It’s the most wonderful time of the year for Washington volleyball coach Jim McLaughlin: the postseason.

“I like to think of it as ‘December Madness,’ ” McLaughlin joked Thursday before his team’s final tuneup practice.

McLaughlin will guide his 12th straight UW squad into the NCAA tournament beginning Friday with a first-round match at Alaska Airlines Arena against Alabama State. The match (estimated start time is 7 p.m.) follows an LSU-Michigan opener that begins at 5.

The Hornets, from Montgomery, Ala., are 25-15, the Southwest Athletic Conference champions and a team making its NCAA tournament debut.

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The Huskies, meanwhile, are tournament regulars. This year, with a 26-2 record, a Pac-12 championship and the No. 3 seed in the tournament, UW is a serious contender for the national title, which will be decided at KeyArena Dec. 19 and 21.

Washington features two All-Pac-12 outside hitters, juniors Krista Vansant (the conference player of the year) and Kaleigh Nelson. Senior libero Jenna Orlandini, 12th in career digs in the Pac-12, got a Pac-12 honorable mention nod (edged out of the All-Pac-12 roster by USC All-American Natalie Hagglund), as did sophomore middle blocker Lianna Sybeldon.

The No. 3 seeding matches UW’s highest seed ever. The 2005 Courtney Thompson-Sonja Tomasevic-Christal Morrison team won the national championship as a No. 3 seed.

McLaughlin, in his 13th season at UW, understands expectations are high for his current group, particularly with Seattle hosting the final four. He’s confident the Huskies can remain focused and not overlook any opponent.

“We practice every day with an edge, and it’s gotten a little sharper,” he said. “These guys have put more pressure on themselves, so it really doesn’t matter (who UW plays). We talk about Washington and what we need to do every day. We control that, and I think they’re dialed into their standards, and we’ve got to go meet them.”

Mental letdowns are an issue McLaughlin has cited whenever UW’s play has been substandard.

“One of the main things we’ve tried to focus on is maintaining our mindset throughout the entire match,” Orlandini said. “When there are ebbs and flows in a game, we just have to stay on task for longer periods of time.”


• Alabama State coach Penny Lucas-White, a former U.S. national team player, praised Vansant’s skills, but said her squad wouldn’t be intimidated by UW. “I don’t mean this in a bad way, but my kids are just like me: ‘Give me Goliath,’ ” she said. “If we play against the best, one day, you know what? We’re going to be the best. I mean that.”

• Alabama State uses a two-setter offense. The Hornets steer most of their attacks through their middles, sophomores Amber Bennett and Myla Marshall.

UW in NCAA volleyball tournament
A look at how the Huskies have done in the NCAA tournament under coach Jim McLaughlin. (McLaughlin’s first UW team, in 2001, finished 11-16 and did not play in the tournament):
Year Seed Advanced to (teams remaining) Final match Record Rank
2012 13 Regional semifinal (16) No. 4 Nebraska, 3-0 25-7 9
2011 Uns. Second round (32) No. 13 Minnesota, 3-2 24-8 17
2010 Uns. Regional final (8) No. 7 California, 3-0 24-9 6
2009 6 Second round (32) Colorado State, 3-1 24-6 13
2008 5 Regional final (8) No. 4 Nebraska, 3-2 27-5 5
2007 6 Second round (32) BYU, 3-2 27-4 10
2006 6 National semifinals (4) No. 2 Stanford, 3-0 29-5 4
2005 3 National champions No. 1 Nebraska, 3-0 win 32-1 1
2004 7 National semifinals (4) No. 11 Stanford, 3-1 28-3 3
2003 12 Regional final (8) No. 13 Minnesota, 3-2 23-9 9
2002 Uns. Second round (32) No. 6 Hawaii, 3-0 20-11 Unr.