LINCOLN — The Washington volleyball team started the year with 16 consecutive wins, including home victories over then top-five teams UCLA and Southern California.
But it was an October full of adversity that ultimately shaped the No. 5 Huskies into the battle-tested club coach Jim McLaughlin will bring to the CenturyLink Center for Friday’s regional semifinal against No. 10 Nebraska.
Washington had leads late in the first and third games during a 3-1 loss to fellow Omaha Regional participant Oregon on Oct. 13. The following weekend, the Huskies had match point in the fourth set against unbeaten Stanford, only to see the Cardinal rally to win in five games.
On the final weekend of October, Washington dropped two more matches. The Huskies held a 2-1 lead in games before losing another one in five to Southern California, and against UCLA, the Huskies could not convert on three chances to send the match to a fifth game, falling to the Bruins 3-1.
“Every match had a little twist in terms of lessons,” McLaughlin said as Washington prepared to depart Seattle for Omaha on Wednesday. “It went down to each kid learning how to manage their game and stay on task.”
What emerged on the other side of the stretch where Washington dropped four of five matches — each against a team ranked in the top seven at the time — was a disciplined, cohesive team that has gone 8-2 in November and December.
“They’ve been in a lot of really close matches,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “They’ve beat a lot of really good teams. The matches they’ve lost, they’ve all been against good teams and they’ve all been close. They’ve been ranked top 5 almost all year. It’s a legit team.”
Washington’s late-season run included a five-game comeback against Oregon on Nov. 16 in which the Huskies survived 14 match points before winning 25-23 in a marathon Game 5. Washington also fought through a five-gamer against Hawaii in the second round of the NCAA tournament last weekend to advance to Omaha.
“I think we’re a tougher team,” McLaughlin said. “We’re not about yelling and screaming or tough looks. It’s staying disciplined at the tough times. Making a good serve at a tough time and a big swing at a tough time. We talk about our values as a group and hold each kid dear to those values.”
No one personifies the Huskies’ toughness more than senior middle blocker Amanda Gil, the nation’s leader in blocks, whose mere return to the court after knee surgery is a small miracle.
The 6-foot-5 Gil, who began her college career at UCLA before transferring to Washington in 2010, felt pain in her knee during a redshirt year after arriving in Seattle. She played well in the spring of 2011, but doctors found a structural weakness in the knee that wore away cartilage.
McLaughlin said Gil underwent a risky surgery in which surgeons had to break her leg in order to fix the problem. She sat out the 2011 season and often cheered on her teammates from a wheelchair during rehabilitation.
“In 31 years of coaching, I’d never seen anything like it,” McLaughlin said. “There’s a presence. There’s a leadership quality there. She knows what to say and when to say it. She carries some of the emotional load. There are things she does that you can’t see and aren’t in the stats.”
But the stats themselves are impressive. Gil averaged a national-best 1.8 blocks per game this season, helping the Huskies lead the country in blocking at 3.36 blocks per game.
Washington also led the Pac-12 in aces with 1.54 per game and has the offensive firepower to complement its defense. The Huskies run a 6-2 system with three capable attackers in the front row at all times.
Sophomore outside hitter Krista Vansant leads Washington with 4.0 kills per game, but the Huskies had to rely on their other weapons late in the year after Vansant missed four matches because of an ankle injury.
Sophomore outside hitter Kaleigh Nelson (2.45 kpg) and senior OH Kylin Munoz (2.29 kpg) carried the offense while the Huskies went 3-1 without Vansant, who played limited time in Washington’s first two tournament wins. McLaughlin anticipated she’ll be near full strength for Friday’s match, the next chapter in what’s become a compelling postseason rivalry between Nebraska and Washington.
The teams will have met four times in the past eight NCAA tournaments, which began when the Huskies dominated Nebraska in a sweep of the 2005 national championship match in San Antonio. The Huskers earned a measure of revenge in 2008 when they came back from a two-game deficit to defeat UW in five games to earn a trip to the Final Four.
But sparks flew briefly at the end of the meeting in 2010. With Washington leading two games to one, Nebraska led 27-26 in Game 4 when officials ruled an attack by Washington’s Kindra Carlson landed on the end line and gave the Huskies a point. Television replays showed the ball may have been out. The Huskies won the next two points to take the match 3-1.
During the post-match handshake, words were exchanged between the two coaches and assistants had to step in to cut off any further confrontation. McLaughlin said he has exchanged text messages with Cook since the teams’ last meeting, but the two haven’t spoken since.
This will be the first NCAA tournament meeting between the two teams where Nebraska has a decided home-court advantage, but the Huskies coach said he hasn’t given much thought to being treated as the villain in the CenturyLink Center on Friday.
“As a coach, you’re teaching and preaching to stay in present tense and control what you can control,” McLaughlin said. “You can’t be distracted, and I’ve held myself to that standard.”