For the University of Washington volleyball seniors, this season is championship or bust. 

Eight years into Keegan Cook’s head-coaching career, expectations at UW are as high as ever. With all but three members of last year’s Sweet 16 squad returning, including a trio of All-American fifth-year seniors, the Huskies are expected to go far. 

The Huskies have won four Pac-12 titles under Cook, have made four consecutive Sweet 16s, qualified four times for the Elite Eight and made a trip to the Final Four back in April 2021. 

But even with all of that recent success, a national title is the shiny prize that the Huskies have not yet grabbed (since 2005 anyway). For the seniors, 2022 is their last chance. 

“I think it’s safe to say that everyone here is very much planning on having a chance to play in the national championship and win the national championship,” fifth-year senior Claire Hoffman said. “I think that’s a very clear goal of this team every year.”

Last year, the team’s title pursuits were cut down by Texas in the Sweet 16. The Huskies took a 2-0 lead but lost 3-2. After that disappointing early finish, the Huskies are eager to prove to themselves that they have the ability to go all the way. 

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“We really needed to deliver that last knockout punch in that match,” Cook said. “If we get fortunate to get to that moment again, are we a different team who can be the kind of team who walks into somebody’s gym in the regional round and takes them out to go to the Final Four? Because that’s likely what you are going to have to do, and what do we have to look like to be that team?”

Washington is ranked No. 13 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association coaches poll, and is the runaway favorite to win its third consecutive Pac-12 title, which would be a program record.

“We don’t really have expectations, but we have aspirations,” Cook said. “And our aspirations are always greater than the expectations of others. We talk about having a December mindset, and all of this is building towards December.”

UW is returning the majority of the 2021 squad this season, including their All-American cohort of Hoffman, setter Ella May Powell and middle blocker Marin Grote. Fellow senior Shannon Crenshaw is also back, along with junior Dani Cole and Sianna Houghton, sophomores Sophie Summers, Emoni Bush, Lauren Bays, Lauren Endsley and Olivia Mikkelsen. Redshirt freshmen Audra Wilmes, Maeve Griffin and Molly Wilson also return.

Only two new players joined the program, freshman libero Kate Morin of Phoenix, Arizona, and local product Elise Hani, from Lake Washington High School. 

That kind of continuity gives the returning players a comfort factor that teams with lots of new players don’t possess. This year, the “getting to know you” stretch at the beginning of the year wasn’t quite as long as in years past, and the team’s game-play rhythm should be smooth from the get-go. 

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“It’s great,” Hoffman said. “It’s a lot of not having to kind of get through those first couple of awkward weeks or even months trying to figure out, OK, how do we all work together?”

This year, the team got started on its bonding early, with an overseas trip to Italy, Slovenia and southern France. The Huskies played against some big-time competition in a few of the more interesting places they’ve ever been. 

Cook recalls a five-set victory against one of the Italian national teams in a hot gym in the “middle of nowhere,” along with a memorable team boat ride across Lake Como in northern Italy. It was a trip that brought the squad closer together, and admittedly made them grateful for the kinds of facilities they are used to back in the states. 

“I think it definitely taught us how to adapt on the spot,” Hoffman said. “I mean, we really didn’t know for the most part what we were getting ourselves into. There were some tiny gyms and some pretty hot gyms that are really brutal, really warm games that we just had to kind of figure out on the spot.”

Much of the team’s work in the early part of the season has come on defense, which Cook says is going to be a vital piece of the puzzle should the Huskies advance deep into the postseason. 

One word that Cook uses frequently when describing this year’s squad is “gritty,” and it is a word that Cook thinks fits his defense well.

“The defense is starting to have more of a presence, and that is going to be a focus throughout the season, because you’ve got to be able to slow people down,” Cook said. “You’re going to face some incredible offense late in December, and you have to be able to slow them down a bit. That is where a lot of our focus has been.”

The Huskies begin their home schedule Thursday against Northwestern, and Pac-12 play starts Sept. 21 against Washington State.