By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – They’ve practiced together from summer to about Christmas for each of the last four years, and several weeks more each spring. They’ve internalized their coach’s ultra-competitive training and his meticulous, renowned “white-board” teachings.
They are a win Friday night away from Washington’s first outright conference championship since 2005 – that wondrous season that ended with the Huskies’ only national championship. And they are leading a stream rolling toward their goal of becoming Washington’s second NCAA volleyball champion, next month at KeyArena across town from their campus.
But for all they have accomplished and have still to do, the Huskies’ four seniors have a singular memory that defines their time at UW.
“Personally, it was a really special moment,” Jenni Nogueras, a native of Puerto Rico who lost her father to pancreatic cancer two years ago, said following practice Tuesday evening.
The setter was standing outside the team locker room at Alaska Airlines Arena with senior classmates Jenna Orlandini, Kylin Muñoz and Gabbi Parker.
“My redshirt sophomore year I was struggling a lot with my father’s disease. And everybody got together and planned to take me to a Puerto Rican restaurant in Ballard (La Isla),” Nogueras said, still smiling at the generosity. “I had no idea about it. I got there and the whole team was sitting at a table, ready to support me.
“Surprise! Surprise!” Orlandini said, re-enacting the moment.
“I was like, ‘This team’s got my back,’” Nogueras said. “It was awesome. It was just … amazing.”
The unyielding bond Nogueras, Orlandini, Muñoz and Parker have formed leads the fifth-ranked Huskies (25-2, 17-2 Pac-12 following Wednesday night’s home win over OregonState) into Friday’s regular-season finale at home against WashingtonState at 8 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks television.
A Huskies’ victory would give them their third conference title ever. The others came in that 2005 national-title season and 2004, the first Final Four trip. An 18th league win would be a school record.
Then Sunday night at 6:30 p.m. on ESPNU the Huskies will learn if they are a top-seed host for the first and second round of next month’s NCAA tournament. That would set them up well for the regionals and a chance to reach the national semifinals and finals being played in their backyard Dec. 19-21.
Sure, junior hitter Krista Vansant has the All-American accolades and junior Kaleigh Nelson has enjoyed a breakout season on the right. But it’s been these seniors who have supplied the intangibles that good teams must have to become champions.
“I think that’s what sets this team apart from any other team in my three seasons is how tight we are,” said Muñoz, the outside hitter from nearby Monroe, Wash., who received an extra year of athletic eligibility this season.
Muñoz had initially lost a year by signing her letter of intent with Brigham Young then changing her mind and staying home with UW.
“On a team, you don’t have to be best friends,” she said. “But I’m just grateful that we have such great bonds and we are such great friends.
“Even when we don’t have to be with each other off the court …”
“… It’s like, ‘Oh, what do you want to do today,’” Nogueras said, finishing Muñoz’s sentence as great friends often do.
“For sure, there’s not a whole lot of drama on this team right now,” Orlandini continued. “I don’t know if that’s because we are winning, or that we are winning because we are friends.”
“There’s just like that level of trust, that no matter what is happening we’ve got each other’s backs,” said Orlandini, the team’s 5-foot-6 libero, and third in school history in career digs. “We rely on each other. We pick each other up. We fall on each other. It’s a pretty good deal.”
These seniors 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. Last season Nebraska eliminated them from the NCAA tournament in the regional semifinals, two matches short of the Final Four.
Now, they are on the cusp on an outright conference championship – thanks in large part to what Parker pulled off last week in Berkeley.
The role-playing hitter from Eugene, Ore., has been getting maybe one swing per match during Pac-12 play as mainly a blocking sub. Down three match points at No. 23 California Parker entered for Cassie Strickland with the score 14-12. One Cal error later, Parker stuffed the Bears’ best hitter to tie the set at 14. She then banged a shot off the block and down to earn UW its first match point. On a second match point, she unleashed a monster on her first serve about two months, and Vansant eventually fired the spike that ended UW’s comeback victory.
“I was like, ‘THAT just really happened!’” Parker said Tuesday.
“I’m always ready to go in. That’s kind of my role right now. When I went in I was thinking, ‘All right, just make the play.’
“Yeah, I’ve struggled with (the role)… But at the same time, it’s not about me. It’s about the team.”
Parker has a 3.71 grade-point average and this week the Pac-12 made her a second-team all-academic selection. She is set to graduate in June with a degree in early childhood and family studies and wants to be an elementary-school teacher in Seattle.
Nogueras is an English major who is weeks away from graduating. She may go home to her mother, Emily “Stella” Seilhamer, who is at UW this week to see her play for the second time this season. Jenni could work in Puerto Rico after she explores potential options in professional volleyball beginning with the new year. She could play professionally in her home country, and “that’s definitely an option” she said.
Orlandini is also graduating next month with a double major of sociology and communications. She wants to be a college athletic director someday, and has looked into UW’s Intercollegiate Athletic Leadership graduate program.
“We’ll see where life takes me,” the native of La Cañada, Calif., says.
Muñoz has been in the Seattle area all her life, “so I am ready to leave,” she says with a smile. She graduates next month with a communications degree with a minor in anthropology, with renowned UW Professor Holly Barker as a beloved mentor.
“I’d love to go into some service-oriented career, non-profits,” Munoz said. “I like inter-cultural communications.”
Her heart and mind are open to exploring cultures anywhere in the world.
To outsiders, their UW volleyball legacy is still to be written, in the coming weeks with the NCAA tournament that ends with the Final Four in their backyard. These seniors acknowledge that – to a degree. But they are too close personally to be defined wholly by this next month.
Instead, they will cherish the opportunity.
“Kylin and I were talking the other day that the best is yet to come,” Orlandini said. “Yeah, the season is coming to an end but to us this is what we worked four years for. This is the moment that we have to take advantage of and cherish.”
Parker added: “The word ‘legacy’ is such a loaded word. I don’t think we put that much pressure on ourselves. It’s just business.
“We understand it’s a huge deal. But at the same time if you start putting that much emphasis on it you add forced urgency. That makes you uncomfortable and not conducive to winning.”
And no, these closely bonded seniors, they don’t do uncomfortable. And they have certainly proven conducive to winning.