The Doherty (Colorado Springs)
volleyball team already had an ultra-talented core. The Spartans also had one of their own former standouts, Tara Hittle, a former state champion who went on to play at Hawaii, in command as coach.
Then Haleigh Washington
walked into the gym.
Add it all up, and the Spartans are Class 5A's lone undefeated team, the top-ranked team in the state's big-school classification. Nothing like adding a U.S. junior national team player to the mix, eh?
"Without talking about volleyball skills, her personality just really helps the team together," Hittle said. "She's got a loving, lighthearted, very kind presence that just draws everyone to her. It makes her very easy to like."
And when you do talk about volleyball skills, adjectives aren't enough for the 6-foot-4 junior middle blocker. She has helped Doherty to the No. 8 ranking in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 National Volleyball Rankings presented by the Army National Guard
Washington, who has verbally committed to Penn State, played at Class 3A Clear Creek (Idaho Springs) last season. But her family moved from Idaho Springs to Colorado Springs, where her mother, Danielle, took a job teaching Spanish at nearby Discovery Canyon (Colorado Springs).
It's been nothing but spikes, blocks, high-fives and a lot of winning since then for the Spartans (14-0).
"It's really different for us because we've never really assumed the spotlight before," said Doherty setter/outside hitter Kiara McKibben
, who has verbally committed to San Francisco. "We've always been a big volleyball school in the area, but nothing like this. There is a little extra pride. We finally feel that we actually have a spot on the map."
Washington didn't have much time to assimilate with her new teammates. The U.S. team played a tournament in Nicaragua, so Washington missed the first five days of school and got back just in time to participate in enough practices to be eligible for the opening game, a 3-0 sweep of preseason No. 1 Grandview.
"It really wasn't a big culture shock. I was expecting it to be crazy-dramatic," Washington said. "I was worried that I was going to have to acclimate and get used to it, but it really wasn't as big a deal as I thought. I just came in and I did what I do best. I smiled and I laughed and I tried to make new friends, and the volleyball just came easier after that."
Of course, the sport might naturally come easy for someone who has jumped as high as 10-foot-8 and has been labeled as a can't-miss attraction when visiting opposing gyms.
The Spartans' college-bound players don't stop with Washington and McKibben. Senior Cierra Simpson
has committed to Texas-San Antonio and junior Gabby Simpson
is still deciding among a handful of Division I programs and a few other players are in the fledgling stages of the selection process.
"The team being good was nice, because at my old school, the team wasn't as strong as it is here," Washington said. "The transition was good with them having the skill-level that they have. It was nice. We have such strong hitters and a good core."
Doherty has lost only three sets all season, one to Lewis-Palmer (Monument) and two to perennial 4A power Cheyenne Mountain (Colorado Springs). The Spartans had to win the final two sets to escape with the victory.
That, and the occasional mini-lapse, is enough for Hittle not to be 100 percent satisfied with her squad as the postseason draws closer.
"We're handling the attention pretty well, because obviously it's an honor to be considered (among the best teams)," Hittle said. "But we're humble and we still have our work cut out for us. We're not where we want to be yet."
As far as being the favorite? No problems with that.
Doherty reached the 5A semifinals in 2010, but rarely was mentioned as a top-flight favorite with Nicole Dalton-led Chaparral hogging the headlines.
"After being the underdog, we like having that target on our backs now," McKibben said. "There's really no pressure that comes along with it because we're such a close team that nothing affects us."