Sept. 29, 2010
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
Jenna Orlandini has two words to say now that she is starting for the nation's 10th-ranked volleyball team as a redshirt freshman. Two words about joining Washington's recent tradition of four-year starters and team leaders who anchor its defensive back line.
Karch Kiraly is a three-time Olympic gold medalist who is considered to be the Michael Jordan of volleyball. He is beyond "The Man" in the sport, especially in Southern California.
That is why young Jenna, already in tears, just about fainted when Kiraly came up to her minutes after her junior season at Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy north of Pasadena ended. Orlandini's team had just lost in California's south section high school championship match.
"He was like, `Hi, I'm Karch.' Of course I knew who he was," Orlandini said Wednesday, before the Huskies (12-1, 1-1 Pac-10) practiced for this weekend's home matches against fifth-ranked USC (12-0, 1-0) on Friday and 12th-ranked UCLA (9-2, 0-1) on Saturday.
"I was like, `Hi!'" Orlandini recalled, mimicking an exaggerated, dreamy sigh.
When Kiraly told her she played a really good game, Orlandini replied, "Oh, my God!"
Kiraly had been announcing that title match on Southern California television. He was so impressed that he sent an e-mail to old friend Jim McLaughlin and advised Washington's coach that he should recruit this fiery, 5-foot-6 libero who commands her team while digging out serves and attacks like a machine.
Knowing good advice when he gets it - especially from a legend of the sport - McLaughlin called Orlandini's high school coach.
"What can you tell me about Jenna?" the Huskies coached asked.
"A lot. She's my daughter," Michelle Orlandini answered.
That essentially ended Jenna's search for colleges. She even forgot a scholarship offer from Cal State Northridge. That's where her mother played volleyball, her father Jerry played football and her sister Sam now plays volleyball.
"Obviously, this is a big-time school. I didn't think it was within my reach to be here," she said of Washington. "I thought, `That would be tight to come here.'"
So "tight" she soon changed a plane ticket she had to Columbus, Ohio, and a visit to Ohio State into one for Seattle and UW. Once she visited the Huskies in 2008, she was immediately impressed with how closely-knit the team was, and with how much McLaughlin cared about his players.
And even about ones who weren't his players - yet.
"I saw Jim and his philosophy and his personality, and I said, `This is where I want to be. That is the coach I want to play for,'" Orlandini said. "Just the way he wanted each player to improve and he cared about every single person, not just developing her as a player on the court but as a person. He cares about us. When I went on other recruiting trips I didn't feel that.
"As soon as I came on a recruiting trip here - I wasn't even a player here yet - I could tell that he wanted me to be the best I could be. And I knew that by coming here, that was how I was going to get there."
McLaughlin immediately saw what he had in Orlandini last year as a true freshman, but he also had Tamari Miyashiro in her fourth and final season with the Huskies. Miyashiro finished as the UW's all-time leader with 2,382 digs, ninth-most in NCAA history.
The coach groomed Orlandini to follow Miyashiro and Candace Lee, another star four-year starter at libero, as the next signal caller of Washington's defense. He had Orlandini room with Miyashiro on road trips while she redshirted last season.
"Usually you rotate who you are with. I stayed with Tama," Orlandini said. "It definitely helped seeing her routine, how she led by example. ... She was such a hard worker. Everyone on the team followed her lead in working hard."
Now, armed with Miyashiro's mentoring and just 13 matches into her collegiate career, Orlandini already has McLaughlin gushing over her impact on the Huskies.
Come to a match at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, and look for the shortest player on the floor. She will likely be the one working the hardest and yelling the loudest, commanding her new teammates on where to position themselves.
"She is one of those people who gives everything she has all the time. It doesn't matter what the situation is or what the conditions are, when she's in she does things the way you're supposed to," said McLaughlin, who is in his 10th season coaching Washington.
The early results have been very reassuring for fans wondering how UW could replace Miyashiro. Although one of Orlandini's main jobs, providing well-placed passes up to setter Jenna Hagglund, is not easily apparent in the box score, Washington's .342 attack percentage, one of the best in the NCAA, shows she is getting the team into its offense efficiently. And in the digs department, Orlandini ranks third in the Pac-10 in digs per set, easily the top freshman in the league thus far.
"I have always admired the way the players in this program work, but J.O. kind of sets the standards in terms of work for this team," McLaughlin said. "She only knows one speed every play every day, and that means more to me than anything."