The 2014 season begins this Friday for the fourth-ranked Husky volleyball team, as UW visits Boise for the annual Northwest Challenge. This week GoHuskies.com will take a look at each of the positions with the thoughts of Head Coach Jim McLaughlin. First up, the outside hitters, including seniors Krista Vansant and Kaleigh Nelson, redshirt freshman Carly DeHoog, and true freshmen Tia Scambray and Courtney Schwan.
A half cup of coffee. According to Coach McLaughlin, that’s all the Huskies have to show for their efforts last season, and it’s particularly true at the outside hitter spot, where the plethora of awards and honors collected by Krista Vansant and Kaleigh Nelson will not automatically translate into the win column in 2014. For Washington to be an improved team this year, it will need Vansant and Nelson to continue to improve as seniors, but just as importantly, the Huskies will be looking to a number of new faces to contribute in a big way from day one.
Of course, having the defending AVCA National Player of the Year and Honda Award winner is something every coach would gladly take as the starting point for any team, and Krista Vansant was obviously a huge reason for UW’s success last year, ranking second in the Pac-12 with 5.07 points per set and climbing up to fifth on the career kills list, while raising her attack percentage to .320 from .264 as a sophomore. She became more effective as a server, hitting a career-best 33 aces, against a career-low 25 errors, and continued to up her game as a defender and passer, digging a career-best 2.82 balls per set.
When Vansant signed with Washington as the nation’s No. 1 recruit out of Redlands East Valley, last year was the type of production fans of the program might have hoped for, but it came only as the result of countless hours of practice and film and fitness, and sticking to the process is why McLaughlin believes Vansant not only can be better, but needs to be better.
Looking back to Vansant’s freshman season, McLaughlin says, “A lot of kids come in to college with expectations, and they get into this environment which is totally different. There are a lot of good players, and there’s a little bit of risk aversion, and they just don’t want to make any mistakes. People are saying so many things about them. But Krista has matured, and she understands that she has got to continue to grow every day as a player in everything she does: emotionally, mentally, and physically. So far she’s done that. As she has matured, she is understanding things at a higher level, and she has even invested at a higher level.
When Washington’s 2013 season ended with a painful Final Four loss to Penn State, Vansant fought through tears to talk about how the loss would be in the back of the team’s mind all through summer training and would motivate them. An inconspicuous visit to the weight room over the summer convinced McLaughlin that Vansant was indeed motivated.
“I was impressed with how hard she was going. She knows better than anybody that she has to work every day and she must continue to prove herself every day,” he says. “The day you take it for granted is the day someone passes you. That’s her biggest challenge, it’s not the opponent, it’s herself. But that’s the same with every player on this team. She should be better this year than she was last year, if she stays on track and doesn’t fall into any of the traps out there. She knows she has plenty to work on.
McLaughlin identifies a few areas where Vansant has continued to evolve, starting with an improved jump, better arm motion on her approach, and a better job of tracking the ball earlier. But there’s plenty of mental challenges to go along with technical improvements.
“I tell her constantly, the better you get the harder it is to improve, but the greatest players find a way to make progress. You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse, you don’t stay the same. You make a choice to get better and that’s about maturity.”
A similar message is imparted to Nelson, the only other senior on the team, and like Vansant, a player coming off a great year and now looking to top it. Last year, if Vansant was the first option on the left side of the net, Nelson on the right side was option 1-A. Nelson’s quick strikes from the opposite side gave the Huskies a diverse and balanced offense, and numerous critical points were put away by Nelson’s right arm. The Oregon native earned her first All-Pac-12 honor as UW’s No. 2 point scorer with 3.47 points per set, and was named to the All-America Third Team.
Nelson’s progression from the start of 2011 through the end of 2013 has been equally as impressive as Vansant’s, and as with Vansant, McLaughlin believes there is much more room for Nelson to improve.
“I have huge expectations for Kaleigh and I think the key is that she’s coming into practice with a level of expectation every day that is greater than before,” he says. “She has really matured. There’s a nice level of intensity every day, a nice level of energy, and a higher level of concentration. She’s better at managing and working on her game. I can just see from her behavior in the different segments of practice that she’s thinking better thoughts, and those thoughts change in different conditions, so she’s not repeating errors as much. I think Kaleigh is applying these principles to her life and in school. She is going to do the best she can in whatever she’s doing now. I put the pressure on her, but now she has taken the responsibility, which is the biggest difference.”
Kaleigh Nelson led the Huskies in kills in seven matches last season, averaging 3.05 per set.
Here is where the outside hitter story shifts from writing the final chapters, to working on the introduction. Because even with a pair of All-Americans on the court last year, 30-percent of Washington’s outside hitter production in 2013 came from Kylin Muñoz, Cassie Strickland, and Gabbi Parker. Muñoz and Parker both graduated and are beginning their pro careers abroad, while Strickland is making just about the biggest switch imaginable in volleyball, going from outside hitter to libero.
Allowing for Strickland to make the move to defense is the depth that the Huskies have behind Nelson and Vansant. Highly rated true freshmen Tia Scambray and Courtney Schwan have quickly impressed in practice, as has Crissy Jones, who has practiced in the middle but also seen some reps at the pins. Adding to that is redshirt freshman Carly DeHoog, set to make her debut after a knee injury sidelined her for much of last fall.
Exactly how all that depth will work itself out into a starting lineup and rotation is very much CBE: constantly being evaluated.
“People change day to day,” says McLaughlin. “So you can’t forecast, you can’t look in a crystal ball. You develop everybody, and people learn at different rates, so you cannot answer those questions until you’re down the road. You just can’t say this person’s better than this person because of their body or their ability. It’s about how you learn to change. As we continue to develop and we take numbers we will play the people that earn it. We’re measuring everything and at some point we have to make that decision, but we’re not there yet.”
McLaughlin is excited for DeHoog to show what she can do this fall, and says that the Ontario, Calif. native has learned how to work not just harder in practice, but also with more of a focus on what her body is doing and what she needs it to do. The tall, left-hander could be a natural fit on the opposite side, working to block the top outside hitters across the net.
“Carly is a talented young lady, but at this level everybody is talented and everybody has ability. What separates people is how you commit to things, how you work, and how you make progress towards an end,” McLaughlin says. “She is working on being more demanding of herself, and she is starting to work at a better rate, and she responds to different situations better than she has in the past. So she is going through what every player has to go through in terms of learning how to learn and change. I’ve pushed her a little bit harder this year because she can handle it, and the expectation is higher. She is a great kid, and it’s neat being in the gym with her, but I think right now the cool thing is she’s starting to push herself more.”
As for the true freshmen hitters, Scambray and Schwan have jumped into the outside hitter rotation and a stranger to the Husky gym would be hard-pressed to pick out the freshmen.
Scambray was rated as the No. 9 senior in the nation last year by PrepVolleyball.com and has extensive international experience, playing for the U.S. U18 National Team that won silver at the 2013 World Championships in Thailand, as well as playing on the U.S. U23 Worlds team in Mexico, one of just four high school players on that roster. All that experience has given Scambray a good amount of confidence, McLaughlin says.
“I’m impressed with Tia as a person. I can look her in the eyes and tell her what I see and what will help her and she works at it. Already, she is a very mature kid, she’s got really nice ability and she’s got a good heart,” says McLaughlin. “She’s competitive, and I see her becoming a better player every day.
“There isn’t anything that Tia shouldn’t be able to do. I’ve been really direct with her and I’ve been pushing her and I’m not treating her like a freshman, and that’s a tribute to her and the way she listens, the way she takes feedback. I love being in the gym with her. She’s all business, but she’s also got a side that draws people to her. There’s something neat, people like to be around her. She’s just got to keep going and she’s going to have a great career.”
Schwan is one of the top players to come out of the state of Washington in a number of years, as the Auburn native won back-to-back state titles at Bellarmine Prep, which earned her back-to-back Gatorade State Player of the Year honors. Schwan has her own share of Team USA experience, playing for the USA Junior National Team at the 2014 NORCECA U20 Championships where she was named Best Spiker as the U.S. won gold.
Consistent passing could play a big part in early playing time, and McLaughlin thinks one of Schwan’s identities is “she is going to be great at passing and serve-receive. You’ve got to be good at everything at this level but you’ve got to be great at some things, and that should be one.
“Courtney is another great kid with great values and a good heart, and I love the way she lives her life. She listens, pays attention, she has a really good arm, and a really good platform,” McLaughlin says. “She is ‘Steady-Eddie.’ She has her emotions in check, she thinks well, she’s a kid that I have tremendous expectations for, but she’s already making changes and improving. She is a kid that I just love having in this program and being around. The more you’re around her, you see she’s just a really nice young lady.”
The mix of youth and experience is a common one in college athletics. The Huskies will look to the seniors to lead the way, but will need the freshmen to be quick studies to get the team where it wants to go.