an exciting thing. It's going to be fun for these kids.
"Those are the good moments, you know, when it is hard. In the toughest times and the toughest environments you have to depend on each other. People have to pick each other's level up.
"I think we are ready for it, only because we have been in some really good situations and we've been in some bad ones. And I think these kids have learned how to respond to them."
His players arrived in Nebraska on Wednesday feeling empowered by that trust.
"I think we just got tested early on," Strickland said. "Against UCLA. And that whole thing with Oregon. We've been tested so many times that we don't freak out. I feel that other teams, since they haven't been there, would maybe freak out.
"But we've been there. We know who to go to. We can trust anyone.
"When you know your teammates like we do, it's kind of like playing with your brother or sister. You know them so well. You can tell them, `OK, STOP SUCKING! Let's get going!' And they know it's not personal. It helps."
Orlandini goes back to her favorite SoCal adjective to describe what awaits in Nebraska.
We know it's going to be rowdy. We know it's going to be a tough match.
"Playing them here (in 2010) was gnarly," she said. "We know it's going to be rowdy. We know it's going to be a tough match.
"But we are ready for it. ... I really think we are going to do it. We are going to beat them."
Oh, about McLaughlin's dustup with Nebraska's Cook the last time they met: McLaughlin regrets it.
"It's not a good thing. It wasn't a good thing for either of us. It wasn't a good thing for volleyball," he said. "I think it took away from the kids who had fought hard in that match.
"I hope it never happens again."
He finds a teaching point in the confrontation.
Of course he does.
"We are always teaching all the time, `Your thoughts have to serve you well. Are your thoughts helping you? Are they the right tools?'" he said. "If you are thinking two years back or two matches back or two days back, those thoughts don't serve you well."
But what this team shared well before this remarkable season began, way back when volleyball was still mostly on beaches in the summer sun and sand?
I think that's going to serve the Huskies well again this weekend, in Corn Land. Very well.
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.