The Washington volleyball team has lots of new faces — three freshmen and two redshirt freshmen, all potential regulars. It also has a familiar goal: Make a serious run at a national championship in December.
The Huskies reached the Final Four last year, their fourth in 10 seasons. Now, even with the challenge of plugging in many new pieces around 2013 national player of the year Krista Vansant, coach Jim McLaughlin believes his latest roster has the potential to accomplish big things.
“We’ve got a lot of good parts that can become great parts,” said McLaughlin, in his 14th season at UW. “One of the things we have is tremendous depth, so there’s a lot of competition, which helps accelerate improvement.”
The fifth-ranked Huskies opened their season last weekend with three wins in Boise: quick sweeps over Portland State and Boise State and, for a second straight year, an anxiety-inducing 3-2 squeaker over Gonzaga.
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Up next: A tough challenge Friday in Provo, Utah, where UW faces 10th-ranked BYU (3-0). The Huskies play Seattle U in their home opener Sept. 11.
McLaughlin has four first-year players battling to join Vansant and Kaleigh Nelson, a third-team All-American, as outside hitters.
The freshman foursome is 6-foot Tia Scambray (seven kills and no errors on seven attacks vs. Boise State), 6-1 Courtney Schwan (two-time Gatorade Washington Player of the Year from Bellarmine Prep), 6-4 left-handed redshirt Carly DeHoog and, in a surprise, 6-2 Crissy Jones, originally penciled in as a middle blocker.
“We trained her mostly in the middle,” McLaughlin said of Jones, “and then she hit some balls at the pins and we thought, ‘Oh, boy.’ So we played her opposite (last weekend).
“Things change as people change and develop. We went through that when we went 6-2 (a two-setter offense). All of a sudden Kaleigh came out of nowhere and we thought we had to get her on the court. That was one of the reasons we started the 6-2.
“Right now (at OH) is where we think she can make the biggest impact. But if one of the two middles (juniors Lianna Sybeldon and Melanie Wade) don’t kill the ball, we’ve got to put her in there. So we have her, and it’s a luxury. That might be how we use her. But we don’t know yet.”
For now, UW will continue to use two setters, junior Katy Beals and redshirt freshman Bailey Tanner.
“We get eight really good players on the court if we run the 6-2,” McLaughlin said. “Right now, if we had to win a match tonight, we would go 6-2. But we’re going to continue to look at the 5-1.”
Fan favorite Cassie Strickland, a 5-8 junior with big hops, a powerful arm and a high-energy vibe, played OH her first two seasons but has switched to libero.
“We talked about big picture,” McLaughlin said, recalling a spring conversation. “I said, ‘You are a good outside hitter. But you can be a great libero. You have all the skills and the personality that should enable you to improve and become one of the best in the country.’
“She thought about it and said, ‘Jim, I want to do whatever I can to help this team.’ Now she’s in a position where she can drive the bus. She does an unbelievable job of that. She provides energy and direction and won’t let this team ever hang their heads or give up. She fights all the time.”