Washington volleyball coach Keegan Cook tried, but couldn’t quite come up with the perfect words to describe his thoughts on the team’s six seniors, who will be playing their final home match Wednesday night against USC at Alaska Airlines Arena.
There is no doubt that Senior Night will be emotional for Cook, and those departing seniors: outside hitter Dani Cole, outside hitter/libero Shannon Crenshaw, middle blocker Marin Grote, outside hitter Claire Hoffman, libero Sianna Houghton and setter Ella May Powell.
“When an athlete reaches a certain level of commitment, it gets really hard to articulate how much they mean to you,” Cook said. “You’ve got a bunch of different stories (with the seniors) … but the one thing they all have in common is their commitment is nonconditional. They’ve always contributed the best of themselves regardless of what they were going through.”
Cook said each of the six has had an impact on the program.
Powell, starting for the fifth straight season, is one of the best setters in program history. She was a first-team All-American in 2020 when she helped lead UW to the Final Four, and a third-team All-American in 2019 and 2021.
Hoffman, an outside hitter, was a second-team All-American in 2020 and a third-team All-American in 2021.
Grote, a middle blocker, was a reserve her first two seasons but blossomed into a second-team All-American last season.
Crenshaw has been a starter or a key member of the rotation for five years, and she has proved adept in three different roles: outside hitter, libero and defensive specialist.
Houghton, a libero who elected not to come back for a fifth season next year, has seen her role has expand each season and she is a key member of the rotation.
Cole, an outside hitter, was limited to just 13 matches in her career because of injuries and retired from playing before the season because of those injuries. She now helps out in other ways.
Among their highlights is leading the team to a Final Four, the Elite Eight and two Sweet 16 appearances in the past four seasons. And they also persevered through a pandemic.
“They’ve certainly had an experience that I don’t think any other student-athlete will have — or at least we hope will never have to happen ever again,” Cook said. “I think it’s a story of great adversity and great response to adversity. Being able to grow and perform in an environment like they’ve been in the last five years is what I think makes them special.”
Because it’s near certain the Huskies will not host first- and second-round NCAA tournament matches, their careers at home will come to an end Wednesday.
“I’ve been trying not to think about it as much as I can,” Grote said last week in a gathering of the six seniors.
Powell also was trying not to think about it, “but it has been creeping into my mind.”
“Knowing it’s coming up has helped me settle in and think about the good things and to have more gratitude day in and day out of this lifestyle right now,” Powell said. “I’ve taken a little extra time thinking about, and not taking for granted, the little things of our everyday life and savoring it.”
Said Hoffman: “We’ll take it a day at a time, but when it comes, I know it will be a big day.”
Crenshaw said it will be bittersweet.
“It’s going to be hard to come and go, but it’s going to be a special moment for us in front of our home crowd.”
When asked about their career highlights, it was pretty unanimous: this summer’s trip to Europe and getting to the Final Four of the 2020 season that was delayed until spring 2021 because of COVID-19.
“Our run to get to the Final Four was really crazy,” Houghton said. “We came back in five-set matches, basically every time. That definitely made it a little bit more special because we weren’t guaranteed the next round and we were able to pull it off.”
The seniors said playing and training through the pandemic brought the team closer and made them stronger.
“Everything we go through — positive or negative — creates the person and the team we want to be,” Grote said.
The fact that Cole wanted to return for a final season even though she couldn’t play is testament to the camaraderie on the team.
“This program, and everyone in this program, means a lot to me,” said Cole, who helps out at practice and in scouting opponents. “I didn’t expect to see myself in the role that I am in right now. But I just love volleyball so much that it was hard for me to step away, and Keegan allowed me to stick with the team.”
Another theme the seniors said of their careers was growth: as players and as people.
“I legitimately thought I was not going to play a single point when I got here, and I am being totally serious,” Hoffman said. “Growth on the court translates to off the court too. If you are working hard and trying to grow on the court, there are things you are going to learn that help off the court and in everyday life.”
Now, the goal is to leave on a strong note, beginning with home finale.
“I can’t imagine this group having their last memory not be a victory,” Cook said. “The motivation is high.”
UW (19-9, 11-7 Pac-12) closes its regular season with a match at Washington State on Friday.
The NCAA tournament selections are Sunday. The Huskies expect to get picked, but not as one of the top 16 seeds that host the first two rounds.
That does not change the seniors’ goal, Powell said.
“We have the goal of winning a national championship and we’re excited go to someone’s home turf,” she said. “I feel we can be gritty when we want to be gritty in those big moments. And there is nothing more gritty than going to someone’s home turf and beating them.”