PULLMAN — Down two sets to none here earlier this season and beginning set three, the Washington State University starting six returned to the court desperate to get back into their Pacific-10 Conference volleyball match against then No. 12-ranked UCLA.
Among the players retaking their positions was a tall, slight young woman with a blonde ponytail. Showing neither fear nor overconfidence, and maybe — just maybe — flashing a quick, unconscious smile, she glided onto the court as though she were playing the first point of a midweek scrimmage.
She had already scored seven kills up to that point — match-high for the Cougars.
And with the same calm demeanor, she would pound five more left-handed tries into the UCLA defense that third set — though none this time would find the floor.
And when the set ended unhappily 37 points later, Cougar freshman and Walla Walla High School graduate Rachel Todorovich stood at center court waving to fans the customary team "thank you for coming," with neither a particularly pleased nor terribly unpleasant countenance, before trotting off to the locker room to dissect the 25-12, 26-24, 25-12 drubbing her team had just endured.
Depressing as it was, the Oct. 17 sweep at the hands of the Bruins has been one of the few clouds in an otherwise sunny season for the 2009 edition of the WSU women’s volleyball team.
The night before, the same Cougar squad scorched then No. 16 Southern California in three games, 25-17, 28-26, 25-23, and in the most important match of the season to date the Cougars came from behind to beat No. 4 ranked Pac-10 leader and in-state rival Washington 18-25, 25-22, 25-21, 25-22. The win ended a 12-match losing streak against the Huskies.
This year’s 16-4 overall record, 5-4 in the Pac-10, is a far cry from the 7-13, 0-9 marks the team boasted at the same time last season. And the difference, according to second-year WSU coach Andrew Palileo, is the team’s hard work over the summer and a talented group of freshmen led by Todorovich.
Todorovich has played in every set this year (70), has 160 kills (fifth highest on the team), 47 blocks (third highest), and 73 digs (fifth highest).
But Todorovich was almost never a part of the team, let alone a starter.
"Washington State was always my first choice, but at first I didn’t think they were interested in me," Todorovich said.
"Originally she sent us a tape of her setting," Palileo said, "and we weren’t really looking for a setter and I didn’t think she was going to be able to run the show at the Pac-10 level as a setter. So, originally we told her ‘no,’ we were full at the setter position."
The rejection left Todorovich in a quandary. Several other NCAA Division I schools recruited her, but none seemed to "fit".
"She had some pretty big offers from UNLV, William and Mary, some pretty big, East Coast schools and another Pac-10 school," said Audra Cummings, Todorovich’s high school coach. "She verbally committed to Lewis-Clark State College, then WSU saw her at a tournament and was like, ‘Wow, we’ve got to have you.’"
"At one of my last club tournaments, I was playing in the Portland Power League," Todorovich recalled. "Coach Palileo happened to be there — he was recruiting another girl — and he went and talked to my club coach and asked if I’d signed anywhere.
"(Palileo) wasn’t allowed to talk to me, but I was allowed to call him," she said. "We worked out a quick visit that week on Friday. Between those couple days, I had to call the L-C coaches and talk to them and sort things out. It was difficult to work through that, but I knew it was the right decision to switch from Lewis-Clark State to Washington State to fulfill my dream."
To be chosen by the Cougars was one thing, but did she actually envision being an opening-match starter?
"No, I didn’t imagine starting right off the bat. I imagined working really hard to earn my spot within the team on the court, and playing time-wise," Todorovich said.
Palileo had other ideas.
"As soon as I saw her at Portland in April, (I knew she would start)," Palileo said. "We didn’t have an established right-side hitter last year. We really wanted (sophomore) Meagan Ganzer, who finished on the right side last year, to play on the outside. In the system I like to run, I really like to have a lefty (on the right side). This year, finding Rachel, I told her she had the opportunity to play and start right away.
"She has the size, ability to hit the ball, play a little defense, and over-all skill. It was just a matter of, would she be able to adjust to the college game quick enough to where she was effective as well?"
Todorovich’s contributions from the right side have paid dividends for the Cougars, who have already beaten four nationally ranked teams and have briefly held a ranking themselves. The No. 21-nationally ranked Washington State squad sits fourth in a tightly packed Pac-10, which currently boasts eight nationally ranked teams.
"Rachel’s a goofball," said Palileo. "She’s pretty easy-going, level-headed. Everything you’d want in a freshman. I think that’s what makes her so good. There is this innocence about both her and (fellow freshman starter) Oceana (Bush). They are almost too dumb to recognize the situation they are playing in. I think that’s what makes them good players — they’re kind of oblivious."
As much as she’s enjoying her sport, Rachel knows the real reason she’s at WSU is to get an education.
"You have to come into college as an athlete and look at the sport almost as your career to pay for college," she said. "With academics and volleyball — academics always comes first — you have to be ready with your schedule, stay on top of things, and prioritize things really well."
Todorovich, a communications major, hopes to work in advertising or publicity after college.
Her play is enough publicity of its own, and is sure to grow in the coming years. But for now her focus is on the second half of the Pac-10 schedule starting with Friday’s match at Arizona State — though she can’t help but peek ahead to the Cougars last non-conference match, a Nov. 17 showdown with big sister Sara’s Eastern Washington Eagles.
"It’s probably one of the games I’m most excited for, because most of my family is coming to support us," Rachel Todorovich said. "My sister’s freshman year, they all made shirts for her — the whole family. This year they’re supposed to be making me a shirt. We’ll see who ends up wearing whose shirt."
The Todorovich showdown may not end in November. The Eagles are tied atop the Big Sky Conference at 7-2, and the Cougars are legitimate postseason contenders. Should the Todorovich girls meet again in the NCAA tournament in December, it could be in competition for another T-shirt — one that reads 2009 NCAA Volleyball Champions.