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Krista Vansant leads a deep group of Husky outside hitters.
2013 Position By Position Preview
Release: 08/27/2013
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The 2013 Husky volleyball season begins this Friday night in Portland as the Dawgs take on Boise State in the Northwest Challenge, hosted by Portland State. Washington, ranked fifth, has typically large aspirations for the coming season, as the road to the Final Four is also the road to Seattle. KeyArena will host the NCAA semis and finals for the first time this December, adding another layer of intrigue to an already exciting season to come. Here is a look at the UW roster with Head Coach Jim McLaughlin's thoughts on how each position is shaping up.

OUTSIDE HITTERS

At the outside hitter spot for the Huskies this fall, the names remain the same but the games may change. The deep and experienced group of big hitters returns every player from last year’s Sweet 16 team, which certainly provides a level of stability and expectation. But in spite of the solid 2012 season for the group and postseason honors for Krista Vansant and Kylin Muñoz, simply reproducing last year’s numbers would be a disappointment. This group wants much more, and individual changes and improvements could make for a much different performance despite the same cast of characters.

Coach McLaughlin knows the nuances, strengths and weaknesses of every player’s game, yet he admits, “I’ve learned over the years that you can’t forecast improvement. You can’t assume anything; you just have to get to work with the right activities, thoughts and emotions, it’s a lot and it’s hard stuff. Each kid is different and brings different qualities, but we’re teaching them all the skills, what to look at and the best places to be, and we’ll see who grabs onto it.”

Seven different players could see time at outside hitter this season, and “they all have a little different emphasis they’re focused on,” says McLaughlin. Although Coach McLaughlin can’t say how the pecking order will shake out this fall, he does know one thing: “We have some kids that can get up in the air and hit the ball hard. Can they get to where we want them to be? We will see in time.”

Leading the offensive output the past two seasons, Krista Vansant has established herself as one of the top outside hitters in the excellent Pac-12 Conference. Senior Kylin Muñoz showed a diverse skill set, hitting, blocking and serving to her way to All-Pac-12 honorable mention. Senior Gabbi Parker has carried the Huskies for stretches as a spark plug off the bench, while junior Kaleigh Nelson and sophomore Cassie Strickland were significant first-time contributors last year. Of the five, Parker had the fewest kills last season, but still put the ball away 141 times.

Taking that group and adding highly-touted new freshmen Carly DeHoog and Bailey Tanner means playing time will most certainly be earned this fall.

Last year Vansant added more proof to McLaughlin’s adage that players make their most progress between their first and second years, as the Redlands, Calif. native went from All-Pac-12 honorable mention as a freshman, to a Second Team All-American last year, averaging 3.99 kills per set and hitting .264.

Halfway through her Husky career, the former No. 1-ranked prep recruit can still make significant upgrades in her game, says McLaughlin, and he believes she will. “If Krista does the things that are under her control, just the good plays repeatedly, she can dominate situations and more importantly help her team dominate situations,” says McLaughlin. “She just has to keep going until she meets some of the most difficult standards. Life never gets easy, the better you get, the harder it is to improve, but the great ones keep finding a way to get better. I think she’s got those intangibles, that fight and will, and I don’t think she’s going to be denied, at least her behavior says that.”

Though getting in the air and hitting the ball hard is a specialty for Vansant and all the outside hitters, it’s in the passing game where McLaughlin wants to see the most improvement. Vansant ranked second on the team last year with 2.33 digs per set, but Washington’s overall digs numbers were down. The outside hitters are needed to keep the Dawgs alive in rallies, along with polishing them off.

“My biggest emphasis with Krista is I want her to be the best passer,” McLaughlin says. “She is beginning to buy into that, value it, and conquer it. That’s where championships are won and lost, and I think she’s aware of that. I like the way she’s better handling the challenge of making changes. It’s hard. I’ve challenged her every day, and she’s getting it and she’s working hard.”

A focus on passing is evident each day in practice, and is the same for all the outside hitters, including Muñoz, who was the top-ranked blocking outside hitter in the conference last year with 1.22 per set, while also developing a vicious serve that ranked her third in the Pac-12 with 0.32 aces per set. Muñoz was granted a fifth year in the offseason and McLaughlin and her teammates couldn’t be happier to have her back.

“Ky is becoming this elite volleyball player and still she’s maybe twice the person,” says McLaughlin. “She is starting to play outside herself more and letting the instincts and the habits she’s developing come to her. Nobody works harder than her, I’m putting her in with Courtney Thompson and people like that. It was hard for her to learn how to learn early in her career, and she’s become much better at that, and because of that she’s getting a higher return. I’ve held her to a very high standard and she hasn’t shied away from it. I have very high expectations for her and I think she does too. I’m fired up for her growth as a player.”

Many of Muñoz’s kills came from the right side, and the same was true for junior Kaleigh Nelson. A year ago, Nelson was unproven with just 13 kills during her freshman season. But she forced her way into the lineup and found her niche on the right side, firing at a steady .283 attack percentage and ranking second on the team only to Vansant with 274 kills.

While her sophomore season was clearly a big step forward, “now she’s got to make more,” says her coach. Producing more from the left pin will be key, as well as stepping up her passing and blocking game.

“There are no real bad habits with Kaleigh’s passing so I think she can get that in place. Blocking, she has the best movement, but she’s got to be in better spots to pressure people, so she’s got to develop her eye-work. I think that’s the biggest challenge, just her ability to focus and know and see things so she can respond. She’s got all the quickness and physical ability in the world, it’s just can she stay focused. So I’d like to see her have a little bit more of an intense look so she sees better and can be in the right place at the right time.”

Another reason for the depth of the outside hitter group is that even the 5-foot-8 libero recruits turn out to be able to hammer the ball. That was the case for sophomore Cassie Strickland, who sacrificed a few inches but zero miles per hour on her swings and her booming serves that thrilled the Dawg Pack last season. Strickland earned Pac-12 All-Freshman Team honorable mention, and ranked seventh in the conference in aces per set with 0.27.

Strickland’s energy and athleticism on the court made for some thrilling moments, but it’s a steadiness in the passing game where Strickland can make the biggest impact this season, says McLaughlin.

“Cassie had a really good spring. Her movements in terms of passing are better. Now she’s got to develop the consistent habits and I think she will. Her heart is huge, she’s driven, she competes but she must stay on task. She’s got to keep fighting and become a 60% passer, and then go beyond that. She’s shown some indications where she will put together some really good days of passing, but now it becomes about consistency.”

Offensively, Strickland’s challenge is making a bridge between the peaks, and avoiding the valleys altogether. With her high ace total came a lot of service errors as well, and she knows her attack percentage will need to improve in year two.

“She’s taking better swings and she understands that she can’t hit 13- or 14-percent for us to be any good,” says McLaughlin. “So she’s managing her game better and understanding what tools she can use in specific situations. She has become more mindful, and because of that she’s become a better player. But again we need her to be one of the best passers on our team. Already she has upgraded significantly from her freshman year.”

Thanks in part to the large number of options on the outside, and the relative lack of depth at the middle blocker spot, it’s expected that Parker could see more time in the middle in her final season. Coach McLaughlin considers Parker in a three-way mix for time in the middle, but says the team could still use her on the outside, especially on the right side this season.

The two newcomers both add a lot of intrigue, but finding out exactly where they’ll fit has been delayed for a bit early in training camp, as both Tanner and DeHoog have had preseason injuries. DeHoog, a native of Ontario, California, sprained her knee and should be back practicing soon, but she only was able to practice for a few days before the injury. Tanner, another Californian from San Clemente, was diagnosed with a fracture in her foot, and will be out several weeks, well into the season. That would seem to raise the potential for redshirting either of the players, but McLaughlin says they don’t yet have enough information. “The best thing to do is to get them in the mix in practice and see where they’re at relative to the group,” he says.

Both Tanner and DeHoog were top-20 national recruits according to PrepVolleyball.com. DeHoog, a lefty, is a natural opposite side hitter, adding more competition to that side of the net. Tanner was a standout club player as a hitter as well as a setter, and how the team maximizes her abilities will be fun to see.

The two newcomers have shown a great willingness to learn so far despite their setbacks.

“I like Carly’s personality, and I like her drive,” said McLaughlin. “I think she’s going to learn how to work even harder and more efficiently here, and spend some time in some new areas. She will be focused at a higher level and demand more from herself. But she can hit the ball and she can play fast. She’s a competitive girl, and she appears not to be afraid of any situation we put her in.”

Tanner’s versatility is something McLaughlin says every team needs. Rather than being able to point to one specialty, “To win championships you have to have a lot of good volleyball players,” he says. “That’s what Bailey is; Bailey has a good skill set. She can set and she has a very good arm. She just has to learn how we want her to move, and play to her strengths to become what she wants to become. That could be a 6-2 setter that hits in the front row and sets in the back row and, at this point in her career, that’s her identity. She’s got multiple skills, and she’s got a very powerful arm. Her versatility is going to be positive for us down the road.”

Needless to say, if the freshmen do see significant time later in the season, it will be because they’ve earned it against some very stiff competition: their teammates.

SETTERS

With two setters currently playing for the U.S. National Team, it’s a safe bet that Husky Head Coach Jim McLaughlin knows a thing or two about developing the position. Training the correct physical movements, sharpening the decision-making and the recognition of tendencies and situations, and fostering the leadership qualities inherent with the position, after four or five years under McLaughlin’s tutelage, players really ought to come away with another degree. It’s a very demanding course load, but prepares players for the highest level.

NoguerasThis year the Huskies have three setters all at varying points along the path. Senior Jenni Nogueras is looking to help lead the team to another postseason run after playing a crucial role the past two years. Sophomore Katy Beals split time with Nogueras last season and is looking to assert herself even more this year. And newcomer Bailey Tanner begins the learning process, double-majoring, so to speak, as she also will train as an outside hitter.

Having multiple talented and capable setters on the roster is a luxury for the Dawgs, but also brings up the question of what type of offense Washington will run. During the four-year runs of current Team USA setters Courtney Thompson and Jenna Hagglund, the Huskies used the more conventional 5-1, with one setter staying on the court in every rotation. But two years ago, McLaughlin made the decision to use a 6-2, with setters switching every three rotations and always playing in the back row.

The difference between the two systems is much more than just one setter playing better than another. With Washington’s great depth at outside hitter, the 6-2 also allows one more outside hitter to be in the regular rotation, giving UW three front row hitters at all times.

Regardless of what kind of substitution pattern the Huskies use this season, the focus will remain squarely on the individual development. “We spend some time in practice in both formats, but really what you’re doing is developing people,” says McLaughlin. “As you develop people, people change and improve – they are different. At some point, we must figure out how to put the best players on the floor.”

McLaughlin says he’s leaning towards a 6-2 but that the team also goes 5-1 in practice and the numbers come out okay in that system as well. But the more prominent questions remain “Are they getting the ball where they want it to go more often? Are they reducing the variability to their targets? Are they making better choices and are their mechanics in place? Are they releasing correctly in serve-receive, are they serving well, are they playing great defense?” Improving defensively is a particular challenge for the group, but one McLaughlin says they understand and are working on.

Most importantly is simply keeping the hitters in rhythm. “The setters are letting the hitters do the work,” says McLaughlin, “and they’re doing the things that great setters do. Now they just have to do it with greater regularity.”

“Mechanically, Jenni is moving her body better,” McLaughlin says of the senior from Cayey, Puerto Rico. “She’s making better choices, and as a result she’s locating the ball much better. With that her presence is stronger; she’s more confident.” Nogueras also consistently had the best service runs on the team’s trip to Europe, a reflection of greater confidence. “I just think that she understands the demands of setting at a higher level this year and most importantly she seems willing to make the necessary changes.  She’s more mindful in practice. She’s managing competitive situations better, so I think she’s going to have a great year.”

Beals finished with a slight lead in overall assists last year, 665 to the 620 of Nogueras in the same number of sets. She was also third on the team with 25 aces. McLaughlin is happy with how the Austin native’s mechanics have come along, saying her footwork is better and she’s taking the ball in a better spot, and now he is looking for Beals to turn up the volume on the court.

“Katy’s a very good person in many ways, very much a team player,” he says. “I would like to see her be more vocal during plays which is a sacrifice for her as she is a very humble person. But Katy also knows if she talks about the right things she helps the situation as well as her teammates. I’ve seen some progress in this area and Katy is willing to do it better each day. She has all the tools physically to be an elite setter. I’d like to see her keep pushing and competing to become one of the best setters in the country.”

Tanner provides a bit of the X-factor this season, and she was hit with a setback early in camp with a fracture in her foot that will keep her out for several weeks into the season. At 6-foot-1, Tanner can play outside hitter, and has a strong arm, but also typically played setter for her club team, one of the top-ranked teams in the nation the past couple years.

The freshman will have to absorb as much as possible from the sidelines for now before getting back on the court and seeing where she fits into the mix this season.

McLaughlin saw a lot of Tanner during the recruiting process and came away impressed with her maturity. In the two weeks of practice before her injury cropped up, McLaughlin says Tanner “made significant progress in some real difficult conditions because we threw so much at her. She’s got good composure. She’s learning how to make changes, and as a result she knows she’s getting better. She’s very intellectual in terms of what she needs to do and how she needs to do it, and she’s working towards that end every day. The foot issue is a setback for her for sure, it stinks, but she’ll respond the right way, and the foot will get better and she’ll be back in the mix. I am so happy she is here at UW.”

A lot of tests will come first, but the setters hope their finals don’t come until late December at KeyArena.

LIBEROS

The last line of defense and the players most likely to get the first touch, the liberos make it all possible for the Husky volleyball team. Their passing sets the stage for the setters, and each dig prolongs the rally and earns their hitters another opportunity. Washington has one of the most experienced liberos in the Pac-12 to set them up and torment opponents this season.

OrlandiniFifth-year senior Jenna Orlandini has started each of the past three years for the Huskies and is one of the key leaders of the 2013 team. She already ranks third in school history with 1,487 career digs, and though her digs per set numbers have gone down from her redshirt freshman season, much of that is because of Washington’s habit of stuffing the ball at the net last season, and teams trying to hit away from Orlandini as much as possible.

Washington will look to improve its overall digs numbers this season, and while Orlandini has always been part of the solution, Coach McLaughlin expects her best season yet. She already ranks third in school history with 1,487 career digs, and though her digs per set numbers have gone down from her redshirt freshman season, much of that is because of Washington’s habit of stuffing the ball at the net last season, and teams trying to hit away from Orlandini as much as possible.

“She’s matured so much. Her skill level has always been good, but she’s making more plays when she has to make them,” McLaughlin says. “She is becoming a much tougher player. She’s in the right place at the right time, she’s mindful, she’s starting to become a leader, she’s doing things for the greater good of the team, and she’s one of the hardest workers I’ve been around.”

Leaders can come in all shapes and sizes, and from all positions, and McLaughlin has always pushed Orlandini to take the reins.

“I’d like to see her figure out how to hold her teammates a little bit more accountable because that’s a hard thing to do,” he says. “I’d still like to see her be a little more vocal. Can she keep the intensity level of our team intact throughout the match? She’s got the skill level to back it up and I look forward to her having her greatest year, and if she has her greatest year, she should be up for all the postseason awards.”

Backing up Orlandini this season will be sophomore Kim Condie, who has appeared in just two sets thus far but continues to make steady progress in practice.

“Kim’s a great kid and has a great presence,” says McLaughlin. “She’s got a good edge to her. She’s doing the things you need to do to win drills, now she just has to do it on game day and do it when we scrimmage, and do it in different arenas all over the country. But she’s learning how to do that. She was a little risk adverse, where she was afraid to make an error, and I think she’s changed that mindset. She understands that errors are part of learning and she’s got to be aggressive all the time.”

A long year spent rehabbing a knee injury has brought redshirt freshman Justice Magraw closer to a chance at making her college debut. One of just two native Washingtonians along with Kylin Muñoz, the Redmond High School product is starting to figure it out, McLaughlin says. “Right now it’s present tense with Justice. She’s put together three good days of training, and I can see she has a different look in her eyes. She’s managing her thoughts better, she’s moving well, and her challenge is to make sure her focus is always very clear and intense so she can see things and get in better spots to pressure people.”

MIDDLE BLOCKERS

Experience is a strength for the 2013 Husky squad, but the one position that clearly had the most turnover is smack dab in the middle. With the graduation of seniors Amanda Gil and Kelcey Dunaway, the team will look to a pair of sophomores to step up to the plate, along with a senior who is transitioning to the position for the first time.

Not only is there a change in personnel, but the roles of the middles on this year’s squad could be different as well. Last season, Gil was the consistent presence at net, with Dunaway, and then-freshmen Melanie Wade and Lianna Sybeldon each seeing time as the second middle blocker in the rotation. Gil proved to be the best blocker in the country, leading the NCAA with 1.82 blocks per set, which helped UW sit atop the final numbers, averaging 3.36 blocks per set as a team.

While duplicating Gil’s blocking numbers would be an historically tough act to follow, Wade, Sybeldon, and senior Gabbi Parker could pick up the slack in other parts of the game, while certainly trying to maintain the defensive domination that the Huskies grew accustomed to. Last season, kills from UW’s middles accounted for 17.5 percent of their overall kills total. That was down from 30-percent the previous year, and well under the previous low over the past several years of 23-percent in 2008 and 2009. In the national championship season of 2005, for comparison, UW had about 26-percent of its kills from its middles, even with All-America outside hitters Christal Morrison and Sanja Tomasevic.

SybeldonThat correlation is obvious to Head Coach Jim McLaughlin. “I’ve always said when teams have to deal with our quick hitters, we can win conference and national championships. It was a weakness for us last year,” he says. “I don’t think we set it enough, or kill it enough. We didn’t set it well enough; we didn’t hit it well enough. It’s one of our big rocks, setting more quick. We will spend the time and energy until we get this in place.”

More offensive production from the middles would keep the opposing defense guessing, freeing up more swings for Washington’s hitters on the left and right sides. The good news is that both Wade and Sybeldon showed great attacking potential last season, with Sybeldon hitting .400 on the year and Wade hitting .339 in Pac-12 play. And if there’s anything Parker loves it’s hammering a ball straight to the court.

“We’ve got three very good middles who have a chance to become great middles, all three of them,” says McLaughlin. “They’re in a dogfight.”

Wade was a highly-touted recruit out of Palo Alto, Calif., and looks set to make a big step this season. Her freshman year was hampered by a sprained ankle at the very outset of the season, which limited her to 15 matches overall, but she turned in some big nights, like consecutive nine kill outings at Cal and Stanford, hitting .571 at Stanford.

“Melanie is one of the most diligent, hard-working, conscientious players I’ve seen,” says McLaughlin. “She’s extremely mindful, and she can learn. She’s working her butt off, and she can do a lot in this game. The one thing I want her to figure out is to continue to play outside herself, and develop the intangibles.”

Wade puts up very good stats in practice, says McLaughlin, and now he is trying to emphasize wins and losses. “I challenge her every day to win more drills. The ultimate stat is to win this drill, win this point right now, and she’s learning that. Mel is very connected in all ways, a great teammate. I would like to see a little bit more leadership out of her because she’s a quality person in the way she lives her life.”

Sybeldon crushed some balls out of the middle last season that 2011 All-American Bianca Rowland would have been proud of. McLaughlin confirms that “physically, she’s got all the gifts.” Now, says the coach, she has to cultivate those gifts. “At this level it is harder mentally than it is physically and she is adapting better each day,” he says. “Li is one that can have the highest highs but can still have the lowest lows. If she develops her consistency in everything she does, and the way she approaches practice, she’s going to be an excellent volleyball player and she can play at the highest level.”

A fun storyline to watch early this fall will be Parker’s adjustment to the middle, with the senior from Eugene being willing to make a big switch heading into her final year with the betterment of the team in mind.

Parker has trained at the position since the spring, and got some matches in the middle during the team’s summer trip to Europe, so her comfort level is at a good point. “She has made great progress in the middle, and I think she likes it,” McLaughlin says. “Her presence is so much stronger, I think she feels good about herself.”

She hasn’t completely abandoned the outside hitter spot, and the team could still use Parker as an opposite, says McLaughlin. “But I really like the path she’s on, and I think she’s going to have her best year this year. She is managing the difficult parts of improvement better than she ever has, and she continues to grow in that area. I’m really excited about her progression.”

All three players progressing should help the Huskies punch up the middle this year.

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