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Washington volleyball not happy with its NCAA seeding but still wants a return trip to Final Four

Scott Hanson
Seattle Times
Washington outside hitter Claire Hoffman attacks against Kentucky middle blocker Azhani Tealer and setter Madison Lilley during the third set of last season's Final Four national semifinals in Omaha, Neb. Hoffman leads this year's Huskies team in kills and aces.

SEATTLE — There certainly is an argument to be made that Washington, the Pac-12 volleyball champion, winners of 19 of its past 20 matches and coming off a Final Four berth, deserved better than the No. 15 seed that it got in the NCAA Tournament.

But you won't get UW outside hitter Claire Hoffman to engage in that argument.

She just wants to play, and she is confident that if the Huskies play their best, they can succeed against any team in the country. The Huskies (26-4) continue what they hope is another long NCAA run Thursday against No. 2 Texas in the Sweet 16.

"We focus on ourselves a lot more than what is going on on the other side of the net, and if we take care of our side of the net, it doesn't matter what seed we are, who we are playing or where we are," Hoffman said last week. "We know that when we play at the level and the standard that we have, we can really take anyone."

Said UW coach Keegan Cook: "What has gotten me excited is that our group has responded to adversity over the past year. They are fueled by it and they seemed to be at their best when faced with it."

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That response to adversity was shown last spring when the Huskies needed comeback after comeback to make the Final Four, and again after starting this conference season 0-2. So getting a No. 15 seed likely hasn't fazed UW, even if it wasn't fair.

"I don't think any of us (in the Pac-12) were seeded appropriately, but it just gives us a chance to show who we are," Cook said.

Washington setter Ella May Powell sets during last season's Final Four semifinals loss to Kentucky. Powell, who was a first-team All-American, is one of a handful of key returnees from that Final Four squad.

Washington certainly has the star power to make a deep run. It has essentially the same team that played in last year's Final Four, including a pair of first-team All-Americans last year — setter Ella May Powell and outside hitter Samantha Drechsel — and Hoffman, who was second-team.

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It has been a pretty steady upward ascent for Hoffman since she was pulled out of a planned redshirt season in 2018 after 19 games. The Huskies had just lost to USC, their third loss in four games, when Hoffman got the news.

"He pulled me into his office and said, 'I want you to play tomorrow,'" Hoffman said. "I was like, 'Huh? Oh, really. OK.' He said, 'I don't know what this means, but you aren't redshirting anymore.'"

Hoffman started the next game, and has been starting ever since. She was second on the team in kills as a sophomore with 226 and second last season with 314 and tied for the lead in aces with 33 while being named All-Pac-12. She has 391 kills this season, which leads the team, and also leads the team with 41 aces.

The 6-foot-2 Hoffman seemed destined to become an athlete. Father Gary was an offensive lineman who played two seasons in the NFL, mother Stephanie was a track and field athlete at Oregon and brother Spencer plays basketball at Bushnell University in Oregon.

Hoffman said her mother joked that if she had said when she was in college that she would have a daughter who would go to Washington, her friends "would have laughed in her face."

Her parents have become UW volleyball fans, but she wasn't sure what they would be wearing when they came to Seattle to see Oregon play Washington in football.

"They stayed neutral, and I can handle that," Hoffman said. "I can handle purple for volleyball and neutral for football."

Cook is certainly happy he got Hoffman to come to UW.

"She is kind of a glue player, a player through a lot of things you can see and not see, just elevates your group to the next level," Cook said. "She has been the difference between good and great for us. ... She is really a good, humble, hardworking kid."

Hoffman said the team's goal is clear: to win a national championship. The Huskies will need to outperform their seeding to accomplish that, but Cook likes where his team is.

"We are playing at a higher level (than last season) in our ability to side out, receive and attack," Cook said. "Every standard is higher than it was going into the tournament last year and that gives me a lot of confidence in our group."