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UW volleyball, with help from freshman setter Ella May Powell, ready for Sweet 16 matchup

Powell didn’t want to visit Washington after tiring of recruiting visits. But she, and the Huskies, are glad she did.

Ella May Powell was tired of the recruiting process, and was tired of making visits.

She didn’t want to travel from her home in Fayetteville, Ark., to visit the University Washington.

Thankfully, for Powell and the UW volleyball team, Powell’s parents gave her a nudge. Actually more than a nudge.

“My parents forced me to come visit,” she said. “It was at the end of my recruiting process and my parents were like, ‘You have to go, you have to see what everyone has to offer.’

I was, ‘No, I am going to hate it.’ But as soon as I got here, it was, ‘You guys were right.’ Everywhere I went, I liked it, but as soon as I came here, there was something different. The coaching staff and team, I knew they didn’t just care about me as a player, but they truly cared about me as a person, and the things they valued were the same things I valued.”

It all worked out. Powell, the starting setter as a true freshman, has helped lead UW (20-12) into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. The unseeded Huskies continue action Friday at 3 p.m. against Penn State (25-7), the No. 8 seed, at Stanford, Calif. The match will be televised on ESPNU.

Among the schools Powell let down in the recruitment process was Arkansas, her hometown university, where she served as the Razorbacks’ ball girl as a kid. But Powell, heavily recruited as one of the nation’s top high school prospects, said she wanted to get away and see new things while also playing for a high-level program.

That Seattle “was the prettiest place she had ever seen,” and the fact UW was looking for a new setter were bonuses.

She has started every match, with nearly every possession going through her. In basketball terms, she is the point guard, and she shoulders a lot of responsibility for a freshman.

As you might expect, there have been ups and downs in Powell’s first year, both for her and the young Huskies, with just one senior. They finished 10-10 in the Pac-12 this year. That included a five-game losing streak in midseason, and for the first time since 2011, they did not host in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.

“There have been growing pains for sure,” Powell said. “But I have been learning from the upperclassmen, everyone is learning their roles and we all collectively bring a leadership role to the team. It’s been fun, but it’s been a learning process. I underestimated the level of detail I would have to give to every aspect of my game.”

UW coach Keegan Cook knew he was asking a lot of Powell.

“She’s improved every area of her game,” he said. “It’s one thing to get through it and survive, but to also improve, is a big deal.”

Powell has gotten help from former Husky setter Courtney Thompson, who had her number retired after leading UW to a national title 2005 and going on to win Olympics silver and bronze medals on the U.S. national team.

“It’s been an honor to have the pleasure of working with Courtney this year,” said Powell, who has 33 aces, second most on the team. “She has helped me with my mental aspect of the game, and I’ve been able to talk to her about stuff that I go through. Ever since I was little, she has been a role model for me, but now even more.”

Powell is proud of “how hard our team has worked every day in practice,” and it paid off as the Huskies just aced two big tests in the NCAA tournament. They went to Omaha, Neb., and defeated Saint Mary’s in four games, then swept host Creighton, the No. 9 overall seed in the tournament to make it to the Sweet 16 for the seventh straight year.

“A lot of people said it was going to be a rebuilding year (for UW),” said Powell, whose brother Walker is a starting pitcher for Southern Miss. “But that has no meaning to winning or losing.”

Said Cook: “At the beginning of the year, we said we had big aspirations and no expectations. We saw that this team has potential to be a team that competes in the second and third weekend (of the NCAA tournament). The potential was always there.”

The challenge gets tougher in the tournament’s second weekend. Penn State, the No. 8 seed in the tournament, is an elite program, tied with Stanford for the most national titles with seven. In 2013, Penn State beat UW in the NCAA tournament semifinals before winning it all.

Speaking of Stanford, if Washington defeats Penn State, it could face No. 1 seed Stanford next, but the Cardinal first must face Washington State, the No. 16 seed.

“I honestly wouldn’t want to be anywhere else and I am so excited for this match,” said Powell. “This is how the Sweet 16 is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be against a tough team.”

Her parents made the trip to Omaha, and have come twice to Seattle to watch their daughter.

“They love it,” she said. “It is far away from home, but them knowing the coaching staff, they are so comfortable sending me far away, because it’s people they trust.”

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