Seniors Rowland And Barfield Have Risen Above The Crowd
Dec. 1, 2011
By Gregg Bell
They've come to learn that Jim McLaughlin has a, uh ... unique sense of direction. Through airports, hotels and arenas, the Huskies think their renowned volleyball tactician is the best.
The best comedy act on the team, that is.
"Jim leads the team thinking he knows where he is going - but he never knows where he is going!" a cackling Barfield said, making Rowland, her fellow Huskies middle blocker and good friend, laugh with her following practice Monday inside Alaska Airlines Arena.
"He just starts walking. And people follow him. Then he stops. We are like, `Where are you going Jim? He doesn't know where he's going.'"
Yet he sure knows how to prepare them for their trips.
McLaughlin has led the Huskies to three Final Fours and the 2005 national title in his 11 years leading UW. This week he has Washington heading into the NCAA tournament for the 10th consecutive time.
The Huskies (23-7, 15-7 Pac-12) play Western Michigan Friday at 2:30 p.m. Pacific time in Minneapolis. The winner will meet the winner of Friday's match between North Dakota State and 13th-seeded Minnesota, the regional host, on Saturday for a spot on the round of 16.
Washington, which advanced to the quarterfinals in last season's NCAAs, tied Stanford for fourth in the conference this season. Over the last month, McLaughlin has gone to an unconventional timeshare between setters Jenni Nogueras and Evan Sanders. That means an extra hitter in the front row at all times, part of the reason that UW finished the regular season leading the nation in blocks.
The two seniors are the key figures in the turning point of UW's up-and-down season.
Rowland was named to the All-Pac-12 first team on Tuesday. She was an honorable mention All-American in her sophomore and junior seasons, and was third in the nation with a .456 hitting percentage as a sophomore. But she was hitting at an alarmingly low success rate early this season. She hit just .095 on Aug. 27 at Long Beach State, and by mid-October McLaughlin was saying Rowland's "back was against the wall."
"I just had a better connection with Jenni. And Jim said, `We need you in there hitting with the numbers you used to hit,'" Rowland said. "So he put Jenni in there, and we just started connecting."
Barfield still had an effective partnership with Sanders, so McLaughlin kept that pairing intact. The result is a new, 6/2 arrangement instead of Washington's usual 5/1.
"I like it better. At first it was kind of shaky. The team wasn't quite sure how they liked it," Rowland said, knowing the Huskies lost their first two matches in the new set up. "But I think we are now starting to figure it out."
The biggest downside to the new tactic is that the constant substitutions between Rowland and Nogueras and Barfield and Sanders take up the bulk of the 12 substitutions college teams are limited to per set.
The Huskies ran out of substitutions while leading late in the fourth set Nov. 12 against California, the team that knocked them from last winter's NCAA tournament in the round of eight. With McLaughlin handcuffed from making needed moves, Cal scored the final four points of the set to win the match.
The Huskies haven't lost in four matches since.
"I think the team just took off after that," Rowland said of the 6/2. "The tempo - I don't know, you just have a vibe with the setter."
As Barfield said: "One thing about being a setter, you have to know how to set each hitter almost personally. With the middles it's such a specific set, it's nice to have the same setter all the time."
How do the Huskies' two middles want their sets?
"High and fast," Rowland says, knowing speed is essential to keep the opposing block from forming on a play.
Rowland played both basketball and volleyball at King's High School north of Seattle. She made first-team all state in the sport that sends the ball over the net instead of through it.
She was destined to be a Husky since before she was born. Her parents, Ronnie and Willie Rowland, each graduated from UW. Her father was a tailback for the Huskies' football team in 1976 and '77.
The youngest of four children grew up coming to Huskies football and basketball games. But she gave up playing basketball when she sustained a leg injury in her senior year of high school and her parents then advised her to choose one sport.
"I just thought I could go further in volleyball. I still love basketball," Rowland said.
After UW went to the 6/2 arrangement in mid-October, Rowland rebounded to lead the team with a .348 hitting percentage and was back among the top 50 in the nation by the end of the regular season. She has hit .438 in the 6/2 and .280 in the 5/1, with many of the 5/1 matches against lesser competition to boot. And she has stayed dominant on blocks, in which she is currently sixth nationally at 1.50 per set.
She and Barfield are why UW leads the nation with an average of 3.18 blocks per set.
By late in the regular season, McLaughlin was saying of Rowland, "She should be a first-team All-American the way she's carrying this team."
Even though she was already over 6 feet tall, Barfield didn't start playing volleyball until her sophomore year at Newport High School in Bellevue. That was also the first time she played an organized sport.
Asked if she knew anything about volleyball six years ago, Barfield shook her head.
"No," she said. "Oh, I knew they wore Spandex. That's about it."
She moved that year from Capital High School in Olympia, where she says sports were not as big a deal.
"Then I got to Bellevue and everybody is playing a sport, doing well in school, trying to get an athletic or academic scholarship. Volleyball was a good way for me to get into school," Barfield said.
"I wasn't very good. But I got better. I got used to it. I actually picked it up quickly, so I think that's why I stuck with it. I was tall, and I think that made it easier to get used to."
The middle duo doesn't see this NCAA tournament as their farewells to volleyball, by the way.
"It's cool that there is a future in it (beyond college), that you can go overseas and play and make good money, get better and see the world," Barfield said.
Rowland, who is on track to graduate in the spring with a degree in American Ethnic Studies, also wants to play professionally overseas. Spain piques her interest.
Barfield, who needs a few elective courses to complete for a degree in sociology, is open to playing anywhere.
"Honestly, anything sounds good. Someone said to me, `Would you want to go to Russia?' I'm like, `Sure, I'll go play in Russia. Why not? You're paying for it,'" she said.
Both agree that last season's emotional win over second-seeded Nebraska at home in the second round of the NCAA tournament is the highlight of their UW careers.
So far, at least.
The Huskies are entering these NCAAs unseeded -- and undaunted.
"Usually every year you know who is going to be in the Elite Eight, the Sweet 16. This year it is so much more out in the open," Barfield said. "I think anybody really has a chance right now. Instead of playing a couple bad teams and then getting ready for Nebraska or Penn State, everybody's good."
That includes Western Michigan. Even though the Broncos of the Mid-American Conference are in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008, they play fast.
That's exactly the way the Huskies like it. Especially Rowland and Barfield.