The UW volleyball seniors – middle blockers Lianna Sybeldon and Melanie Wade, setter Katy Beals and libero Cassie Strickland, as well as reserves Kim Condie and Justice Magraw – have had their share of success, including a Final Four appearance. Now, they seek a national title.
The resume of Washington’s volleyball seniors is glittering, substantial … and incomplete.
On the court, they have been part of teams that put up a combined 114-15 record (.883) over their four years, won two Pac-12 championships (including a shared title with USC this year) and made a Final Four.
Off the court, they have survived some debilitating injuries, and persevered when their coach, Jim McLaughlin, surprisingly left for Notre Dame after last season. The bond has been tight.
NCAA first/second rounds
All matches at Alaska Airlines Arena
Friday: Arkansas State vs. Michigan State, 5 p.m.; Washington vs. Denver, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday: Friday’s winners, 7 p.m.
Tickets: 206-543-2200 or ticketmaster.com
“It’s really cool how we’ve all grown up together,’’ said middle blocker Melanie Wade.
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“We know exactly what our weaknesses are, and what we’re trying to fix, so we can be there for that person,’’ added setter Katy Beals.
But one notable item — a national title — is missing, and they’re focused on filling that gap. Ranked No. 1 in the coaches’ poll but seeded fifth, the Huskies begin the NCAA tournament Friday night against the University of Denver at Alaska Airlines Arena.
This senior group — middle blockers Lianna Sybeldon and Wade, setter Beals and libero Cassie Strickland, as well as reserves Kim Condie and Justice Magraw — has had its share of heartache in the tournament. That only drives them more.
“I think understanding the regret we had in the past for not going farther is motivation,’’ Sybeldon said.
All three previous years, the Huskies entered the tournament as one of the nation’s elite teams. In 2012, they reached the Sweet 16 before being ousted by Nebraska. In 2013, they made it to the Final Four — in Seattle, no less — before losing to Penn State. And last year, Nebraska once again bounced a highly ranked UW squad in the Sweet 16.
“The one in Seattle was like a blur for me,” Sybeldon said. “I felt more disappointed last year, because we were expected to get back, and it was cut so short.”
Another potential showdown with Nebraska looms in the regional final. But it is a sign of the maturity of this senior group that it vows not to fall into the trap of looking too far ahead for revenge.
“Obviously, it’s crossed all our minds,” said Wade of a Nebraska rematch, “but that’s not a good thought to have.”
That’s music to the ears of first-year coach Keegan Cook, who hasn’t wanted his team to focus on anything more immediate than a high intensity level in practice this week.
You’d have thought that the No. 5 tourney seeding would have been instant bulletin-board material for Cook, a hand-delivered box of chips to place on his team’s shoulders.
And for a while, it was.
“I think my gut reaction was to think that way, and that’s due probably to my youth and lack of experience,” he said. “Sunday, I was fired up. As I reflected on it, wow, that’s a nice gift. The last thing you want to tell this team, or this group, is what they can’t do. I’ve learned that a few times.”
So the seeding, diss or not, was only allowed to simmer briefly.
“It bothered us at first, but then we kind of realized, OK, it doesn’t matter,” Sybeldon said. “It’s not about how we’re seeded. It’s about how we finish.”
The women all agree these Huskies are a particularly tight-knit group, one that is prone to hash things out in team meetings rather than let problems fester.
“That doesn’t mean we’re free of drama,” Strickland said. “There’s been some super-minor issues, but we addressed them and everyone responded really well. Those conversations made us all feel really close and really open up to each other.”
Cook, who was McLaughlin’s assistant before being elevated to the top job, has been proactive in seeking input from his players, especially the seniors. And that includes Condie and McGraw; Cook stresses they’ve been instrumental in the team’s success though not as high-profile as their fellow seniors.
“It’s not that Jim didn’t want to hear from us,” Strickland said. “But Jim put it on us. If we had something to say, we would go to him and say it. With Keegan, he’s always asking what we have say, and pushing us to say things.”
Besides adjusting to a new coach, another factor these Huskies had to work through was the graduation of All-American outside hitter Krista Vansant. They believe that their balance is actually a strength.
“We leaned a lot on her in tough spots,” Strickland said. “She’s a great player and pulled us through a lot of matches, but we’re a completely different team. We could set anyone on the net front row, or even back row … I think that’s more threatening in a certain way to other teams. You’re not having just this one big superstar.”
Cook smiled inwardly in preseason when analysts lamented the departures of Vansant and another standout, Kaleigh Nelson, along with McLaughlin, and wondered if the Huskies would fade. He saw his senior core and told people, “You watch, they’ll fill the void.”
Now Cook sees a team with the talent to win the program’s first national title since 2005. Certainly, he sees one with the drive to do so, particularly his seniors, for whom this is the last chance.
“All of us were brought here by Jim, and we all came here for the same reason, which is to win an NCAA championship,” he said. “That didn’t change when he left. Every person still with us still has that as part of their goals.”