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Thursday, October 07, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Blaine Newnham / Times associate editor
She is the best player on the best college volleyball team in the country.
But that's only half the story, which is exactly the way she wanted it to be.
Sanja Tomasevic's life could have been consumed by volleyball in her native Serbia and Montenegro, moving seamlessly from her national team to playing professionally.
She was that good and volleyball that popular, especially after Yugoslavia won the men's Olympic gold medal in Sydney. Her younger sister was playing professionally.
"But my parents wanted something more for me," she said. "They wanted me to go to college."
In the two years after high school, she really didn't understand why until an injury sidelined her for two months. All of a sudden the phone stopped ringing. All of a sudden there was time to contemplate a life without volleyball.
"When people ask me what I'm doing in America," she said this week, her dark eyes twinkling, "I tell them I'm making my first million."
Getting an education and having a wonderful time doing it.
"I love it," she said of being in Seattle. "It is the best place in the world for me. Every second, every moment I enjoy it. The school, the volleyball, all the friends I've made. I don't know for what money I would leave all this."
Tomasevic, 24, is in her third year at Washington, a senior on the country's No. 1-ranked team, leading it in just about every statistical category.
At 6 feet 1, she is the team's best hitter, the best digger, the best server, the best passer, a second-team All-American last year destined to move up a notch this year.
"How can I be All-American," she asks, laughing, "when I'm Serbian?"
She admits that early on her English sounded "like Tarzan, 'me here, you there,' stuff like that."
It wasn't easy leaving home.
The first week on campus was unnerving as it is for every freshman, a world of strange faces, strange buildings and strange customs.
But then there was time to relax on Saturday at the football game. Until the siren that punctuates a Huskies touchdown went off.
"This is not happening," she said, visibly shaken. "America can't be getting bombed."
Tomasevic had always known the Americans as doing the bombing in the ugly Yugoslavian civil war that brought down Serbian rule and underscored the differences between her countrymen, especially her dad, a Serb, and her mother, a Croatian.
"I never knew anyone who died in the war," she said, "but I do remember the sirens that told us the bombing was coming."
"I guess I was stuck up," she said, laughing again. Her English is good enough now that she feels free to say whatever she thinks, which endears her to almost everyone.
"What you can't measure," said McLaughlin, "is her impact on others. She has that gift of making others around her better. She sets a strong example in everything she does."
Top-ranked after beating USC and watching Minnesota lose, the Huskies play Washington State tomorrow night at Edmundson Pavilion.
The Huskies want to win a national championship.
There is no doubt that McLaughlin's ability to transform a team that was 11-16 in 2001 to undefeated in 2004 has a lot to do with recruiting Tomasevic.
"I didn't have a clue about NCAA or NAIA, or Pac-10, or anything," she said. "I knew I wanted to be near a beach and in warm weather."
A recruiting service directed her toward the Pac-10. She had a friend at USC, Vesna Dragicevic, who helped her whittle the list to USC, UCLA and Washington.
Dragicevic ultimately recommended Washington because she was familiar with what McLaughlin had done at USC, where he won a national title. The fact another Serb, Danka Danicic, was headed to Washington sealed the deal.
McLaughlin still chuckles about the early conversations with Tomasevic. So does she.
"All the other coaches said to me, 'Sanja, you will start for us. We've been waiting for someone like you to win a national championship.' "
McLaughlin talked about offering her an opportunity to get a degree at a first-rate university and to be coached at the highest level.
"He talked about volleyball as if it were a science," said Tomasevic. "I said, 'Jim, it's just a game.' I've learned since that it is a science."
McLaughlin's straight talk appealed to Tomasevic's father, a lawyer, who had pushed from the beginning for his daughter to get an education.
"Volleyball is my life," said McLaughlin, "but for an athlete there is such a short time before the real important things take place."
Like being safe from sirens.
Blaine Newnham: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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