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Monday, December 19, 2005 - Page updated at 12:20 AM

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UW Volleyball

Fans welcome home a national champion

Special to The Seattle Times

Courtney Thompson was happy to see television cameramen at Sea-Tac International Airport on Sunday night. She dug the "Congrats National Champs" banner, hand-painted by one of her roommates' parents. And she enjoyed saying hi to assorted well-wishers around baggage claim.

But when she saw the motorcycle cop waiting by her team's bus, ready to provide a police escort back to the University of Washington campus, she was stoked.

"Oh, yeah!" shouted the two-time All-America setter, who one night earlier helped the Huskies win UW's first national volleyball championship in the Final Four title match at the Alamodome in San Antonio. "Oh, my gosh. This is too good. I'm dreaming."

Washington's dream of a national title came vividly true Saturday when the third-seeded Huskies stunned Nebraska, outplaying a vaunted, physically imposing foe that had been ranked No. 1 all season in a 3-0 sweep, winning 30-26, 30-25, 30-26.

Washington (32-1) became the first team in a 64-team NCAA tournament format to win all six matches by a sweep. All but four of Washington's wins in 2005 were sweeps.

The impromptu airport gathering, occurring about 8:30 p.m. after the team's delayed flight finally reached Seattle, was followed an hour later by a welcoming party of an estimated 400 people at the crew house on the UW campus, where players passed through a tunnel of cheering, hand-slapping celebrants.

A more formal on-campus recognition event is in the early stages of planning for Jan. 8 after the majority of the student body has returned from holiday break.

No matter. Players were just happy to be back on their home turf with a five-month goal — a national championship — in their possession.

Sanja Tomasevic was sitting in the front row of the bus holding the three-foot-high trophy in her lap. So how did she celebrate the victory Saturday night?

"I don't remember," said Tomasevic, the Pac-10 Player of the Year, a comment that busted up the front of the bus with wink-wink, nudge-nudge, say-no-more laughter.

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"Really, it was the best night of my life," said Tomasevic, who recorded 12 kills against Nebraska and finished her career as UW's career leader in kills (1,795) and aces (156). "I don't know how you top that night."

Freshman basketball star Jon Brockman was waiting at baggage claim with a bouquet of purple and gold flowers for girlfriend Christal Morrison, the 6-foot-2 sophomore outside hitter named the most outstanding player of the Final Four.

"A championship in just her second year," Brockman said with a smile. "Man, that's pressure to try and have to match that."

Morrison recalled that she, her teammates and coaches gathered at a nightspot on San Antonio's famed Riverwalk, where they "danced to Mexican music and sang, 'We Are The Champions' seven times."

What's it feel like to wake up as a national champion? "For so long it's something that feels so long away, but now it's here," she said. "It's unbelievable. We've got it, and no one can take it away from us."

Thompson had a similar experience. "What a day," she said. "I opened my eyes and I thought, 'How do I top that? What am I going to do for the rest of my life?' "

Thompson, who turned 21 on Nov. 4, lived up to a pre-Final Four promise in Saturday's postgame celebration. "I've never had a drink in my life," Thompson, a junior said, "so I promised my team if we won I'd have my first drink, and we did it in good fashion. I'll just leave it at that."

Washington's season was one worthy of toasting. The Huskies won 23 straight matches to open the season, and a close, five-game loss at UCLA (where the deciding game's score was 15-13) was the only blemish on the record. Washington won its second straight Pac-10 title (17-1) and was the only team to make a repeat visit to this year's Final Four.

Coach Jim McLaughlin, named Pac-10 coach of the year for the third time in four seasons, flew home on an earlier flight due to feeling "a little under the weather," according to a school official.

With a holiday break under way, teammates will be going in many different directions in the days ahead. Senior Brie Hagerty, for one, already has flown out to be with relatives.

"We just wanted to hang out and spend as much time together as we could on our last day together," Thompson said. "Our last pregame meal, we called the last supper. We're just trying to soak it all up.

"Sanja might be going overseas. She and Brie have been roommates for three years, and they might not see one another again. It's sad. It's weird. We're going to be going through withdrawal."

But owning a national title should help ease any separation anxiety. "We're just so happy," she said. "Every 10 minutes, no matter what we're doing, we'll just stop and smile. We did it. We did it together. It's the epitome of a team goal.

"Someone said, 'You guys have been working for this for three years.' Three years? I've been working for this since the time I started playing volleyball. Every kid in juniors wants this. It's a crazy feeling.

"Jim told us this would happen," Thompson added. "The day I signed, he said if we do this right, we're going to win a national championship. Everything he's ever told me has been true. That guy's incredible."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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