Huskies’ volleyball team opens Pac-12 play tonight

SEATTLE — The University of Washington volleyball team has opened its season with nine consecutive victories, risen nine spots to No. 5 in the national poll, and proven that the loss of four starters won’t send the Huskies into a year of rebuilding.

And yet the Huskies haven’t done anything yet.

In a sense, the real fun begins tonight, when Pacific-12 Conference play begins with a 7 p.m. home match against rival Washington State. Playing in the ultra competitive Pac-12, which includes five teams ranked among the current top 10, UW knows all too well how quickly things can change.

Just look at 2011. Or 2010. Or … really, almost any year will do.

The Huskies have now won 40 consecutive non-conference matches in preseason play, including this season, and yet their conference record during the past three years is a modest 38-20. The last time UW lost more than one game during the pre-conference schedule was in 2001, the first year under current head coach Jim McLaughlin.

The past two seasons have been particularly eye-opening in terms of sudden collapses — in 2011, UW started 15-1 but stumbled to an 8-7 record down the stretch, and the 2010 Huskies followed an 11-0 nonconference season with a 10-8 conference record.

“Pac-12 is always stacked,” said Kylin Munoz, a senior from Monroe High School. “But that’s why we love it. Every weekend, you’re going against some of the top teams in the country. Everyone’s stacked, but we’re stacked too.”

McLaughlin said last year’s midseason fade had more to do with his team’s psyche than it did a spike in competition. He spent part of last week addressing a common theme that he hopes this year’s team will have: mental toughness.

“There’s a time when it’s not about the passing and serving and hitting,” he said last week. “A lot of people can pass, serve and hit. It’s about those intrinsic values that allow you to win a tough match, that allow you to battle significantly harder, that allow you to overcome adversity. And I don’t think we had that last year.”

Building toughness has been a big part of what McLaughlin has tried to do while his Huskies breezed through another non-conference schedule. And the message has been received loud and clear.

“We want to have that relentless, competitor mentality, where we’re just going to keep fighting,” Munoz said. “That was something that we definitely needed to work on last year, and that’s something that we want to develop this year — so halfway through the season, when we go against those tough teams in the conference, we can pull through.”

McLaughlin has tried to pull his current players out of their comfort zone.

“Toughness, to me, isn’t bravado and all that stuff,” he said. “Toughness is hitting a tough serve in a tough situation. Toughness is making the right play. Toughness is (fighting through illness at practice). Toughness is having the ability to stay focused on the things they tell you to do. Yeah, that’s tough.

“Any great championship team has a level of toughness. We didn’t have it last year, and we need it this year. And we’re working on it.”

Having lost second-team All-American Bianca Rowland, middle blocker Lauren Barfield, setter Evan Sanders and promising freshman Summer Ross from last year’s team, the Huskies have had to rely on three freshmen and two sophomores to play like veterans. Sophomore Krista Vansant has emerged as a team leader, while the sudden transfer of Ross has forced players like Munoz to play new positions.

Ross came to UW as one of the best young beach volleyball players in the nation, if not the world, and she decided after last season that her heart was still on the beach. She transferred to Pepperdine, where she teamed with Catilin Racich to win the inaugural national pairs title in the spring.

Vansant said she was surprised by the transfer but added that the Huskies have moved on. The team really jelled during the preseason, and a visit from recent silver medalist and UW alumnae Courtney Thompson two days before the season opener seemed to push the Huskies in the right direction.

“It was pretty sweet,” Vansant said of meeting Thompson shortly after the London Olympics.

The 6-foot-2 sophomore from Redlands, Calif., added that this season has gotten off to a good start, but she knows the Huskies have their work cut out for them.

“We’re right on par when it comes to wins and losses,” Vansant said. “But those wins could have been better wins.”

McLaughlin agrees that his fifth-ranked Huskies are off to a good start, but there are still a lot of questions to be answered as Pac-12 play begins.

“I like the body of work; it’s moving in the right direction,” McLaughlin said as he begins his 12th season of conference play since arriving at UW in 2001. “But we’re going to find out how much we know and what type of team we are.”

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