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Dawgs get tall task to open Pac-12 play

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Dawgs get tall task to open Pac-12 play

Avie Niece high fives the Huskies before Washington’s win over Wisconsin at Alaska Airlines Arena on Sept. 21, 2019.

The No. 8 Washington volleyball team is heading back on the road. Again. 

The Huskies (9-1) have played only one home match this season, and they’ll start their conference season in a place almost as, if not more, familiar than Alaska Airlines Arena: someone else’s house. 

“This feels normal at this point,” junior middle blocker Lauren Sanders said. “We’re good on the road, we’re good at home, so we’re excited to get started.”

That new normal could end up helping the Huskies as they start the conference season with what may be one of the toughest slates in the Pac-12: a bitter rival, then the reigning national champions. 

The Huskies won’t host No. 1 Stanford this year. They’re splitting the Bay Area schools this season, and won’t see Cal until Apple Cup weekend. That means they only get one shot against the best team in the Pac-12, and one of the best in the country. 

The last time the Huskies beat Stanford at Maples Pavilion was 2007. Out of 72 meetings with the Cardinal, the Huskies have won 15. Only three of those were in the Bay Area. 

“Stanford in Palo Alto, in the last couple years we’ve had matches there where we’ve been leading and not been able to close it out, matches there where we haven’t really even been able to compete at a high level,” head coach Keegan Cook said. “It’s going to be a tall task but it’s going to be nice to find out where we are against the defending national champions.”

It’s something the Huskies are much more prepared for than they were last season, when Stanford swept them twice. With Pac-12 play starting, it’s the one-third mark of the college volleyball season, and the Huskies are taking time to evaluate their team culture and chemistry.

That alone makes a difference. 

“So much better than last year,” Cook said. “More communication, more mature communication. Whether it’s good news or bad news I’m just hearing from the athletes more, they’re talking to each other more. Hopefully we can just keep building on that because it’s had a positive effect on our game for sure.”

Bajema and Niece earn weekly honors

Bajema was named Pac-12 offensive player of the week for the second week in a row, making her the first Husky to win the award in consecutive weeks since it was created in 2011. She had 19 kills in back-to-back matches against Wisconsin this weekend, closing the weekend with a .515 hitting percentage. 

Following the second match, Cook praised Bajema for her growth this season. 

“Her hitting out is almost a surprise now,” he said. “She’s disappointed, we’re disappointed, because she’s learned to be patient and pick her spots and work the entire court. In these last, probably three, four, matches she’s really committed to that. She’s watching film in the airport at 6 a.m. You can see someone who knows they can make something happen.”

Last season, the Huskies collectively received three player of the week awards, and not until well into the conference season. Claire Hoffman was named offensive player of the week on Nov. 5, and the next week the Huskies secured both offensive and defensive POTW awards, with Sam Drechsel winning offensive and Niece winning defensive.

This is Niece’s second defensive player of the week selection. She leads the Pac-12 with 1.67 blocks per set. 

“I feel more consistent than I ever have,” she said.

First up: Washington State 

The Cougars are roughly in the same position the UW was last year, losing a significant part of their core to graduation. 

“They’ve got some new athletes who we haven’t seen before, so that’s a challenge in itself,” Cook said. “Obviously a team that is serving really well right now, statistically, so we need to make sure our passing is ready for that.”

The Huskies will play Washington State at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, and face Stanford at 2 p.m. on Sunday. Both matches will be broadcast on Pac-12 Networks. 

Reach Engagement Editor Hailey Robinson at Twitter: @haileyarobin

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