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Original Issue

Keeping the Faith

With an upset of No. 1 Nebraska, Washington's true believers went from also-rans to national champs

Outside hitter Christal Morrison so thoroughly believed that this would be a special season for Washington's women's volleyball team that she decided in August to document the entire year. Everywhere the Huskies went, the gregarious sophomore brought her camcorder, videotaping unique moments along the way. She captured the team dinner after a big win at Stanford in October, as several teammates sang gleefully in a Bay Area restaurant. She also caught coach Jim McLaughlin inadvertantly making humorous facial contortions on the team bus one afternoon. But there was one precious moment that Morrison was unable to shoot, and it occurred last Saturday night inside San Antonio's Alamodome.

Shortly after the third-seeded Huskies had won their first national championship by sweeping No. 1 Nebraska 30-26, 30-25, 30-26, Morrison pulled an oversized T-shirt over her tear-filled eyes as the P.A. announcer informed the crowd that she had been named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. She modestly stepped back, as if to say she didn't deserve the honor, but her teammates quickly engulfed her, cheering and hugging and pushing her forward to accept the award.

Playing what McLaughlin labeled "our best game of the year," the Huskies didn't just win the national championship, they also validated the program. When McLaughlin was hired in 2001, Washington had won only 25 matches over the previous three seasons. Most of the players he recruited could have gone to other schools with more established track records, but they all bought into McLaughlin's dream of bringing a championship to Seattle.

The foundation was set by this year's senior class, including defensive specialist Danka Danicic, outside hitter Brie Hagerty, libero Candace Lee and outside hitter Sanja Tomasevic, the Pac-10 player of the year. That group won 20 times and got an NCAA tournament bid as freshmen. A year later All-America setter Courtney Thompson came aboard, and Washington went 23-9. Then came Morrison a year ago, and her addition made the Huskies a national power.

A star at Puyallup (Wash.) High, Morrison had envisioned attending college far away from her hometown, but the Huskies' newfound success persuaded her to pass on offers from perennial powers USC and UCLA. The move paid off for both parties as Morrison was named a second-team All-America as a freshman and Washington advanced to the national semifinals before losing to Stanford.

The pain of that loss was the catalyst for this year's victory. When this season opened, all Morrison and her teammates could think about was making another run at the championship. "When we got [to the final four] last year, it seemed like we were just happy to be here," Morrison says. "This time we were on a mission."

That became clear early on Saturday night. Nebraska was the overwhelming favorite, a powerhouse with two national titles, five championship-game appearances and only one loss on the season. But led by a defense that produced 61 digs, Washington limited Nebraska to a season-low .185 hitting percentage. Morrison attacked the Huskers' touted block fearlessly, with 44 hit attempts and a team-high 15 kills. "We just weren't very smooth," said Nebraska's John Cook, the national coach of the year, whose club finished 33-2. "Against a team like that, if you give them easy balls, they're going to make you pay."

Washington (32-1) became only the second team to go through an entire NCAA tournament without losing a game. McLaughlin is the first coach to lead both a men's team (USC in 1990) and a women's team to national titles. The Huskies celebrated with the championship trophy amid the smattering of purple-clad supporters from a crowd of 8,482 that had been dominated by the red-garbed Nebraska faithful.

It seemed appropriate that Washington had such a small group of believers on hand. After all, it had taken only a little bit of faith to turn the Washington program from an also-ran into a national champion.



SHE'S A HIT Tomasevic (21), the Pac-10 player of the year, was part of a key senior class.