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Originally published September 13, 2011 at 10:01 PM | Page modified September 14, 2011 at 9:00 AM

Steve Kelley

Washington freshman volleyball stars Krista Vansant, Summer Ross pursuing greatness

Washington volleyball coach Jim McLaughlin says freshmen Krista Vansant and Summer Ross are talented players who are committed to improving their games.

Seattle Times staff columnist

quotes They are great talents for sure, going to be a heck of a lot of fun to watch them play... Read more
quotes They are both amazing players and easily the best talent to arrive at UW. The stars... Read more
quotes This is a very good article. I'm glad Kelley os covering UW sports more. Vansant... Read more

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Sitting in his office three summers ago, doing what college coaches do — watching video of the country's most enticing high-school prospects — Washington volleyball coach Jim McLaughlin believed he was looking at greatness.

McLaughlin watched as Krista Vansant launched herself from the back and hammered winners into unguarded points on the floor. She did it relentlessly, as if the tape merely was looping the same play over and over.

McLaughlin knows talent, and he understood the skill he was seeing from this young high school-junior-to-be. But he didn't know, for certain, if she was great. He didn't know if she had what he calls "the hidden factor."

"Tui, get me a flight to L.A. ASAP!" McLaughlin yelled to assistant coach Leslie Gabriel, formerly Leslie Tuiasosopo.

The next morning, McLaughlin was stuck in four hours' worth of SoCal traffic, worrying that he might miss Vansant's club-team practice.

"When I finally got there, I spent the whole practice just watching her," McLaughlin said. "I watched her get water, watched her talk to her teammates, watched her intensity, watched her focus, watched how she listened to the coaches.

"I watched everything she did, and I thought, 'This kid's the real deal.' There was no phoniness to her. She had the ability, but what separates people is that she had this mindfulness, this inner something. There are many people with ability, but what separates people is how they commit to things, and their ability to work, and ability to learn and to keep improving."

It took this one visit to one practice for McLaughlin to see the greatness in Vansant. And he found those same qualities in another Southern Californian, another freshman, Summer Ross.

Vansant and Ross are the two prized recruits, two already-starters, on this undefeated Washington team that faces its first real challenge of the season Friday at home against USC.

Both Vansant and Ross are All-Americans in the making. Both are elite hitters who can play at both the front and back. Ross has won two world junior beach volleyball championships with different partners. Vansant is a power hitter and almost certainly a future Olympian.

Ross said Tuesday that they both would be on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. "Not 2012," Vansant corrected her. "2016."

"Why not 2012?" Ross asked. Vansant rolled her eyes.

Ross is a free spirit. She has the ability, sometimes unintentional, to make her teammates laugh. "Summer's the life of the party," Vansant said.

Ross has the rare ability to reboot herself during practices and during games. If she makes a mistake, she doesn't dwell on it, doesn't let it linger into the next point.

Vansant is more serious-minded. She is an elite hitter. In a recent game against Seattle U., Washington went on a 10-point run with Vansant serving.

"Just watching her play volleyball is a joy," Ross said. "She can crush the ball so hard, and it's so cool."

Both have that hidden factor.

"They're different, but the one thing they have in common is they both want to be great," said McLaughlin, who is in his 11th season as Washington's coach. "Every kid says that, but then you find out, when it gets tough, who is committed to that process."

What is greatness?

"A lot of people, when it gets hard, they give in. Most people are that way. They want an easier road," McLaughlin said. "Well, there's nothing easy about becoming great. It's terribly difficult, but these two kids are in this process and they're staying on track and they're not falling into those traps that can get people.

"They're very mindful and they stay on task, which is very unique for a young kid. We study behavior and every day in practice, their behavior is in line with the great ones that I've coached."

The players who want to be great expect more from themselves. They dare themselves to compete against disappointment. They never play it safe, never take a wrong turn. They take advantage of every opportunity to learn.

"Both Kris and Summer have a very complete skill level at this point in their development," McLaughlin said. "But the cool thing about them is that both know they have to get better. And knowing that you need to get better is a lot of the deal. The better you get, the harder it is to improve, but the great ones find a way. And I'm seeing that characteristic in them."

Vansant and Ross are unafraid of greatness. Their pursuit of it, every autumn for the next four years, will be fascinating to watch.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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