The UW coaches like using a mountain as an analogy for climbing up the ladder of success. Football coach Steve Sarkisian referenced it numerous times this past season, and as volleyball coach Jim McLaughlin takes a break from analyzing video inside his dimly-lit third floor office at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, he does, too.
The 11th-year UW coach moves his hands up the mountain, step by step. As you get higher up the mountain, he says, it gets colder and steeper. You need to avoid all those traps — expectation traps, media traps, public traps, teammate traps.
But if you manage to get to the top — just like the softball team did in 2009 — things inevitably change, and McLaughlin knows that all too well. His squad swept its way through the NCAA tournament in 2005 and captured the national title in dominating fashion. They came back in 2006 as defending champs, but lost in the Final Four.
“Getting to the top is one thing, but trying to repeat it is another,” he says. “Everyone will compare you to that national championship team and say you have to be like that.”
Those expectations aren’t all bad. The methodical, soft-spoken McLaughlin said that after getting to the top of the mountain, there is that new, unavoidable expectation of winning the next title, which works in beneficial ways. Still, you have to be very careful with how expectations really work — it’s all about how you approach it. The UW athletic department wanted to put up a poster that read: “Washington Volleyball: Defending Champions.” McLaughlin wanted none of that. His team wasn’t defending anything. The 2006 squad was a different group of women that had their own identity and their own goals.
“I don’t want us to look back and see a trophy because I want to anticipate the next one,” he preaches. “I never wear a championship ring because I want to anticipate putting it on at the next ceremony and taking it off and trying to get another. It never ends for me.”
And it never ended for Tarr, Lawrie and the 2010 team, who came off that national title season like they never missed a beat. The feeling of being on the top of the mountain and being the best was addictive. Everybody in the program wanted to feel that again.
The Huskies returned 12 players and had the same amount of talent on the team as 2009, if not more. With Lawrie as the anchor — she compiled a 40-5 record with a 1.11 ERA while leading the team in home runs — the Huskies maintained their No. 1 ranking for the entire season, and it seemed like defending that championship wasn’t going to be so difficult.
But if you take a closer look at the team dynamics, things weren’t going so smoothly.
“Thinking about 2010 gives me acid reflux,” Stenson said, half-jokingly. “It just makes me feel sick looking back on it.”
Stenson says that mostly because she wishes she “could have been a better teammate.” It’s a sentiment she feels is probably shared with many other teammates, in large part because the 2010 group was less of a “team” than in 2009.
During the national championship run one year prior, no one cared who got to play and who didn’t. Selflessness – one of the team’s five core covenants – was rampant in the clubhouse and dugout. 2010 was different.
“It was like, ‘Why am I sitting on the bench? Why is she playing? Why is this, why is that?’” Stenson said. “It was very catty, and that’s not how it was in 2009.”
Despite all that, the Huskies were absolutely tearing apart opponents and cruising through the season — yet that’s exactly what hurt them in the end.
Something that had worked so well for the UW in 2009 was the idea of the underdog. Whether it was all the postseason traveling they were forced to do or a general feeling of disrespect from the entire country, it helped keep the fire burning inside each player.
But in 2010, the UW was ranked No. 1 every single week of the season. The Huskies went 45-6 before the postseason, and Stenson says she can’t even remember the six losses.
All that seems good on the surface, but what’s obvious now is that the 2010 team never learned how to lose and how to fail. There were no big losses to learn from, no big mistakes that could be corrected like there were in 2009.
“We didn’t get humble,” Tarr said of 2010, when she won Pac-10 Coach of the Year. “The game didn’t kick us in the butt until the very end.”
Stenson remembers the team coming back from a tough Super Regionals game against Oklahoma, and the players were “bawling,” in the hotel room. This losing thing was so out of the ordinary that it was incredibly difficult to handle.
After a 6-3 loss to Georgia at the opening game of the CWS, the Huskies were on the ropes. They were still poised, but losing was still such a surprise. After making just 36 errors the entire season, the Huskies made three of them in a 4-3 elimination loss to Arizona, marking their first back-to-back losses since April 2009.
Lawrie fought back tears in the post-game press conference. Her illustrious career – two-time national player of the year, a school-record 136 wins, the program’s first national championship — was over. Yet for as much as she was sad that her four years were up and as much as she was thankful for the opportunities she had at Washington, there was a sigh of relief that the exhausting 2010 season was over.
Those expectations that McLaughlin mentioned earlier? They got to Lawrie, and really, the whole team. She said hearing people ask if the team was going to repeat as champions was “one of the most annoying things I’ve ever heard.”
“I don’t think I performed differently from hearing all that, but at the end of the day, it takes a toll on the team,” Lawrie said. “Losing is a lot bigger of a deal when you’re supposed to win again.”
The departure of Charters left a gaping leadership hole — Tarr says the biggest difference between 09’ and 10’ was not having Charters — and Lawrie assumed the role of leader.
But it wasn’t something she really wanted. That’s not a knock on her work ethic or leadership skill. Lawrie would just rather lead by example.
Looking back on it now, the Langley, B.C. native says that she put too much pressure on herself. She was so determined to lead this team back to the national title game, and it just might have been too much pressure.
“As soon as you start to let outside factors to get in between the lines is when you dwindle as a team,” said Lawrie, who is now playing professionally in Japan. “At times, I think there was more pressure on us than needed.”
With the loss to Arizona and an abrupt end to the season, the Danielle Lawrie chapter had ended. The program’s most dominant player of all time had helped turn the UW program into a powerhouse again, but it was time to say goodbye and find out if the team could survive — and thrive — without her.
Even without Lawrie, the Huskies still got back to the postseason in 2011. But the Huskies were hurt by injuries, inconsistent offense and a lack of pitching depth and were eliminated in the Super Regionals by Missouri, missing out on the CWS for the first time in three years.
Still, looking back on it now, it was impressive that the Huskies got that far despite losing Lawrie and playing with a depleted lineup.
“In a way, we did what we could have done,” said Tarr, who led the UW to its sixth Super Regional in seven years. “Not that we were satisfied – don’t get me wrong – but from a perspective standpoint, we did what we should have achieved given all the situations.”
And with a stellar incoming recruiting class and senior leadership with a national championship under their belts, all signs point to an even better 2012.