Washington coach Keegan Cook knows better than to say Cassie Strickland is a stronger libero than hitter, even in the face of her weekend numbers that tell the story of the Huskies upsetting top-ranked USC and knocking off UCLA.
Washington held the formerly unbeaten Trojans to their lowest attack percentage of the year behind 17 digs in three sets from Strickland, the espnW national player of the week. Strickland dug out a season-high 23 two days later against the Bruins.
The Huskies (20-2), holding two of the best teams in the nation to a combined .152 hitting, are ranked third in the nation behind Penn State and USC. Washington received eight first-place votes in this week's American Volleyball Coaches Association poll.
But former hitter-turned-libero Strickland, who shows little regard for her body in the vein of keeping a ball alive, can't back down from any limits imposed on her or her game.
"I'd never tell her she's better at libero than hitter because she'd come to practice and prove me wrong," Cook said. "She's one of the most athletic liberos. She's very emotional and physical and plays the position unlike other players. Cassie's just a great all-around volleyball player."
Add pretty good deejay to that, too. Strickland's the one who picks the music the Huskies use to gear up for morning workouts and game day. Last weekend, she energized the Dawgs with a remix of "Tequila" and "Stand by Me."
"Everyone was feeling it," said the senior, also the Pac-12 defensive player of the week.
The Huntington Beach, California, native never has a problem gearing up for USC, which started out as her dream school given brother Tyler's affinity for it. Washington's early interest led to her becoming a Husky, a decision she has never regretted.
"The weekend was more for us to get revenge because we lost to them at USC," she said. "They were undefeated and No. 1 in the country -- similar to last year when we played Stanford. It was just a really cool opportunity. To have that kind of win and go into UCLA, which hadn't lost since we played them last, could have been dangerous. But we celebrated the win against USC and then got ready for UCLA."
Washington has won 27 straight against Pac-12 opponents inside Alaska Airlines Arena, a marvelous place to call home, said Strickland, who can turn an ordinary play into an exceptional one given her raw athletic ability.
A tomboy growing up, she was quarterback and linebacker in Pop Warner football for three years. At 12, she sat her parents down to tell them she wanted to pursue volleyball, the more realistic option for college. Not that she didn't hate to leave the gridiron behind.
"I love football," she said. "I wanted to throw it really far and had a pretty good arm."
A standout volleyball hitter and defender at Edison High, she was named an ESPNHS first-team All-American in 2010, one of 12. She made an immediate impact at Washington and was named to the Pac-12 all-freshman team as honorable mention, starting 23 matches.
Strickland played in every match as a sophomore, but by her junior year, she transitioned to libero, a fit she didn't fully embrace until this season despite being named the conference's libero of the year in 2014.
"Last year, I had a 'I want to hit still' mentality," she said. "This year, I want to do the best I can because we've got great outside hitters. If I could play any position, I'd rather be a hitter, but I'm totally in at libero this year."
An impressive jump-spin serve, which has evolved tremendously since she first hit it at 15, adds to her arsenal.
"At first, it was the ugliest thing you ever saw, but I always wanted to be able to jump serve," said Strickland, whose 46 aces last season led the Huskies. "But I worked at it a lot."
Strickland's serve-receive is also so solid that USC's Samantha Bricio, known for her high-velocity hybrid serve, did not have an ace in Friday's match.
"I always get super excited for any good server, and she's one of the best in the country," Strickland said.
The biggest strength for the medical anthropology/global health major might be her consistency in decision-making that has made her a smarter player this season. While the highlight-in-the-making digs are fun for fans, Cook emphasizes that Strickland's touches that don't reflect on the stat sheet have been instrumental in Washington's success.
"Don't be up and down with how you're feeling or depending on the opponent you're playing," he advised her. "Whoever you are, be that person in all conditions."
Maybe Cook should have also said be careful on dishing out too much advice. Recently, Strickland told teammate Jade Finau to keep chasing down a ball during practice.
"You're good," she said right before Finau ploughed into some television equipment.
Finau shrugged it off, saying, "I heard Cassie say I was good."
The response: "Why would you listen to Cassie?"