Sometimes, when the raging fire within Cassie Strickland threatens to spread too far, Washington volleyball coach Jim McLaughlin will offer a playful reminder.
“You’re not a football player anymore,” McLaughlin will say. “You’re a volleyball player.”
Eventually, Strickland will relax and play with the grace that her second sport requires. But Strickland’s first love was football, and she spent three years of her youth playing quarterback and middle linebacker with the boys. She didn’t settle on volleyball until middle school, when she explained to her parents, “Realistically, I have a better chance getting a college scholarship with volleyball.”
Now, she’s a college junior playing libero for the undefeated Huskies (19-0), the nation’s No. 3 team. And while passion and ferocity have their place on the volleyball court, Strickland has had to learn to manage her linebacker mentality to excel at the subtlety that the libero position demands.
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Her maturation is one of the most interesting stories on a team full of them. The Huskies are as balanced, as star laden and as well coached as any team in the country. Among the standouts is Strickland, who has made a difficult but successful transition from outside hitter to libero.
She has done so by taming her all-out mentality, controlling her athleticism and focusing on the simplicity of her new position. The libero is a volleyball team’s defensive specialist. Strickland handles most of the passing in serve receive. When she passes, she must place the ball perfectly so that the setter can run the offense as intended. She must be the best on the team at digging the ball, and she must be a vocal leader on the court to ensure the defense is positioned properly.
The libero also should be a weapon serving the ball, and Strickland leads the Huskies with 21 aces this season. And if the setter is either forced to make a dig or is out of position to set the ball, the libero often slides into that role.
As an outside hitter, Strickland used her intensity to defy the odds and succeed despite being only 5 feet 8. The Huskies’ outside hitters currently range from 6-foot to 6-4, so Strickland was once the Russell Wilson of that position. But now her game is about controlling her mind and body.
“It’s not about great plays, Cassie,” McLaughlin often says. “It’s about good plays.”
At first, it was a challenge. Strickland is a player who once ran through a whiteboard at practice chasing after a ball. Another time, she got angry and punched a cart. This summer, she was at home in Huntington Beach, Calif., and tried to break up a dog fight. Part of her finger was bitten off during the scuffle.
The incident prompted McLaughlin to have a stern conversation with her about decision-making. But McLaughlin also understands two things about Strickland: 1. She always has good intentions. 2. When channeled properly, Strickland’s fire is an asset.
“I’m a fighter,” says Strickland, who averages a team-best 5.31 digs per set. “I don’t like to give up.”
For evidence, revisit her childhood football career. Her father, Filipo, didn’t want his daughter to play such a rugged game, but Strickland wore down her father. He changed his mind, with one condition.
“If you cry, you have to quit,” Filipo said.
There was no way his daughter was going to cry. Strickland is too determined, too tough. Though she later quit football for volleyball, she retained her aggressive style. She wears No. 8 in honor of her favorite quarterback, Hall of Famer Steve Young.
She doesn’t consider Young an idol, however. Strickland doesn’t do idols. She also admires and has befriended former Washington setter Courtney Thompson, who led the Huskies to the 2005 national title. But Strickland is too competitive to use the I-word even to describe Thompson.
“If I call someone an idol, I feel like that’s me accepting that someone is better than me,” Strickland says. “I can’t do that. I want to be the best.”
There is no arrogance in Strickland’s words. It’s not that she thinks she’s better than Thompson, whose jersey now hangs from the rafters at Alaska Airlines Arena. It’s that she can’t compete without holding herself to the highest possible standard.
Her mentality is a reason that the Huskies are unbeaten and have won five thrilling five-set matches already this season.
“She’s one of the coolest kids I’ve ever been around,” McLaughlin says. “You don’t want to put that fire out. I love the kid, being in the gym with her, going to battle. She’s an unbelievable kid. She’s a great teammate, and she likes winning more than anything.”
After being a two-year contributor at outside hitter, Strickland says she didn’t get comfortable playing libero until Sept. 19, when the Huskies posted perhaps their best win of the season, a five-set triumph over then-No. 4 Wisconsin.
Thompson taught Strickland how to tailor her emotional style to the new job. Thompson, who is also a fiery player, helped Strickland turn that fire into focus.
Strickland is still a player who possesses the athleticism and fearlessness to dive into the stands to keep a ball in play, but she’s smart enough to choose her spots carefully. As a libero, McLaughlin sees unlimited potential.
“She has all the stuff — physical, mental and emotional,” McLaughlin said. “She’s a crowd favorite.”
McLaughlin learned all about Strickland’s popularity from his 14-year-old daughter, Molly. The team went on a European trip in June 2013. Molly was helping keep score during a game in Slovenia, and she began yelling for Strickland in the small gym.
McLaughlin later asked his daughter why she was so fired up.
“Cassie, she just gets it, Dad,” Molly said. “I want to be like her.”
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org