Before Beth and Shane Bajema had their first child but knew they wanted to begin a family, they’d sit down and pray.
“Just one athletic kid,” they’d request of God. “Just one.”
It’s a common motif among Christians, that whenever plans are made, even the best of them, God laughs. God must have gotten a good chuckle out of the Bajema’s prayers, for nearly 20 years later, there went Shane and Beth, off to the Bahamas to watch their youngest, Cole, compete in the Battle 4 Atlantis as a 6-foot-7 guard on the Michigan basketball team.
They couldn’t stay for long, though. On the other side of the world was their middle child, Kara. Her senior night was coming up for the Washington volleyball team, and Kara warned them, Bahamas be damned, that if they didn’t make her senior night, “I might never forgive you.”
She jokes. Maybe. Kind of. It’s a competitive family, those Bajemas. You really never know.
So off Shane and Beth went again, boarding another plane, this one bound for Seattle, to see Kara, an outside hitter on the eighth-seeded Huskies, compete in her final regular season home match this past Saturday.
“I didn’t think they’d make it back to be honest,” said Bajema, who was a strong candidate to be the Pac-12 Player of the Year (UCLA’s Mac May got the nod) after compiling a season of 517 kills, 286 digs, 74 blocks and the leader of a 24-6 Washington team ranked ninth in the AVCA Poll.
“I figured I’d be out there all by myself. They’re so supportive.”
She credits her parents for a large portion of her success, and the success of her siblings, all of whom have or currently are competing in a collegiate sport. Her older sister, Coryn, played soccer at South Carolina. After leading her high school, Lynden Christian in Lynden, Washington, a sleepy town of less than 15,000 that sits just five miles from the Canadian border, to consecutive state titles, Kara committed to Washington. The youngest, Cole, is the all-time leading scorer at Lynden Christian (1,876 points), and is currently getting occasional minutes as a 6-foot-7 guard on the fourth-ranked team in the country.
Genetics are great. Certainly helpful. But there is something about the mindset of Kara Bajema that allows her to maximize those genetic gifts.
“Everyone says they hate to lose and it does suck to lose but I just love to learn the game and I love to know why,” she said.
Which is how she has been able to make the transition so seamlessly from an outside hitter in high school to a middle blocker as a freshman at Washington and back to an outside again for the final two years of her career.
When Washington coach Keegan Cook told her he’d like to use her as a middle, despite not having played the position in high school, she didn’t look at it as a demotion. Instead, she saw it as an opportunity to get on the court. Make an impact.
“That to me was a no-brainer,” Bajema said. “It didn’t matter to me that it wasn’t the position I played in high school. It was being able to be on the court and helping to make a difference and that was really cool to me.”
She played 108 sets that year, blocked 144 balls and hit over .350. Washington went 29-5, falling to Nebraska in the NCAA round of eight.
The easy thing would have been to continue improving as a middle. In just a year, she was already thriving there. Who knows where she could have been in four. Now, though, is a good time to remember that this is Kara Bajema.
“She doesn’t like to be told ‘No,’” Cook said, laughing. “Not every conversation was comfortable, so, ‘No, you’re not going to pass this year’ or ‘You’re not going to play deep this year’ she – she’s passionate. We had lots of fun discussions these four years.”
So after a few of those, ahem, “fun,” discussions, Bajema began her move back to the outside.
Cook said. “She wasn’t afraid to make mistakes, she wasn’t afraid to look silly. She just went for it and when she got back to her natural position playing outside that’s when the challenges became ‘All right, you want to be in serve receive, you want to hit out of the back row,’ she wanted to do everything. She had to learn how to do a lot of it.”
In Bajema’s junior season, her first as a full-time outside again, the Huskies were labeled as underdogs. They had graduated a wealth of talent, leaving a void in its place, a void that Bajema filled, and filled at the perfect time. After losing three straight to end the regular season, the Huskies beat St. Mary’s in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before stunning Creighton, their first top-10 win of the year, to advance to the round of 16.
“Kara wants to win,” Cook said. “And I think at some point, she made the connection that if you really value being a competitive person, it doesn’t leave you with a lot of choices. The most competitive people are the most competent people. The high-competitive people are the most competent in terms of their all-around game, what they know.
“Once she made that connection, then all of a sudden it took off. Once she translated, ‘Ok, I need to be great at everything.’ It wasn’t just one-year growth. It was every year. She came in as the No. 97 recruit from the border of Canada in Washington and then I said ‘Yeah, welcome to Washington, you’re playing middle.’ And she said ‘Oh, OK.’ ”
“If you don’t or are not willing to learn and to mess up and fail there is just no way you’re going to learn and grow and become a better player,” Bajema said. “I think when you know that, and you are not afraid to look silly, you are going to become a better player in the long run. That was huge for me. I would always call myself a chicken running around with its head cut off because not knowing what to do. Now, I watch film of me as a middle and said ‘Wow, I really didn’t know what I was doing’ but you just do it anyway and I didn’t care if I looked funny doing it.”
Nothing about Washington is looking funny now, claiming a coveted No. 8 seed and home-court advantage in the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. On Friday, they’ll meet Winthrop, and the winner will see the victor of South Carolina and Colorado State.
“You have a couple teams with winning cultures is what stands out to me,” Cook said. “Colorado State is a team that’s been here before. Traditionally, they’re a very strong program. South Carolina, in year’s past, has a physicality comparative to the Pac-12.”
Washington has had an interesting season. Who would have known when the Huskies swept St. John’s to open the season that they were beating a team that would win the Big East tournament and be in the NCAA tourney? then they beat San Diego, which was a surprise winner of the West Coast Conference, before losing to Hawai’i, which is also a first-round NCAA host after winning the Big West.
Washington won at Creighton and then stunned everyone with back-to-back home-and-home victories over Wisconsin. In Pac-12 play, the Huskies lost the league opener and last match of the regular season to Washington State, upset Stanford, but lost to USC twice.
It’s a new season now. One and done. The type of environment in which Bajema, and the Washington program, has thrived.
Beth and Shane will be there, of course. As always.
“My parents always tell us that they’re so happy they get to travel the world to watch us play,” Bajema said. “But they’re also like ‘You guys are tiring!’ ”
Your prayers were answered and then some, Bajemas.
One athletic kid? Is that what you asked?
Somewhere, God’s still getting a kick out of that one.