Pre-Season Vote for Caution: Why Washington Could Win It All

In 2008, Penn State won the NCAA Women’s Volleyball National Championship with a perfect 38-0 season, won 114 sets while losing only two, extended its NCAA-record match winning streak to 64, and had a record six players earn AVCA All-America honors. For 2009, Penn State returns ten letterwinners from that 2008 team (including AVCA All-Americans Blair Brown, Alisha Glass, Megan Hodge, and Arielle Wilson), and welcomes three talented freshman recruits and two promising transfers.

But ask Penn State Women’s Volleyball Head Coach Russ Rose how his team will do in 2009 and he’s a study in caution:

“There’s a lot of teams in the country who have their entire starting lineup coming back, or who only graduated one player. . . . Certainly those teams in my mind are gonna be way ahead of where we are at the start of the race.”

Jim McLaughlin, Head Coach of the University of Washington’s Women’s Volleyball team, has a different outlook. In 2008, the Huskies went 27-5, losing 3-2 to Nebraska (25-14, 25-23, 17-25,24-26, 13-15), in the NCAA Regional Finals in Seattle, after leading 9-3 in the fifth set.

Here’s a video of Nebraska’s comeback, with the score at 9-3:

So what does Jim McLaughlin think of his team’s chances in 2009? McLaughlin is optimistic: 2009 is a new year and a different story. Here’s McLaughlin at Washington’s Media Day on August 24th:

“”I like this team. There are a lot of reasons to like them but mostly, these guys, I believe, if we keep on the path and keep going about business the way we do it day-to-day, they can get to a pretty big time place, a special place. It’s that type of group.”

Why is Coach McLaughlin so sanguine about Washington’s prospects for 2009? Obviously, there has to be talent (and Washington has plenty of that, as we’ll see). But to Coach Rose’s point, the key is experience.

Here’s our profile of the talented and experienced Washington Huskies, Part II of our series on three teams (there are more, but time is short and distractions are many) that could win it all in 2009.

Are You Experienced?

Coach McLaughlin is bullish on the importance of experience (“it’s huge”). Here’s what he had to say on Media Day about how experience will benefit Washington in 2009:

“This team has done some good things. They have some experience and you learn from your experiences and I think they’re ready to take the next step. I think they’re going to be ready to take the next step.”

Lest anyone miss the point, McLaughlin makes clear that the “next step” is an NCAA Championship:

“I think the University of Washington can do it. We’re at a place where the standard is awful high and awful difficult, but that’s why these players have come here. A long time ago, I had my time as a player and now it’s their time.”

Washington’s experience starts with McLaughlin himself: he’s starting his ninth year as Head Coach of the Huskies. All but one starter returns from that 2008 team, led by two-time National Defensive Player of the Year Tamari Miyashiro (5-7 Senior Libero), AVCA Third Team All American Jenna Hagglund (5-10 Junior Setter), and UnderArmour/Volleyball Magazine Second Team All-American Becky Perry (6-2 Junior Outside Hitter).

There’s more. At Outside Hitter it’s almost an embarrassment of riches, with Jill Collymore (5-10 Senior, who ranked 24th in the nation with 0.46 service aces per set), Honorable Mention All-Pac-10 selection Airial Salvo (6-0 Senior), and Honorable Mention All-Pac-10 selection Kindra Carlson (6-1 Junior who was second on the team in kills (3.23 kps), second on the team in blocks (0.85 bpg), and third on the team in attack percentage (.307)) also returning.

Asked whether Perry, Collymore, Salvo, and Carlson all could start, McLaughlin said “I don’t know. I know we have the personnel where we’ve got four big time outside hitters. It’s a dogfight every day. Where there’s competition there’s progress. We’re making a lot of progress, each one of them. . . . It’s who can stay on the path.”

At Middle Blocker, Washington returns All Pac 10 Freshman Team selection Bianca Rowland (6-0 Sophomore), Lauren Barfield (6-5 Sophomore), and former Volleyball Magazine Fab 50 selection Kelcey Dunaway (6-2 RS Freshman).

With talented Freshmen Kylin Munoz (6-1 Outside Hitter who was ranked as the #6 high school senior in 2009 by, Jenni Nogueras (5-11 Setter who was Captain of the Puerto Rico team in the 2007 FIVB Girls’ Youth World Championship), Kelly Holford (5-9 DS/L), and Jenna Orlandini added to the mix, there will be plenty of competition for playing time.

Will Washington take the next step and win the NCAA Championship in 2009? That remains to be seen, and lots of teams, including Penn State, will have a say in whether they do or don’t. Just don’t count them out: they were only six points away from getting to the Final Four. They haven’t forgotten and you better believe they’ve learned from that experience.