“In seventh grade, a friend of mine told me about the middle school volleyball tryout and I had nothing else to do that day.”
Humble beginnings for the future Big Ten Freshman of the Year and National Champion, indeed. Haleigh Washington’s short volleyball career has taken her to physical, emotional, and geographical heights as she transitioned from an All-State star in Colorado to a key cog in Russ Rose’s dynasty at Penn State. Her success can simply be attributed to being well-rounded – Washington can hit, block, serve, and most importantly, be a student.
Washington studies on a recent road trip. (Photo: Penn State Volleyball)
“I really like that [Penn State] had a really wide variety of majors,” Washington said of her college decision. “I love the volleyball program, the volleyball program’s amazing, but I also really liked that there are a lot of majors here.”
Her major and studies aside, the sophomore’s volleyball career has already been full of drama. One of the nation’s top recruits (and a part of what was called the greatest recruiting class in the history of women’s volleyball) began her career on the sideline with an injury.
“It was tough because there’s a certain rhythm, and it’s hard to jump in and play with them and not mess up that dynamic. But seniors last year like Nia Grant would talk to me about what I needed to do.”
Washington made her debut in the eighth match of the year, a 3-0 stomping of Yale. That was the fourth match in a win streak of 11, which brought the team into the Big Ten schedule. After finally getting some matches under her metaphorical belt, the highly anticipated freshman was able to play up to her abilities against conference foes. Her season went about as well as expected, and she was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year for her efforts. Teammate, classmate, and roommate Ali Frantti joined her as the only two unanimous selections on the Big Ten All-Freshman Team, and Frantti also won the National Freshman of the Year award.
“I didn’t expect any awards because I knew I didn’t have many games under my belt, but it was awesome,” Washington said. “Really, it’s not about the individual though. I look more at what my team accomplished last year than what I accomplished. But the individual award is a great honor.”
“It was cool, having two Freshman of the Year award-winners on one team because at the beginning of the year there was all this talk about the best recruiting class in the country, blah blah blah, there was all this hype about it but we got to show that we really are what people are saying, and we can get even better,” she continued.
Postseason conference awards were released in early December when the team still had a lot of work to do. Washington entered her freshman year thinking that she was “nowhere near good enough to be able to start and play” (and later said, “My hitting could be harder, I think my blocking could be more disciplined, I think my serve can be more consistent, everything can be better”). She earned her awards and set her sights on the highest honor in all sports: a National Championship. After the team upset No. 1 Stanford in the NCAA semifinals, what happened next was nothing more than a formality.
“It’s surreal,” Washington said. “It was very heat of the moment – I remember I hadn’t played very well that game. I was disappointed it was over because I didn’t get another chance to go in and play better. I remember I was pretty bummed thinking, ‘the season’s over,’ even though I didn’t play terribly, I just didn’t play as well as I wanted to. But going out on the court and celebrating the win and being with everybody wasn’t about that, and it was so incredible and so awesome. It was surreal, and it didn’t even hit me as a big deal until I look back on it like, now.”
Which brings us to 2015.
At this point in time, Penn State volleyball is 24-2 and has regained the No. 1 ranking after some early losses. Washington is one of four Nittany Lions to play in all 89 sets this year, she’s second on the team in kills and aces, and she leads the team in blocks and hitting percentage. Her .453 percentage ranks third nationally, and she’s the only non-senior in the top four. Not only does the stat sheet look good for Washington, but she was responsible for the play of the year.
— PennStateVolleyball (@PennStateVBALL) September 21, 2015
Haleigh Washington’s reaction at the end of the point was nothing out of the ordinary; it was regular and pure Haleigh Washington. There is no athlete who comes to mind who has more fun playing their sport, and because of that no athlete is more fun to watch.
“Well, I’m kind of a goon,” she explained. “I like to have fun and I like to goof off. I always try to focus when I need to be focused, but sometimes it’s good to have fun and good to goof off. It makes it that much more exciting when you can joke around with your teammates about stuff. Sometimes I get really excited when my teammates do something great. It’s really easy to get excited when you get a block and I do get excited, but when Megan Courtney slams the ball or Simone rips one down the line, I can’t help but get excited about something my teammates did. I get excited and then they get excited, and it’s so good to have people that feed off of that energy. It’s just cool, getting to pull up my teammates in a program that I love, a school that I love, it’s just built up so much excitement and it’s awesome.”
Penn State women’s volleyball has become well-known for its music choice for matches at Rec Hall. They’re made even better by the team’s reactions on the court, led of course by Washington.
Her on-court individual success mirrors the team’s, so fans in Happy Volley understandably have one question on their minds: How far is the team going this year?
“I think this team is a completely different team than last year’s. We lost a lot of key players but that doesn’t mean we’re not a good team,” Washington said. “Last year we had things we struggled with and this year we have things we struggle with, and it’s just figuring out how to work out those kinks. Regardless of rank there’s still so much we need to work for and still so much we need to accomplish so when the postseason comes around we’ll be in good shape.”
“Our goal for the rest of the season is to play with more consistency,” she added. “It’s hard to play with highs then lows and then highs then lows. If we can play a strong, fast, consistent game, I think that’s a great goal our team can set. And then, obviously we want to make it all the way to Omaha [the site of the 2015 Final Four]. That’s a huge goal for our team and one I think we can get accomplished.”
There’s no pretending that the team doesn’t feel pressure to three-peat as National Champions. The talent is in place and the team has the right attitude, it’s just a matter of everything coming together just right at the end of December. And no matter what happens, Washington sees volleyball staying in her life for a long time.
“If my body can take it, Olympic play would be cool,” Washington said. “It’d be incredible to serve your country like that. Later I’d like to find a way to coach volleyball and go to grad school, or figure out some dynamic where I can do volleyball and be in grad school, that would be top-notch.”
Before any serious consideration of grad school or donning a USA jersey happens, Washington is back in action Saturday in Minnesota to take on the No. 4 Golden Gophers. Penn State returns home Wednesday, November 18 for a meeting with the Michigan Wolverines. Be sure to get out and see at least one match in person this year – one of the most dominant and most fun athletes currently at Penn State will make it worth your while.