This is the kind of thing that coaches usually tell you about their players

“As good as she is as a player, she’s an even better teammate and better person,” junior setter Ella May Powell of Washington said of senior right side Samantha Drechsel.

“She’s one of my best friends,” junior outside Claire Hoffman said. “She’s great. She’s like one of the nicest people and so caring, and she cares about everyone on our team so much.”

And then, of course, there’s Coach Keegan Cook.

“As a person, she’s an interesting combination of incredibly caring and incredibly competitive at the same time,” Cook said. “And you see it come out in certain moments. When things are most dire, she seems to show up the best.”

Drechsel certainly has had plenty of chances with Washington. For starters, there was the spring of 2021, when the Huskies played six five-set matches during the regular season, and then in the NCAA Tournament beat Dayton in five, Louisville in five, and Pittsburgh in five before losing to Kentucky in four in the national semifinals.

This season? 

The Huskies didn’t seem to get the memo that Cook doesn’t get paid by the set. Washington had six five-set matches earlier this season, winning four of them. Since then they’ve won nine of their last 10, each in four sets or less.

But we digress. Washington (20-4, 13-3 PAC-12) won in four at then No. 20 Stanford last Thursday and then on Sunday swept Cal. 

This season, Hoffman leads the Huskies in kills with 324 (3.90/set). Drechsel, a first-team All-American last spring (Powell made our second team and Hoffman the third team), is next with 304 (3.30/set). After that comes junior middle Marin Grote with 203 kills. 

Drechsel is third in aces with 20, third in digs at 2.38/set, and fourth in blocks with 51.

“She’s elite as a receiver, an attacker, and the load that she carries for us is pretty special,” Cook said.

Sam Drechsel digs against Cal/Stephen Burns photo

Drechsel, who is from Woodinville, a Seattle suburb, went to Maryland when she left Cedar Park Christian and Washington Volleyball Academy. 

Hoffman, who is from Eugene, Oregon, didn’t know her future teammate yet, but “She gave one of my teammates a concussion,” Hoffman said with a laugh. “She hits the ball harder than anyone.”

Early attention

The 6-foot-4 Drechsel said she started getting recruiting attention when she was in the eighth grade.

“I was 6-2 already,” she said. “I started going on recruiting trips and went to see the University of Maryland and had the best time and absolutely loved it. I committed.”

She was only a high-school sophomore at the time. 

“I was super excited to go and ended up graduating high school early, and so I was there a whole year. I came home for Christmas break.”

And that’s when Coach Steve Aird of Maryland took the job at Indiana.

“And I had been pretty homesick,” Drechsel said. “I’m pretty tight with my family, and I love Washington. But I wanted an adventure, and that’s why I went so far away.”

Drechsel started about half of Maryland’s matches in 2017. She said she loved the area would take the Metro to D.C. and explore the city and Smithsonian museums.

But the idea of coming home was alluring.

“I would either stay or go to Washington.”

She emailed Cook and then visited him at the school.

“We took a walk around campus, just getting to know each other,” Cook recalled. “It just seemed like the easiest transfer of all time. It was clear why she needed a new place to go, and we knew what we needed. It certainly hasn’t been easy every day that she’s been here, but it certainly was a dream transfer situation.”

Aird texted Cook and said, “She’s even better than you think she is.” 

“And he was right,” Cook said.

“My time at Maryland,” Drechsel said, “was really good and helped me appreciate my time here more.”

She really appreciates that after a match at Washington, she can visit with her family. Mom Marni (Johnson) played volleyball at Pacific Lutheran, and Sam’s brother Trey, who played basketball at Western Washington, plays pro basketball in Poland.

“It’s definitely been really cool to have friends and family come watch,” Drechsel said. “When I was on the East Coast my parents were able to come, I’d say, to like a third of the games. And it was really expensive.”

She never went back to Maryland after that Christmas break and enrolled at Washington for the 2018 spring semester. In the 2018 season, she was second on the team in kills, playing outside hitter and right side. Washington lost in the NCAA Round of 16 to Penn State.

The next year, 2019, she was second on the team in kills again. The Huskies got one match closer to winning it all, losing to Baylor in four in the NCAA regional final.

More responsibility

Somewhere in there, Drechsel told Cook she was ready to be a six-rotation player, “so we just started adding responsibilities to the point where she’s a big part of every single rotation,” he said.

“I don’t think people understand what it’s like to be a right-side point scorer and also have a serve-receive responsibility. You’re asking a lot of someone and to her credit she answered that challenge.”

It was never more apparent than last spring, when the Huskies made it to the NCAA final four. Drechsel led Washington with 3.52 kills/set, tied for the team lead with 33 aces, and averaged just less than a block per set. 

“Last year was really interesting because my role went from being a three-rotation opposite to playing all the way around. And I hadn’t really passed since high school. In high school, I played all the way around and took turns on the right and left. 

She admitted: “I didn’t have big expectations. I didn’t know how it was going to go. It could go either way, but I felt less pressure even with a bigger role because no one was expecting me to come out and be this great six-rotation defensive player.”

It didn’t surprise Powell that Drechsel excelled.

“She brings so much life to our team,” Powell said. “She’s a great competitor. She’s really hard on herself and works really hard. She calls herself a perfectionist, and that’s a good way to describe her.”

And now Drechsel has the extra year and can draw on the incredible run Washington had last spring.

“In a lot of ways it made us believe in ourselves and the team a lot more,” she said. “We know we can do hard things. When we’re down say like six points or seven points like we were against Louisville (early in the fifth set of the NCAA Round of 16), we know that we can do it.

“Also it gave me a lot of respect for my teammates. I saw things we had done in practice (and) when it was the most stressful situation ever, my teammates were just gritting it out like we practiced.”

Sam Drechsel hits against Arizona State earlier this season/Stephen Burns photo

This season, Drechsel is also more active on offense out of the back row and still carrying a big load on defense.

“(Last spring) made me appreciate the big moments and the hard moments,” she said. “The thing that gave me the most confidence is looking back and knowing that no one thought we were going to be that successful. Knowing you can do things when other people don’t think you can is really gratifying.”

A natural leader

That part about her teammates is particularly insightful, especially if you consider what they say about her.

“I don’t know,” Drechsel said with a laugh. “I think I’m pretty empathetic. I remember being a freshman and feeling anxious and not knowing what’s going on. So when we have freshmen or literally when we have anyone struggling, I want to know what I can do or how I can help you.”

That’s what Hoffman remembered when she arrived at Washington. Drechsel had already played a season at Maryland and had been enrolled at Washington.

“We joke around and call Lauren the mom of our team, because she’s like that,” Hoffman said of senior middle Lauren Sanders, who is also from Seattle, “but Sam is like that, too. She looks out for everyone, and she’s super invested in everyone. She will take the time to (ask) about volleyball or how things are going. She has a ton of experience so she has good advice for me or underclassmen. 

“She’s been a pretty good leader.”

Next up for Washington are home matches Friday and Sunday against Oregon State and No. 16 Oregon. Then there’s a trip to Colorado the night before Thanksgiving and the regular-season finale November 27 at No. 22 Washington State. 

The Huskies’ four losses have been to Ohio State, Utah, Washington State, and UCLA. Washington is ranked No. 12 in the latest AVCA Poll and stands No. 19 in the NCAA RPI, so every match matters in procuring a top-16 NCAA seed to be a first- and second-round host.

In the first round of the PAC-12 season, the Huskies won both matches in Oregon, lost in an epic five at Washington State but haven’t played Colorado.

“With the success last year comes pressure to do that again,” Drechsel said. “I had to make this mental switch (earlier this season) about what I would consider a successful season. 

“Right now my focus is being present and connecting with my teammates rather than worrying about All-American honors and winning all these tough games. Really, it’s about the journey.”

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