How a bag of laundry helped give Washington volleyball its 1-2 punch

It took leaving her Woodinville, Washington, home for Huskies junior Samantha Drechsel to gain a "newfound appreciation" for the Seattle area. Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures

Some of the world's best museums and a chance to help build a program lured Samantha Drechsel away from her home in suburban Seattle and all the way to Maryland to play college volleyball. A bag of laundry -- or at least what it symbolized -- helped bring her back to play for Washington.

"At some point, I realized some my teammates could go home to their families a lot and even have their laundry done. And I was like, 'Yeah, I can't do that,'" the self-described "museum nerd" Drechsel said of deciding to leave the Terps after her freshman season in 2017 and join the Huskies last year. "It's all worked out for the best. I have some friends from Maryland I think I will always be in touch with."

The fact that then-Terps coach Steve Aird left Maryland for Indiana contributed to her decision, too. Returning to Washington also meant reuniting with some of her former volleyball club teammates, including fellow outside hitter Kara Bajema.

They became a one-two punch for the No. 10-ranked Huskies, who are 21-5 overall and in second place in the Pac-12 at 12-4 behind 14-2 Stanford. Washington handed the Cardinal one of their league losses, 3-1 at Stanford on Sept. 29.

Sunday, Washington walked a nail-biting tightrope of a fifth set, saving seven match points -- including three in a row at 14-11 -- to beat Utah 21-19 for a 3-2 victory.

"That was an emotional roller coaster for sure," the senior Bajema said. "Everybody was so into it."

It's the stretch run of the volleyball season, with the NCAA tournament bracket coming out Dec. 1. Every match feels like it has heightened importance, and the Huskies and Utes played that way. Washington secured the victory with a stuff block by Bajema. She finished with 26 kills, three solo blocks, four block assists, two service aces and 10 digs -- a 33-point performance for which she was named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week for the fourth time this season.

The junior Drechsel had 18 points, with 15 kills, two block assists and two service aces. For the season, Bajema leads the Huskies with an average of 4.99 points per set, with Drechsel second at 3.62. Add in the contributions of middle blockers Lauren Sanders (2.26) and Avie Niece (2.25), and outside hitter Claire Hoffman (3.14), and this is another in a long line of successful Washington teams.

"Balance is big, and you need to be able to get contributions from everyone," Huskies coach Keegan Cook said. "Players like Claire Hoffman were key in some of our bigger wins against Wisconsin and Stanford. But, yeah, we really value Kara and Sam a lot; they're seasoned players who've experienced a lot of volleyball."

Trying to catch No. 4 Stanford -- which has star outside hitter Kathryn Plummer back after she missed 10 matches with an injury -- in the Pac-12 standings is unlikely, but not impossible: The Cardinal still have matches against ranked teams Utah, Washington State and Cal.

The Huskies have matches on the road this weekend at Arizona and Arizona State, and then complete the regular season at home against Cal and Washington State.

"As much as there is pressure to keep building on what the program has done, there is also so much support here. You're a part of something that is more than just the wins." Kara Bajema

Washington won twice -- at home and on the road -- in September over current No. 5 Wisconsin, which still has to play No. 6 Nebraska and No. 8 Penn State in the Big Ten. And No. 1 Texas meets No. 3 Baylor in a Big 12 showdown Wednesday. All of which means there's likely to be more shake-ups with the rankings and, more importantly, NCAA seedings.

The Huskies, with a less-experienced squad last season, were glad Drechsel returned home. They went 20-13 overall, yet still made it to the NCAA regional semifinals. Washington has advanced at least that far from 2012 through last year, including an appearance in the 2013 final four in Seattle. The Huskies' national championship came in 2005.

The 6-foot-2 Bajema and 6-foot-4 Drechsel finished first and second, respectively, in points last year for Washington, too.

"I think we feed off each other's energy, and it's fun we're in different positions," Bajema said. "So if I'm killing it on one side and she's killing it on the other, the opponent is like, 'Dang, we have to cover the whole court.'

"As much as there is pressure to keep building on what the program has done, there is also so much support here. You're a part of something that is more than just the wins."

Bajema's hometown of Lynden, Washington, isn't far from the Canadian border. She and her siblings all became Division I athletes; her older sister, Coryn, played women's soccer at South Carolina, and her younger brother, Colson, is a freshman guard for Michigan's men's basketball team.

When asked if she's actually the best athlete in the family, Bajema grinned and said, "Shhhhhhh! Don't tell anybody. Actually, they could still beat me up; they're both stronger than me."

That would be news to the defenses that have tried to stop the powerful Bajema's 424 kills this season, a total that's third in the Pac-12 behind Utah's Dani Drews (506) and USC's Khalia Lanier (456).

Drechsel is from Woodinville, Washington, in the Seattle metro area. With her season at Maryland and now two at Washington, she's played in the two best conferences in Division I women's volleyball. She's glad for the path she took.

"I loved a lot about Maryland and Washington, D.C.," she said. "But I also have a newfound appreciation for the Seattle area. And I think I always would have wondered what it would have been like to go away if I didn't do it."