Much of the Washington volleyball team will be the same as the one that went to the Final Four this spring.
If they can make a similar run will be dependent on how they change.
“Over the summer, we wanted to focus on being a new team,” said senior outside hitter Claire Hoffman. “That’s a big part of our approach.”
The Huskies (20-4 last season) made their first Final Four since 2013 and were Pac-12 champions for the first time since 2016. The new experience created an expectation within the program, along with an understanding of how to get there.
Beyond that, the Huskies are determined to leave recent history in the far past as they return to a non-conference schedule this fall.
“It’s strange, because we did become accustomed to it,” fifth-year head coach Keegan Cook said about the spring season. “You adapt, and we adapted to how things were during the spring. There are all these little glimpses of getting back to normal so we’re trying to remember how things used to be in terms of having a non-conference schedule.”
The Huskies, who bring back everyone but one player from their Final Four roster, open their season Friday at Ohio, the first non-Pac-12 opponent they’ve seen in the regular season since facing Wisconsin in September of 2019.
The spring postseason was their first glimpse out-of-conference for all of last season. They defeated Dayton, Louisville, and Pittsburgh before falling in four sets to Kentucky, the eventual national champion.
That’s fueled the Huskies somewhat, having gotten to that stage despite a challenging, pandemic-affected season. They know how to get there, even without seeing the rest of the nation for an entire season. They begin the season with nine out-of-conference foes, and don’t see a Pac-12 opponent this year until they face Utah on Sept. 22.
Even that is a refreshing change of pace in a year where it’s been easy to become stagnant.
“This isn’t a continuation of last year,” said Cook. “Even though it just ended. You can fall on yesterday’s win, or what we’re really telling the athletes is, depth, not distance. It’s not about winning two more games, it’s about being really connected with each other.”
The Huskies found their groove at the right time last season, riding a nine-game winning streak before facing Kentucky in the Final Four, and had won 15 of their prior 16 matches overall.
Consistency became the hallmark for the Huskies, one element of last season’s identity they want to hang onto. With everyone returning but one player, and four new additions, they’re hoping to bring a mix of last season’s success with a fresh outlook.
Part of that has been the sheer size of the roster. Usually, the Huskies carry around 12-13 players, and this year they have 17. Cook says that’s their “largest team ever,” which has upped the intensity in practice.
“To have quality at practice you need 12 really good players, and we have 17,” he said. “We’ve got depth, but it requires a lot of communication about role clarity, about what to expect short-term and long-term.”
That’s a new challenge for NCAA programs across the country and across all sports, with so many athletes picking up extra seasons after they had pandemic-shortened campaigns. It’s a balance the Huskies have embraced.
“It’s a blessing to have so many people in the gym,” said senior setter Ella May Powell. “There’s so many healthy players in the gym. It’s very, very competitive right now, you really see people pushing and competing for their spot. We’re a really competitive group but also push for each other really hard.”
Powell has been one of what Cook describes as a “primary leader” for the Huskies who, along with Hoffman, were instrumental in the Final Four run.
Powell’s 972 assists led the nation, and her 10.23 assists per set ranked far and away as the most on the team. She, along with the six other seniors, is being relied upon to be one of their key identity-setters.
“Last year we had a really good feel of who we were,” she said. “We have to do everything that we did last year, all of our values we’re trying to better. We’re trying to push to the next level that will win us those next two games.”
The Huskies were two wins shy of their national championship goal a few short months ago. With their shortest offseason ever behind them, and their largest team yet running into a new campaign, all focus is on earning those last two wins this time.
But first, they have to get back there.
“As long as we’re similar to last year, we will be in good shape,” said Hoffman. “We want those same core values and then form that new identity.
“Then, we’ll see how far we really can go.”