UW volleyball coach Jim McLaughlin is all about system and science, about finding a better way to coach.

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A band of Seattle policemen were chatting outside Starbucks at U-Village as Courtney Thompson walked by.

“Great game, Courtney.”

“Thanks, officers,” she responded, stunned that they would recognize her.

The next day in a grocery store, someone pointed out, “You’re the one with the headband.”

At Southcenter Mall, an older man approached Sanja Tomasevic and Brie Hagerty and asked simply, “Volleyball players?”

Given an affirming smile, he then asked for autographs.

“When I got here and looked at the standings and looked at who was in the Pac-10, I wondered if we could ever really win anything,” said Tomasevic, “but once I saw how we prepared and we improved, I knew we’d make it.


NCAA semifinal: Stanford vs. Washington, 5:30 p.m.

“A year ago, I wrote in my journal, “next year, Final Four.”

The Washington women’s volleyball team plays Stanford tonight in Long Beach, Calif., in the national semifinals, two wins from winning an NCAA team title, the first for the Huskies in anything but rowing and football.

So how is it that Washington, which five seasons ago finished tied for ninth in the Pac-10, could win college volleyball’s toughest league while posting a 28-2 record and becoming campus darlings in the process?

The answer isn’t complicated, although the man is.

“We owe everything to Jim McLaughlin,” said Thompson. “I feel so lucky to be playing for him. He happened to be at Washington, and I happened to be from here. The way things are falling into place, wow, I don’t know.”

As good as Washington is this year, the Huskies might be better next year. Hagerty, Candace Lee, Jessica Veris, Darla Myhre and Danka Danicic are juniors, the leader, Thompson, a sophomore, and their most dynamic player, Christal Morrison, only a freshman.

In addition to adding two national recruits, they have hopes of getting another year of eligibility for Tomasevic, the 24-year-old from Serbia and Montenegro.

McLaughlin knows what the next few days can mean for his program and his reputation.

“To win a national title,” he said this week, “separates you from everyone else. It’s a big-time achievement.”

When McLaughlin recruited Thompson from Kentlake High School, he handed her four sheets of paper, a plan for each of her four years.

“He said if we do things right, we can win a national title,” she said. “I said, ‘Sign me up.’ “

McLaughlin is all about system and science, about finding a better way to coach. He is a perfectionist who sets standards for everything, who analyzes everything as if he were in a laboratory.

“He talked about volleyball as if it were a science,” said Tomasevic of her arrival in America. “I said, ‘Jim, it’s just a game.’ I’ve learned since that it is a science.”

McLaughlin is obsessed. Even after he coached USC to an NCAA men’s title in 1990, he sought out what he considered the four best volleyball coaches in the world.

“I didn’t like being around those coaches who said they did something just because they felt like it. I wanted to know why they did things. I wanted to find out the best way to do things. I wanted to follow some laws of learning relative to volleyball,” he said.

That’s Jim McLaughlin, married to a former Notre Dame soccer coach, father of two daughters, pleasant fellow lured away from Kansas State by Barbara Hedges with a four-year contract, on a mission to be the best coach he can be.

His odyssey and search for the truth took him around the world, but he found what he was looking for on a back porch in Utah from former BYU coach Carl Gowan.

“I learned more in three hours with him than I learned from all the others,” said McLaughlin. “He taught motor learning for years. He had incorporated science into the art form of coaching.”

The Huskies are different because McLaughlin is different. They don’t do the normal drills.

“He won’t let us run,” said Thompson, “because it doesn’t relate to what we do in volleyball. Everything we do translates into what we do in a game.”

McLaughlin wondered why almost every coach hits the ball over and over again to a line of players in practice when those aren’t the “habitual movements,” as he called them, that are used in a game.

“Why,” he asked, “get pumped up to look like football players when we aren’t playing football?”

McLaughlin wasn’t content to learn just from volleyball coaches. While at USC, he spent mornings watching Larry Brown coach the Los Angeles Clippers and afternoons watching football practice at USC under both John Robinson and Larry Smith.

“I’ve read everything John Wooden has written,” said McLaughlin. “I love coaching. I think it is the perfect profession.”

McLaughlin grew up in Malibu, Calif. Surfing was his love before volleyball. He did both at Cal-Santa Barbara, where he graduated in 1985.

“I didn’t focus on school the way these kids do,” he said. “It took me time.”

While winning a national title would validate his unorthodox ways, McLaughlin admits he is more in love with coaching than he is winning.

“I’m very competitive,” he said, “but to me if you are satisfied with the integrity of your preparation and your effort, then you will be fine.”

Blaine Newnham: 206-464-2364 or bnewnham@seattletimes.com.

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