Oct. 11, 2012
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - The public-address announcer at Colorado announced Cassie Strickland as "a defensive specialist" before the Huskies' latest match last weekend.
"Yeah, I did notice it. I thought it was funny," the Huskies' powerful hitter and 2012 surprise said before a practice this week. "I was starting on the front line -- and it was `defensive specialist.'
"I was like, `Yeah, we'll see how that goes.'"
That PA guy and his Buffaloes learned what the rest of the Pac-12 are finding out this season.
Strickland can strike it.
Yes, the power-packed freshman for the second-ranked Huskies is 5 feet 8. She's heard that a time or 10 in her life. Volleyballers from Boulder to her native Huntington Beach, Calif. to top-ranked Penn State - which offered her a scholarship last year, to be a back-line libero - have assumed she is too short to be a big-time collegiate hitter. Too short to be anything other than a "defensive specialist."
But Jim McLaughlin saw something more.
Strickland is the latest innovation from UW's mastermind coach. She is the type of unearthed gem that can advance a perennial conference- and national-title contender like Washington into ... well, 15-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation entering Friday's 7 p.m. match at Oregon State and its showdown at No. 5 Oregon Saturday at 7 p.m.
"She hasn't exceeded my expectations, because I believe there is more there - a lot more," McLaughlin said. "But she is the kid I thought she would be, in terms of her practicing really hard and her ability to develop a mental toughness. Her energy level is extremely high. She is not afraid."
Why should she be? For starters, Strickland's serves are like split-fingered fastballs. The dive at the feet of opponents stunned to see this 5-8 supposed "defensive specialist" zipping in strikes like Felix Hernandez.
"It is unique," McLaughlin said. "She has a very good arm and can hit with high velocity. The average at (this summer's) Olympic Games for men on a spin serve was 64 miles per hour. And Cass has hit some at 60. There are guys I've coached who've hit 58.
"She's just got a really good arm. That's what's unique about her."
Strickland's power has been evident since grade school when she played Pop Warner football. As a linebacker.
The average at the Olympic Games for men on a spin serve was 64 miles per hour. And Cass has hit some at 60. There are guys I've coached who've hit 58.
Yes, Strickland can strike more than volleyballs.
On the first day of UW's preseason practice in August, McLaughlin took the 18-year old and let her run with the hitters. Strickland played the outside hitter position to great acclaim in high school, with PrepVolleyball.com referring to her as "an undersized killing machine." But still, that height. The recruiting summary billed Strickland as a libero and concluded that if she embraced the position, she could be one of the best.
McLaughlin wasn't ready to make her embrace anything. "With that arm, I said, `I want to re-evaluate this.'"
He has had power at this height before. Stevie Mussie, at 5-9, was an All-Pac-10 outside hitter in 2007.
McLaughlin still thinks Strickland could someday be a libero for the United States' national team.
"But right now, she's a HITTER," the coach said.
After that practice, McLaughlin asked Strickland to make a choice.
"You want to be a libero or an outside hitter? And that's the shirt you need to wear," the coach told the freshman.
Strickland replied: `OK, I want to hit!'"
She's hit everything. She crashed through one of McLaughlin's famed white boards with his renowned, statistics-based, player-tracking system on it while chasing down a ball during a recent practice. That bruised her foot and leg.
"Of course, Jim was silent. Everybody was silent after it," she said. "Usually people are like, `ha-ha,' because it was funny. But the crash was so loud.
"The first thing Jim said was, `Don't break the white board!'"
In another practice, she mistakenly punched an equipment cart instead of an errant ball, swelling her hand.
There's one other issue beyond those mishaps and misperceptions about her shorter stature that Strickland has had to overcome: She's been playing this season through a painfully strained abdomen muscle.
"Oh, that was hard," she said, putting in the past tense a pain she first felt as a high-school junior.
The pain intensified during the Huskies' four-set win Sept. 22 in their first Pac-12 road match, at Arizona. Ye with her torso taped and pain each time she raised her arm, Strickland had five kills on nine swings without an error.
"I just kind of dealt with it. I noticed I wasn't hitting as hard, because I couldn't extend all the way," she said.
She was scared when told it might be torn, or worse, a hernia. She felt down the day of the UCLA game, then felt better during warm-ups.
On a taut night at Alaska Airlines Arena Sept. 26, Strickland's key kill over UCLA's blockers saved a match point against the Huskies and forged a tie at 24. Washington went on to win the fourth set and eventually the wild match in five over the then-No. 4 Bruins.
"It was a lot of pain," she said. "And USC was a lot of pain."
Two nights later, Strickland's four kills, including a point off a Trojans block that capped a 6-0 run in the third and final set, helped UW's sweep of third-ranked USC.
Strickland has a brother Tyler seven years older. He was the one, a huge fan of former 49ers quarterback Steve Young, who got Cassie into football. Her sister Alicia is 11 years older. Arianna is 18 months older.
Their mother Nancy used to work for Lehman Brothers until the big financial services company collapsed during the deep recession. Cassie credits her father Filipo, a manager for the Ricoh office-products company, for being her driving athletic force. She says her dad instilled the value of excellence in his children - including the youngest daughter with whom he used to throw the football in the family's yard.
Football organizers told her, "Oh, the cheerleaders tryouts are over there." "I was like, `Uh, no. I want to play football.'"
Strickland didn't begin playing competitive volleyball until middle school. Before that, she went to try out for that Pop Warner team in Huntington Beach. Organizers there told her, "Oh, the cheerleaders tryouts are over there."
"I was like, `Uh, no. I want to play football,'" she said.
Besides Penn State, Texas also wanted her. Her choice came down to the Nittany Lions, Longhorns and Huskies. But she never visited Penn State or Texas. Those schools were too far away for her.
Besides, Texas also wanted her as a libero. Of course it did. Have you heard yet she is, after all, only 5-8?
USC and UCLA became interested in her, but only after she had committed to Washington.
She did that early, after two unofficial visits while as a sophomore at Edison High School visiting aunts and uncles that live in the Seattle area. Most are siblings of Strickland's father, the oldest of nine. They live in Renton, Tacoma and Auburn.
"It just felt right. The coaches are awesome. The atmosphere, I loved it," she says of UW.
"At first when I committed here I was saying, `It's not because my family is here.' But now that I am here I'm really grateful to have them really close."
Not only is she starting, she and top sophomore hitter Krista Vansant are the two Huskies McLaughlin rarely subs out in the current configuration.
"I am pretty short to play the front row. I was surprised. I didn't know I would have a chance to hit front row until I got here," she said. "Of course it's a dream I've had. But I was going to come and get whatever opportunity he was going to give me.
"When I do get to hit, everyone is kind of surprised. It's kind of funny - `What? You are so short!'"
Oh, about last Sunday in Boulder: After the funny introduction, she had six kills, second only to Vansant's 13. She hit .385. She had an ace on one of her darting serves to put UW in command 9-1 in the second set. She closed the 25-16 set win with a kill off Colorado's blockers, the last of her seven points.
So much for the Pop Warner linebacker being a presumed "defensive specialist."
"It's surreal. It's crazy," she says with a smile as sunny as her native So Cal. "I worked so hard ever since I got into high school.
"I just didn't think this much would happen to me, and I would have this much control of my dream."