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. Today are the defensive specialists, with junior Kim Condie, junior Cassie Strickland coming over from outside hitter, sophomore Justice Magraw, and freshman Reni Meyer-Whalley.
Outside Hitter Preview
Everyone loves a service ace. It’s such a quick and glamorous point. Washington led the Pac-12 and ranked ninth in the NCAA in aces per set last year, serving up 202 for the year. But the Huskies ranked even higher, tied for second in the NCAA, in preventing aces by their opponents. Washington gave up just 66 aces last season over 119 sets, key numbers that helped equal a Pac-12 title and NCAA semifinal appearance.
Head Coach Jim McLaughlin has said many times that if the Huskies win the serve and pass game, they will win the match. Washington was out-aced only twice all of 2013, losses at Stanford and against Penn State in the Final Four. Defense and passing falls on the shoulders of every player on the roster, but the Husky defensive specialists have the description right in their job title. For the Huskies to thrive this year, the defense will have to prolong points, earn extra chances, and keep the offense in rhythm with precision passing.
The defense will also have to do that without four-year starter Jenna Orlandini, who graduated after earning All-America honorable mention her senior year. But the Huskies look to have as much depth at the libero spot this fall as they have had in several years, with a key reinforcement coming from within the ranks, a talented freshman, and two veterans playing the best volleyball of their careers.
No polls have been conducted as of yet, but the number of outside hitters who started for a Final Four team and then switched over to be the starting libero the next season figures to be low. But that is a select club that junior Cassie Strickland is aiming to join this year. Recruited out of Huntington Beach as a libero, Strickland proved she could hang with the outside hitters at just 5-foot-8, and never relinquished that role, as the coaching staff wanted to use the all-around talent wherever they could. Strickland earned 305 kills over the past two years, but now the plan is to focus on an area where she could be truly elite.
“We had a conversation that was a tough one, but it was honest, and I told her that she could be a good outside hitter, because she is, but that she could be a great libero at a grade that would have her playing the game at the highest level,” says McLaughlin. “You have to know the direction you’re going in and if you’re everywhere you’re nowhere. So I think she can become a great libero. She can pass, and she should be an even better passer by focusing more attention on that area.”
It won’t be an unfamiliar role for Strickland, as she was one of UW’s primary passers last year, along with Orlandini and Vansant, a trio that did not let much get past them. McLaughlin says that “No one should be able to dig better than Cassie; she has incredible range on defense. I think she can also have a leadership quality with the emotion that she has. She has a fire, her heart is huge, and she’s a very determined girl. So I think the position switch has been good and she has handled it with great maturity, and now she’s just got to get to work to distinguish herself as one of the best in the country. I expect the world from her.”
McLaughlin says Condie has improved so much that it’s hard to even measure it, but that “More than anything, she has got to believe that she’s improving and she can still do more, and have a greater expectation for herself.”
“Both Kim and Justice have made a lot of progress,” says their coach. “They’re helping this team by digging more balls and putting more pressure on our hitters by being better at what they do. They’re passing better and serving better. They’re capable of being on the floor in crucial matches, or they wouldn’t be here. Like everybody, they’ve got to just keep going and training every day on the edge of their ability, where you get comfortable being uncomfortable. I want them every day to believe ‘I’m going to do this, I can do this, and I can take it to greater heights.’ So that’s the mentality that I see them starting to have. I see both of them starting to develop a confidence that isn’t artificial, it is reality.”
A welcome addition to the group is freshman Reni Meyer-Whalley, a Los Angeles native who helped her Marymount squad to a California 1AA state championship as well as runner-up finish, playing as both a setter and a libero. Meyer-Whalley earned All-CIF 1AA First Team honors as a senior. Through the fall camp, she has concentrated mostly on her defensive game, but setting is a crucial skill for any libero as well.
McLaughlin sees a tenaciousness that every great defender needs. “Reni is a very great young lady, with a fire and competitiveness that is a gift. She’s all business,” he says. “Sometimes she puts a lot of pressure on herself to make every play, and she’s learning how to manage that. You can learn from errors you make and at this level they are part of learning, and she’s beginning to grab onto those. Right now we’ve given her so much information that it slows you down a little bit, and then you learn how to process and prioritize. We are going to have her playing more defense where she can use her speed and quickness, and develop her eyework. But nothing surprises me with everything she does. She’s a tough kid with a heart of gold.”
Replacing Orlandini will be a tough task for the Huskies, but these four are determined to hold the line.