Huskies advance to NCAA volleyball’s Sweet 16

SEATTLE — The handshake was cordial, marking one of the few moments Saturday night that was completely devoid of drama.

University of Washington volleyball coach Jim McLaughlin gripped the right hand of Hawaii’s Dave Shoji and gave a friendly nod, a stark difference from the last time UW’s coach walked off the floor at Hec Edmundson Pavilion on his way to the NCAA tournament’s round of 16.

Thanks to a gritty, five-set comeback win from his fifth-ranked Huskies on Saturday night, McLaughlin and Nebraska coach John Cook, his nemesis from an infamous postseason match at Hec Ed in 2010, will meet again. The post-game handshake in that one took on a life of its own after Cook said something uncomplimentary that nearly led to a post-match fight.

It was not a subject that McLaughlin cared to entertain Saturday night.

“I want to talk about the future and the present tense,” a jovial McLaughlin said late Saturday night. “It has no bearing. This is a different team, a different time.

“We’re always counseling our kids on concentrating on being good right now, so I’m going to be good right now.”

McLaughlin rightfully wanted this night to be all about the 2012 Huskies, who fought off a talented Hawaii team and its surprisingly large, and loud, fan base, for a 20-25, 25-20, 19-25, 27-25, 15-11 victory. The Huskies (25-6) rallied back from convincing losses in Games 1 and 3, thanks in large part to the outside hitting of 5-foot-8 freshman jumping bean Cassie Strickland and some timely heroics from Monroe High School product Kylin Munoz.

Munoz, a senior outside hitter, had 15 kills and assisted on nine blocks while providing many of the night’s momentum-turning moments. Her most important one may have come when Munoz had a serving ace to close out the all-important Game 4 with a 27-25 win.

Munoz’s nine block assists were two more than teammate Amanda Gil, whom McLaughlin singled out by saying: “In 31 years of coaching, I have never had someone block like she did.”

Munoz, a senior, said she won’t soon forget what will go down as her final match at Hec Ed.

“It was definitely an exciting way to finish,” she said. “Out with a bang.”

Strickland, a freshman from Huntington Beach, Calif., almost single-handedly turned the tables early in Game 2. She had three kills during a 7-0 run that brought a generally subdued fan base to its feet. UW pulled out to a 10-5 lead in that game and held off a late rally for a 25-20 win to tie the match at one set apiece.

Hawaii (27-3) took control again in Game 3, then made a late run to push the Huskies to the brink in the fourth game.

The fifth set started out in appropriate fashion, with neither team leading by more than a point until incredible digs from Jenni Nogueras and Jenna Orlandini capped off a 4-0 run that put the Huskies ahead 11-7.

Munoz and teammate Melanie Wade combined to block Hawaii’s Jane Croson for a 13-8 lead, then teamed up with Wade again to block Rainbow Wahine star Emily Hartong at match point.

“It was all or nothing,” said sophomore Krista Vansant, who had a team-high 16 kills despite playing on a tender ankle. “We didn’t want our season to end at home.”

Now UW will travel to Omaha to face a 10th-ranked Nebraska team that last played the Huskies in a memorable 2010 NCAA tournament match that got even more dramatic after the final point. Nebraska’s Cook, who was miffed at a couple of calls in the final game, brushed past McLaughlin with some choice words before the UW coach turned to confront him. McLaughlin had to be held back by a security officer near the bench.

When the subject of UW’s upcoming opponent was brought up in Saturday’s post-match press conference, it was immediately met with laughter. Even McLaughlin chuckled, offering simply that it will be “a great environment” in Omaha.

He wasn’t too concerned with talking about the past, other than what happened during a 21/2–hour stretch leading up to Saturday night’s press conference.

“It’s a huge win for our program,” McLaughlin said after the Hawaii match. “Hawaii’s big-time; they’ve been really big-time for a lot of years.”

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