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Originally published Monday, December 11, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Washington volleyball team rides big win into Final Four

The bigger they come, the harder the Washington volleyball team seems to play. On Saturday night, in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament...

Special to The Seattle Times

The bigger they come, the harder the Washington volleyball team seems to play.

On Saturday night, in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament, the Huskies faced literally their biggest challenge of the season in third-seeded Penn State, which entered Edmundson Pavilion with 6-foot-3 Megan Hodge, 6-4 Nicole Fawcett and 6-5 Casey Salyer lined up at outside hitter.

The Nittany Lions also had 6-3 Melissa Walbridge and 6-2 Christa Harmotto at middle blocker, and a 6-foot setter in Alisha Glass.

The tallest starters for sixth-seeded Washington were 6-2 outside hitter Christal Morrison and 6-2 middle Alesha Deesing. And Huskies setter Courtney Thompson, who is 5-8, often plays the front line.

But it wasn't a problem, said outside hitter Steve Mussie, who at 5-9 pounded down a team-high 20 kills to help Washington beat Penn State 3-1 and advance to its third straight NCAA Final Four, which begins Thursday in Omaha, Neb.

"I don't think it matters how tall the block is, or how big a team is," Mussie said after the match. "It's all about execution, and I think when you execute well, you're going to be successful."

Washington faced the same situation in the 2005 national title game last December in San Antonio. The opponent was top-seeded Nebraska, with an imposing lineup that included 6-5 Sarah Pavan and 6-2 Melissa Elmer, the nation's top blocker. But the Huskies used a crafty serve-and-receive strategy concocted by coach Jim McLaughlin and his staff to frustrate the Cornhuskers and swept Nebraska 3-0.

The Huskies (29-4) will face No. 2 seed Stanford (29-3) on Thursday at the Qwest Center in Omaha. The other semifinal matches top-seeded Nebraska (31-1), with Pavan still on the roster, against fourth-seeded UCLA (33-3).

According to the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll, the nation's top four teams are in Omaha: No. 1 Nebraska, No. 2 Stanford, No. 3 Washington and No. 4 UCLA.

It will be an emotionally charged atmosphere, where 15,000-plus spectators will pack the arena. The Qwest Center was the host site for a regional last year, and crowds exceeded 14,000 both nights. The Final Four has been sold out for months.

McLaughlin will have to work at keeping his players' emotions in check playing in such a hostile environment. Against Penn State, Thompson got hit with a yellow card for arguing an official's call, and Morrison exchanged verbal barbs with Penn State's Hodge, one time pointing at her.

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"It was a very emotional match," McLaughlin said. "I just didn't want to get too fired up. I was yelling at Chris to mellow out when she started getting into it with Hodge. We don't need to do that. But it's hard. They're 20-year-old kids."

Afterward, Morrison could laugh about her intensity and Thompson's outburst. But she was serious about the Huskies' ambition for Omaha.

"We're going to win it again," she said. "That's what you're going there for. You're not going there to say, 'Oh, we're glad we made it to the Final Four.' You play to win it, and you've got to fight to win it."

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