Two losses are the only blemishes the Washington women’s volleyball team has on its record this season. Ohio State is hoping to hand them a third this weekend.
The fifth-seeded Huskies and No. 12 Buckeyes are set to meet up in the Sweet 16 on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in the Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Kentucky, trying to keep their seasons alive and get one step closer to the national championship.
OSU will have its work cut out for it in order to advance to the Elite Eight, as the Huskies have won 13 straight games, while losing only four sets in that time.
But OSU feels on top of its game after dominant wins in the first two rounds of the tournament against Robert Morris and American. The two matches took the minimum of six sets to complete.
“At this point, we feel like we’re on a little bit of a run, too,” OSU coach Geoff Carlston said. “We played with a lot of confidence this weekend. They really believe in each other. They believe in what we’re doing.”
The Buckeyes have seen their fair share of top teams during conference play this season, something Carlston said they feel will go a long way against Washington.
“Our group is tough and the Big Ten makes you that way,” Carlston said.
Playing the underdog role is nothing new to the Buckeyes, who were picked to finish eighth in the Big Ten before the season. For much of the early part of the season, the team talked about playing with a chip on its shoulder after the conference rankings came out, which helped fuel its early-season success.
OSU is looking to embrace that mindset once again as it heads into the coming weekend.
“We’re always looking to upset somebody, we don’t want to get upset,” senior outside hitter Katie Mitchell said. “Half the time we’re the underdog and people are slamming Ohio State, saying, ‘They’re hot and cold,’ and this and that. But we’re pretty hot right now.”
Against one of the top teams in the country — and one that many felt was deserving of a top-four seed — Carlston said he wants to see his team play aggressive but smart.
“You’d love to swing for the bleachers every time you get the chance and go for it every single time, but there’s an IQ level that has to be taking place,” he said. “Pretty much every team in this, I guarantee you if you look at their error percentages, they’re going to be around 12 to 14 percent. That is the one stat that is so solid across elite teams.”
Aside from the excitement brought about by playing in the tournament, the Buckeyes are also eager to play a team from the Pac-12, which stands right with the Big Ten as one of the best conferences in the country.
“Other than Oregon, I haven’t played a Pac-12 team in my four years here,” Mitchell said. “I’m really excited to play some Pac-12 kids.”
If OSU is going to beat the Huskies, it will have to continue to play the lockdown defense it did against Robert Morris and American.
Washington is one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the country, leading the nation in hitting percentage (.316) while ranking eighth in kills per set (14.58) and ninth in assists per set (13.66).
Senior middle blocker Lianna Sybeldon has been the most efficient hitter for the Huskies, with an NCAA-leading .465 hitting percentage.
At the center of slowing down the Huskies will be junior libero Valeria León, who currently holds the OSU single-season record in digs per set (4.54).
“Passing is going to be a huge part, so just talk to my teammates early,” León said will be a key to defensive success. “Just be the general back there, and just let my teammates know what to do.”
Although Washington has impressive numbers as a team, its offensive production comes from across the board. Five players average more than two kills per set for Washington, though none are above three.
“They’re not loaded on one person or one thing, so I think for us we’re just going to have to play really strong defense and be disciplined in our own right,” Carlston said.
Offensively, freshman setter Taylor Hughes believes the Buckeyes can keep the Huskies off balance by playing fast-paced.
“Their middles are pretty big (and) they read a lot, so I feel like we can beat them with tempo and our fast offense,” she said. “That will definitely be a big weapon of ours.”
OSU is 2-2 in the all-time series with Washington, but the two teams haven’t met since 2006 when the Huskies were victorious in a Sweet 16 matchup.
If OSU defeats the Huskies, it will advance to the Elite Eight to face the winner of No. 4-seed Nebraska and No. 13-seed BYU at 4 p.m. on Saturday in Lexington.