On the brink of elimination and on the road, facing a crushing end to season full of attainable dreams including a national championship, the Washington volleyball team pulled off an epic comeback Sunday -- one led by a junior star who simply put her team and her back and carried them, willed them, to one of the greatest victories in UW history in any sport.
I began watching the UW-USC regional final in the third set, the Huskies trailed two sets to none in the best of five. The hole couldn't have been deeper.
At stake was a berth in the Final Four -- but not just any Final Four. For the Huskies, it's a Final Four they've been pointing toward for years -- just 10 minutes from campus at KeyArena. But in the third set, the dream of being a part of "their" Final Four and winning the program's second national title was about to be swept away by a Trojans team playing in LA , on campus, with USC fans ready to erupt in a celebration certain to be one of the most painful moments in the career of head coach Jim McLaughlin and his powerful program.
That's when a great player took over in a way only the elite are able to.
Women's volleyball will never share the stage with football, baseball or basketball, but what Krista Vansant did was no less impressive than what we've witnessed over the years from the Bradys, Jeters and Jordans of the world. Vansant, a junior from Redlands, Calif. and the Pac-12 player of the year simply took over with her team and its season hanging by a thread.
After losing the first two games 28-26 and 25-23, the Huskies and Vansant began to fight and claw for every inch above the net and on the court at the Galen Center with little margin for error, needing to win three straight sets to keep their season alive. In the third set the Huskies trailed 12-11 but then took control by scoring six of the next seven points and then held on for a 25-23 win.
Bullet dodged but the Huskies still had work to do with the advantage still with USC.
The fourth set saw the Huskies gain confidence and control. Up 9-6, they pulled away with Vansant imposing her will with kills on 11 of the next 15 points scored by the Dawgs. The 25-18 win set up a decisive fifth set, a sprint to 15 points and for the winning team the final berth in the Final Four.
Despite having the momentum going into the last set, the Trojans weren't about to rollover and twice were a point away from closing out the Huskies. Needing to win by two, the Trojans first chance to win came at 14-13, but Vansant saved the season with another kill. SC came right back to go up 15-14, but a Trojans hitting error saved the Huskies again and evened the score. Tied at 15-15, with USC clearly concerned about Vansant, the Huskies turned to Gabbi Parker. The senior from Eugene delivered back-to-back winners completing a remarkable comeback and a testament to the Huskies talent, heart and determination. Vansant finished with a career-high 38 kills including a stunning 14 in the fourth set.
Their reward is the 2013 Final Four at KeyArena and a national semi-final match-up on Thursday against the dominate program in women's volleyball over the past six years in Penn State. The Nittany Lions won four straight championships from 2007-2010. The Huskies will be looking for a second national title with their first coming in 2005. In the first game Thursday, it's defending champion Texas taking on Wisconsin starting at 4:30.
MORE FINAL FOUR
While the Huskies go for glory in Seattle, in football the Eagles of Eastern Washington are also two wins away from their second national title since 2010. Beau Baldwin's club will host Towson State in a national semi-final on Saturday with an early kick-off of 11:00am at Roos Field. Yes, it's the one with the red turf. EWU Wide Receiver Cooper Kupp was named Monday as the Jerry Rice Award winner which goes to the top freshman in FCS football. Kupp's quarterback Vernon Adams is a finalist for the Walter Payton Award , the FCS version of the Heisman Trophy.