SEATTLE – The Husky volleyball team reconvened in Touchdown Terrace in Husky Stadium last night to put a cap on the historic 2013 season with the annual year-end banquet. Yet despite four seniors saying their farewells, the Huskies will hope to carry the lessons they learned this year on to more successes on the court, and in life.
Standing in front of the players, staff, supporting administration, and dozens more family and friends, Head Coach Jim McLaughlin expressed gratitude for the effort of all involved with the 2013 season, and especially the players, who gave great effort each day en route to the program’s fourth Final Four, and third Pac-12 Championship.
“This is a special year,” McLaughlin said. “This will be a year that I don’t think any of us will ever forget. So I can’t say enough about these players, they mean a lot to me, and the way they go about their business is unbelievable. It separates them from other people. This group became a team; they learned how to talk to each other, but more importantly they learned how to listen to each other … That really separates teams at a very high level of competition.”
Washington separated itself throughout the season, starting with wins in its first ten matches to rise to the No. 1 ranking in the AVCA coaches poll for the first time since the 2005 season. The nonconference slate was highlighted by two exhibition wins over the Canadian National Team, both in four sets, and then a four-set win at No. 14 Illinois, an eventual top-16 seed in the NCAA tourney, in front of a sold out arena holding 3,538.
Washington then opened conference play with two big, early road wins at Washington State and at Oregon, closing out the win in Eugene with a 25-8 fourth set win in front of 4,668 hostile fans. That propelled UW to No. 1, but the Dawgs were knocked from that spot with their first loss at Colorado on Oct. 4. It turned into a positive, as the Huskies used the lessons from that setback to win their next thirteen matches in a row, including a five-set home win over No. 7 Stanford, and a road sweep of UCLA and USC for the first time since 2008. In a crucial Pac-12 first-place battle, the Huskies beat No. 4 USC once again by a 3-1 count at home on Nov. 15 to take a two-game lead in the conference. Again, it was the first season sweep of the Los Angeles schools since 2008.
After a loss at Stanford shrunk the Pac-12 lead to one game, the Huskies faced a huge test at California, down three match points in the fifth set, but they rallied to win, 17-15, thanks to a late block and kill from super sub Gabbi Parker, and a match point finish from Krista Vansant. Home wins over Oregon State and Washington State closed out Washington’s first Pac-12 title since 2005, and third under Coach McLaughlin.
“At the beginning of the year it’s always the same,” McLaughlin said. “Every team says the same thing. Every team has dreams, every coach has dreams. Washington always sets very high standards, and they’re very difficult. The cool thing with this group is it’s been a ladder that they wanted to climb. And it’s been a ladder that the staff wanted to climb, including our administration. They wanted to climb the ladder with us. To me, that’s a big deal.”
The Huskies went into the postseason for the 12th year in a row as the No. 3 overall seed, matching their highest ever tourney seed with the 2005 national title team. A first round win over Alabama State was followed by a second round win over LSU, sending Washington on to the regional rounds back down at USC. The Huskies closed out an unblemished 15-0 home record, just the third time in school history they have been perfect at home (2005, 2006).
Back at the Galen Center for the second time, the Huskies reached the Elite Eight for the first time since 2010 with a sweep of 14th-seeded Kansas. That set up a third showdown with USC for a spot in the Final Four. The old sports cliché claims it’s hard to beat any team three times in one season, and a third Husky win would be the toughest yet, as USC won two tight sets to send the Huskies to intermission one set away from defeat.
But showing the resiliency they had earned all season, the Huskies battled back, winning sets three and four to take it to a deciding fifth set. Late in the fifth set, USC put UW’s season on the line, earning match points on two occasions, but Vansant saved one and a USC error saved another. It was Parker again the came up in the clutch with a kill to give UW its first match point, and then another kill on the next rally to send the Huskies into the Final Four with the 17-15 win.
Returning home to Seattle for the first ever Final Four at KeyArena, the Huskies were unable to find an answer for Penn State in the national semifinals, and the Nittany Lions went on to win the championship two days later. The Huskies wound end the season with a 30-3 record, a .909 winning percentage that is second-best in school history in the NCAA era behind only the 32-1 mark from 2005.
One of the most impressive aspects of the season, as McLaughlin stressed, was that the Huskies made their Final Four run all while achieving a 3.46 team grade point average during the fall quarter. A school record eight Huskies earned Pac-12 All-Academic honorable mention this season.
“To be able to see their dreams come to fruition, to learn the lessons they have to learn along the way and most important to develop a strong belief, that’s the whole deal,” said McLaughlin. “This group wins the Pac-12, they’re in the hunt for the NCAA Championship, they understand that the difference between good and great is not very much. They also understand that the result we got against Penn State was not what we wanted. And there are certain lessons that we have to learn, and things we can build on for the future, and truthfully I think we created a lot of adversity that we had to face, so again we’re going to learn from that.
“But the reality of Division I volleyball is not just about volleyball. Our academic situation is extremely solid, our GPA is as high as it’s ever been. We have wonderful chemistry on our team, we have great relationships with our former players, and that’s how I determine success. How do people feel when they leave this place? Are they better in the areas they want to be better in. Because winning is so difficult. People think we take it for granted. But you can do it, and you can keep making progress if you believe in the process, and they worked so hard, but more importantly to me, I admire them as people more than anything. They’re a big time team, one of the best in the country, and they’re twice the people they are the players.”
Associate head coach Leslie Gabriel and assistant coach Keegan Cook recognized all the Husky award winners, of which there were quite a few. Along with the All-Academic honors led by Second Team selections Gabbi Parker and Melanie Wade, four Huskies were on the All-Pac-12 Team. Krista Vansant and Kaleigh Nelson were on the top team, and Jenna Orlandini and Lianna Sybeldon were honorable mentions. Vansant, Orlandini, and Nelson were all voted to the All-Pacific North Region Team as well, the first honors for Orlandini and Nelson.
Prior to the Final Four, Vansant was named to the AVCA All-America First Team, the first Husky on the first team since Christal Morrison in 2007, and the ninth different Husky to earn AVCA First Team honors. Nelson earned her first All-America honors, making the Third Team, and Orlandini was named honorable mention for the first time.
Finally, Vansant won what Coach Gabriel called the “triple crown” of postseason honors. She was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year, the third Husky to win that honor along with Morrison and Sanja Tomasevic. She then became the first Husky to ever win AVCA National Player of the Year, and followed that by winning the Honda Award just last week, joining 2005 winner Courtney Thompson among UW winners of that prestigious national award.
In the recordbooks, Orlandini wound up tied with Thompson for the school record in sets played, both appearing in 450 sets. She also finished third in school history in digs, and 12th in Pac-12 history, with 1,974. Fellow senior Kylin Muñoz was close behind in career sets played with 445, fourth in school history, and she also finished ninth in school history in total blocks with 368. Lianna Sybeldon is now up to sixth in the career attack percentage list at .351, and fellow middle Melanie Wade is close behind in eighth at .322.
Vansant has moved up to fifth in Husky history in career kills with 1,328 as well as attacks with 3,335, and her 4.04 kills per set average is now tied with former Husky All-American Laurie Wetzel for fourth all-time, despite playing in the 25-point rally scoring era with fewer kills each set. Her 511 kills in her junior year are fifth-most in school history. Cassie Strickland served up 42 aces this year, tied for eighth-most in school history, and Sybeldon finished eighth in the single season list with 140 block assists.
McLaughlin honored each of Washington’s four seniors, Jenni Nogueras, Gabbi Parker, Kylin Muñoz, and Jenna Orlandini, followed by speeches (or in Muñoz’s case, a rap) from each one. The four all played vital roles in returning UW to the Final Four for the first time in 2006.
Summing up the night, and the season as a whole, McLaughlin said, “Every day was great being around this group. It really was. I had more fun coaching this team in the toughest moments than I did a lot of teams, and I just appreciate that, and I want to thank you guys for that. And you guys know how hard it is, and it was hard, but it was great, and we had a blast, and there’s more out there.”