By the end of the monumental comeback, Washington senior setter Jenni Nogueras was so exhausted that her head hurt. Teammates cried all around her, and she felt like crying, too, but she couldn’t. She had nothing left.
“Ohmigod! Ohmigod!” she kept thinking. “We did it!”
With the Washington volleyball team in an 0-2 hole and facing elimination in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals Saturday night against USC, the Huskies pulled off the most taxing victory of their 30-2 season by showing a kind of grit that only they figured they had. They had been tested throughout the season, but not like this. Not on the road, not in an Elite Eight matchup, not with a Final Four homecoming on the line. Not against a Trojans team featuring Ebony Nwanebu, who recorded 30 kills without an error in the match.
Before the comeback, before the tears, before the fatigue, Washington acknowledged the challenge and simply asked for more.
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“We have yet to tap into everything we have,” Nogueras told her teammates. “There’s more in us! There’s more in us! We can do more.”
Over the final three sets, the Huskies lived on those last four words: We can do more. As they reminisced Tuesday afternoon about the win that brought them home to the Final Four at KeyArena, their determination struck them the most.
“Not once did we think we were going to lose that game,” junior outside hitter Kaleigh Nelson said.
“This team is too close to come apart,” sophomore middle blocker Lianna Sybeldon said.
“When we’re in tough situations, everyone looks to each other,” sophomore outside hitter Cassie Strickland said. “Nobody was scared. Nobody was too frustrated. We were just pissed off.”
After a passionate speech from associate head coach Leslie Gabriel about staying true to themselves, head coach Jim McLaughlin looked at each of his players and saw on their faces that a comeback was possible.
Then came the fun part of the night.
After narrowly losing the first two games 26-28 and 23-25, the Huskies finally converted during critical situations and took the third set 25-22. Then they took game four convincingly, 25-18, to even the match at 2-2. Junior outside hitter Krista Vansant, the Pac-12 player of the year, was en route to a performance that will define her already stellar UW career: 38 kills, 30 digs, both career highs. The kills set a Huskies NCAA tournament record.
Vansant came to Washington as the nation’s No. 1 recruit in 2011, and she hasn’t disappointed. She’s a special combination of world-class skill and work ethic. Nelson can remember one night when she and Vansant were freshmen.
“Where are you going?” Nelson wondered, telling Vansant it was 9 p.m.
“I want to go watch film,” Vansant said.
So of course, in the biggest match of her college career, Vansant was capable of having a 30-30 game with a .346 hitting percentage.
“If you met Krista outside of volleyball, you’d never know how good she is,” Nelson said. “You see 30-30, and you say, ‘Wow, who does that?’ Krista Vansant does that.”
In an exciting, back-and-forth fifth set against USC, the Huskies fought off two match points, at 14-13 and 15-14, before winning 17-15. Senior outside hitter Gabbi Parker sealed the win with back-to-back kills, delivering the Huskies’ first Final Four appearance since 2006. They celebrated with tearful glee.
The reward wasn’t just a chance to win a championship in Seattle. It was the realization every player had maxed out.
The Huskies did have more. And they gave it all.
“To tap out emotionally like that, people just don’t know what it takes,” McLaughlin said. “They were so tired, so exhausted. That’s when you grow as a player, as a person. That’s when you learn what you’ve got.”
But the satisfaction lasted less than 48 hours. We can do more now applies to their pursuit of McLaughlin’s second national title at Washington. The USC triumph is fading. Preparation for Thursday’s semifinal with Penn State has begun.
“That comeback only buys us a half a cup of coffee,” Nogueras said. “That’s not our goal. Our goal is more.”
If the Huskies achieve more, last Saturday’s victory over USC will be remembered as a prelude to glory. There’s no task too daunting for them. They know this for certain now.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JerryBrewer