By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — Kylin Munoz hasn’t played in a competitive volleyball match since the club season that followed her senior year at Monroe High School in 2009.
A year and a half later, she has every reason to be the most impatient member of the University of Washington volleyball team this week as the Huskies get ready to open their season.
“I’m so excited for Friday,” Munoz said earlier this week, referring to tonight’s opener against Mercer. “I’ve been eager, just waiting.”
The 2008 Gatorade National Player of the Year finally returns to the court when the Huskies host Mercer and Eastern Washington in matches today and Saturday at Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
She’s also one of two Snohomish County natives who could be big factors in how the eighth-ranked Huskies fare this season. Munoz, a 6-foot-1 outside hitter, and Bianca Rowland, a 6-foot junior from Lynnwood, are contending for starting jobs.
Munoz had to sit out last season after backing out of her letter-of-intent with Brigham Young University. She lost a year of eligibility because of it and will make her official UW debut as a sophomore.
“So excited,” said Munoz, whose mother April Topham Munoz was a volleyball player. “This is my home, and my mom played here, so I’m super-excited.”
Munoz said the hardest part about last year was having to stay home during road trips. While she practiced and went to meetings with her teammates, she had to be away from them during flights, bus trips and hotel stays.
“That’s good bonding time,” Munoz said Tuesday afternoon. “My team’s great because I never felt like an outsider at all. But that was frustrating, not being able to travel at all. So I’m really excited for this season.”
The Huskies are pretty eager to have Munoz in uniform this season, even though her transfer came at the cost of a year of eligibility.
“She has worked extremely hard, so there’s a chance for her at the highest level if she keeps behaving like she is,” head coach Jim McLaughlin said.
Senior setter Jenna Hagglund said Munoz has come a long way since last year.
“With Kylin, it’s an incredible jump,” Hagglund said this week. “Her complete game has upgraded, in my eyes. I’ve seen her come out and make small, physical changes that have translated to some things that are pretty incredible.”
While Rowland didn’t have quite the accolades after her prep career at King’s High School, she has certainly proven herself at the collegiate level. After playing in all 32 matches as a true freshman in 2008, Rowland had a breakout year as a sophomore last fall. She was named honorable mention All-Pac-10 and received some recognition on at least one All-America team.
“Definitely a breakout year,” Rowland said of her 2009 season. “A lot of improvement. Jim (McLaughlin) coached me to be a lot better volleyball player, and I think we could all definitely tell.”
If there was a disappointment for Rowland and the Huskies last season, it was that they fell short of expectations after entering the season as a national-title contender. UW got upset in the second round of the NCAA tournament, losing to Colorado State in Fort Collins, Colo.
The 2010-11 Huskies might not have quite the expectations, but they’re setting their sights pretty high.
“I feel like you’re always going to be a target when you play at Washington,” Rowland said. “I don’t even know what the rankings are this year, but I think we’re going to come out and surprise a lot of teams. We’ve been working hard, and a lot of people have made improvements.”
UW’s senior class of Hagglund, Kindra Carlson and Becky Perry has never been to a Final Four, so their goals are pretty clear-cut.
“When I step on the floor, I know that I’m working to get to the Final Four and to win a national championship,” Hagglund said. “It’s kind of an all-encompassing thing: this is why we’re here, this is what we’re doing. That’s the goal. If you don’t want that, you shouldn’t be here. We want it something fierce.”
Whether or not this year’s Huskies have the firepower to get there is subject to debate. Working in UW’s favor is the fact that the school will host NCAA tournament games in the rounds of 16 and eight. Working against it is the loss of All-America libero Tamari Miyarshiro and two other key seniors from last year’s team.
McLaughlin, who was placing national title-or-bust aspirations on his 2009 team this time last year, is still uncertain whether the Huskies have a national championship-caliber team.
“There’s a chance with this group,” he said. “It’s all about how much improvement we can make. We’ll see. Time will tell.”
If the Huskies are going to get back to the Final Four and get a shot at their first national title since 2005, they’re going to need a lot of help from a pair of players from Snohomish County.
And one of them is particularly eager to show off her game.
“I learned lots of patience,” Munoz said of sitting out last season. “Anything that’s worth anything is worth waiting for.
“… I felt like I made the right decision (coming to UW). I knew that in the long run it would pay off, and I’ve been so happy.”