By Phil Collin for VolleyballMag.com
LOS ANGELES – It only took 13,000 miles and 13 matches for Washington to find out what kind of team the Huskies would place on the court in 2016.
It also took a stinging Pac-12 defeat to rival Washington State in the conference opener on their home court for the Huskies to determine how they would respond.
They might have been a touch curious themselves, considering this is a roster that has only one senior and has three freshmen starters. This on a team that had back-to-back 30-victory seasons, on a squad that went 18-2 in the Pac-12 a year ago, but there is no senior like Lianna Sybeldon or Cassie Strickland to turn to in crucial situations.
What the seventh-ranked Huskies (11-1, 1-1 Pac-12) are finding is that they have a little more bite to their bark than others might think. The next chance they get to show it is when No. 9 Stanford visits on Wednesday.
“Our team is really good at coming back and being good when it’s tough in crunch time,” junior setter Bailey Tanner said. “We want to be in the dogfights, but we just need to get better in not getting ourselves in those situations early. Our whole team had a blast fighting back, and it’s easy to play well when you’re crushing teams. It’s hard to play well when it’s neck and neck.”
After that four-set loss to the Cougars in Seattle on September 21, second-year coach Keegan Cook was no doubt a little curious to see how his team would respond two days later as it went to then-No. 21 USC. Right off the bat, Washington faced deficits of 4-0 and 7-3 in the opening set before crawling back for a 28-26, 25-16, 25-18 victory.
“It felt pretty tentative on our side of the net,” Cook said. “Our serving got us back into it, then it was a battle the rest of the set. This team knows how to respond, just having the discipline to have good habits all the time so you don’t necessarily find yourself down 7-3 in the first set. I know the kids will respond. They know how to be good.”
They know how to be good even with a youthful squad. They have veterans like Tanner, Crissy Jones, Tia Scambray and Courtney Schwan leading the way.
With that core on the court, they’re not about to allow freshmen like Kara Bajema, Avie Niece or libero Shayne McPherson just be space-fillers on the court.
That was made clear in a players-only meeting.
“That helped us a lot,” Scambray said. “We said things that we need to work on, holding each other accountable, really getting after each other when we don’t make the appropriate plays. That is something that every good team has. That helped us (against USC). We were getting after each other and we responded really well to that.
“We for sure have a lot of confidence in our freshmen. They came in and they got to work. They are in such a huge learning curve right now that we’re putting so much on them, but they’re responding great. We have a whole lot of confidence in their ability.”
Ability is one thing, but trial by fire in the Pac-12, especially on the road, figures to toughen up the Huskies instead of see things unravel in inexperience.
For the moment, anyway, Cook and his staff are trying to file away tendencies from the newcomers as they bring their own brand of volleyball to the court.
“It’s never boring,” Cook said with a smile. “They make some plays that are outstanding, that maybe are unorthodox, but they’re good plays. There’s some surprise, but you’re around these kids so much you begin to learn their patterns and know what they’re going to do. Those guys have some surprises for us but they’re learning at such a high rate, it’s fun to see each match what they’re going to do this time around.”
Cook has watched it unfold from coast to extreme coast. The Huskies opened the season in Harrisonburg, Va., with a two-match sweep of James Madison and American University. They’ve also traveled to Hawaii for a three-match tournament that concluded with a five-set win over Hawaii.
They also made a run-through trip south to Los Angeles in the Pac-12 Challenge and the Huskies came away with three more victories.
“We lost some great seniors, so this trip is super meaningful for us,” Tanner said after the USC match. “We had a team meeting, got rid of the coaches, brought the players together to see what we can do as a team, how we can be better and work on some things and keeping it tight and being serious on our assignments.”
Or as Scambray put it: “For sure it’s growth in the program. We had it in there last year and the seniors were really the people who brought down the reins of ‘Hey, we’re getting on each other.’ Now it’s our turn and we are getting it back this year.”
That may help form the identity of this year’s Huskies. Naturally, Cook would rather see it on the court, but with all the travel, practice time has been at a premium, so integrating the newcomers with the veterans may take a little longer. Yet there is nothing but confidence in a program that is becoming accustomed to be a national contender.
“I don’t think we’re wondering, we just kind of know we’ll respond,” Scambray said. “That keeps us calm during the game. We know we’re good enough to make the plays and to respond well in those situations.”
Not that it’s easy.
“It’s really tough,” Cook said. “The most important team bonding occurs on the court in some tough situations like (against USC) or like our match against Washington State. We need to practice a bunch and I think the girls were a little more mindful with the limited reps they have.”