In volleyball, dominant hitters usually draw most of the attention.
But ask almost any coach or player and they will tell you it’s difficult to have a great hitter without a great setter.
Often compared to a quarterback in football, the setter is the starting point for the offense. And Snohomish High School’s Kendle Valade-Nunez, who will be a senior this fall, has developed into one of the best in the area.
A crucial skill for any setter is their ability to communicate, which is what makes Valade-Nunez’s development as a player all the more remarkable.
At age 9, after failing a series of hearing tests, she learned she was legally deaf. She could hear some, but relied mostly on reading people’s lips.
Because she learned to adapt, Valade-Nunez said she didn’t realize anything was wrong until doctors at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital gave their diagnosis.
“It’s definitely been one of the biggest struggles that I’ve had to deal with,” she said.
Her hearing impairment led to numerous doctors’ visits and two surgeries during the past 10 years. All the while, she was adamant about not letting anything interfere with volleyball. Her parents obliged by working her medical appointments around her volleyball schedule.
“I definitely didn’t want anything to ruin that chance of seeing where it could go,” Valade-Nunez said.
Success in the early stages of her volleyball career depended heavily on her ability to read lips. During matches, most of the communication between Valade-Nunez and her teammates and coaches was non-verbal.
“I had to have people talk to me in not so much verbal ways, but physical ways, like thumbs up or head nods,” she said.
Off the volleyball court, school became a struggle. Her grades suffered as a result of her hearing difficulties.
“I guess I didn’t really notice it at first” she said, “but (later) I knew there was kind of a struggle there because I wasn’t doing well in school and I would have to sit up front.”
It wasn’t until her hearing improved following the second surgery that Valade-Nunez realized how much she was missing.
“When people stood next to me,” she said, “I could hear them now.”
Throughout her struggles, Valade-Nunez stuck with volleyball. When she was a 10-year-old playing in her first club volleyball tournament, she served out an entire set from open to close — 25 consecutive points. She required her teammates’ help on just five points, delivering aces on the other 20.
“That was definitely one of the biggest moments, even though I was really little, in my volleyball career,” Valade-Nunez said. “I think that was one of the moments where I was like, ‘It’s probably going to go somewhere.’ I hoped so at least.”
Serving has remained a strength of her game.
“She definitely has an amazing serve,” Snohomish volleyball coach Alex Tarin said. “What I like about it is if her serve isn’t exactly how she likes it and wants it during practice, she will say, ‘Hey coach, can you come over here and watch my serve and tell me what I’m doing wrong.’”
Valade-Nunez’s club coach, Don Floyd, who is also her stepfather, said he likes her to start matches on the service line.
“If we win the (coin) toss, we always want to take the serve because she can come out and get us four or five points right in a row, just starting a game,” Floyd said. “She serves a ball that is hard to pass and she can strategically serve to different areas.
“She’s always been one of the best servers on any team she’s ever played on.”
Despite her success as a youth, Valade-Nunez’s high school career didn’t start out the way she expected. After freshman tryouts, Tarin assigned her to the C team.
“That was definitely a not-so-happy time for me, I guess you could say,” Valade-Nunez said. “Not to sound cocky or anything, but I definitely didn’t expect to make the C team.”
She didn’t stay there long.
Within a couple of weeks she moved up to JV and by the end of the season was on varsity.
“We put her on the C team knowing that she was probably better than that,” Tarin said. “We wanted to push her. We wanted to make her better and make her stronger.”
Valade-Nunez made the varsity as a sophomore and was a second-team All-Wesco selection at setter as a junior. After she graduates next June, she plans to attend Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, where head volleyball coach Kevin Aoki said he hopes she can step in as a freshman and fill the shoes of his second-team All-American setter, Samantha North.
Aoki has had his eye on Valade-Nunez since her sophomore year, when he saw her play in a tournament at the University of Washington.
“I was there to watch some other girl and I said, ‘Hey, that girl’s pretty good,’” Aoki said. “So I kept my eyes open because I knew our All-American setter would be a senior this year, so I knew I would need a setter Kendle’s freshman year.”
Though Valade-Nunez’s hearing is still not 100 percent, the surgeries were successful and it’s no longer an obstacle on the court. Aoki wasn’t even aware of Valade-Nunez’s hearing impairment — which he said is a testament to the type of person she is.
“That just goes to show that she has overcome that enough for me not to even notice,” Aoki said. “When I watched her play it’s a non-issue.”
Which is exactly the way Valade-Nunez wants it.
Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on Twitter at @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.