Sept. 7, 2011
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE - You can't tell by the way she is dominating her first weeks as a college volleyball player, but, yes, Krista Vansant has been overwhelmed this summer.
Not by being one of the rare outside hitters in Jim McLaughlin's 11 seasons at Washington to start as a true freshman.
No, judging by 6-foot-2 Vansant winning the only two Pac-12 freshman-of-the-week awards the conference has given out so far this season, she is adjusting quite well to the elite college level.
"She's thriving there," her mother, high-school coach, and best friend, Tricia Vansant, told me excitedly Wednesday from the family home in Redlands, Calif.
"She absolutely loves it there."
No, Krista was floored in July. That's when the teenager, weeks removed from high school graduation, was honored with the glitz and glamour of the all-grown-up ESPY awards in Los Angeles.
"It was awesome. It was so much fun. I wish I could go again," Vansant told me this week before practice as her fifth-ranked Huskies (6-0) prepared to host Seattle University in Thursday's home opener.
Vansant poses with Cam Newton, the number one pick in the 2011 NFL Draft at the ESPYs.
"It was so much fun. Just being star struck, walking the red carpet was awesome. Just getting all dressed up and hanging out with all the athletes that won the award, too, was fun."
"The award" was being the Gatorade national high school player of the year for volleyball. Pleasant off the floor, ferocious on it, Vansant is the first-ever UW volleyball recruit to win the honor.
Think about all the All-American players the Huskies have had while winning the national championship over the last decade: Paige Benjamin, Candace Lee, Christal Morrison, Courtney Thompson, Sanja Tomasevic. And Vansant is the only one to be a national high school player of the year.
She even loved what she was wearing while amid America's most famous athletes that night in Los Angeles.
"Just a black dress - and heels. Yeah, I was like 6-5, 6-6 in them," she said, giggling. "I loved them. It was super fun."
Vansant was especially thrilled to get pictures with many superstar athletes before and after the 18th-annual, nationally televised awards show, which was hosted this year by comedian Seth Meyers.
"It was so cool," she said. "Cam Newton, I really wanted to meet him the whole time. He was awesome. Just taking the picture with him was pretty sweet."
Vansant and the first overall pick in April's NFL draft have another thing beside photo in common.
They are both dang good.
Vansant posted a season-best 16 kills with just one error, a .577 attack mark, as Washington smoked Boise State to end last weekend's annual Northwest Challenge that needs to be renamed. The Huskies again swept all nine sets while winning their three matches in Spokane, Wash.
Vansant is the leader in kills (69) and kills per set (3.63) for a UW team that has won 18 of 19 sets this season. The team is so good, Huskies football players were talking about it as they walked to lunch Wednesday following their early-afternoon practice.
"Our volleyball team is 6-0, man," one UW lineman said to another as they walked through Alaska Airlines Arena, past where the volleyball team was practicing.
McLAUGHLIN'S PREPARATION PAYS OFF. AGAIN.
Vansant has been around volleyball since her mom, a former college basketball player at Loyola Marymount in the late-1980s days of Hank Gathers at LMU, began coaching the sport. It was when Krista was nine months old.
"This is terrible: I have video of her when she was 2½-3 years old," Tricia told me, laughing. "I showed her volleyball arms, and I bought her one of those cheap balls you get at the supermarket. And she was passing it like a volleyball in our backyard."
When Krista was in third grade, she finally gave up basketball, which she didn't like and wasn't good at, and promptly began practicing volleyball. With sixth graders.
"When I was 8, played on a 12-and-under team," she said. "I just went to volleyball camp one time (at Cal-State San Bernardino, at age 7), and that's all it took."
She got her first college recruiting letter when she was in seventh grade -- "I was like, `I'm not even thinking about college right now. I'm thinking about going to eighth grade,'" Vansant says, refreshingly.
She'd been on junior national teams by the time she was at East Valley High in Redlands. She was obviously light years ahead of her peers.
Don't believe me? Do a YouTube video search of Krista Vansant -- and watch opponents cower and turn their backs to Vansant as she rises to slam her next kill into the floor. It looks like clips from a Godzilla movie.
McLaughlin, a native of Southern California, has enough connections down there that he'd heard plenty about Vansant by the time she was a sophomore. But the man of unorthodox white boards at practice and the intricacies of a physicist in assessing talent needed to find out more.
So he went to see Vansant. Not in a high school game. At a practice.
"I wanted to get down and see her ASAP. I liked a lot more than just her ability to hit and her skills as a volleyball player," McLaughlin said. "She looked and behaved like a kid that really wanted to be good. So I wanted to go down and see in practice if that was just a feeling or was I onto it.
"And I saw her in that practice and I thought, `Holy cow!'"
One of the nation's most renowned volleyball minds didn't show up to just watch and learn. He brought with him documents that detailed his vision for Vansant as a Husky.
Thing is, Vansant wasn't even considering Washington. The student who would go on to finish high school with a 3.8 GPA wanted to stay closer to home and go to Stanford. Or Arizona.
She also visited Penn State, another top-five team. Georgia Tech had already offered her a scholarship.
Vansant was the 2011 Gatorade High School National Player of the Year.
None of them had McLaughlin's plan for her, though.
"I wrote down where I thought she was at, where she could go and how we would get her there," McLaughlin said. "I wanted her to understand that although she was very good at the high-school level she had so much growth in front of her. We felt she could be the best at the highest level.
"All I wanted to show her was, if we get process driven, just improve every day, at the end of so many years she could be one of the elite - if not the elite - outside hitters in the country.
"You hear it, you forget it. You see it, you remember it. You learn it, you understand it," McLaughlin said, dishing another of his wisdom nuggets. "I wanted to put it on paper so she could see, `Wow, these guys do have a plan for me.'"
Vansant - and her parents - were amazed.
And that's how Washington landed its first-ever national high school player of the year in volleyball.
"I was just like, `Wow. I need to check this out.' I had never thought about coming here before that," Vansant said.
She visited UW for the first time that fall, then went to McLaughlin's camp here a year later, as the most sought-after junior around. She went to a Huskies match, went into the locker room before the match, and fell in love. She committed on that trip.
"I watched a couple practices and I really fell in with the school, the area. I really fell in love with Seattle. The way he coached. All the whiteboards. I really bought into that," she said.
Three years later, Tricia Vansant is still gushing over the documents McLaughlin brought for Krista to that practice.
"The thought that he knew her well enough to put together all these things, that made such a big impact on me, as her mom," she said. "That was really impressive."
Tricia, an elementary school teacher who has quit coaching this season to follow her daughter's debut with the Huskies, had been with her daughter on recruiting visits to Stanford, UCLA and Arizona. Her father Robert, a sixth-grade computer teacher in a private school in Redlands, had accompanied Krista to Penn State.
Neither of them saw anything remotely close to the preparation McLaughlin had done.
"It absolutely blew me away," Tricia Vansant said.
GREAT -- AND GETTING BETTER
It's the way of college athletics today that McLaughlin was even in a high school gym to see a 15-year-old practice. And it's not a way McLaughlin loves.
"I think recruiting is out of control and happening fast. But it's what everybody's doing so we've got to get in the game," he said. "It's hard to get an assessment because people change all the time. It's hard to get an assessment of 15-, 16-year-olds. They don't know how to win championships, they don't know what it takes.
"But I had a feeling that isn't a feeling anymore with Krista. She said, `I want to be the best. I am going to work as hard as I can.'
"And she's done it."
Vansant also thinks the recruiting game is a bit much. Her advice to those that follow her as a highly pursued, national prospect is to be patient. Grow up before choosing the future.
"Yeah, it was hard to think about that stuff that young, especially my friends not understanding. It was hard," she said.
"I would give advice to wait as long as you can, and make sure the place you choose is really right for you. Wherever it happens to be, make sure you are happy there. Make sure you like the players around you and the coaches."
She's already checked those blocks here at UW - even as McLaughlin and his staff tinker with what everyone else sees as volleyball gold.
Vansant and the Huskies agree she needs to hit the ball higher, because the college blocks are so much higher from more athletic defenders at this level. She is working on her footwork and arm motion, to jump higher and strike harder. McLaughlin has her working on seeing more of the court more quickly.
This prodigy is, in fact, a work in progress.
That's scary - and scary good for the Huskies, a week before the rugged conference schedule begins against UCLA and USC.
Vansant has been named Pac-12 Freshman of the Week twice in as many weeks.
"With most kids, there is some frustration when you make changes in your game. You take little steps back to take big steps forward, and no one wants to take that step back," McLaughlin said. "The frustration can cause one to take the easy road, or go back to what you are used to doing, instead of fighting through and working for it.
"She has that ability to fight. And then that confidence comes."
I asked the Huskies coach how he molds and keeps grounded a freshman superstar into the concept of team, into the hierarchy of his upperclassmen.
"That is the most important thing," McLaughlin said. "If you just look at what's been put on her as far as expectations, a lot has been put on her, enough that it could kind of kick you in the wrong direction. But because of who she is, the way she's operated and the way she was raised, (she succeeds).
"She is a kid of very strong values. And her parents have done an unbelievable job with her in terms of making the right choices, giving her enough of a leash that she is going to grow up as a woman.
"Her mom and dad, they did it right. They prepared her for this. ... The better you get, the more humble you need to be. That's just a dimension of improvement. And I've preached to her, the better you get the tougher it is to improve -- but the greatest in anything keep finding a way to make progress.
"But she's already grabbing onto this stuff."
Grabbing onto it?
Like everything else so far Vansant's young life, she is seizing it, conquering it, claiming it as her own.
And for the next four years until what she hopes is a shot with the United States national team and the Olympics, what's Krista Vansant's gain is also Washington's gain.
"I have wanted to do it for so long and I've been dreaming about this since I committed here," Vansant said of playing for the Huskies. "Being able to don the purple and gold and represent the U-Dub, it's insane. It's a big deal.
"I think about it every night before I go to bed, like, `This is really happening! This is real life for me now!'"
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.