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Monday, May 10, 2021

Kayleigh Harper blocking out the pressure

Kayleigh Harper // photo courtesy of Western Athletics

By Conor Wilson

During a weekend contest in Portland, Oregon, senior middle Kayleigh Harper said her 10 blocks and 13 kills were not something she thought about as independent of her team’s 3-1 victory over Concordia University.

The victory kept the Viking’s undefeated season alive and secured their No. 2 national ranking. It also resulted in Harper’s school-record breaking 507th career block. Harper also became the second player in Great Northwest Athletic Conference history to record 500 blocks and 1,000 kills during her career. 

“It was really fun, and everyone was so congratulatory, but a lot of things lead up to that. It’s not just me,” Harper said of her record. “In order for me to get kills, I have to have good passes and good sets. So many other players helped me do that.”

As one of the teams three seniors, Harper will look to help lead the undefeated but young Vikings team, with nine freshmen on an 18-person roster. A team who, just last season, finished as the runner-up at the NCAA Division II tournament. 

Getting back to that stage at this point in the season, however, is not something Harper said she is concerning herself with. 

“It’s not like hey we’re 14-0, now we have arrived, because there’s a lot more learning to do this year,” Harper said. “I would obviously like to [win a championship] and I am going to try as hard as I possibly can, but our motto is win the day. Eventually, if you win everyday, you’re going to find yourself there.” 

Harper has been trying to win the day since her time at Oak Harbor High School where her then-coach Kerri Molito said she could immediately tell that Harper had a competitive attitude and great natural instincts for the ball.

Molito, who is an alumna and former volleyball player at Western, said she often brings her teams to Western’s volleyball team camp. This is where Diane Flick-Williams, Western’s head volleyball coach, said she met a 14-year-old Harper for the first time. 

“I got to see her progress throughout the years and each year she got better,” Flick-Williams said. “She had a really good eye work and she had a really great skill set. With each year that we saw her each year we got more and more excited of what she could do here.”

Kayleigh Harper // photo courtesy of Western Athletics

For Flick-Williams, Harper’s natural tendencies are what stood out the most.

“She just had a nose for the ball,” Flick-Williams said. “The one thing that really impressed me was she seemed to always be in a good position to block. She didn’t necessarily have a lot of techniques in blocking, but she was always in a good spot and that’s really hard to teach.”

According to her Western athletics profile, after utilizing a redshirt season in 2014, Harper went on to start all 33 games for the Vikings in 2015, appearing in all 118 sets that season. A year that resulted in the team’s second NCAA tournament final four appearance in program history.

“We played in the elite eight [that year] against Rockhurst and they had the national player of the year, who was a middle, who was basically going one on one with Kayleigh,” Flick-Williams said. “That’s not something she shies away from, instead of saying ‘oh no the player of the year is over there,’ she said, ‘oh yes can’t wait to show her up.’”

According to Western’s athletic record books, since Harper’s freshman season in 2015, the Western volleyball team has qualified for the NCAA tournament in all three of her previous seasons, including a runner-up finish in last year’s tournament.  

Flick-Williams said Harper’s ability to play both sides of the ball as well as her calmness under pressure is what contributes to her success. 

“I don’t think she gets nervous under pressure,” Flick-Williams said. “For Kayleigh it’s one of those things where she kind of developed a way of if she’s struggling on one end, she’d be really good on the other.” 

With all her success, Harper said everything she has done is because of teammate and friend Brette Boesel. 

Boesel and Harper were part of the same recruiting class in 2014. Boesel was the team’s setter, playing alongside Harper in her first three seasons, before transitioning to an assistant coaching role this year. 

“It has been so cool to watch her actually play and not be right there next to her,” Boesel said. “It opens my eyes to everything she actually does in between plays and all her little interactions.”

In terms of playing with Harper, Boesel said some of her most entertaining memories are when Harper’s competitiveness decides to take over a game. 

“She decides like ‘hey, we’re not losing, give me the ball,’” Boesel said. “She loves that type of energy, she’s always grinding.”

According to Boesel, Harper’s funny and sarcastic demeanor is one thing that makes her teammates gravitate toward her. Which Boesel notes is important as Harper continues to work every day to become a better leader for this young team. 

“Kayleigh is admired in a lot of different ways and respected in a lot of ways. It’s been really cool to have that outside view of her becoming a leader and a good role model,” Boesel said. “Our players can learn a lot from what she does.”

In terms of a leadership style, Flick-Williams said Harper’s straightforward approach is what makes her easy to follow.

“Our younger players just love her,” Flick-Williams said. “She’s realistic. She’s very honest. And when you combine those things people know what they’re going to get, so it lends itself to consistency. She never really wavers from who she is.”

For Flick-Williams, it was no surprise that Harper became as good as she has. But what she is most proud of Harper for, although hard to measure, is how she has grown as a person. 

“She has grown into her own. She’s become a good teammate. She’s become a good leader,” Flick-Williams said. “That’s different than what you saw when she was initially playing. It was more centered around her, and now she knows how to give to others.”

According to Flick-Williams, what she will remember about Harper is the differences she has seen in her over recent years. 

“In the last two years I’ve seen her smile more on the court and enjoy what she’s doing,” Flick-Williams said. “That’s what I’m remembering about her, how much she’s enjoying what she’s doing.”

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