Haleigh Washington likes a good challenge. She’s also her own worst critic.
When analyzing her weaknesses on the volleyball court as she anticipates her senior year next season at Doherty, her voice jumped as she planned her next move.
“I’m going to high jump for our track team this year,” the affable and humble Washington said. “It’ll be my first year going out for track. I’ve never done it. Track takes coordination, which I lack in that department. But doing this will help my vertical. You can always improve.”
That’s right, Washington wants to jump even higher. Her vertical jump takes her above the rim to dunk a basketball. That was this year. For her, what she does now won’t be good enough when she and the Spartans defend their 5A state volleyball crown in 2013.
The 17-year-old junior, who moved to Colorado Springs from her lifelong home in Idaho Springs last summer, gave Doherty another weapon on an-already loaded team. All the Spartans did was run the table with a 29-0 record, dropping just eight games along the way, in one of the most dominating wire-to-wire team feats in state history.
Washington did her part, leading the state in hitting with an insane .550 percentage, recording 346 kills in 542 attempts. Those stats made the junior blush, but the overall result turned a tentative look into one of pride and satisfaction.
“I’m just now slowly beginning how to understand how amazing it was to go undefeated,” said Washington, who verbally committed to Penn State shortly after moving to Colorado Springs. “No one ever considered being 29-0. To be 29-0, that means no one else could be 29-0. For us to go undefeated, someone else has to be defeated. It’s cool and surreal to think about, having a clean record.”
Washington’s abilities shine far outside the volleyball court. Her schedule in the classroom resembles a murderer’s row of mind-bending challenges that would suit her more for Jeopardy! than anything else. Each day, she’s greeted with three advanced placement classes: calculus, American history and composition and language, as well as honors college prep chemistry.
She won’t back off next year, with five AP classes in queue, including biology, another level of calculus, English, government and economics.
“Everyone thinks I’m crazy,” Washington said. “I like AP classes. To me, they’re more exciting.”
Life was far from exciting in Idaho Springs, a quaint community of nearly 2,000 located 30 minutes west of Denver. But it was there where Washington picked up a volleyball for the first time, as an awkward, 6-foot-tall 13-year-old launched her first serve from the end line to the back wall on the fly.
“Idaho Springs is a homey little town, but it’ll always be my hometown,” said Washington, the oldest of three siblings. “It’s the foundation of my entire volleyball career. Without that awesome little club and that group of girls, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
From the Clear Creek Volleyball Club, Washington earned an invitation to the renowned Colorado Juniors, the Monument-based organization with shelves upon shelves of national trophies and an equally impressive reputation of Division I alumni.
Soon, Washington will take her talents to Happy Valley to be a Nittany Lion, thanks to a little expertise from her dad, Alecs, who himself stands 6-8.
“When I was a freshman, I was sitting on the floor looking at colleges, and I asked my dad where the best volleyball coach was,” Washington recalled. “He said he heard Penn State was pretty good. I looked it up, and ever since then, I knew I was going to Penn State.”
For now, Washington focuses on her classes, the upcoming track season and, of course, one last hurrah with her volleyball teammates.
So is there an encore to a near-perfect season? Washington wouldn’t make any bold predictions. That’s not her style. She does predict what kind of team Doherty will take to the court in 2013, minus seven departing seniors.
“Next year’s team is going to be different, but we’ll all have the Doherty mentality of taking pride in being hard workers,” Washington said. “We’ll be the best we can be, and my teammates will drive each other, like they did this year. I wouldn’t be where I am without their motivation and support.”
My least favorite task of the year is deciding the top volleyball player in this area. By a wide margin.
There’s just no way to get it right. Or in this case, get it wrong. Not when the three leading candidates — Cheyenne Mountain’s Monique Domme, Lewis-Palmer’s Alexa Smith and Doherty’s Haleigh Washington — bring such lofty credentials.
Domme is probably the most important player to her team in the state. Generally known as Colorado’s best setter, she was instrumental in helping her team overcome massive losses to graduation and still capture a fifth consecutive state title — topping Smith’s Rangers in the process. She is also versatile, able to play any spot.
Smith is probably the state’s most complete player. Only a sophomore, she already ranks No. 3 in state history in kills. She can block, set and she’s a tremendous passer. Coronado coach Don Lash refused to serve her way, understanding that she was the Rangers’ best player on the back row. There’s also the not-so-small fact that Smith was named Most Outstanding Player at the Cheyenne Mountain Tournament that also included Doherty and Cheyenne Mountain.
Then there’s Washington, the state’s most spectacular talent. With her freakish leaping ability, she climbs higher above the net than any player I’ve ever seen and slams it down with the type of velocity that makes everyone in the gym gasp. She was picked for the U.S. Junior Olympic Team, her name and photo have already appeared in Sports Illustrated and she was by far the most efficient killer in the state, her .550 hitting percentage dwarfing the next best (.480). Most importantly, Washington joined a Doherty team that went 17-9 last year and didn’t make the state tournament and helped turn them into undefeated state champions — with two wins each over Cheyenne Mountain and Doherty.
If I’m starting a team from scratch, I take Smith. If I’m looking to make all of my players better, I take Domme. If I want to see someone with abilities I’ll likely never see again, I take Washington.
BRENT BRIGGEMAN, Gazette Preps editor