Huskies downplay home pressure

SEATTLE -- Watching Washington's tight-wire act in the NCAA volleyball regional final, you couldn't help but think about how much pressure the Huskies must have felt to "make it home alive."

The national semifinal and final are at KeyArena, less than five miles from Washington's campus. Surely, the Huskies carried that weight all year, knowing how much it would mean to them, their fans and the volleyball community in this area for Washington to be playing in this event.

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Vying for their sixth national title, the Nittany Lions believe they won’t be rattled by a pro-Huskies crowd during Thursday’s semifinal match.

That had to be unavoidable: part burden, part wonderful opportunity. When they went down 2-0 against Southern Cal last Saturday, and later faced two match points in the fifth set after rallying -- wow, how tense must the Huskies have felt?

Well, that's what you'd think, right? But to hear them tell it Wednesday on the eve of their national semifinal match with Penn State, the Huskies did not overwhelm themselves with such thoughts.

"I don't think we ever talked about it just because it's in Seattle," junior star Krista Vansant said of making the national semis. "Getting here has been a goal every single year. It doesn't matter exactly where it is.

"I think it adds to the motivation that it's here. But if it was in Florida, if it was wherever, we would want to be here no matter what."

You can decide for yourself if this is completely true -- or just a good psychological trick the Huskies used to avoid thinking too much about the big picture, as opposed to the step-by-step process.

Washington coach Jim McLaughlin said he didn't talk to his team about any added importance of advancing this far this particular year.

"I had faith that if we did the things we were capable of doing … it wasn't going to be about anybody else," he said. "It was going to be about us. We measure progress every week. We continued to get better. When they got a little complacent, I jumped them and said, 'We've got to go another step, or we're not going to do this thing.'

"So it was in my heart. It was in my mind, but I tried my best not to think about it."

Um, OK. If you say so. If the Huskies did successfully manage to not let the location of this event be too big a millstone around their necks all season, congrats to them. Now that they're actually here and know the party isn't happening without them, McLaughlin can appreciate the impact that it has.

Even in a community that has so many pro sports options with the NFL, MLB, the WNBA, etc., McLaughlin is pleased with the niche his program has carved out.

"Volleyball is big here," McLaughlin said. "We have a nice culture. So it's very meaningful. I don't know how to put it into words. When you're in a place like Seattle you've got so much stuff going on, but people love their volleyball."

Fans in Happy Valley are supportive of volleyball as well, with Penn State hoping to win its sixth NCAA title. And in the Big Ten conference, there are some very loud and passionate venues, chief among them Nebraska.

Thus, the Nittany Lions aren't worried that they'll be rattled by a loud, pro-Huskies crowd. Penn State coach Russ Rose, with his trademark dry wit, dismissed the suggestion that noise in KeyArena would be distracting.

"I think there's a lot of noise in life," Rose said. "The people who are successful ignore the noise and do what they're supposed to do."

Rose, incidentally, enjoyed watching the televised drama of Washington's five-set win over USC on Saturday -- even if he did drift off to sleep during the match. (It didn't end until nearly 2:20 a.m. ET.)

When the Huskies and Trojans started in Los Angeles, Rose and his team were already back home from the Lexington regional. Rose said he took more than a page of notes on USC -- which won the first two sets -- in possible preparation for facing the Trojans here. Then, the travel caught up with Rose, and he nodded off. He woke up in time for the fifth set, after which he tossed his USC notes in the trash.

"Instead, he'll face off against McLaughlin, a good friend. McLaughlin said his players will have to manage the excitement of being the "crowd favorite" with just staying in the moment and playing fundamental volleyball.

"To play in front of you home crowd, that gets you jacked," McLaughlin said. "But you've got to control those emotions, so you can play."

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