Season Preview: Outside Hitters
Aug. 24, 2012
SEATTLE - The Huskies feature a number of familiar faces at the outside hitter position this fall, but the four returners are intent on showing new and improved facets in their games. If the group uses last season as a base and collectively takes a step up this year, it could mean a lot of happy huddles for the Dawgs.
It's a tall order for any freshman to come in and lead a top-25 NCAA program during their first quarter away from home. But Krista Vansant never shied away from the challenge last season, winding up as the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and Pacific Region Freshman of the Year. There were growing pains and frustrations along the way, but the Redlands, Calif. native continued to grind away, and ended the year with a string of her best matches.
Vansant had a season-high of 18 kills heading into the regular season finale at Washington State. She then hammered the Cougars with 25 kills, then posted 25 more in the NCAA first round win over Western Michigan and another 22 in the tough five set loss at Minnesota.
Those matches showed the type of player that Coach McLaughlin sees in Vansant. "At the end of the year she had an upswing and she started to carry things a little bit on her back. That's the Kris that I know."
Ranking ninth in the Pac-12 with 3.69 kills per set, Vansant rarely left the floor. She was the only Husky to play in all 108 sets. But despite the postseason accolades, McLaughlin admits "I think she could've had a better freshman year but you're a freshman and you don't know what you don't know."
"I've always said that the greatest amount of progress comes between your freshman and sophomore years because you understand the task better," McLaughlin says, setting the stage for Vansant's year two. Still, just ticking the year over to sophomore from freshman does not automatically make every shot land inside the lines. Vansant is working still on improving her mechanics, and McLaughlin says they still have a lot of work to do.
McLaughlin, who has coached five AVCA All-American outside hitters at UW, puts a lot on Vansant, but says, "She's different. She appears to be even more driven and I really appreciate that upgrade because she was very good. She's a humble kid but I want her to take on extra demands and leadership for this team. I would like to see her not get complacent with where she's at and go as far as she can."
Muñoz tallied almost a full kill more per set, and raised her hitting percentage from .159 to .228. Though she's a senior, the Monroe native lost her freshman year due to transfer rules, so 2011 was her first chance to adjust, and she made the most of it. When Muñoz had double figures in kills, the Huskies were 13-2. One of her best matches was a 13 kill effort with a .429 attack percentage in the 3-0 win at home over eventual NCAA champion UCLA.
"Ky has matured and she's made tremendous strides in every part of her game," says McLaughlin. "Emotionally she's different, physically she's different and she just keeps growing.
Prompted to find a "mean streak" in the past, Muñoz may not have a hard edge to her personality but she is playing without fear. "She's not afraid right now; I like that," says McLaughlin. "She's such a good kid, she doesn't want to hurt anybody. She loves this program, she loves her teammates and she doesn't want to let anybody down, and right now I'm saying, `You're not going to screw it up. You're going to screw it up if you're tentative.' She's going hard which might mean she's making more errors but as a result we're getting a higher return."
Parker worked her way into the starting lineup as Pac-12 play gave way to the postseason last year. The Eugene, Ore. product found a role on the right side where she had success pummeling big shots off the block and out. She also remains one of Washington's top servers, as her jump serve averaged 0.26 aces per set last year, tied for the team lead.
Always a fiery presence on the court, the junior has begun to earn the trust of her teammates, says McLaughlin, by not riding the highs and lows of her emotions as much.
"This year we can count on her more," McLaughlin says. "The way she's responding to the frustration is allowing her to learn faster. And she's controlling her thoughts better and when she does that she can control her body."
Parker has also done everything possible off the court to give her the best chance for success. "She's gotten in unbelievable shape. She eats the right stuff, she's disciplined and now she's learning how to think the right thoughts in training and on game day. Your teammates know you better than anybody and they can tell who's strong and who's weak and I think now they're thinking they can count on Gabbi in tough situations."
Progressing on similar lines to Parker is sophomore Kaleigh Nelson, who would "be up and down based on the conditions around her, but now she's starting to believe in who she is, believe in her game and develop confidence. Now she can set the tone and she can set the energy," says McLaughlin.
Nelson appeared in 12 matches her freshman year and had 13 kills, checking in usually when the Huskies needed a dose of athleticism, as Nelson has great leaping ability and a powerful shot. "She's going to make an impact regardless of where she is," says McLaughlin. "I appreciate her making an adjustment. There was a time when I was wondering if she could, but she's proven that she can and if she stays on track she will get playing time."
The most pleasant surprise of fall camp has been true freshman Cassie Strickland of Huntington Beach, Calif. Although Strickland racked up the kills for Edison High School, at just 5-foot-8, it was expected that she would transition into a defensive specialist role in college. It's a testament to her overall skill set that she was still rated a top-50 recruit at a position she rarely played, but Strickland so far has still looked like an outside hitter in every way except stature, so that's where she has played.
McLaughlin says simply, "Let's see what Cassie can do." One doesn't have to look too hard to find evidence of a Husky finding success when she was supposedly too small (Courtney Thompson), or a Husky who was recruited at one position yet made her name at another (Tamari Miyashiro came to UW as a setter).
"It's not how big you are, it's how great can you play the game. She's got a tremendous arm, great power," the coach says of Strickland. "Can she develop her attacking toolbox with different tools for different situations? Can she see the game and stay focused on the things that tell her what to do?
Strickland's all-around game includes an outgoing personality on court that is atypical for a freshman. "She's a driven kid, an intense kid. She plays outside of herself as well as any kid I've ever coached. Her motor is big and it's running all the time and she's got to let it run and control it a little bit better and she'll have tremendous success," says McLaughlin.
Hammering down a perfect set is the last in a series of crucial steps. If the outside hitters are outperforming the 2011 numbers, one can bet the Dawgs are stepping up across the board.