The best quarterback for Washington this fall has been a 5-foot-8 woman who plays volleyball - Courtney Thompson...

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The best quarterback for Washington this fall has been a 5-foot-8 woman who plays volleyball.

Courtney Thompson, a sophomore All-Pac-10 setter, runs the offense for the fifth-ranked Huskies (26-2) and distributes the ball with pinpoint accuracy to hitters capable of smashes in the 60-mph range.

As setter, Thompson does many of the things expected of quarterbacks in football. She watches film, has daily one-on-one meetings with coach Jim McLaughlin and keeps a growing notebook of diagrams and things to work on.

And, like a quarterback, she has become a leader both on and off the court. Her teammates voted the former high-school student-body president and valedictorian as their co-captain last year when she was a freshman. She and senior Sanja Tomasevic retained their titles this season, during which the Huskies were ranked No. 1 in the nation for seven weeks.

Tonight, the Huskies host an NCAA tournament round-of-16 match against St. Mary’s (25-3) at 7:30 p.m. in Edmundson Pavilion. If they win, they will host the winner of the 5 p.m. UCLA-Penn State match, with a national Final Four berth at stake, at 7 p.m. tomorrow.

Thompson is hardly the first leader in her family.

Her grandfather is Korean War hero Charles G. Cooper, who rose to the rank of general in the Marine Corps and wrote the book “Cheers and Tears” about his military career.


NCAA regional volleyball tournament: St. Mary’s at Washington, 7:30 p.m., Edmundson Pavilion

Her father, Steve, is a Naval Academy graduate, and the younger of her two brothers, Trevor, is captain of Navy’s baseball team and has been named a Rhodes Scholar.

Thompson’s first exposure to Huskies volleyball was as a Kentlake High School sophomore. She went to a match attended by only a couple hundred fans in Edmundson Pavilion. The highlight was touching a ball that bounced to her during warmups.

“I remember watching them getting beat by UCLA, and there was barely anyone here,” she said.

This year, she twice played before home crowds of more than 5,500.

Volleyball clearly has gone from an athletic afterthought to a source of pride at Washington, and Thompson is part of the transformation.

NCAA volleyball tournament

Matches begin 5 p.m.

Where: Edmundson Pavilion

Matchups: UCLA (20-10) vs. Penn State (29-2); St. Mary’s (25-3) vs. Washington (26-2)

TV: Today — FSN (7:30 p.m.); Tomorrow — College Sports Network (10:30 p.m.)

Tickets: Tickets are available at the Husky Box Office. They are $7 adult reserved seating; $6 general admission; $5 student; $3 children, seniors.

Craig Smith

Trips to the Final Four and national titles were team goals mentioned by McLaughlin when he started recruiting Thompson after he got the UW job, during her junior year at Kentlake.

“I fit into his system, and I was what he was looking for,” Thompson said. “It was a good match.”

Two Pac-10 schools — California and Arizona — told Thompson she was too short.

“It’s always fun to play them now,” she said.

In McLaughlin’s system, the size of the setter is irrelevant. He wants the setter to deliver the ball accurately to hitters, not block opponents’ shots.

At Kentlake, Thompson was a point guard in basketball and shortstop in fastpitch softball. As a junior, she was named the Seattle Times South Athlete of the Year. And she did all that while playing club volleyball, participating in school activities and getting A’s in the classroom.

Courtney Thompson, a sophomore setter, was named to the All-Pac-10 team.

As a senior, she said her body “shut down” in the winter after a volleyball season in which Kentlake won its third straight Class 4A state title and at one point built a state-record 91-game winning streak over multiple seasons.

She dropped some classes, took naps and bagged fastpitch.

Today, Thompson lives off campus with four members of the UW women’s basketball team and a gymnast, where the diversions include table tennis and karaoke.

“We just have a blast,” she said.

It would be a blast for the Huskies to reach the Final Four this season. They just missed going last year when they were eliminated by Minnesota in the national quarterfinals, losing the fifth and final game by six points.

“Six points!” quickly became the Huskies’ rallying cry in the offseason. Even the team’s two European players limited their vacations to 10 days to return to Seattle for summer conditioning and competition at Alki Point and Green Lake, often against men in two-on-two games.

All that work has helped Washington arrive again on the road to the Final Four.

Craig Smith: 206-464-8279 or