As a younger girl, Kayleigh Harper decided to try volleyball. A lot of her friends had started playing, so she wanted to play, too.
And since she is now a standout at Western Washington University, it reasons that she was good right from the start.
Alas, not true. Back then, Harper admitted with a laugh, “I was really tall and uncoordinated. I wasn’t really good at hitting. I was just there for blocking (at the net).”
Getting good at volleyball, she said, “took me a while.”
But with determination, patience and a lot of hard work, Harper blossomed into a star at Oak Harbor High School, where she graduated in 2014. After a redshirt season at WWU, she became one of the team’s top players a year ago, setting a few school records and being named to both the All-Great Northwest Athletic Conference first team and the NCAA Division II national championship All-Tournament team.
She is, said Vikings head coach Diane Flick Williams, “someone that everyone on our team says, “Thank goodness she’s on our team.’”
As a middle blocker, the 6-foot-3 Harper set a single-season Western Washington record in 2015 with 143 block assists, and her 171 total blocks was a freshman record and the fifth-best total in school history. Named the HERO Sports Newcomer of the year for Division II volleyball, Harper helped the Vikings to a 27-6 record and a spot in the Final Four tournament, where WWU lost in the semifinals.
Despite the disappointment of missing a national title last season, “I think we surprised a lot of people,” Harper said. “Every day we practiced, we’d walk in and try to play the best we can. And if we keep giving our best (at practice), then that’s what’s going to happen on the court (in matches), too.”
As for her individual recognition, “that was really cool,” she said. “That part I thought was surprising. When you play you don’t really expect anything, you’re just giving it your all. So when stuff like that happens, you say, ‘Oh, cool,’ but then you get back to work because there’s definitely a lot more to do.”
Like most top players, Harper has a variety of talents, with some more evident than others. “Everybody sees the obvious, and that’s that she’s 6-3 and really quick,” Flick-Williams said. But another strength is “the way she sees the game, her court vision, and her ability to eliminate the extra stuff and really focus on what’s important. That’s what makes her so effective.”
As for her physical gifts, “she jumps well, she’s fast, she plays big at the net because she has really efficient movements, and she can hit the ball hard. She can put up a wall against opposing hitters,” Flick-Williams said.
A year ago, the coach added, “I’d say she was a bit of a surprise and not for the level she played at, but with the consistency that she played at that level. I kept waiting for her to (drop off) because that’s what freshmen do, but she was consistent all year long. And she consistently got better all year long.”
This season Harper is again playing well for a WWU team that has a lot of promise, despite a less than stellar start. After losing their first three matches, the Vikings have climbed to 5-5, including a 1-1 GNAC record. Four of the team’s defeats have been to nationally ranked opponents.
Being at .500, “it’s hard for all us to see (that record) and be satisfied,” Flick-Williams said. “But I also know the competition we went after at the beginning of the year. We chose to (schedule) the hardest teams we could play so we’d be battled tested for our conference season.
“We’ve played the best teams in the country and we fell short by just a few points, so our upside is huge,” she said. “We have lots of potential ahead of us. … Even though we did well last year, we’re still young and youth provides a lot of opportunities.”