Friday, December 5, 2014

NCAA | Jim McLaughlin on Krista Vansant: “She has the heart of a lion”

"I love to dig. It’s like my favorite thing ever." -- Krista Vansant
  • #21 Duke vs. #23 Hawai’i | Fri, Dec 5 | 5PM | Alaska Airlines Arena
  • New Hampshire @ #3 Washington | Fri, Dec 5 | 7PM | Alaska Airlines Arena
  • NCAA Second Round | Sat, Dec 6 | 7PM | Alaska Airlines Arena

Washington Coach Jim McLaughlin hugs Krista Vansant during Senior Night festivities last week
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann

Our colleague, Terry Wood, sat down with Washington senior Krista Vansant and her coach, Jim McLaughlin to talk about Krista’s four years in Seattle. First, Coach McLaughlin:

Q: How have Krista’s talents progressed over her four years with you?

McLaughlin: “I’ve seen her improve her skill level, expand her abilities. Every skill, from passing, spiking, serving, defense, blocking, everything. She just continues to better in every facet of her game.

“Then there’s the intangible part of it. She’s become more consistent, and as she continues to get better, her confidence gets better.

“She knows how to play and how to respond to the various situations she has to respond to. And she can do it with composure. That allows her to be consistent, to make the right choices, to see things. That’s what separates her.”

Krista Vansant (top) celebrates a point against Wisconsin with teammates
Melanie Wade (5) and Crissy Jones (28)
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
Q: Was confidence an issue early in her career?

McLaughlin: “I think it is with everybody. A lot of people misinterpret confidence. It’s not about wins and losses. That helps a little bit, sure, but it’s about understanding what you need to do, and through sound, mindful preparation, believing. ‘I can do this. I’m getting this.’ You become a little bit more aggressive, a little bit more committed, and you believe. You have more faith and think, ‘I can get there.’ Confidence is maybe the biggest thing. It has to be real, it has to be genuine.”

Q: Krista is a not a vocal, rah-rah person. Does it have an impact on a team when your star player is the quiet type?

McLaughlin: “That’s just who she is. The worst thing you can do is not be who you are. She’s got an unbelievable personality. She’s a really good person. She works extremely hard. Things are important to her.

“If you look at it on a continuum, there are people who are very outgoing and people who are more reserved. She’s on the more reserved side. But what people don’t know about her is the fire she has internally. She’s not into the bravado and the screaming and the yelling and all that. She has an intensity that is very deep and real, and I’ve seen that grow.

“I went for a run on the treadmill one day and the girls were working out across the gym, doing intervals and agility work. I glanced over and saw the effort she was giving, how hard she was working. That kind of work is something that isn’t that fun, innately. You lift weights and work out hard, and if you do it right, it’s hard. You push though barriers. She was working so hard I thought, ‘Wow, she’s figuring it out.’

“At some point great athletes become more responsible and accountable for all the things they have to do, the mindset of going hard every play. She’s acquired that. It’s been pretty cool to see.”

Q: She was the national prep player of the year in 2010, and you won a pretty hotly contested recruiting battle to sign her. How valuable has it been to have a player with elite skills on your roster?

McLaughlin: “It’s huge. You love to get kids like that, the Courtney Thompsons (2004-06 All-American, current national team member) and the Christal Morrisons (past All-American and part of UW’s 2005 national championship team). But there’s no real correlation between initial ability and final ability. It’s these things you have to learn in-between. That’s what really has separated her. I just don’t think God made her better than this other kid. We’ve all got our talents and abilities. But we’ve got to make the most of those things, and she’s done that.

“There’s a lot of hard work that people don’t see, when they’re hurt of cramping up. It’s pretty hard stuff. People just seem them play for two hours. But when you think about it, it’s all the hard stuff that makes it so great when you get through it. She’s had to go through some hard stuff, and she’s never wavered. There have been times when I’ve had to talk to her, get on her, push her. But she’s been a blast to coach. To go into the gym with her every day? It’s been fun.”

Krista Vansant attacks against Madi Bugg (22) and Inky Ajanaku (12) during Washington's 3-1 victory over Stanford
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann

Q: Does she rank among the greatest players you have coached?

McLaughlin: “It’s hard to make comparisons. To see them grow is such a cool thing. She’s right up there because of her skill level and what she brings to the floor every night.

“How do you forecast how a player will turn out? Tom Brady was drafted in the sixth round, Joe Montana in the third round. What separates these people? It’s their thoughts, their commitment. Their thoughts serve them well. They have these intangible things that are hard to measure.

“There’s a little bit of a risk-averse tendency with her. There’s a lot on her, coming in as the No. 1 recruit. I had to sit down with her, and realized she didn’t want to screw things up. But I said there’s no effort without error. You’ve got to go for it and learn how to let go, keep learning and make the errors. No one can play this perfect game. You’re going to make errors.

“The biggest error, I’ve always told her, is being afraid to make that error. She had to overcome that just because she was the top recruit. Once she got over that, her life wasn’t any easier, but there was a higher understanding: ‘No, I don’t have to be perfect.’ Feeling that type of expectation, people don’t know how tough that is, how fragile winning is. If you don’t train right and have all your ducks in a row, you’re vulnerable.

“When you grow up, you just have a higher understanding of the circumstances around you. Your heart has to be in it, and hers is.”

Q: Maybe the most impressive thing about her game is her diversity of skills. Her kills have all sorts of speeds, and she seems to have a great awareness of open spots on the defensive side of the court. And she’s good at blocking and serving, too. Does her versatility impress you?

McLaughlin: “She has increased her range. She has a much better toolbox now. You have to use the right tool in the right situation, when to use a hard shot or a soft shot. You can’t treat this set like that set. That knowledge is there with her, and she’s just going to keep getting better.

“She’s been the best server on our team for the last three years. Some people think of that as an afterthought, but we put a lot of value in that. She digs balls. She digs more quicks than anybody I’ve known.”

Q: What have you learned about her personally?

McLaughlin: “She’s just a good, humble kid, with good parents. It’s neat seeing her grow up.

“I’m fired up to see what she’ll do at the next level. I’m awful confident in her. She can pass and hit, and she can dig. She’s an unbelievable digger. She’s a good teammate. Then she’s got this work ethic. She’s complete. She’s got the heart of a lion.”

Prior to the start of her final NCAA tournament, Krista Vansant reflects on her four-year career at Washington:

Q: What pleases you most about your development?

Vansant: “It’s the on-court maturity, becoming more of a leader. When I first got here I didn’t feel really comfortable becoming a leader because I was a freshman and there were so many people ahead of me who I looked up to. I thought they were so good and I wanted to be like them.

“I’ve tried to work on that, my on-court maturity and composure. When I get tossed a set, and it may not be the best set in the world, I can’t just whack it out of bounds or into the net. I have to be smarter than that.

“I’ve tried to stop making errors. When you’re young you make errors. It’s happens. That’s one thing that has helped my skill game get better. I’m more mindfully aware of what my body is doing. That helps.”

Q: You’re the team’s star player, but you exhibit a low-key demeanor on the court. Jim describes you as “introspective.” Would you agree?

Krista Vansant attacks against Stanford
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
Vansant: (Smiles). “He got that one right. I’m just a more reserved person in general -- definitely not an extrovert. At all. I’m more on the introverted side, and that comes out when I play. I try to lead more by example than by words, I guess. Instead of telling people what to do, I just show it. I just calmly do my thing and hope people can look up to that kind of thing. But I’m definitely more on the introverted side.

“I don’t know if that’s positive or negative on the court. I guess trying to become more composed and calm comes out of me. If you’re extroverted you’re crazy all the time, and that definitely not me.

“You’ve got to figure out which one you are and then play up to those strengths that each one has. There are definitely strengths to being an extrovert. Once you figure out I’m not this crazy, extroverted yelling kind of person, you’ll see I talk to the people around me to get them all focused. I don’t yell to the whole gym.

“When I came in her I thought I was extroverted. I thought I was hyper. I finally realized, ‘No, you’re not.’ “

Q: How do you use your personality type to make team better?

Vansant: “I try to lead by example, be a good role model to people like Tia (Scambray) and Crissy (Jones, both freshmen outside hitters at Washington). I’ve talked to Tia because she’s probably receiving 80 to 85 percent of the other teams’ serves. In my freshman year I was in the exact same position. Up until last year I received almost every single serve. I tell her we’ve got her back. If she puts up a bad pass it’s not the end of the world. We can probably still get out of it even if it’s not the best pass.

“We’re both outsides, so we have to pass and hit. I’ve been the target of other teams probably most of my career here. This is the first year where I haven’t been, and it’s been kind of a weird thing to not get served as much. I almost get excited when I do get served, so I have more control over a play. I like it more like that.

“I can connect with someone based on my experiences going through the program, my struggles. I just show people it’s a growing process. That’s what I hope they see in me, that they’ve seen me grow over the past four years.”

Q: It’s apparent that you are varying the pace of your attacks this year.

Vansant: “We’ve been working at giving the ball to the other team’s setters so they can’t run as fast of an offense as they want, like out of a free-ball situation. If I know I can’t get a kill on this set, I’ll try and give the ball to their setter. That way they’ll have to have their libero or their middle set and they can’t run as fast of an offense out of that situation.

“We’ve also worked on giving tips to their off-blocker so they have to play the tip and then go hit, which also slows down an offense. That’s something we’ve all been working on as a team. A lot of people just notice the hard kills. I think I’ve grown there, trying to be smarter with my shots.”

Q: Jim says you’ve been the team’s best server for the past three seasons.

Vansant: “I don’t know about that. I’ve been in the gym a lot working on it before and after practice. I work on ways to make it float and find spots on the court where I can put it to cause the most amount of chaos. I have to give all the credit to Keegan (Cook, one of McLaughlin’s assistant coaches). When I got here, I knew how to serve, but not the most effective way possible. Since he’s been here, I think about it all the time.

“I try to hit it on the heel of my hand which makes the ball float better. Even if it’s not the fastest serve on the team, I just try to put it in a certain place where I can get it on the target we’ve chosen for the other team.”

Krista Vansant tips during Washington's victory over Southern California
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann

Q: Passing was not a strength of yours early in your college career. How would you evaluate your passing now?

Vansant: “I think it’s evolved tremendously. All off-season, that’s pretty much all we work on, serve and pass. Jim always talks about it. He says the two things that are going to help you win a match are serving and receiving and hitting the ball into the court. If we can serve and receive at a high level, we can pretty much beat anyone. Learning how to serve and receive has been a big part of my career and my growth over my four years here.

“Yes, I think my passing game has gone better. There’s always room for improvement. One day you could be passing 80 percent and the next day you could be at 25. You set a standard for yourself and trying to hit that standard every day.

“We have one of the best serving teams in the country. I’ve heard it from other teams: ‘You guys serve ridiculous.’ Going against that every day in practice has helped our passers get better. I remember Tia telling me after our first match, ‘Man, we have really have hard servers. That passing (from UW’s opponent) was kind of easy.’ That’s the reality of it: When you serve hard in practice, it’s a little bit easier in a game. I can text someone on this team after practice, ‘Hey, can you come in and serve me balls?’ They always say sure. We’re all in this to get better.”

Q: Last year you won the award for national player of the year. Has your career gone as you envisioned it would?

Vansant: “Yes. I didn’t even know that (national player of the year) was an option for me. It’s gone almost as good as I could have ever wanted it. The one thing that’s missing is that national championship. Obviously that’s what we’re going at this year. That’s the one thing that I need to complete my entire career.”

Q: Is this the year?

Vansant: “I think we’re really close. We go through spurts in games and practices where we’re really hard to score points against. When our defense is on and we can score in transition, we’re a hard team to beat.

“I don’t think people have seen how good we can play yet. We haven’t even played to our potential. There have been spurts of it against Stanford, Arizona, and some other really good teams we’ve played. That’s a statement to everyone on our team for how hard we work in practice all the time. I’m just waiting for that to come out (in a match). Not that we have to play flawlessly. Just be steady and consistent through an entire match.

“We always have that little bit of letdown, that little bit of moment where the other team goes on a little run. If we can eliminate that over the next six matches, I think we’ve got a really good shot.”

Q: One of those letdowns happened against Arizona State at home, where the team let a huge lead in the third set shrink by eight points. Jim kept you in the meeting room longer than usual after that. What was that like?

Vansant: “We can’t just start to cruise once we’re up big against team because they’re not going to roll over and give it to us. We’re working a lot on that in practice. It’s going to be big during the tournament that we don’t allow that to happen. It’s one and done now, and you don’t want to be up big like we were at Utah (and serving for match point) and let it slip away (UW lost in five sets).

Q: Did Jim bark at the team?

Krista Vansant attacks against Stanford's Inky Ajanaku (12) 
-Volleyblog Seattle photo by Leslie Hamann
Vansant: “He has gotten a lot more calm. We haven’t had a very big chewing out session in probably the last two years. He more chews us out for minor details. He has really helped me and Kaleigh Nelson (Washington’s other senior outside hitter, a third-team All-American in 2013), helped us grow and mature.”

Q: You could have attended any college in the country. Was coming to Washington the right choice?

Vansant: “Absolutely. I have no regrets at all. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I wouldn’t change anything I’ve done here in my career for anything. This is the best place I could have ended up, and I’m so grateful because the recruiting process was not easy. People might think it was easy because I had a lot of choices, but it was extremely stressful. But after I played my first season here I knew this was the place I wanted to be, for sure.

“I think about how much I got better just through my first year, how much I learned. I just knew this system Jim runs is perfect for how I play, and I knew I believed in me 150%. I knew he was going to make me better, and that’s what I wanted. I just wanted to become the best player I could possibly become.”

Q: What’s in your future?

Vansant: “I want to train with national team and hopefully make one of their rosters for the summer, like a Grand Prix team. Then I’ll go play pro. I’m not allowed to talk to any agents at this point, but I want to play a couple of more years.”

Q: You were just named the Pac-12 scholar-athlete of the year. (She is a sociology major with a 3.30 GPA). What are your plans after you’re done playing?

Vansant: “I want to get my masters at intercollegiate athletic leadership. We have that program here, and it seems really interesting. Maybe I’ll even work here in the marketing part of the program. I’ve love to work for the school I played for.”

Q: People will be fixated on your offensive stats. (The 6-foot-2 native of Redlands, Calif., heads into the tournament averaging 4.65 kills per set, ranking her 10th in the nation.) Is there a nuance in your game you wish people noticed more?

Vansant: “Passing and defense. Ever since I started playing, I was trying not to be the big girl who couldn’t pass. I give credit to all my club and high school coaches because they never let me be that person.

“Defense is probably my favorite part of the game in general. If I could play defense all the time, my life would be great. People might think it’s hitting or blocking that I like most. I love to dig. It’s like my favorite thing ever. I’ve gotten better, and I’m pretty proud of that.”

1 comment:

  1. It was an amazing experience to watch Vansant play. What a gift she gave to all of us...thank you. It's going to be hard to let go... Vansant is one of the reasons why we should have National (pro) volleyball teams, like the NFL or NBA. It's not fair that we don't get to see these athletes play again after they graduate, only rarely.


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