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UW Volleyball

Bump, set, champs! Huskies stun No. 1 Cornhuskers

Special to The Seattle Times

SAN ANTONIO — Brains over brawn. Speed trumps strength. A purple wave swamps the Big Red sea.

Led by Christal Morrison's thunderous attacks, Candace Lee's unflinching digs, Darla Myhre's rock-solid blocks, and Courtney Thompson's customary pinpoint passing, the Washington volleyball team won its first national championship Saturday night with an improbable but decisive 3-0 sweep over top-ranked Nebraska in front of 8,482 at the Alamodome.

The victory, achieved with wins of 30-26, 30-25, 30-26, gave third-seeded Washington (32-1) an unblemished record for the postseason. Its streak of 18 games won in the tournament marks the first time any team has swept six opponents in an NCAA tournament. Texas swept five matches en route to its national title in 1988.

The result is a triumph for coach Jim McLaughlin, who in five years transformed Washington from a last-place team to a national champion. McLaughlin, who won a men's title while coaching at USC in 1990, became the first coach to win both a men's and women's NCAA title.

The victory, clinched on a block by Morrison, voted the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, triggered a giddy celebration on the court. Lee dropped to her knees, pressed her palms together and broke into tears. A mob scene engulfed her as players jumped, hugged, hollered and eventually fell to the floor en masse in a jubilant group hug.

"Candace is still back there crying," Morrison joked at the postgame news conference.

Setter Courtney Thompson carried the school's banner around the court, and then told a reporter, "I don't want to leave."

While most observers considered the match a toss-up — a contest between the taller and stronger Cornhuskers and an savvy Huskies squad guided by a mastermind coach operating at the zenith of his craft — few anticipated a 3-0 sweep.

"We played our best match of the year against them," said McLaughlin, who addressed the media with his shirt unbuttoned and untucked and hair disheveled after getting a locker-room, water-bottle dousing by his players. "It was just a good match from start to finish. I'm just unbelievably happy for this group."

That group opened the first game with a quick 2-0 advantage, the result of two Thompson serves that Nebraska had trouble handling and caused Nebraska coach John Cook to call an unusually early timeout.

Nebraska (33-2) pulled ahead 10-8 in Game 1 but never again led in the first two games. The Cornhuskers couldn't cope with Washington's highly effective serves, its superior passing from its back line and Nebraska's self-inflicted blunders, including nine service errors. UW had one.

"We didn't pass very well tonight," said Cook, the 2005 NCAA Coach of the Year. "They broke us down a couple of times. There were times in those first two games that they got a couple of two- and three-point runs, and in a match like this you can't give up two- or three- or four-point runs. We didn't do a great job passing like we needed to do."

The Cornhuskers broke away to a 7-2 lead in Game 3, but the Huskies stayed on task (a McLaughlinism) in every department, getting nearly flawless execution from every player on the floor. Washington roared back to tie it at 18, then went ahead for good on a Brie Hagerty smash down the line for a 24-23 lead. Washington outscored Nebraska 8-3 to close out the match.

While Morrison dazzled with her 15 kills, including three from the back row, Washington got big-time plays (another McLaughlinism) from less-heralded contributors.

Myhre, a senior middle blocker, produced six kills, a block and five block-assists; senior defensive specialist Danka Danicic accounted for 10 digs — many at crucial, momentum-sustaining junctures — and sensational serving; and sophomore serving specialist Ashley Aratani recorded an ace and four body-jolting digs.

"It was definitely our best game of the year," Thompson said. "I couldn't believe how focused we all were. We would cheer something that happened, and then we would focus in again."

Thompson cupped her hands around her eyes for emphasis.

It ended when Morrison blocked an attack by Melissa Elmer, Nebraska's senior middle blocker who has led the nation in blocks the past two years.

"I go up, and she tips it, and I realize she didn't tip it high enough," Morrison said. "So my hands are up there, and I think, 'Don't hit it down; tap it down.' And I see it floating in slow motion, and it hits the floor.

"And I'm kind of in awe. I think, 'Wait, wait, wait. It was match point, right?' Shoot, I started crying right then I was so happy. I could see my parents bawling, and that made me cry even more."

The victory caps a season-long quest that began in August for McLaughlin, who has guided UW to steady improvement in each of his five years at Washington, including the school's first Final Four appearance last year.

"This is glorious," Morrison said. "It's huge. We're the first team to win a national championship in volleyball at the University of Washington. There's only one first, and we got that. No one can take that away from us now. It's ours. It really feels good."

Seattle Times correspondent Jack Hamann contributed to this report.

Pac-10 domination
Washington stretched the Pac-10's streak of consecutive NCAA women's volleyball titles to five. A look at the past six champions:
Year School Conf.
2000 Nebraska Big 12
2001 Stanford Pac-10
2002 USC Pac-10
2003 USC Pac-10
2004 Stanford Pac-10
2005 Washington Pac-10
McLaughlin's mark
Jim McLaughlin's steady climb since taking over as Washington coach in 2001 culminated with an NCAA championship:
Year W-L Pac-10 NCAA
2001 11-16 Eighth Did not qualify
2002 20-11 Fifth* Qualified
2003 23-9 Fifth* Regional finalist
2004 28-3 First NCAA semifinalist
2005 32-1 First NCAA champion
* Tied for fifth

Information in this article, originally published December 18, was corrected December 21. A previous version of this story contained an error. The University of Washington women's volleyball team played in the NCAA tournament in 2002, Jim McLaughlin's second year as Huskies coach. The original listing on Sunday Dec. 18 accompanying coverage of UW's national championship incorrectly said the Huskies did not qualify for the NCAAs in 2002.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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