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Season Preview: Middle Blockers

Aug 27, 2014

The 2014 season begins this Friday for the fourth-ranked Husky volleyball team, as UW visits Boise for the annual Northwest Challenge. This week will take a look at each of the positions with the thoughts of Head Coach Jim McLaughlin. Today are the middle blockers, with juniors Lianna Sybeldon and Melanie Wade, and freshman Crissy Jones.


Outside Hitter Preview
Defensive Specialists Preview



One year ago, Lianna Sybeldon and Melanie Wade were heading into their sophomore seasons suddenly thrust into starting roles on a preseason top-five team, each having seen the court in less than half the total sets as freshmen. Senior Gabbi Parker trained some in the middle to help the depth, but it was up to Wade and Sybeldon to step up in the middle for a team that led the NCAA in blocking in 2012.

Not only did Wade and Sybeldon help keep the Huskies among the nation’s elite in blocking, but they gave UW an offensive shot in the arm, averaging nearly three-and-a-half kills between them with Wade hitting .322 and Sybeldon at .340. Now the two head into their junior seasons with a full year of experiences good and bad to draw from and build on, and expectations reaching even higher.

But despite impressive sophomore seasons, both will be pushed in the middle this year by talented freshman Crissy Jones, who has practiced both in the middle and at the outside hitter spot so far this month and shown an excellent all-around skill set.

The key for Sybeldon and Wade is to continue sticking to the process, and both are very process-driven, says Coach McLaughlin. “They have tapped in and they’re even better at the process now,” McLaughlin says. “I think they should be a lot better than they were last year if we do this thing right.”

“Both of those girls work extremely hard,” McLaughlin says of Wade and Sybeldon. “They give everything they have, and they’re not afraid to ask for help. They’re just fun to coach; they are great to be around. They’re very serious, very cerebral. They should be two of the top middles in this conference if they continue to improve. But I like where they’re at, I like the direction they’re moving in, and they are going to play a significant role this year.”

Sybeldon earned All-Pac-12 honorable mention a year ago, and ranked third on the team in points per set with 2.68. She was named to the Los Angeles All-Region Team after big contributions in the NCAA round of 16 and quarterfinals, and also picked up the honor of an AVCA National Player of the Week award after leading UW to road wins at UCLA and USC. One of the hardest hitters on the team, Sybeldon also has a leadership quality that McLaughlin thinks can have a greater impact this year.

“Li has got an incredible personality and is one of the most positive people I’ve ever been around, and I think she’s got an element of leadership that she doesn’t even know about yet,” he says. “She can influence people. People love to be around her. And she’s very honest. I think Li having her own opinion is important but having a stronger opinion is even better as a young woman. I just think she can have a greater impact on the whole group and so I look forward to that. But she is ready to practice this year better than I’ve ever seen her. She could become a great middle, and she’s on her way.”

Whatever successes come Wade’s way this season, they will be well earned, as the Palo Alto native won’t be outworked by anyone. “She spends so much time here that I have to go ‘Okay Mel, get out of the gym and rest,’ which is always a great thing,” McLaughlin says. Wade kept her game sharp over the summer by traveling with the Pac-12 All-Star Team to China for a series of matches where she played a major role. Last year, her serving also developed into a major weapon for the Huskies, as she had 32 aces and served many critical runs for the Dawgs.

“Melanie’s contribution was great; it’s hard to measure all the stuff she did. She does a nice job blocking, she’s smart, and everything is important to her,” says McLaughlin. “But I think we’re teaching our offense a little bit better and I think she’s going to have an impact on how we run our offense.”

Still, all that being said, Washington has the excellent problem of where Jones might fit into the equation. “I wouldn’t trade Mel and Lianna for anybody, but Crissy’s in the mix, too. We’ve got three good middles, and our goal at the end of the day is we’ve got to get our best six or eight players on the floor. So we’ve just got to keep developing and then the team will develop and we’ll know where to put them.”

Jones, a Los Alamitos, Calif. product from the same club team that produced her teammates Cassie Strickland, Bailey Tanner, and fellow freshman Tia Scambray, was the California co-Player of the Year last season at the highest division. Among her long list of accolades was ESPN High School National Sophomore of the Year in 2011, and AVCA First Team All-America status as a senior.

“Crissy is physical, she’s fast, she’s competitive, and she is attentive to every detail. Yet she also has a neat side to her, where she’s learning how to shut it off and decompress. But she’s got a fire and energy and when she is on the court she is fully present,” McLaughlin says.”

Right before reporting to fall camp, Jones was in Portugal playing for the U.S. in the FIVB U19 Beach World Championships, finishing in a tie for fifth. That sand experience has helped her digging and passing skills, and Jones can put the ball away anywhere along the net, in the middle or on the outside.

“We talk all the time about volleyball being a game of skill, and it’s a game of being in the right place at the right time, and it’s a game of intelligence, and she has all these things, but as she starts to learn these systems, and learns the eyework and the mechanics, she should be able to play anywhere on the court. She is developing, and she is a special athlete. It’s remarkable, when I talk to her, I don’t feel like I’m talking to a freshman. I expect her to make a contribution that is off the charts.”

How the Huskies are able to utilize the unique skills of all three players will be one of the most exciting things to watch this fall.