KeyArena is close to sold out for college volleyball’s Final Four (semifinals Thursday, final on Saturday).
Surprised? Fans of mainstream sports in this Seahawks-minded city might wonder: Why all the fuss?
In Division I, 328 universities sponsor women’s teams. In a handful of hotbed locales (including Texas and Wisconsin, two of this year’s Final Four participants), teams regularly attract sizable crowds. Nebraska averaged 8,175 for home matches in 2013, Hawaii 7,591.
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Washington, which coach Jim McLaughlin has transformed into a national power since his arrival at UW in 2001, averaged 2,678 (with a high of 4,914), 13th in the NCAA.
What’s the appeal?
At its best, volleyball is a hybrid of chess and acrobatics. It blends strategic counterpunching by coaches and rapid-fire, on-the-fly tactical adjustments by players who must assess approaching dangers and calculate responses with cyborg-like swiftness.
Combining power, drama and moments of uncommon agility and bodily self-sacrifice, elite volleyball is Cirque du Soleil with a scoreboard.
McLaughlin remembers a long-ago Los Angeles Lakers game during which a player skidded across the floor diving for a loose ball and the crowd roared long and loud.
“Our players do that on almost every play,” he said.
For casual fans interested in better appreciating the game’s nuances, here’s a primer on what to watch for:
Serve and serve-receive: A hard-to-handle serve, a Washington specialty, is a maddening challenge for the receiving team.
If the receiver struggles to make a good pass to the setter, the setter has fewer options for setting hitters. This makes an offense more predictable and easier to defend. When this happens, an offense is said to be “out of system,” which is anathema to coaches.
A big factor in UW’s dramatic comeback Saturday against USC after losing the first two sets was aggressive, effective serving. Watch to see if a team is targeting a player with its serves. A weak passer is a key vulnerability coaches aim to exploit.
Passing: Typically, liberos (defensive specialists who play only the back row) are a team’s best ballhandlers and attempt to take most serves. Their ability to pass balls cleanly to setters is critical.
“It starts with a pass,” said UW libero Jenna Orlandini, an All-Pac-12 honorable-mention player. “You can’t run your offense without a good pass.”
Hitting high, hitting hard: When presented with a wall of blockers with outstretched arms held high, what do skilled outside hitters do? Aim to “use the block” by targeting their attacks at the sides or tops of blockers’ hands. Hitters hope the ball ricochets out of bounds or flicks off a hitter’s fingertips and flies over the back line.
In the fifth set of UW’s comeback at USC, with the score 15-15, Washington’s Gabbi Parker hit high with a forceful kill that appeared to zoom deep and out of bounds. But the back line referee turned her flag perpendicular to the floor and a hand atop the flag. That indicates Parker’s shot got a “touch,” and UW received the crucial point.
• Roof: An emphatically blocked shot where the blocker’s hands extend over the net and force the ball straight down.
• Pancake: A dig where a defender sprawls face down on the court, extends her arm and, spatula-like, gets the back of her hand between the ball and floor.
• Dump, or setter dump: A surprise attack by the setter, usually attempted only when she is close to the net.
• Pipe: An attack from a back-row hitter playing the center of the court; during her eye-popping, 14-kill performance in the fourth set against USC, the Huskies’ Krista Vansant went pipe four times.
• Seam: The space between blockers or passers; good hitters are skilled at “hitting seam.”