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Retooled Husky VB Opens 2018 with Top-20 Showdown

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After graduating nearly half their team and bringing in the #3 recruiting class, UW enters 2018 with a talented but inexperienced squad. #17 Washington hosts #14 San Diego, starting at 7 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday.

Edward Strong

#17 Husky Volleyball opens their 2018 campaign this weekend with a pair of matches against the 14th-ranked San Diego Toreros. Season opener is Friday, 8/24 at 7 p.m., then the teams have a rematch 24 hours later at 7 p.m. on Saturday. Free live streams of both matches are available at pac-12.com/live/university-washington, and as usual, I’ll be tweeting out score updates and thoughts as well.

The jerseys will look familiar, but the UW volleyball team that comes out of the locker room on Friday night is going to look dramatically different from the one that was surprisingly knocked out by Illinois in the second round last December. For the first time, this truly feels like Keegan Cook’s roster, rather than one left behind by Jim McLaughlin. Seven players graduated after the 2017 season, which is difficult enough. Even tougher? All but one were All-Americans at least once.

  • OH Courtney Schwan (2016 1st team, 2017 HM)
  • S Bailey Tanner (2016 2nd team)
  • L/OH Tia Scambray (2017 HM)
  • RS/MB Crissy Jones (2016 2nd team)
  • MB Marion Hazelwood (2014, 2015, & 2016 HM - all while at Oklahoma)
  • RS Carly DeHoog (2017 3rd team)

With a second-round NCAA tournament exit, their earliest in several years, and such an exodus of talent, one might expect UW to be entering 2018 off the national radar. Instead, Washington was voted #17 in the preseason coaches’ poll. The main reason for optimism? A star-studded incoming class.

The Huskies’ 5-member freshman class was named the #3 recruiting class by PrepVolleyball.com. All 5 players are among the top 82 of PVB’s Senior Aces list, marking the top incoming freshmen in the country:

  • 6’4” MB #12 Marin Grote (Burbank, CA)
  • 6’0” S #7 Ella May Powell (Fayetteville, AR)
  • 6’1” RS #4 Dani Cole (Leander, TX)
  • 6’2” OH #11 Shannon Crenshaw (Orlando, FL)
  • 6’2” OH #21 Claire Hoffman (Eugene, OR)

A sixth newcomer is a transfer returning to her home state. 6’4” RS Samantha Drechsel was part of a significant exodus from Maryland after Head Coach Steve Aird unexpectedly bolted for Indiana. A sophomore from Bothell, Drechsel played alongside new teammate Lauren Sanders (Snohomish, WA) on Team West at the 2016 High School All-America match.

A look at the roster

Middle Blockers (2 starters needed)

  • 6’4” Fr. Marin Grote
  • 6’4” So. Lauren Sanders
  • 6’0” Jr. Avie Niece

Sanders had a tremendous early freshman season, but struggled defensively in Pac-12 play and saw her playing time shrink. Her first step defensively leaves something to be desired, but she’s also one of the few returning players for UW who can absolutely win a match on her own when she’s on her game...Niece is more technically sound defensively than Sanders, but a 6’0” middle is pretty undersized in the Pac-12, and her offense is not on par with Sanders...I don’t know a lot about Grote. She’s highly rated — the highest of UW’s freshmen, in fact, just ahead of Powell. I haven’t had a chance to see footage of her playing, and I’m hesitant to peg a player like that as a starter. I wouldn’t be surprised to either see Grote turn out to be a regular starter or a clear backup behind Niece.

Predicted starters: Sanders gets MB1. Grote and Niece share time at MB2 in non-conference, but Niece’s defensive stability earns her the bulk of the playing time.

Outside Hitters (2 starters needed)

  • 5’11” Sr. #18 Destiny Julye
  • 6’2” Jr. #15 Kara Bajema
  • 6’2” Fr. #11 Shannon Crenshaw
  • 6’2” Fr. #21 Claire Hoffman
  • 6’1” R-So. #8 Maria Bogomolova

Notes: Bajema emerged as a game-changing player midway through the 2017 season, so she seems to be the odds-on favorite for the first spot...Slightly undersized at 5'11", Julye has started at various times during her career, while also serving as a back-row substitute. She's UW's best returning back-row defender other than the defensive specialists and a good hitter for her size, but she doesn't offer much as a blocker...Crenshaw brings height and elite athleticism to the Huskies. I don't know a whole lot about her blocking and back-row, but her offense is very good...I know less about Hoffman than Crenshaw. She's the lowest of UW's recruits, although 82 is still nothing to sneeze at, and a 6'2" OH is nice. Until I see her in game action she falls fairly closely behind Crenshaw...Bogomolova is the ultimate wild card. She hasn't played a match in her 2 seasons at UW, as she redshirted her freshman year then had a significant concussion that kept her out last year. She's probably not elite, or she wouldn't have redshirted in 2016 (redshirting is fairly rare in VB, especially for top recruits), but she very well could factor into the rotation. Just don't count on anything.

Predicted starters: Bajema as clear OH1. At least Julye and Crenshaw, if not also Hoffman and/or Bogomolova, get a chance at OH2 early on. Eventually, somewhat of a timeshare between Julye and Crenshaw —Head Coach Keegan Cook has shown he's not afraid to tinker with the lineup a lot, so the Dawgs end up riding the hot hand at OH2.

Setters (1 or 2 starters needed)

  • 6'0" Fr. #7 Ella May Powell
  • 5'11" So. #10 Natalie Robinson

Notes: Robinson wasn't expected to play much in 2017, but Bailey Tanner suffered a broken finger at USC that kept her out for a while. Robinson played better than expected as a fairly unheralded freshman, but probably shouldn't be a full-time setter for a T25 team...Powell's accolades make it clear she's the setter of the future for UW; the only question is whether she's the setter of the present. She's was the starting setter on the U.S. Junior National Team, at least at one point. But of all the positions to start a true freshman at, setter is by far the least desirable.

Predicted starters: Powell. But I also could potentially see both Powell and Robinson start in a 6-2 rotation instead of just Powell in a 5-1. However, Cook has shown that he much prefers the style of a 5-1 when possible, so my guess is that Powell is the full-time starter from day one. (For more explanation on about the 5-1 vs the 6-2, see bottom of article).

Right-side (opposite) hitters (1 or 2 starters needed)

  • 6’1” Fr. #4 Dani Cole
  • 6’4” So. #9 Samantha Drechsel

Notes: Before the transfer of Drechsel, RS looked to be a position of concern for 2018. Both Jones and DeHoog graduated, so the only true right-side on the roster was going to be a true freshman. Drechsel had a solid freshman campaign with the Terrapins and was already familiar with multiple of her teammates before the transfer. Cole, one of three incoming freshmen from unfamiliar UW recruiting territory (Cole from rural TX, Powell from AR, and Crenshaw from FL) should be good enough to play at this level, but having one fewer position with a freshman starter is helpful.

Predicted starter(s): Drechsel. But I would definitely expect to see Cole a fair amount against lesser opponents early on, and wouldn’t be completely surprised if she won the starting job away at some point.

Libero/Defensive Specialist (1 starter needed)

  • 5’6” Jr. #2 Shayne McPherson
  • 5’6” Jr. #13 Cailin Onosko
  • 5’11” So. #5 Emma Calle

Notes: McPherson was a part-time starting libero her first two years, but still saw time as a back-row sub when Tia Scambray was moved to libero. With Scambray gone, this is clearly McPherson’s job to lose...pint-size fan favorite Onosko has had a few notable moments off the bench, but is clearly behind McPherson in the pecking order. Side note: There is absolutely no way that Onosko is 5’6”...Calle is a two-way player who puts beach volleyball first, so she probably won’t see much time on the floor. She played just one match in 2017. I would expect that number to rise a bit, but still not be a major factor.

Predicted starter: McPherson. The easiest call of the 5 positions. McPherson hasn’t been spectacular her first two years, but she has by far the most experience and pedigree as a recruit. Onosko will continue to see notable time as a backup, probably as a 3-rotation back-row sub for the right-side starter (Drechsel, most likely).

VB Strategy: 5-1 vs 6-2 - What’s the difference?

For both setter and right-side hitter, I list the number of starters needed as "1 or 2". This is based on two primary substitution patterns used, the 5-1 and the 6-2.

The 5-1 is the style preferred by most coaches. It means that one setter (the '1' part) plays in all 6 rotations, whether in the front or the back. The 5 refers to a total of 5 unique players hit in the front row at some point: both OHs, both MBs, and one RS. The sixth spot cannot be a hitter, because that's where the setter is.

The 6-2 is the 2-setter option. Each of your 2 setters plays only the 3 rotations when she's in the back row, then subs out for an RS when that spot rotates to the front. Because each setter has to sub out in the front, that also means two different right-sides play 3 rotations each.

USC has run a 6-2 the past few years, though that could change with their new head coach after Mick Haley was unexpectedly and abruptly forced out "retired."

Advantages of a 5-1:

  • Your best players stay on the court more.
  • Hitters only have to get acquainted with the style/abilities of one setter.
  • Teams are only allowed a certain number of subs per set. It's not a number teams have problems with very often, but a 5-1 team is much less likely to run out of subs.

Advantages of a 6-2:

  • All 6 rotations have 3 hitters in the front row, rather than half of them only having 2.
  • Injuries, especially at setter, are generally easier to handle, because fewer players are full-time starters.
  • Short setters can be played. In order to play a 5-1, your setter has to have a high enough vertical leap to at least put up somewhat of a block when she's in the front -- generally, DI setters running a 5-1 are at least 5'10". The 6-2 can have short setters without a problem, because they’re never in the front row.