In 2016 Emily Mekelburg made a trip across the state to Kennewick to watch her older sister, Sarah, and the Arlington High School volleyball team play at the Class 3A state tournament.
It was the first time the Eagles had made an appearance at state in 20 years, and it was just the second overall appearance in program history.
Mekelburg, then a seventh-grader, told herself that one day she’d be out there playing under the bright lights on the state’s biggest stage for high school volleyball.
During a decorated prep career, she accomplished that goal not just once, but twice, while helping lead Arlington to the most successful run in program history thus far.
Mekelburg, a four-year varsity player, broke out during her sophomore year while starring alongside senior outside hitter Arianna Bilby as a part of a devastating one-two punch on the frontline that guided the Eagles to a program-best sixth-place finish at the state tournament and a Wesco 3A/2A title.
As a junior, Mekelburg and Arlington went 8-2 in the abbreviated spring season caused by the coronavirus pandemic, proving a state tournament berth would have likely been in the cards again for a surging Eagles program.
And as a senior, the 6-foot-1 outside hitter put together an ultra-efficient season as another talented Arlington group won the Wesco 3A/2A title, made a run back to the state tournament and matched the sixth-place finish from 2019. Mekelburg delivered 4.6 kills per set with a .379 hitting percentage along the way, adding 1.3 digs and 0.9 aces per frame.
For her stellar senior season and high school career, Mekelburg is The Herald’s 2021 All-Area Volleyball Player of the Year.
“She’s extremely coachable. She’s extremely likable,” Arlington coach Kelly Pederson said. “She loves this sport and she works really hard. Those are keys to anybody’s success in addition to being naturally talented like she is.”
Mekelburg, an Abilene Christian University signee, peppered opponents all season with hard, well-placed spikes, including a stretch when she averaged five kills per set or more in 11 of 16 matches. And her efficiency was on display as well with a .500 hitting percentage or better in nine contests.
“There’s no doubt about it that if we (receive) a serve and we can give her the ball, it’s going down.” Pederson said. “We want that first ball transitioned no matter what is happening, and her hitting percentage is clearly key in making those wins happens.”
Pederson praised Mekelburg’s ability to attack from all over the court and her high volleyball IQ. And on top of being a constant threat for opponents to worry about, Mekelburg has been a standout teammate as well.
“We can only be as successful as the team is successful, and the good news about that is Emily makes the other players around her better,” Pederson said. “She encourages them and she is someone that they want to get the ball to. She’s always a positive force on the court at all times.”
There’s been plenty of lasting memories for Mekelburg during her time with the Eagles, but this year’s had an added significance. She’s played alongside the Eagles’ talented core group of seniors since elementary school, and this was their last shot to get back to the state tournament.
“I look back at it and I’m just so proud of us,” Mekelburg said. “We worked so hard for it. We set goals. Every practice we gave it our all. So to finally look back and see that we hit (those goals) is just the best feeling in the world.”
“I know some of these girls will be my best friends for life,” she added. “I’m just super thankful for who I’ve learned from – all my coaches and my teammates. I’m just super thankful for this program.”
And next up for the Arlington star is a shot at playing volleyball at the NCAA Division I level.
“You can physically tell she’s not done and you can mentally tell she’s not done,” Pederson said. “She’s got a lot more to do with this sport, and I’m super excited to watch how that goes.”