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Originally published Thursday, August 23, 2012 at 8:00 PM

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At Washington, the goal is always to compete for national volleyball title

Huskies coach Jim McLaughlin is comfortable saying he wants to win more NCAA championships. The Huskies won a title in 2005 and are hoping to get back to the Final Four this year for the first time since 2006.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Seattle will host the Final Four of the NCAA volleyball tournament at KeyArena in 2013. As Washington coach Jim McLaughlin likes to say, that will be big-time.

But what about this season? How close is Washington, the 2005 national champion which last played a Final Four match in 2006, to returning to that elite stage?

"We've tasted the national championship, and that's the end (goal)," said McLaughlin. "We want to win another one. Then we want to win another one. At the University of Washington, that's just the deal. I feel comfortable saying that. The direction we're moving in is very appropriate in terms of reaching that goal."

The Huskies open their 12th season under McLaughlin this weekend at Alaska Airlines Arena, hosting Boise State at 7 p.m. Friday, followed by matches Saturday vs. Gonzaga (noon) and Portland State (7 p.m.).

Under McLaughlin (269-77 at UW) the Huskies have routinely been a top-15 team. Though they lost on the road in the second round of last year's NCAA tournament, the Huskies have reached the Elite Eight twice in the past four seasons. They begin this season ranked 14th, with a freshman class ranked No. 7 by prepvolleyball.com.

"We've got hardworking girls who are intelligent players and are developing a volleyball IQ," said McLaughlin. "They're picking up the nuances of the game, which is really the key that separates teams."

Four regulars from 2011 must be replaced. The key loss: second-team All-American middle blocker Bianca Rowland.

"I told the girls it's really hard for me to pick a starting lineup," McLaughlin said. "They're ultimately going to pick the lineup for me because of what they're doing at the gym every day. We're going to play a lot of people in the preseason and gather some information. We have some strong competition."

The critical battle is at setter, where junior Jenni Nogueras, who last year saw time primarily during a midseason 6-2 setter experiment, is dueling with freshman Katy Beals, a first-team prep All-American from Texas.

"Our quarterback position is a dogfight, neck-and neck," McLaughlin said. "We must be better at that position."

How's Beals? "Really good; steady," McLaughlin said. "I've asked her to be a little bit more vocal. People have different levels of outgoingness, and sometimes very humble people have a tough time talking when they need to talk.

"I'm not saying I want to change her personality. I love her the way she is. That's why we got her. But she's got to make some noise in transition so people know where she is. She's doing it."

Sophomore outside hitter Krista Vansant, the 2011 Pac-12 freshman of the year, will be the centerpiece of UW's offense, supplemented by senior Kylin Munoz ("She's ripping the ball in practice," McLaughlin said), junior Gabbi Parker and, surprisingly, 5-foot-8 freshman Cassie Strickland, one of Volleyball magazine's 2012 Fab 50.

"She doesn't look the part, but that doesn't matter," said McLaughlin. "She's got a nice arm, can hit hard, and she's starting to develop composure and confidence in shot selection. We recruited her as a libero, but she's doing well on the outside. I like what she does for our team."

McLaughlin's outlook for a squad that finished 24-8 last year and tied for fourth in the Pac-12, home of two 2011 Final Four participants — USC and national champ UCLA?

"I think we have the capacity to be a much-improved team in many areas," he said. "If there's a key, it's about our ability to serve and pass and our ability to spike with range. That requires a good setter who can put the ball where the hitters need it."

Notes

Amanda Gil, the 6-6 senior middle blocker sidelined for the past two seasons (in 2010 after transferring from UCLA, where she was a second-team All-American, and 2011 due to a knee operation), is "about 65 percent," McLaughlin said. "The trainers think we can get her to 70 percent by end of September, maybe 80 percent by October and 90 to 95 percent going into November if we do this right. We're stoked she's back, but we have to make sure we don't overdo it and get too excited."

• Two freshmen middles will contend for a starting role: 6-4 Melanie Wade (first-team prep All-American) and 6-1 Lianna Sybeldon (second-team).

• On the back row, senior Kelly Holford might push junior Jenna Orlandini for time at libero. "Kelly has improved a lot," McLaughlin said. "That maybe has helped Jo (Orlandini) more than anything."

• The Huskies ranked eighth in attendance in 2011, averaging more than 2,500 fans per match. Only football and men's basketball draw larger average crowds at UW.

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