In a showdown for a berth in college volleyball’s national championship game, how each point begins will greatly influence how this battle ends.
Serving is likely to be a critical factor in Thursday’s late semifinal of the NCAA Final Four (KeyArena, 6:30 p.m., ESPN2), where third-seeded Washington (30-2) will aim to slow down a highflying, hard-hitting offense presented by second-seeded Penn State (32-2).
“It’s the most important thing we do,” UW coach Jim McLaughlin said of UW’s service game before Wednesday’s practice.
The Huskies are an aggressive serving team and have piled up 201 aces this season, averaging 1.73 per set (sixth nationally). The team’s style of serving ranges from Cassie Strickland’s cannon-blast jump serve to short serves (Katy Beals), float serves and spin-free liners, a Melanie Wade specialty.
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Tough serving played an important role in Washington’s comeback win after falling behind 2-0 last Saturday in a regional final against USC. The Huskies had five aces (to USC’s two) and put pressure on USC’s passers to keep their offense in system.
“I think it has a huge impact,” said Pac-12 player of the year Krista Vansant, who was named a first-team All-American on Wednesday. “We’ve been hitting our serve all season and I think we can’t stop now.
“It can sway the game in our direction,” she said. “It makes it harder on the (opposing) offense to run as fast as they want. Our serve is going to be a big component of the game.”
McLaughlin wants a steady, even performance from his players despite the national spotlight.
“The trick to the thing is you go to the Final Four, you just hit your serve. People think you’ve got to hit this home run. Just be yourself and hit your serve. That’s the challenge.
“To me, that’s greatness — not to let anything change you,” he said. “Just go through your pre-thought ritual. Get set. You’ve done it millions of times in practice. And just hit it. That’s the deal. These guys have been pretty good at that.”
Does Vansant, who pounded down a career-high 38 kills in that memorable comeback at USC, have anything left for the Final Four?
“I’m ready to go,” she said. “I think we were completely exhausted after the match. We put all of our emotion, every ounce of energy we had, into that match. But we had a day off and we had a few practices. I think we’re feeling good. We’re all pretty back to normal.”
Senior libero Jenna Orlandini concurred. “It’s mentally draining and you’re exhausted,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that there’s not more energy left in the tank. It doesn’t mean that we’re not ready to give just as much if not more.”
Vansant said she and her teammates don’t view the dramatic win at USC as the crescendo to the season. “Ever since January we’ve been talking about what’s our goal. It’s never been to make it to the Final Four. It’s been to win a national championship.”
• Along with Vansant’s first-team honors, junior outside hitter Kaleigh Nelson was named a third-team All-American Wednesday and Orlandini received honorable mention.
• McLaughlin tipped his hat to the university and the city for bringing the Final Four to Seattle. He would love to hear some hometown 12th Man-ish fervor in KeyArena, and expects his players to adjust to it.
“They’ve got nice control of their emotions,” he said. “But to play in front of your home crowd, that gets you jacked. You’ve got to control those emotions so you can play. We’ve done that in front of our people. I’m hoping we’ll play the best two matches of our career.”