Nov. 29, 2012
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Kelly Holford is the jokester.
Kelcey Dunaway is the "brainiac," the one the Huskies seek for all their medical questions and pains.
Kylin Muñoz is like the team's "mother hen."
Amanda Gil? She's been around college volleyball so long her teammates call her "Grandma."
Washington's four seniors are, in their own, characteristic ways, rallying for one final weekend of home matches - and one final push for a national championship - beginning Friday in their NCAA tournament opener against Central Arkansas.
And they are getting their best player, Krista Vansant, back from a sprained ankle just in time to help cap their UW legacies.
"We always say treat every practice like it's your last. Well, these are our last couple weeks. We have three weeks left," Holford said. "I think we are all ... I know I'm in denial."
Yes, the versatile serving specialist and part-time libero from Long Beach, Calif., said three more weeks.
Her 13th-seeded Huskies (23-6) have been ranked nearly all season in the national top 10 and got to No. 2 in September. Now, especially with Vansant returning, they believe their goal of reaching the Final Four and then winning Washington's second national title is within reach.
Washington's All-Pac-12 spiker is back from a badly sprained ankle. Vansant, fourth in the Pac-12 with 4.11 kills per set, turned her left ankle Nov. 16 while landing from a jump early in the fourth set of an epic win over Oregon, now the fifth seed in UW's region. The 6-foot-2 sophomore missed the final three regular-season matches and was in a walking boot until last Friday. But she has practiced this week and is expected to play Friday against Central Arkansas (30-4).
The winner of that 7 p.m. match will advance to play Saturday night at Alaska Airlines Arena against the winner of Friday's 5 p.m. game between Hawai'i (30-2) and Santa Clara (20-11).
The winner of Saturday's second-round match will move to Omaha, Neb., next weekend for the regional semifinals.
UW has advanced past the first round in 14 of its 16 NCAA tournaments all time. The Huskies have reached at least the regional semifinals in eight of those 16 appearances in the NCAAs.
'We have been improving throughout the season,' says Dunaway. 'I know we are going to keep improving - hopefully for the next three weeks ... as seniors, we know our jobs.'
This season, renowned mastermind coach Jim McLaughlin's 12th at Washington, the team is coming off a resounding thumping in straight sets of rival Washington State in Pullman last week.
"Jim always says volleyball is a game of ebbs and flows. It's whoever can withstand that the longest," said Muñoz, a fourth-year senior from Monroe, Wash. "I think we have a great mentality going into the tournament, because of our WSU win. We did our jobs. That gave us some confidence."
Dunaway adds, "Even though we have had loses we have been improving throughout the season. I'm not worried as far as that goes coming into the tournament because I know we are going to keep improving - hopefully for the next three weeks.
"Especially as seniors, we know our jobs."
Dunaway, Muñoz and Holford also know how to advance in the NCAA tournament. They have been to the "Elite Eight" round of regional finals, in November 2010 when Washington hosted, battled through Nebraska then lost the next night to California to fall just short of a fourth Final Four appearance since 2004.
Gil wasn't in uniform for that. The 6-6 former UCLA Bruin watched from the stands while sitting out that year per NCAA transfer rules.
Then, as she prepared to make her Huskies debut in the summer of 2011, nagging pain in her left knee became chronic. UW doctors found two, previously undetected issues: The top of her femur was farther outside her knee than normal, leaving her at risk of having her leg snap while playing; plus she had developed a hole in her knee cartilage, causing all that pain.
Gil had surgery on Sept. 8, 2011. And not just any surgery. Then-UW team physician Dr. Chris Wahl broke Gil's femur, fused it with a bone part taken from her hip and re-set it to form a healthier bone angle for her knee.
She was in a knee brace for 3½ months. She wore crutches for 2½ months. She was in excruciating knee rehabilitation five to six hours a day, five or more days a week. Forget blocking, setting or spiking. Gil's life boiled down to far more fundamental goals. Like walking. Or bathing (http://www.gohuskies.com/sports/w-volley/spec-rel/081512aaa.html).
She didn't play competitively for two full years, until her return this September. Now she is the nation's leader with 1.79 blocks per set entering her first NCAA tournament since 2009 . She is still doing ice and stimulation treatment every day to condition that rebuilt knee.
"Yeah, I'm SOOOO excited. I haven't been here in so long," Gil said of the NCAAs. "Honestly, I didn't know what to expect (this season), if the knee would hold up."
Her parents, Randy and Michelle, are flying up for Friday's match from California. So is her boyfriend E.J. Woods, a former UCLA football player whose season in that sport just ended at New Mexico Highlands University.
Gil is in a weird spot. She is applying for an extra, sixth year of eligibility with the NCAA because of her injuries, so she's not entirely sure this weekend is her Huskies home finale. But in the back of her mind she has prepared as if it is. She will graduate next month with a communications degree and wants to work in sports broadcasting and has connections in the Bay Area and in Southern California to enter that field perhaps as early as the next few months. She also may seek to play professionally overseas if the NCAA denies her appeal for a sixth college year.
"I could be done with college," she said, sounding as if she's not quite ready for that. "I am trying not to think about it and stay focused on this season and this tournament, because it can be overwhelming."
Muñoz is also seeking an extra year of eligibility and isn't certain this is truly her final Huskies push, either. She lost a year after signing her letter of intent with BYU before changing her mind and staying home with UW, but the penalty for that switch was her freshman season.
Muñoz is known as the "mother" of the team because of her caring, nurturing persona. Interpersonal relations fits Munoz; she is on track to graduate this spring with a communications degree and wants to eventually go into public relations for a professional or college sports team.
But the Huskies' "mom" is not focused on any of that right now.
"It's all about the next three weeks," she said.
Holford, whose versatility has been an asset for McLaughlin the last two seasons, is already feeling the tug of this final chance at a title.
"You don't really realize it until you are in that position. And you really are urgent to win now, as a senior. You only have a few weeks or days of playing left."
"With the tournament starting, I've been really sentimental," she said Tuesday on her way into practice at Alaska Airlines Arena's East gym. "Volleyball defines my life. It has defined every stage of my life. I've played competitively for so long - we all have. I'm kind of just in denial about it, but I am so excited for our team at the same time."
"Every year we've heard the seniors talk about having that sense of urgency at the end of the season to win," Holford said. "You don't really realize it until you are in that position. And you really are urgent to win now, as a senior. You only have a few weeks or days of playing left."
She is on track to graduate in June with a sociology degree. She wants to go into event planning in sports, perhaps inside an athletic department such as Washington's or with a pro team.
But for now she's pumped for this last volleyball chance.
"Everything is just magnified. The happiness of the tournament, we are that much more excited," Holford said.
"It's not so much pressure. We've all been here before."
As Dunaway added, "I've been doing this for five years. I know what to do."
The 6-2 middle blocker from Bainbridge Island redshirted her first volleyball season in 2008. She will graduate in June with a biology degree and a minor in Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. She plans to attend medical school and wants to become an obstetrician/gynecologist. Her goal is to provide care for women from rural or low-income areas who often lack quality medical options.
Like Vansant said admiringly, a "brainiac."
"She's our overachiever," Holford said, laughing with her fellow seniors.
Dunaway is bright enough to sense this team of senior leaders with depth all around the court has the makeup for a run to the Final Four in Louisville, Ky., next month.
This summer these seniors spearheaded players-only outings - they love the RAM restaurant in University Village, by the way - during which the team bonded through introspection. As Holford described, they didn't just ask the underclassmen the standard "Where are you from?" and "Do you have a boyfriend?"
"What motivates you? What do you want to do with your life? What challenges have you overcome?" Those are the questions and answers that helped forged team-wide trust - trust that Holford, Muñoz, Dunaway and Gil think may keep these Huskies playing into December and potentially into UW's first Final Four since 2006.
"Every team we've had here has been talented, but this year those intangibles are there," Dunaway said. "That's what matters.
"I think the team with trust and those intangibles is the team that goes the farthest."