Lauren Sanders had no idea how high she’d surged in the University of Washington volleyball record books.
She didn’t realize it until last month, when a UW staffer asked her to pose for a photo with volunteer assistant coach and former player Melanie Wade after a match.
Sanders, a former Glacier Peak High School star, had just surpassed Wade on the program’s career blocks list and moved into a tie for fourth place at 492. She has since upped her total to 515 career blocks.
“That was just kind of like a ‘wow’ moment,” Sanders said. “Like, I had no idea that I was even in the running for that.
“I’d been working hard and I’d been getting a good amount of blocks this season. But it was just kind of a moment where I was like, ‘Wow, (it’s all) paid off and I’ve been able to make an impact here over my four years.’”
To say Sanders has made an impact at UW is surely an understatement.
The 6-foot-4 senior middle blocker from Snohomish has been a four-year starter for the perennial powerhouse Huskies and a key part of the program’s success.
Sanders has averaged 1.47 kills and 1.28 blocks per set this season, the latter of which ranks 36th among all NCAA Division I players. Her steady play helped UW capture the Pac-12 championship and reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive year.
The No. 6 overall-seeded Huskies (18-3) face No. 11 Louisville (15-2) in the Sweet 16 at 12:30 p.m. PST Sunday in Omaha, Nebraska, where the entirety of the NCAA Tournament is taking place. The match will be broadcast on ESPN3. The winner faces either No. 3 Minnesota or Pittsburgh at 9 a.m. Monday for a trip to the Final Four.
“She plays a position that often doesn’t get as much recognition as some of the other positions,” UW head coach Keegan Cook said. “And it kind of matches her personality, just as someone who’s diligent and selfless and hard-working.
“So for her to reach that (career blocks) accomplishment on the defensive side of the ball I think just kind of encapsulates who she is.”
As a young kid, Sanders was into ballet, gymnastics and horseback riding. It wasn’t until around fourth or fifth grade, with some nudging from her parents, that she started playing volleyball. In seventh grade, she tried out for her first club team.
“I wasn’t very good out there, but I was tall,” she said. “… I made the club team probably just based on my height and my potential. And that was the year where I really fell in love with volleyball, because I got better and I was more coordinated. That’s when it became really fun for me, when I realized how much I had improved.”
From there, Sanders continued to progress. She made the Glacier Peak varsity team as a freshman. She moved to higher and higher levels of club ball. And by her senior year at Glacier Peak, she was a high school All-American and one of the top recruits in the nation from her class.
“The day she committed (to UW) was on my birthday,” Cook said. “She gave me the best birthday present of all time.”
Sanders began her UW career with a spectacular freshman season, earning an All-America honorable mention from Volleyball Magazine. Since then, she’s continued to hone her skills and improve as an all-around player.
One of her biggest improvements, Cook said, has been her ability to read opposing offenses.
“Early on in her career when things were slow, she was really good. But when things were fast, she struggled,” Cook said. “And now, her eye work has come along to where she can stay with more complicated offenses and be a presence (against) pretty much anyone that we face.”
Sanders also has developed a strong slide attack, an important weapon in a middle blocker’s arsenal. A slide attack is when a hitter approaches from an angle and takes off on one foot before striking the ball. Because the approach is from an angle instead of head-on, slide attacks can make it more difficult for opponents to set up their defense and block the ball.
“Being able to attack off one foot is a pretty critical skill for middle blockers, and it’s becoming increasingly rare around the country,” Cook said. “And so Lauren fills that really important role (in) our system.”
In addition to Sanders’ skill development on both sides of the ball, she possesses an impressive combination of height and athleticism.
“There are just some incredible athletes in this tournament, and Lauren can play with (those) top athletes in the country,” Cook said. “And that’s hard to find — someone who has her size and her mobility.”
Sanders also excels outside of volleyball. Earlier this season, she was named one of 30 candidates across the country for the 2020-21 Volleyball Senior CLASS Award, which honors student-athletes who have notable achievements both on and off the court.
Sanders, a speech and hearing sciences major, carried a 3.60 cumulative grade-point average through the fall of 2020.
During the summer of 2018, she traveled with other UW athletes to a remote village in Peru, where they built a sport court for the community and taught athletic skills to kids.
Sanders also maintains a blog at lologetsreal.blog, where she has written about issues surrounding female bodies and health, including personal battles with self-image. She initially began writing just for herself. But after encouragement from people around her, she decided to post her thoughts online for others to see.
“It took a lot of courage for me to finally hit that ‘post online’ button,” she said. “And then once I did, I just got so many messages (and) texts from friends that were like, ‘Wow, thank you so much for what you’ve said. You’re not the only one.’ And I’ve had young girls (message) me and say, ‘You know what? I’m struggling with the same things that you’ve struggled with. Thank you so much for talking about this.’
“It’s really helpful when you hear stories of someone going through the same things that you’re struggling with,” she added. “… I think it’s helped me feel less alone, and I hope that it’s made other young women feel less alone as well.”
Though she’s a senior, Sanders doesn’t intend for this to be her last season at UW. She said she plans to return for a fifth season this fall and take advantage of the extra year of eligibility the NCAA granted to all athletes because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The pandemic has inflicted countless challenges throughout college athletics over the past year, including the Pac-12’s postponement of volleyball from its traditional fall season to a Jan. 22 start. But Sanders said those challenges have made the Huskies’ success this season even more meaningful.
“I think everyone on this team has had their own personal battles throughout this past year — be that injury, sickness, family issues or mental-health struggles,” she said. “Everyone has really stayed strong throughout this whole thing and… worked so hard to compete this season.
“We saw that hard work pay off with the Pac-12 championship. And the next goal is to win a national championship.”
And if the Huskies are able to reach their ultimate goal, expect Sanders to play an important role.
“She’s gonna be a key player here for us — both in the upcoming match in the Sweet 16, and if we make it beyond that,” Cook said. “She’s really a critical piece for us.
“I think she’s gonna have her moment at some point in this tournament.”