Defensive play paces Huskies through first half of season

UW senior middle blocker Bianca Rowland and the Huskies welcome Utah and Colorado to Seattle this weekend. Photo by Sports

For the first time in program history, the Washington volleyball team will welcome two new members to what is now the Pac-12 conference.

The No. 3 Huskies (13-1, 5-1 Pac-12) host Colorado on Friday night and Utah on Saturday night, with both games at 7 p.m. at Alaska Airlines Arena.

To date, the rest of the Pac-12 has given both teams a rather rude extended welcome. The Buffaloes (5-10, 0-7) are winless in conference play, while the Utes’ (6-10, 1-6) only Pac-12 win came in their first game — against Colorado.

The Huskies are excited to take a look at their new conference-mates, even if it might feel a little strange.

“Some of us were talking — what if … it [doesn’t] feel like a conference game, because we’re so used to playing the certain nine teams besides ourselves?” defensive specialist Jenna Orlandini said. “But it will definitely be a change. I’m excited to see some new teams.”

The road won’t get any easier for the Buffaloes and Utes this weekend, when they have to face a stifling Husky defense that appears to be hitting its stride.

“Right now, I like our numbers,” head coach Jim McLaughlin said. “Our numbers tell us that we’re in some good areas.”

That they do. The Huskies lead the Pac-12 in opponent’s hitting percentage at a miniscule .116, and are second in the conference in blocks, averaging 3.22 per set.

There are many reasons for the UW’s defensive success, among them, the blocking on the front line by seniors Lauren Barfield, Bianca Rowland, and Evan Sanders, as well as the versatility and defensive acumen of freshmen Krista Vansant and Summer Ross.

But perhaps the biggest key to that success has been Orlandini, who was voted one of the team’s two captains despite being just a sophomore. As the leader of the defense, her responsibilities are myriad, essentially reading the opposing team’s offensive setup and adjusting her teammates’ positioning accordingly.

“I’m covering, I’m talking. I’m a lot louder because I don’t jump as much,” she said. “I’m telling them stuff that I see, because I’m the farthest back [from the net], so I have the whole view of the court. So when I say something, it has to be meaningful.”

Being such a vocal presence on the court isn’t something that came naturally to Orlandini. She described herself as “internal” as a freshman last year, and transforming herself into the loudest player on the floor has been a long and constant process.

“She’s worked on it every day,” McLaughlin said. “And she’s gotten better at it. But it’s something you have to be, it’s who you have to be to win a championship, and she’s learning to play outside herself and let her instincts come.”

Sanders — the UW’s setter — thinks Orlandini is doing just fine.

“I have a hard time being as loud as she is, so what I consider her yelling compared to [my] yelling, [my yelling] is like whispering,” she said with a laugh.

Neither Colorado nor Utah possess the type of offense that should give the Huskies defense much trouble, as they both rank near the bottom of the conference in most offensive statistical measures.

Maybe, for once, Orlandini will get to save her voice.

Reach reporter Kevin Dowd at sports@dailyuw.com or on twitter @kevindowd.

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