By the lofty standards of Washington volleyball, they were unheralded prospects. The program, headed to the NCAA tournament for the 18th consecutive year, is accustomed to coaxing consensus All-Americans and top-40 nationally ranked recruits to Montlake.
Kara Bajema, Avie Niece and Shayne McPherson barely cracked the top 100 — and in McPherson’s case, she landed in the “next 150” category, recognized mostly as a beach player.
But here they are, the senior core of a Husky team that has aspirations of a national title when the tournament begins Friday at Alaska Airlines Arena. The Huskies, seeded No. 8 overall, host Winthrop at 7:30 p.m.
Bajema, an outside hitter, was a strong contender for the Pac-12 Player of the Year award that went to UCLA’s Mac May. Bajema was an All-Pac-12 pick for a second consecutive year. Niece, a, middle blocker, and McPherson, a libero, both earned honorable mention.
“The (recruiting) experts wouldn’t have put them at the top of their list,” Husky coach Keegan Cook said. “But how you arrive is not nearly as important as what you do when you get here. They epitomize that for our program.”
Their arrival was a unique chapter in Husky volleyball recruiting annals. They represent the last group of future Washington players that committed to then-Husky coach Jim McLaughlin as high-school sophomores. But the next year, the acclaimed McLaughlin left to become coach at Notre Dame, and Cook, his 29-year-old assistant, was elevated to the head job.
All three players were in temporary limbo. Niece, who attended Bellevue’s Newport High School, remembers getting a call from assistant coach Leslie Gabriel telling her that McLaughlin had resigned. No one was sure what could come next. But when Cook was promoted, all three were relieved that the continuity would be intact. He was able to retain the trio.
“Once it was announced it was Keegan, I knew the program wouldn’t change,” Niece said. “I knew the system of volleyball and the culture of people we had wouldn’t change. It was kind of a no-brainer.”
Those three, with fellow senior Cailin Onosko, have a special place in Cook’s heart.
“I had to recommit them, to be honest,” he said. “All the players before them knew me as an assistant. The players after them know me as the head coach that recruited them. … I feel like they will have a very unique view of me, more unique than any other person.”
Their growth has been noteworthy. Bajema was ranked 91st when she came out of Lynden Christian High School, where it was hard to get much attention because of its remote location.
“It was frustrating when there were big girls that come from big clubs, and coaches were on their court all the time,” she said. “We’d have to do some silly things to get my name out there. But we never stopped.”
McPherson, who attended Kennedy Catholic in Seattle, had a unique link to the Husky program. Her aunt and uncle lived near McLaughlin, and McPherson befriended the coach’s daughters while playing with her cousins. She learned to ride a bike on McLaughlin’s street, and attended his volleyball camps growing up.
McPherson honed her volleyball skills on the beach court at her home in West Seattle. Now she is the hyperactive libero whose sensational diving play in a recent Cal game went semi-viral online. Bajema was a five-time Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week this season, and her 4.46 kills per set were the most by a Husky since 2006. Niece, who was an 87th-ranked recruit coming out of Newport, finished fourth in the Pac-12 with 1.34 blocks per set.
How have they risen beyond their projections?
“It doesn’t matter what you came out of high school, because once you get to college everyone is on the same playing field,” Bajema said. “It just comes down to how hard you work and how open you are to improving and growing.”
Said Niece: “I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I learned things at a higher level I didn’t even know existed.”
Cook noted that improvement in college is difficult, because players essentially have to start all over again. These seniors have embraced that challenge for four years.
“Far more talented players don’t make the most of their career,” Cook said.
The Huskies won a national title under McLaughlin in 2005. Cook believes they have the capability to do so this year. Washington beat third-seeded Stanford in Maples Pavilion for the first time since 2007 while at the same time ending the Cardinals’ 26-match Pac-12 winning streak. The Huskies knocked off fourth-seeded Wisconsin twice.
“This team can win a national championship,” Cook said. “There’s no question. Who haven’t we played? Who haven’t we beaten at this point?
“To play six good matches in a row will represent the last piece of the puzzle for us, the last piece of growth.”
And this is a Husky team forged on growth.
Correction: A previous version of this story said Kara Bajema came to UW from Lynden High School.