For Washington’s volleyball team, the interminable wait had finally ended.
After having their vital spring preparation period yanked away from them in March of 2020, and then their traditional fall season put on indefinite hold in August, both because of COVID-19, the Huskies were playing a real live match. Months of anticipation and uncertainty was over.
It was Jan. 22, and the opponent was Arizona State, not one of the traditional powers in the power-laden Pac-12. So what did the Huskies do? The team that had made it to the Elite Eight in 2019, and 18 consecutive national tournaments, got swept by the Sun Devils — at home, nonetheless.
“If there can be a watershed moment after your first match, that was it,” coach Keegan Cook said. “What were we about this year?”
That was the question Cook asked his team in meetings he said were as blunt as he’s ever had in six years at the helm. They had lost four key seniors, including All-American Kara Bajema. But Cook didn’t think they realized how good they could be.
“I told them, there’s no reason this should be a rebuilding year. That we set the bar too low — maybe I set the bar too low — and that not only could this team be good, but it could be great,’’ he recalled.
And under the most trying conditions, greatness has been achieved. The Huskies came back the very next night to win a rematch against Arizona State, the beginning of a stretch of 17 victories in 19 matches that gave them the Pac-12 title.
That earned the Huskies a 19th consecutive trip to nationals, which this year will be bubbled in Omaha. As the overall No. 6 seed, the Huskies get a first-round bye and will open play next Thursday against the Dayton-Towson winner.
The way the Huskies have persevered through all manner of adversity — some of it literally unprecedented, courtesy of the coronavirus — makes this among the most rewarding seasons for Cook, who on Wednesday was named the Pac-12’s Coach of the Year.
He thinks back to last March, when the Huskies were ready to dig into the re-organization that was necessary because of the graduations. But instead, all sports grinded to a halt. Most of the players went home. Cook used that time to have deep conversations with players (via Zoom) about maintaining the legacy of the Husky program, which earned its only national title in 2005.
“Those discussions ended up being pretty important leading into what we thought was going to be an August training block,’’ Cook said. “That’s the next checkpoint. We showed up in August ready to fire away.”
And the Huskies immediately absorbed a huge blow when setter Ella May Powell, one of their top returning players, tore her medial meniscus, which would have wiped out her season.
But here’s one of the few silver linings from the eventual news that the fall season was shut down: Powell had time to recover before the Huskies finally started up in January. And on Thursday, she was named Pac-12 Setter of the Year.
“It was definitely like a weight lifted off my shoulders,’’ Powell said of the season delay. “But honestly, at the time, I didn’t even know if I would be able to participate in the spring season because of my recovery.”
Powell definitely wasn’t 100% yet when the Huskies opened the season with the crushing ASU loss. Before that, Washington had ominously scrimmaged with Portland and delivered such a lackluster performance that the Pilots’ coach gave a classic example of damning with faint praise. After Cook complimented the coach — one of his former players — on the progress of Portland’s program, her response was, “Your team’s so tall!”
“And that’s about all she said,’’ Cook recalled. “I thought, ‘Wow, we have some work to do here. She didn’t have glowing things to say about my team.’ “
And then the Arizona State loss happened. The Huskies started that game with Powell sharing time at setter. But after the loss — or more accurately, during — Powell let Cook know she was ready to play full-time, even though she figures her knee was only at about 80 percent of full strength.
“I just remember in the middle of the game, I looked at him like, I’m ready to go,’’ Powell said. “I haven’t been full in practice yet, but if you need me to be full, I’m out there. Put me in, coach. I was not about sitting on the sidelines and watching my team lose. I was ready to risk it all.”
Powell’s knee got progressively stronger as the season progressed, a key factor in the Huskies’ surge. So was the development of first-time libero Shannon Crenshaw, and the ability of senior outside hitter Samantha Drechsel to successfully assume some of Bajema’s responsibilities. On Thursday, Drechsel was named to the All-Pac-12 first team along with Powell and junior outside hitter Claire Hoffman.
“I think part of that just comes from being a senior,’’ Drechsel said. “You have a lot more responsibility, and sometimes with responsibility there’s pressure. But my teammates are great. They’re not expecting me to try and get 30 kills a game or something. … The support is awesome. I’ve never felt like I have to fill anyone’s shoes or anything.”
Now the Huskies head into what Cook calls “maybe the best-seeded tournament in the history of volleyball.” There are five Pac-12 schools, including Washington State, among the 48-team national field (down from the usual 64). But significantly, that does not include USC for the first time in 25 years, and Stanford for the first time ever.
The fact that the Huskies now have the conference’s longest active NCAA tournament streak (and fifth-longest among all schools) is a cause of great pride in the program. Cook likes to cite a quote attributed to the New Zealand All-Blacks, the legendary rugby team: “Often times, the legacy is more intimidating than the opposition.”
Said Cook: “There’s a lot of praise given to teams that make huge jumps in performance. These hot risers that go from not very good to very good. But you don’t hear a lot about teams that are kind of consistently good.”
The Huskies hope to be heard from for two weeks in Omaha, a far cry from the stumble in January against Arizona State.
“I think we used it as fuel to get better,” said Drechsel. “We were, like, OK, we have to work on competing.”
As crazy and convoluted as this season has been, Powell said, a sense of normalcy has settled in. And the Huskies hope that their ascension will continue against the nation’s elite teams.
“We’re just scratching the surface, which is really cool to be a part of, because it feels like we’re on the up and up, and we’re not at all near our peak,’’ Powell said. “It’s frustrating at times, because we want to perform all the time. But we’re growing together and growing as a team.”
It has been a process, and a progress, more than a year in the making.