The Washington volleyball team leaves Sunday for a 13-day European exhibition tour that coach Jim McLaughlin views as a stepping-stone toward UW’s primary 2013 goal — returning to the NCAA Final Four, to be hosted at Seattle’s KeyArena in December.

“This gives us a bit of a jump in our training,” said McLaughlin, who reports he saw reasons for optimism during his squad’s six-week spring-training session. “Because of these extra matches, we can learn more about our team and improve. We have the right type of team that can take us to the Final Four.”

The Huskies, 26-6 last year and bumped from the NCAA tournament in the round of 16 by Nebraska, will play the Slovenia national team twice in Maribor, Slovenia’s second-largest city, then face either the Italian senior or junior national teams in Venice, Milan, Perugia and Rome.

The trip is being funded by player fundraising and booster donations. Athletes have already attended three classes in preparation for the trip and will earn college credits for completing a paper about their experience. The team will be joined in Italy by UW professor of classics James Clauss, a noted Rome specialist.

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

“We can get better as a volleyball team, and we can educate ourselves at a higher level,” McLaughlin said. “It’s valuable to read books, but to go to a country and see it and live it, it’s just phenomenal.”

Setter and middle blocker are positions to get scrutiny during the trip.

McLaughlin is leaning toward running a traditional single-setter offense in 2013. The two setters used in UW’s 6-2 attack last year, Jenni Nogueras and Katy Beals, are dueling for the starting role.

“Both have set an equal number of reps, and it’s neck and neck,” McLaughlin said. “I’m thinking, come on, somebody’s got to make a run and separate themselves a little bit.”

Senior-to-be Gabbi Parker has been shifted from outside hitter to middle blocker and has flourished. McLaughlin said the 6-foot Eugene native hit 48 percent on 25 swings in Friday’s practice. “We haven’t had those kind of numbers in a couple of years,” he said.

“Right now I’m fired up about Gabbi,” he said. “We like her in the middle, and we’re going to go with it. She can just hit with pure power, and you know what? She doesn’t have to pass. There’s less on her plate. We like it.”


• Texas, the defending NCAA champion, took a similar tour in late May and early June. The Longhorns lost two matches to the Italian senior national squad, 3-1 and 3-0. “Italy has a really good team,” McLaughlin said.