WACO, Texas — Every volleyball point starts with the serve, and Washington’s serving was on point. The Huskies put pressure on Baylor by launching a battery of well-placed lasers from the service line, leading to out-of-system scrambles for the top-seeded Bears.
But even when the Huskies started a volley with power or precision, they too often found themselves on the finishing end of a Yossiana Pressley missile.
Pressley powered 24 kills to propel Baylor over the eighth-seeded Huskies, 25-20, 21-25, 25-19, 25-18, in the Waco Regional final in front of a delirious crowd of 3,008 on Saturday at Baylor’s Ferrell Center. Baylor (29-1) advances on to the first Final Four in program history, while Washington’s dream of reaching that stage for the first time in six years ends with a 27-7 record.
“I was proud of us for hanging in there for those first two sets especially,” Washington coach Keegan Cook said. “I thought Pressley hit them out of trouble a lot of times. In situations where we’re used to getting stuff blocks or at least getting opportunities to create in transition, she found the smallest of windows and she hit them hard.
“She caught edges of the block, and at the end of the game you saw her use her full toolbox. That negates a lot of the good things we’re doing with serving.”
After dropping a back-and-forth opening set, UW showed off its trademark resiliency in striking back. The Huskies served with sharp angles and beautiful placement, and Kara Bajema and Shayne McPherson dialed up two of UW’s five aces in the second set. Baylor still hit .355 in the set, but that was actually a drastic drop-off from the .538 efficiency the Bears displayed in a crisp opening set.
And the Huskies took advantage. Bajema gave UW an 18-14 lead after an especially long volley, slapping a kill through the middle of the Baylor defense. The Huskies eventually took the set win at 25-21 when Avie Niece hammered a high-velocity spike off an Ella May Powell delivery on set point.
“That’s just something that Washington has always had a focus on, is serving,” Bajema said. “You see the games that we win or that we’re close in, it’s because of our service pressure. If we could get them off the net and out of system, which we did a lot of the time, but they did still execute pretty well.”
Indeed, Baylor’s efficiency proved too overwhelming for the Huskies to overcome. The Bears put the match away by hitting .615 in the third set and .441 in the fourth, attacking Washington from all angles. BU middle blocker Shelly Stafford complemented Pressley’s powerful night with 11 kills in 15 swings, while Gia Milana chipped in 10 and Marieke van der Mark, the breakout star of the NCAA tournament for Baylor, added nine.
Baylor setter Hannah Lockin also made the UW defense scramble with her sneaky dumps, tallying seven kills in seven attempts, including a no-look backward tip on set point of the third set.
Washington’s Cook said that he thought his team played well, but Baylor played great. The Huskies hit .258, led by another 20 kills from Bajema, who closed out her stellar career with familiar potency. She made the all-tournament team along with Samantha Drechsel, who had 15 kills and two blocks while hitting .520.
In the end, the Huskies were just sad to see this ride end.
“This is something that’s been on our minds since the beginning of the season,” said setter Ella May Powell, who had 42 assists and five digs. “You try not to say it all the time, but it was for sure always there, because we knew we were capable of it. Obviously we wanted more, but how we grew throughout the season, the things we improved on, the things we learned as people and as teammates, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Bajema didn’t even try to brush away the tears as she spoke about her pride over her team’s fight.
“It’s just been a dream this whole year,” she said. “We just enjoyed our time, and I think that’s what is most important, is liking where you are and the people around you. I think that’s why something like this is so hard, because you’re saying goodbye to something that was so big in your life for so long.”
Washington will graduate four seniors from its 2019 team. That group includes Bajema, Niece, McPherson and libero Cailin Onosko.
Cook also had to pause and collect himself as he spoke about how much those seniors meant to the program. But in the next breath, he expressed confidence that the Huskies will be back to make another run at the Final Four next year.
“I always wondered what we could do over long periods of time,” Cook said. “This is our third Elite Eight in five years. Young players in here are following the lead of the older players, and they’re doing it right. I’m really proud of our culture, I’m proud of our staff and our players. There’s no question that if we’re good for long enough, our moment will come. Total confidence in that.”