In any other late November in the past 18 years, the Washington volleyball team would have been finishing up its Pac-12 season and gearing up for the NCAA tournament.
This, of course, is no ordinary year, and the Huskies haven’t played a match in 2020 — their season postponed because of COVID-19.
But that hasn’t stopped the Huskies from practicing this fall, and the hope is that the Pac-12 can have a 22-game conference-only schedule tentatively slated to start Jan. 22, 2021, (some conferences are already playing), with the NCAA tournament scheduled to take place in April.
UW coach Keegan Cook said having that to look forward to – no matter how tentative things are – has given his team a mental boost.
“I think it was hard in August, if I am being honest,” said Cook, whose team has reached the Elite Eight three times in the past five seasons. “It was harder when we were in a space of, ‘We don’t know, wait and see.’ Having a fixed point helps. So now that there is a tournament set and there is a first match date, it does give you something to point your efforts to. It’s a lot better than it was in August.”
If the season goes off as planned, the Huskies will be among the favorites to win the NCAA tournament after losing just four seniors (on the 16-player roster) from last year’s team that lost to top-seeded Baylor in the Elite Eight.
Cook, who is 132-36 in five seasons as head coach at UW, said the Huskies are using about 16 of the maximum 20 hours a week that are allowed for practice, film study and weightlifting.
A big element of normal practices – blocking at the net – has been taken away because of Pac-12 protocols for COVID-19 that Cook said are the safest of any conference in the country. The Big Ten, which is also not playing matches this fall, is allowed to practice at the net, Cook said.
“The equivalent in football might be if there were no offensive and defensive line,” Cook said. “We really value (blocking), we spend a lot of time on it, and now it has been taken away from us to some degree so it’s been a challenge for a team that celebrates being physical at the net.”
Cook said the team has spent much of its practice time working on serving, ball control and passing. Three of UW’s primary service returners graduated, and the coach said, “We knew we would need to spend a lot of time in that area, because we are forced to, and it’s worked out in that sense.”
Cook said his players are being tested for COVID-19 at least once a week, and daily tests will begin in January when matches are set to start.
“They must have a deep passion for what they are doing if they are willing to navigate a whole new set of rules and restrictions and protocols for them to have that privilege of walking through that door and working on their craft,” Cook said, when asked what he has learned about his team during the pandemic. “They are flexible and they are able to overcome obstacles that no student-athlete before them has seen, and I think that is a credit to them.”
Cook said he was surprised, but happy, when it was announced that the upcoming season will not count against players’ eligibility. He expects many of the seniors on this year’s team to return for another season.
Maybe that’s not surprising, as his players have already proved they are willing to go through more obstacles in order to play.
“I am always impressed by the resilience of young people, and this year more than ever, with what they’re willing to accept in order to have that opportunity to play,” Cook said.