Husky Spark Plug
Oct. 7, 2004
by Michael Bruscas
Some people stand tall; others stand out. Attend any Washington volleyball match to see the difference.
Amidst the lengthy limbs of her teammates, fiery 5-foot-8 sophomore setter Courtney Thompson controls the action and the attention of spectators. A natural born leader with an unparalleled work ethic, Thompson came straight out of Kentlake High last season to shatter school assist records and captain the Huskies to within mere points of their first-ever Final Four appearance.
Not a bad start.
But Thompson and crew are hungry to push Washington over the cusp of the elite and all the way to the top. The Huskies opened this season with a best-ever No. 7 national preseason ranking, and with 12 consecutive wins opposite zero losses, have risen to No. 1 for the first time in program history.
The teaching process of head coach Jim McLaughlin calls for slow and steady improvements, a philosophy Thompson clearly buys into.
"From day one we've been focused on improving every day," she says. "We feel like if we just take care of our stuff, we can beat anyone. Jim and I talk a lot about the mental side, how to approach things the right way. That just means working hard every day and trying to make little improvements."
There's little room for any improvement after Thompson's freshman campaign, during which she broke the school's season record for assists with 1,590, nearly 200 more than the previous mark of 1,425. Not surprisingly, Thompson's 14.20 assists per game were also a UW record, and led all Pac-10 setters in 2003, quite a feat considering the overall talent in a conference which produced the past three national champions.
Those numbers, however, belie the difficult transition Thompson endured while trying to adapt to the college game.
"The first two weeks were horrible," she says. "I was bad. It looked like I had never played before. The pace of the game is different and there are so many emotions. You're anxious, you're nervous, you're excited. Physically, it takes a few days to adjust to the speed, but mentally it was just a whole different world. In high school I just played to play, but at this level you have to be into the game mentally, going through mental checklists all the time. That took a lot of work that people don't really understand."
Part of Thompson's nervousness may have stemmed from a desire to validate the faith that McLaughlin had showed in remaining committed to her when other Pac-10 schools backed off in favor of taller setters. The only size McLaughlin saw, however, was the size of Thompson's potential.
"From day one, Jim told me it's not how big you are, it's how great you are," Thompson says.
If Thompson ever felt that McLaughlin pushed her any harder than he pushed other athletes, it is only because his expectations for her were so high.
"I've had high expectations for every player I've ever coached, but I've had higher expectations for Courtney," he admits. "Part of it is who she is; she has a very strong presence. I've been tougher on her, but she can handle it. I just want her to be so good."
Thompson's passion and dedication on the court is just as strong away from volleyball. While some coaches try to light a fire under their players, McLaughlin is more concerned with keeping Thompson's from burning out.
"She'll does everything almost to the point of doing too much, which can be a fault," McLaughlin says. "She'll just not rest, and you've got to rest. Recovery time -- emotionally, intellectually and physically -- is one of the key principles in playing at an elite level. But as far as her intentions, her desire, her work ethic and her ability to study film? I've never been around a player who wanted to do more."
It was that competitive spirit that compelled Thompson's teammates to name her a team captain in her first year on the squad. Ever modest, Thompson is quick to assign her leadership role to factors other than her own ability.
"I think a lot of it had to do with my position, like a quarterback on a football team," she says. "As a setter, you have to be vocal and know what everyone's doing on the court. I've always been the vocal person."
As a kid, Thompson had to be vocal to keep the attention of two older brothers, Craig and Trevor, whom she adored.
"They're the best brothers in the world," she says. "I don't know how anyone can grow up without having older brothers. They taught me everything from sports to school to guys. They were always tough on me in sports, but you kind of love that."
Trevor is currently a senior captain of the baseball team at the U.S. Naval Academy, so if he was hard on Courtney, it is no wonder she doesn't bat an eyelash when facing the Pac-10's elite.
Growing up with her brothers, sports was "just something our family did," Thompson says. She lists off swimming, tennis, soccer, volleyball, basketball, softball and gymnastics as sports she played - and usually excelled at - as if reading off a television listing from the Athens Olympics.
Yet Thompson admits, "I actually didn't even like volleyball until my sophomore year in high school, it was my least favorite sport. But then our high school team was pretty good and I was like `Hey, this is kind of fun.'"
Pretty good? Thompson's Kentlake team won three state titles during her tenure, and she was named Washington State Player of the Year in 2002. That wasn't nearly enough to keep Thompson busy, of course. She additionally found time to be valedictorian of her class, Student Body President as a senior, and class president as a junior and sophomore, while earning All-League honors for softball and an 2002 All-State selection in basketball.
"It seems like the busier I am, the easier it is to budget everything because I don't have any time to waste," she says. "It's when I have a lot of time that I'm not sure what to do with it."
Thompson has plenty of time -- three years, to be exact -- to conquer the collegiate volleyball world, but she naturally has no plans to stop there.
"I'd love to play professionally overseas," she says. "I want to play at the highest level I can, whatever that is. I hope that I'm the one who decides when I get to stop playing."
The Huskies can decide when they stop playing with a win in the NCAA final this year, a realistic goal considering the team's 12-0 record in 2004, which includes road wins over No. 2 USC and No. 10 UCLA.
"I want our team to be known as the best team UW ever had," she says. "We're hard workers, we love what we do and we just go out there and have fun."
Tirelessly working day by day to steadily improve, Thompson is the little engine pushing Washington volleyball to the top of the collegiate mountain.