One match into conference play, the University of Washington volleyball team is already ahead of the curve.
In each of the last two seasons, the Huskies lost their Pac-12 opener before going on to win the conference title. On Wednesday, the Huskies kicked off league play in a new and promising fashion — a sweep at home over Washington State 25-15, 25-14, and 25-22.
UW started the 2020 season with a 3-0 loss to Arizona State, before going on to make it to the Final Four. Last season, the Huskies started league play with a 3-2 home loss to Utah before falling to Texas in the Sweet 16.
While the Huskies proved the last two seasons that they have the grit to overcome an early conference loss, it isn’t necessarily a requirement on the path to the Pac-12 crown.
“After the game, we kind of said ‘We don’t need to lose the game to show to ourselves, to fire us up or however we thought about it in years past,” fifth-year senior Claire Hoffman said. “We don’t need that, we know what we can do and we know what we are capable of.”
In front of a loud and enthusiastic home crowd, Washington dominated WSU for most of the match.
The Huskies roared out to an 8-3 lead in set one thanks to three early kills from Hoffman, but the Cougars fought back to pull within two at 11-9. UW responded by scoring 10 of the next 12 points en route to the set win.
The Cougars made things interesting in the final frame, trading points with UW and pulling within one point seven times. WSU scored its final point on a service error by UW’s Kate Morin to put the score at 23-22, but back-to-back kills from Hoffman and fifth-year senior Marin Grote gave Washington the 25 points it needed to finalize its Apple Cup victory.
“Outstanding execution from our group from start to finish,” Huskies coach Keegan Cook said. “I thought Washington State responded in the third set pretty well, but we made some errors. Great environment, and I like the message that it sends to the rest of the conference that we are here to compete again, despite what people think we may or may not be at this point.”
Washington started the season ranked No. 8 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Poll, and now sits at No. 18 with a 9-2 record. Conference rival Oregon is ranked No. 21, while Stanford comes in at No. 5.
“I think a lot of people underrated us, just because we are not as flashy as other teams,” UW sophomore Emoni Bush said. “But a lot of things we focus on is just ‘good after good;’ and playing our way, and we don’t let any outside opinions affect that.”
Bush finished the match with 13 kills, while Hoffman led the squad with 18, and Grote had nine.
WSU middle blocker Magda Jehlarova, a two-time All-American who led the Pac-12 with 168 total blocks last year and finished seventh in the conference with a .353 hitting percentage, had three blocks and five kills.
Washington finished with a team hitting percentage of .412, while WSU finished at .146.
“I think we played the Washington way,” Hoffman said. “We hit clean, we hit high, we hit hard. That’s how we want to do it.”
Their latest win was important, but the Huskies have even bigger matches on their minds. With Pac-12 play kicking off, the crowds are going to get bigger, the gyms are going to get louder and the games are going to get even more intense.
It’s exactly the atmosphere the Huskies want. After falling short of their national title goals the past several years, UW has championship dreams to chase.
“This group wants to be seen,” Cook said. “They’ve put in a lot of hours here for this university. … I think this team has something to prove right now, based on where we sit in the national scene. We’ve going to have to show up every night.”