NCAA DIVISION I VOLLEYBALL CHAMPIONSHIP
CHI Center, Omaha, Nebraska
TEXAS (27-1) vs. LOUISVILLE (31-2), 8 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2
Series, last match-up: Texas leads 3-1, but the last time they played, in the 2019 regional semifinal in Austin, Louisville pulled off a stunning five-set upset of the then No. 2-seeded Longhorns. It was the breakout match for Louisville’s Aiko Jones, who had 23 kills and four blocks. Others from Louisville in that match included Claire Chaussee and Amaya Tillman, and from Texas were Logan Eggleston (17 kills, four ace, five blocks), Asjia O’Neal and Molly Phillips.
Titles: Texas, in the last match of the season for the ninth time, won the 1981 AIAW national championship and the NCAA crown in 1988 and 2012 under current coach Jerritt Elliott. Louisville is the first ACC team to get this far.
Streaking: Texas has won 13 in a row since taking its only loss, in five sets at Iowa State on October 19. Louisville has also won 13 in a row since losing at Pittsburgh in five on October 23. Its only other defeat was to Ohio State on September 4.
“There’s not enough words to express what she’s done because it really is unbelievable. At one point, as a freshman, she wanted to quit volleyball. And so you look back at that and you’re like, I can’t believe we went from there to the ACC player of the year and a first-team All-American. And she’s just improved so much.”
— Louisville coach Dani Busboom Kelly on Claire Chaussee
When Texas and Louisville play for the national title Saturday night, Texas will certainly focus heavily on Claire Chaussee, Louisville’s leading attacker who has defied the odds en route to a season for the ages.
“We’ve just got to try to slow her down,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. “We’re not going to stop her. We’ve got to see if we can contain her and get some good touches.”
Louisville advanced with a gripping five-set victory over Pittsburgh on Thursday, and Chaussee led the way with 25 kills. She had just four errors in 49 attacks, hit .429 and added two assists, three blocks and three digs and continued a season in which she continued to confound opponents.
Texas might shut her down — it could be tough on both offenses, considering that the Longhorns rank 14th in the nation in opponent hitting percentage (.163), and Louisville is No. 6 (.148). But Chaussee usually gets hers.
Which, as we said, defies the odds.
Listed as a 6-footer, Chaussee — a fifth-year senior from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin — smiled and shook her head at the thought.
“5-11,” she said.
And, yes, she’s really thin.
When she started in volleyball at 9, her tights “were like shorts,” she said with a laugh. “Like kids extra, extra small.”
It wasn’t like she had become a behemoth once the recruiting process began.
“I knew I was an underdog. I didn’t have a big name coming out of high school, I didn’t get invited to the USA camps or whatever. I knew I was going to have to prove myself every day. Louisville has given me such a big platform where I can inspire other people.”
She had offers from smaller schools. Wisconsin and Marquette told her, “I wasn’t what they wanted because I didn’t jump high enough. And I wasn’t tall enough. I am a shorter outside.”
“Dani called me and said she wanted to watch me and it wasn’t a for-sure thing that I was going to get my scholarship.”
At the time, Chaussee was coming off a surgery to remove a benign tumor on her left ankle, “so I wasn’t really playing that much front row. She told me she would take a chance on me. She wasn’t 100 percent sure with me when she said, ‘Yes, you can have your full scholarship.’ That’s how I ended up at Louisville.”
Chaussee played in 40 sets as a freshman in 2018. In 2019, she played in 28 matches and averaged 2.75 kills per set, and had the same numbers in the truncated 2020/21 COVID season. Last year, in 32 matches, she had 292 kills (3.79/set), averaged 2.81 kills and had six aces, 109 digs and 21 blocks.
But this year?
The ACC player of the year has 440 kills (3.79/set), she’s hitting a career-best-by-far .309 and has 29 aces to go with 200 digs and 44 blocks.
The key to such an improvement?
“The coaches and the team around me. The girls every day are pushing the A side, if you want to call it that, so hard that we’ll lose in practice. But that only makes us better for the games . The coaches really take time, especially in the spring semesters, to get down on techniques and blocking and passing and what things you could be doing better. The coaching staff has a big part in how I’ve gotten better.”
That improvement is not lost on opponents.
“Claire has developed into an elite player,” said Georgia Tech coach Michelle Collier, who saw Chaussee post career-highs against the Yellow Jackets last month. “She is so good with her feet, she is quick and dynamic which makes it hard for blocks to set up against her. She also plays with a lot of confidence and is not afraid to get after it in out-of-system situations.
“Overall just a fun player to watch and not so fun to play against and try to defend.”
Those quick feet might have come from being a multi-sport athlete.
“I played soccer and basketball, but I was very bad at basketball,” said Chaussee, who was a midfielder through eighth grade. She got into volleyball by hitting with older sister Emily, who played volleyball at Division III Edgewood in Madison, Wisconsin. Their last name, by the way, is French-Canadian.
Chaussee jumps really high, seems to have that rare athletic ability to hang, sometimes appears to hit on the way down and simply makes you shake your head when she unloads with a whip of an arm.
“She’s just a really experienced attacker,” Texas coach Ellliott said. “She has all the shots.”
And she can blast away.
“Everyone asks me that, how do you hit the ball so hard,” Chaussee said. “”I don’t have an answer other than I use my entire body almost every time.”
In this tournament, Chaussee had nine kills with one error in 19 swings against Samford, 12 kills against Purdue, 11 more against Baylor, and 13 against Oregon in the regional final.
She’s the leader of an attack that includes Aiko Jones (2.52 kills/set), Anna DeBeer (2.23), Amaya Tillman (2.16), and PK Kong (1.29).
“Claire is one of the most hardworking people I know,” DeBeer said. “I mean, just seeing her growth when I came in as a freshman and how much she’s improved over the years, it’s been really cool to see.
“She’s been someone who I’ve looked up to playing the same position as her. She’s taught me a lot. And she’s always coming in early to get extra reps and staying late to get even more. And that just goes to show the type of player she is.
“And over these past few years, she hasn’t always gotten all the press and all the recognition, I think. And she deserves it completely. And this year it has been so cool to see everything that she’s achieved and accomplished. I mean, she’s awesome.”
Chaussee said that when DeBeer went out with a knee injury earlier this season it inspired her to be even more aggressive on offense.
“You’re not guaranteed anything,” she said. “Not the next game, the next point, so I think the trials she went through being injured put something in me where I knew I could not expect to get another game after this one, so I had to put it all out there every time. And just have fun. This year I’ve only focused on having fun with my teammates and take the time to enjoy where I’m at.”
Last year, Louisville’s national-semifinal run was fueled by setter Tori Dilfer, now playing professionally. In her place came vivacious Spanish setter Raquel Lazaro, a graduate-student transfer from USC.
“She’s always inspiring me and always smiling and wanting to take pictures of everything,” Chaussee said. “And I’m like this is not new for all of us and she’s like such a happy person and I need to start enjoying life.”
That’s not lost on Busboom Kelly.
“She’s just really allowed the love of the game to show in her play,” Busboom Kelly said of Chaussee. “She cares a lot about her team and the University of Louisville. And it makes me emotional just because it’s really special what she’s done this year and it’s pretty awesome.”
Now it’s down to one match before Chaussee, believe it or not, embarks on a career as a wedding photographer before heading overseas next year to play professionally. Chaussee has worked as a photography intern, owns a Canon EOS R6, and shoots her first wedding on her own in September.
Right now her business is called Claire Marie Photography, “but Aiko came up with a new one, Shots by Chaussee. But a lot of people don’t know how to spell my last name. Or say it (Shah-say). So I don’t know if I should do that.”
There’s time, because she has more school. She graduated in sports administration with a minor in communications and is working on getting her MBA, all online.
In the meantime, there’s one match left. The last one of a magnificient season.
“Insane,” Chaussee said. “I’m proud of this team and also really sad that it’s my last game.
“But I’m excited.”