In search of greatness, some people scale mountains. Krista Vansant, the nation’s top prep volleyball recruit in the class of 2011, took a plane to Seattle.
“It was a sunny spring day,” said Vansant, recalling her recruiting visit as a high-school sophomore to the University of Washington campus. “It was in the upper 50s or low 60s, and that’s cold where I come from (Redlands, Calif., where the average daily high in August is 96 degrees).”
“Girls were in sundresses,” she said. “My mom and I were in Uggs and sweatshirts and freezing. But I was really happy to be here.”
Still is, Vansant says. She’s now 20, a junior, the top player on a Washington volleyball team seeded No. 3 in the NCAA tournament that began this weekend (UW, 26-2, hosted unseeded Alabama State Friday night) and, in her most recent honor, the Pac-12 volleyball player of the year.
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“My dreams in volleyball are to win a national title and go to the Olympics,” Vansant said. “We have a long way to go, and I’m not overlooking Alabama State, but we could be halfway there.”
Vansant has been a dream come true for coach Jim McLaughlin. Chosen the 2010-11 national Gatorade Player of the Year while playing at East Valley High in Redlands, the 6-foot-2 Vansant was the Pac-12 freshman of the year in 2011 and a second-team All-American in 2012.
This season, she has won four conference player of the week awards (three offensive, one defensive) and was named national player of the week in November after piling up 35 kills in home wins over UCLA and USC.
“She has improved every part of her game and become a more complete player,” said McLaughlin, the 2013 Pac-12 coach of the year. “She’s improved her psychology toward the game, how she approaches the game. She’s improved her toughness.
“More than anything, she’s put energy into improving in a way people just wouldn’t comprehend. That’s where the growing comes, when you learn how to commit, when you learn how to really give everything that you have. Growth is hard, and she has just continued to grow.”
Vansant, who also has a 3.9 GPA, accepts praise with a shrug. “I still have so much to work on,” she said. “I’m getting extra reps in practice because I don’t feel like I’m good enough in certain areas yet.”
She is a skilled digger (she’s third on the team with 2.67 digs per set) but occasionally shanks passes on serve-receive.
“I could always pass better,” she said with a smile. “I can throw that out there. I know most teams are going to serve me. I would serve me if I was on the other team.
“I can also be a better leader on the court from play to play. There are moments where I’m pretty good as a leader and some where I take plays off, and I need not to do that. I need to be vocal all the time.”
Following an Oct. 5 match with Utah, a 3-0 win where Vansant had a so-so night (10 kills but six errors), McLaughlin, in his low-key way, made it a learning moment.
“We had a little heart-to-heart at Utah, Kris and I,” McLaughlin said. “I called her out in front of her teammates, because we’re a family, and they all love her. We won the match, but we really didn’t win it. They kind of gave it to us, and Kris was way below her standard.
“ I said, ‘You can’t always play great but you never fall below a minimum standard. The worst thing you can do in life is not be who you are, for whatever reason — no guy, no situation, no emotion. Don’t let conditions or anxiety change you. For whatever reason, you weren’t there. I’m holding you to a higher standard.’
“Tears came,” McLaughlin recalled. “But then she came to practice even harder the next week.”
Said Vansant: “It was hard at the moment. Once I left the gym and went through my thoughts, I remembered that he just really cares and wants me to become the best. I played terrible in that match. That was kind of the turning point in my season, and I’ve played better after that.”
Vansant added: “It’s a sign of respect from him that he pushes me. He pushes all of us; it’s not just me. The way he forces us to get better, it shows how much he cares about us as players and people.”