Postseason woes motivate Huskies
That's all that stood between the 2008 University of Washington volleyball team and the program's fourth appearance in the national semifinals in a span of five years.
After winning the first two sets against Nebraska in the regional final, the Huskies needed just two more points in either the fourth or fifth set to punch their ticket to Omaha. Instead, it was the Huskers who stepped up, winning the final two points in the fourth and fifth sets and rallying for a dramatic 14-25, 23-25, 25-17, 26-24, 15-13 victory on UW's home court.
After the initial shock wore off, the Huskies learned from the loss and use it as a continuing source of motivation. The team took that motivation this past weekend to the Tampa Twice Tournament in Tampa, Fla., which featured three teams ranked in the AVCA's Top 25.
No. 3 Washington, No. 4 Florida and No. 9 Minnesota competed along with tournament host South Florida.
The marquee match featured the Gators and the Huskies in what had the potential to be a preview of a Final Four contest. On this particular Saturday evening, UW did almost everything right en route to a 25-17, 25-10, 25-19 victory.
Huskies junior setter Jenna Hagglund said the team still remembers last year's national semifinals game.
"It was a tough loss to get over, but eventually you have to move on," she said. "We learned a ton from it, a lot about our focus and about the little things we messed up in that match. It was definitely a big motivator for us."
With five starters and its libero among 12 returning players, Washington entered the season with renewed focus to complement its experience and maturity. That puts the players in the same frame of mind as ninth-year head coach Jim McLaughlin.
"No matter who we're playing, no matter what they're ranked or where they're from, we always want to play our game," said senior libero Tamari Miyashiro, a two-time All-American. "That gives us confidence knowing that in tough situations, we can play our style of volleyball."
Unlike football, there is no substantial penalty for losing to a ranked opponent in nonconference play. The elite programs willingly put their national rankings on the line for a chance to play the best competition possible during their nonconference schedule.
During those matches, teams can test their mettle while there is still time to make adjustments in practice. The Tampa Twice Tournament was one such example.
"The weaknesses we saw, we knew we had them," Florida head coach Mary Wise said. "It was just Washington was the first team that could really exploit them. Fortunately, we're not football. We can schedule these matches to get better. And they do nothing but help us."
Some weaknesses are obvious; others are revealed only when playing crucial points in stressful situations. That's one reason many national championship contenders look to schedule matches against the best possible opponents.
While the participating teams were able to identify areas of their respective games that need to be refined, the college volleyball world found out the Huskies are a legitimate threat to end Penn State's two-year reign as national champion.
For the Gators and Golden Gophers, the experience could pay even greater dividends as they work to distinguish themselves from the group of teams aspiring to join Penn State, Texas and Washington as the primary title contenders.
"I'd like to think that Florida is in a group with maybe 10 to 15 teams that on any given night could beat each other," Wise said. "We will be a better team come December, but right now I think it's clear there are three teams in the country that have separated themselves from the pack: Penn State, Texas and Washington."
Miyashiro, one of the two players with the program when UW won its first national title in 2005, and Hagglund, who earned All-America honors for the first time in 2008, are keys to the Huskies' success.
Together, they ignite an offense that has been almost perfectly balanced and virtually unstoppable. The Huskies have four players averaging more than two kills per set, led by fifth-year senior outside hitter Jill Collymore at 3.29, and are fourth in the nation with a .325 team hitting percentage.
"I think I've got the best offensive arsenal in the country at my disposal," Hagglund said. "All of our hitters are great weapons and it makes it hard for our opponents to defend us. And with our passing, it makes it a lot easier for me."
The Huskies have yet to lose a set in eight matches this season. In fact, their streak actually started in May when they competed in USA Volleyball's Open Championships and won eight matches without losing a set, including a second victory over the United States' A2 national team in the championship match.
"We went to nationals, and we never talked about winning or losing," McLaughlin said. "We never talked about sweeping. We just talked about doing the right things, and the next thing you know we won the tournament and we never lost a set. It was a byproduct of our mindset."
Duplicating Penn State's feat of not losing a set during the regular season seems unlikely, given the rigors of playing in the Pac-10. But that's not the type of perfection the Huskies are interested in achieving.
A perfect season for Washington would mean winning two more matches in Tampa, this time at the St. Pete Times Forum, site of the 2009 national championship. If the Huskies can raise their level of play to the level of their commitment, a second national title would not be out of the question.
"The thing I admire more than anything is the commitment and the work ethic," McLaughlin said. "The everyday effort is phenomenal. But I've always told them we've got to play the game at a level equal to our effort. Once we do that, we're going to be a really good team."
The question remains: Can UW win the national championship this season?
"This team has all the parts, and I believe we're starting to think about things the right way," McLaughlin said. "But we've got to make a lot of progress to be a championship team. We're just going to buy into our day-to-day approach and make as much progress as we can. That answer will come in December."
And if the Huskies temporarily lose their focus along the way, all someone has to say is:
Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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