It’s not hard to spot setter Ella May Powell during a UW volleyball match, because no one on the team touches the ball more than her.
In most cases, the first pass comes to her, and her job is to set up a teammate for a potential kill. And every so often, she will make a kill herself.
Either way, the Huskies (18-3) have been able to count on Powell making the right moves. The junior from Fayetteville, Arkansas, was named Pac-12 setter of the year after leading the Huskies to the Pac-12 title, and has now helped her team reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament for the third straight season.
Washington, the No. 6 overall seed, survived a five-set thriller against Dayton in the second round after getting a first-round bye. The Huskies face another big challenge Sunday against No. 11 seed Louisville in Omaha, Nebraska, with a berth in the Elite Eight at stake in the 12:30 p.m. game. The game is being livestreamed on ESPN3.
A lot will be asked of the 6-foot Powell, but she almost always seems to deliver.
Powell started as a true freshman and after an up-and-down first season, she helped the unseeded Huskies reach the Sweet 16. Last season, she was a third-team All-American and led UW to the Elite Eight.
She relishes the opportunity to improve on those performances.
“I am so excited, and I’m hoping to get just a little farther,” Powell said. “It’s cool knowing we’ve been here before and a lot of us know what it feels like. We know what’s on the line and I’m excited to see how much better we can play throughout this tournament.
“When I was a freshman, I was just excited to be here, and excited to be playing, but really didn’t know the weight of it yet. Now I have a little more perspective that this could be someone’s last game and this could be the last game of our season.”
Although UW does a lot of game-planning, Washington coach Keegan Cook said “90 percent of the actual decision-making is Ella May,” when it comes to who she sets up.
“Maybe the best analogy would be a motion offense (in basketball) where you’re allowing players to make reads and make decisions, but 90 percent of what you see out there is Ella May understanding a variety of factors, from the original game plan to hitters who are having a little more success — she’s weighing a lot of different things when she makes her choices,” Cook added. “Occasionally, she will look over in a critical moment just to confirm her choice and we make quick eye contact, and she knows what to do.”
Powell said a big part of being a setter “is the leadership aspect.”
“I think a lot of it has to do with being a translation of your coach on the court,” Powell said. “Whatever coach Cooks needs to be portrayed on my team is what I am going to try to instill on the court, and be his eyes and ears on the court as well as inputting my own spin on it.”
Powell said she takes into account the game plan when deciding which hitter to set up, and “most of the time I try to do those plays that we’ve talked about before.”
“But if there is a hitter who is rolling, like Madi (Endsley) who was rolling (Thursday) night — she looked up and it was like, ‘Give me the ball’ — I’m never going to say no,” said Powell, who set Endsley up for a career-high 20 kills against Dayton.
Powell said there is a window that she needs to hit to set up her teammates, but said UW’s hitters are great at adjusting when she misses that window.
“That’s what makes them so good,” Powell said. “They do a really good job of taking my bad sets and making something out of them.”
Not that Cook has to worry much about Powell.
“We spend most of our time on defensive game plans, and we prepare our hitters to be successful, but when it comes to Ella May, less has always been more,” Cook said. “She understands our offense and she understands the two or three critical factors that affect success in a match. A lot of what you see is her having a great feel and a great understanding of her team and her opponents.”
Part of that feel is knowing when to attempt a kill herself. She had five kills in 10 attempts against Dayton.
“Sometimes I just get a little aggressive and I just really want the point to end,” said Powell, who has 838 assists and 49 kills for the season. “But most of the time I have to see that defense is not necessarily honoring me — and I will do that to make sure the defense is a little more sucked in. It kind of opens more things for the hitters. It keeps the defense honest.”
Powell also impacts the game with her serving. She is third on the team with 26 aces, and Cook said serving will be a key against Louisville (15-2), the ACC champions who also were in the Elite Eight last season.
Cook said he feels a responsibility to get Powell to accomplish the team goals that they talked about when he was recruiting her. Powell, while thankful for all her personal accolades, said, “I don’t think I will be satisfied until we get a national championship.”
With one of the best setters in the country, UW is a contender to win the title.
“When Ella plays well, she takes us to another level,” Cook said.