Season Preview: Middle Blockers
Aug. 21, 2012
» Seasion Preview: Setters
SEATTLE - Coming off one of the best seasons in team history at net, the Huskies will be putting up a roof with several different pieces this year, as the middle blocker group was hit with the most turnover from 2011. But a diverse mix of young and old should have Washington posing a threat on offense and defense out of the critical middle position.
Led by now-graduated seniors Bianca Rowland and Lauren Barfield, the Huskies rejected opposing attempts with scorn last season, leading the NCAA for much of the season before winding up fourth with 3.12 blocks per set. Rowland ranked seventh in the NCAA last year with a block and a half per set, and finished her four year career third in school history with 492 total blocks, earning All-America Second Team honors. UW did not sacrifice much on defense with Barfield at net, either, as she ranked fifth in the Pac-12 and 35th nationally with 1.25 blocks per set.
So that's plenty of production to replace, not to mention Rowland's role as an offensive focal point the past three years. And yet Coach McLaughlin readily admits, "I get excited thinking about the middles.
"I get excited thinking about everybody this year, but the middles specifically."
A big reason for the excitement is the return of Amanda Gil from volleyball purgatory. Her story has been well chronicled, but for the newbies out there, Gil joined the Husky program after her sophomore season at UCLA, a year in which she earned All-America honors and ranked second in the NCAA with 1.57 blocks per set. After redshirting the 2010 season due to transfer rules, Gil was going through fall practice a year ago but pain in her knee continued to worsen. Surgery would be required to break and realign Gil's femur at a better angle for her knee alignment. Since then it has been a constant rehabilitation effort just to walk again, let alone play competitive volleyball.
But now, Gil is back on the court, running, blocking, hitting, and fully engaged again as a teammate.
"I can't tell you how impressed I am with her," says McLaughlin. "Amanda's overcome so much. I've read the stories and I'm as connected to it as any of her fans."
McLaughlin is still cautious and wants to take it slow with Gil. "She's at 65% and I think she can be at 90 or 95% come playoff time," he says. "She's a full-steam-ahead kid. I don't think she would've made the progress and gone through what she went through if she wasn't, but I want her to have a little bit of patience."
Still, there will also come a point that it won't be enough just to be back on the court playing the game. Gil will be challenged again to play it at a very high level. "Now she has to change her mindset to: `Okay, I'm back. How can I become something great?' I think she's got that mindset and she's thinking, `I want to lead this team to a championship.'"
The lone holdover in the middle from last season is senior Kelcey Dunaway, who has stepped in with aplomb over the last three seasons whenever the opportunity has presented itself. She also developed herself into one of UW's top servers.
McLaughlin admits that "I've been awfully hard on (Dunaway)," but he wants this to be her best season yet.
"Kelcey is a great kid and you want those great ones to do great things. It's neat when they get a return. I've been extremely hard on her but she keeps coming into the office and wants more. I pushed a lot of buttons with her and I think we finally found the ones that are going to work. Right now she's training at a very high level and I feel comfortable with her. Her mindset is much better than it was last year; she finally believes she can do this thing."
Diving right into the mix are a pair of Californians that are already standing out from the crowd. Lianna Sybeldon from Folsom and Melanie Wade from Palo Alto have found themselves side by side for long hours over the past couple weeks of practice. The freshman faces in the middle have put in a lot of time already with Coach McLaughlin and assistant coach Keno Gandara on learning the proper blocking movements and court positioning. Both look to be soaking up the info with an intensity that suggests they aren't resigned to waiting a year to make an impact.
"We're shoving stuff down their throat to get them ready but they've been able to manage the information and they're starting to have more command of what we want them to do in the system," said McLaughlin. "That's the hard part; that's when you become good. If they stay on course they will contribute and it could be this year."
Wade was a consensus First Team All-American, ranked the No. 17 overall recruit in the nation by PrepVolleyball.com, and she led her Palo Alto team to back-to-back California state championships. Sybeldon also was a top-50 recruit and an AVCA All-American as a senior. But aside from the physical tools, McLaughlin thinks the world of the pair as people. "The families they come from, the values they believe in; they're humble, they work extremely hard, and they're disciplined. They have all of those things you have to have to become great."
Capable of greatness; not a bad reason to get excited about the middles.