SEATTLE — In a senior year Kylin Munoz never expected to have, she is enjoying a season she never could have imagined.
It is, admitted the 22-year-old Munoz, a Monroe native and member of the University of Washington volleyball team, “almost like a fairy tale.”
Munoz and her UW teammates open the 64-team NCAA Tournament this weekend, hosting Alabama State, Louisiana State and Michigan in first-round play at Alaska Airlines Arena. The 26-2 Huskies, the tournament’s No. 3 overall seed, face Alabama State at approximately 7 p.m. today, and should they win, they will meet the LSU-Michigan winner at 7 p.m. Saturday.
This weekend’s games are the first steps in a tournament path that will, the Huskies hope, lead to a Final Four berth on Dec. 19 and 21 at, of all places, Seattle’s KeyArena.
“A national championship is always our goal here at the University of Washington,” Munoz said. “And this year it’s not just a goal, it could be a reality. I have that much faith in our team, so that’s exciting. And then on top of that, it’s here in Seattle. It couldn’t be a more perfect scenario.”
Likewise, a rather improbable scenario, given her backstory.
Munoz committed to Brigham Young University as a senior at Monroe High School, but after a change of heart instead enrolled at Washington. She had to sit out the 2009 season, as required by NCAA transfer rules, and she also expected to lose a year of eligibility because BYU had not released her from her original letter-of-intent.
After last season, Munoz figured her college career was finished. “I even had a Senior Night,” she said, recalling the tradition of honoring outgoing seniors at the team’s final regular-season home match.
But during a trip to spend Christmas with relatives in Utah last December, Munoz traveled to Provo for a meeting with BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe. Though BYU still had not granted a release, Munoz was hoping that over time maybe, just maybe, “their hearts had softened.”
As it turned out, a gracious Holmoe agreed and Munoz left their meeting knowing she would have another season — a second senior season, if you will — at Washington.
“I was ecstatic,” she said. “I think there were tears of joy.” It was, she added, “a great New Year’s gift.”
Munoz, an outside hitter, rejoined a UW team on the verge of something special this season. The Huskies opened with 12 straight victories, lost on the road at Colorado, won another 13 in a row before losing at Stanford, and then closed out the regular season with three final victories. By defeating Washington State 3-0 last Friday, the Huskies clinched the Pacific-12 Conference championship, their first league title since winning Pac-10 crowns in 2004 and 2005.
And according to Jim McLaughlin, Washington’s 13th-year head coach, Munoz is a big part of the team’s success.
“She’s a special kid in so many ways,” McLaughlin said. “I probably can’t say enough about her. … She has God-given abilities, but what separates people are not those abilities. It’s what goes on inside. How we think about things, how we commit to those things, how we work on things and how we manage things. She does that as well as any player I’ve ever coached, including the greatest ones like (former UW All-Americans) Courtney Thompson and Christal Morrison.”
Munoz called McLaughlin right after her meeting with Holmoe at BYU last December, “and that day was one of the greatest days for me as a coach,” he said. “Right there with Courtney Thompson making the Olympic team (in 2012).”
As they head into the NCAA Tournament, Munoz is just one of several weapons for the Huskies. Teammate Krista Vansant, a junior from Redlands, Calif., was named Pac-12 Player of the Year on Monday, and Kaleigh Nelson, a junior from Salem, Ore., was also named to the 14-member all-league team.
McLaughlin, meanwhile, was named conference Coach of the Year for the fourth time.
For the Huskies, of course, the most important reward this season would be a second NCAA volleyball championship to match the program’s 2005 title.
“When you come to Washington, you have to plant a seed in the back of your mind that we’re here to win a championship,” McLaughlin said. “It’s the goal every year and now we’re knocking on the door again. I just hope it opens and that we can walk through it this year.
“I still think there are some things that need to be improved,” he said. “But I believe in these girls. I believe in their drive, I believe in their intangibles and I believe in their ability to play the game. And I’m not nervous about anybody else.”