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The City Journals

Hillcrest volleyball players learn skills, leadership to build program to win on and off the court

Sep 09, 2021 10:33AM ● By Julie Slama

Hillcrest High School captain junior Emma Walters, seen here September 2020 setting a ball against Highland High, said this year’s team has a lot of potential and natural talent. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

When she’s not in school or studying, or on the volleyball court, Hillcrest High School junior Emma Walters may be found fixing up her motorcycle.

“I bought it, I fixed it up, got some parts, replaced it,” she said. “It’s a constant work in progress, but I can still ride it. It’s still a lot of fun and my dad has a cycle too, so we go riding together.”

Although mechanical engineering may be the future of the international baccalaureate student, Walters is known as Hillcrest’s starting setter. It’s not a role that she expected, but got thrust into, while playing a sport she loves.

“I originally started playing because it’s always been in my family, my extended family, especially like my cousins, aunts and uncles, we always play outdoor volleyball,” she said. “My grandma and grandpa, my little cousins, would get in there and it was so much fun.”

In fourth grade, Walters joined a recreation team and in middle school, attended volleyball camps. Her position then was middle.  

Then, came high school.

“I decided I was going to Hillcrest, so I set out for the freshman team my freshman year and I made JV. They needed a setter. It was a rough year because I had never set before and I wasn’t very confident in myself,” Walters recalled, first feeling relieved that there were two setters so she would only play half of a game, then panicked when she learned at the first game of the season, the other JV setter was out sick. “I thought, ‘OK, I have to play all the way around.’ I had never set before, I was just a tiny little freshman, and I was so nervous. I definitely cried and cried at home, and I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can ever set again.’”

Then, she acknowledged, tears fell on the court.

“I guess in the back of my mind, preparing for that game, I’m like, ‘it’s OK, you won’t even be on the whole time, it’s fine. But then, they’re like, ‘no, you have to be on the entire time.’ But I’m so glad because now it’s my favorite thing in the world, to be able to play that. I’m glad that I’ve been able to grow those skills for the varsity team,” Walters said.

Not just for the Huskies, by also for her club team, which this summer, Walters and her Hillcrest teammate, junior Francesca Gazani Bazan, were able to play at the AAU National Championship in Orlando.

“I think we both played really well, and we worked really well together,” Walters said, knowing that the national experience will help her this high school season. “I definitely think having Franny there with me will help a lot. She often gets the passes that help me get to the sets that I need. Having that consistency with those passes from Francesca will help me keep that same level of intensity, that same level of aggressive setting and pushing myself.”

Their high school coach, Melissa Guymon, knows that experience has helped them grow into strong varsity starters.

“They both have a really strong growth mindset; they’re good at embracing challenges and their skills are just more refined as they’ve had a lot of training and technique,” she said about the two team captains. “They bring some strong fundamental skills so they can share with the other girls. They’re good leaders and leaders by example.”

In addition to Walters returning to the varsity team, junior hitter Aryanna Hinckley returns. Most other varsity players graduated or moved in the offseason, so Guymon is relying on several of last year’s JV players and a freshman to step up on the varsity squad.

This season Hillcrest is in a new region—5A region 7—so it’s hard to gauge how they’ll place, Guymon said, but she hopes her team can place in the top four. 

“What’s hard is that not all of us were in the same region. I can see how they did last year, but a lot of teams lost a lot of seniors, and I don’t know how big of contributors their juniors were. So, we’re focusing on the process. One of our themes this year is trying to enjoy the process of improvement with a growth mindset. We also want to take the top four. We think that’s realistic based off of how those teams did last year. Then, we’re trying to be realistic, but setting a goal that I feel like is achievable and it’s definitely above how we performed in the past,” she said.

Last year, the Huskies were in some close matches, but ended up eighth in their region, with a 1-13 record, which Walters said doesn’t reflect this year’s team’s ability.

“This year, we’re a lot more positive. We’re a little bit of a younger team, but I think we have a lot of potential and a lot of natural talent. If we can get some training in there together and some practice working with each other, we can play really well and we can go far. 

“(Guymon) is incredibly, mentally resilient. She understands us very well and she is all about what’s best for the team and the potential we all have,” said Walters, who also is working on getting her jump setting and jump serving more consistent for this season’s play so she can “create the faster set, which is harder to block.”

This region play begins Sept. 9 against Cottonwood High, the only team that remains in their region from last year. This year’s region stretches to play schools from an hour away to the west and south to three hours to the east. State play begins Oct. 28. The Huskies also are scheduled to play Green Canyon in the preseason, which is a couple hours north, as well as local teams of Alta, Taylorsville and Kearns.

The Huskies held open gyms during the summer, brought in former college players and coaches, played in tournament games, and practiced skills and techniques. The focus was not just for varsity and JV, but for the sophomore and freshman teams as well as the middle school program, which has 30 future players. They also had 72 third- through eighth-graders attend a volleyball camp where her players were role models, leaders on the court, to help establish the program. 

While Guymon encourages student-athletes to stay home if they’re sick, and she continues to sanitize balls—lessons learned from last season during the pandemic—she said “it makes all the difference” to be able to resume to a more normal-looking season with team dinners and gatherings.

“I think all those little things that you do, spend time together, you get to know the people on your team. The better you know someone, the better you can understand them and communicate and sometimes, not even just communicate. Understanding other people makes you a little bit more empathetic so maybe if they are not up to your skill level, or maybe if they have different types of struggles at home, it creates some unity. I think it makes a difference in your performance and your relationship on the court,” she said. “Ultimately, I want this program to be a winning program. I am always disappointed when we lose. I really hate losing; it’s more than bumps, setting and spiking. It’s about trying to build people. If we can’t find success in just improvement, it’s not going to be a successful season, no matter how our team performs. I love my team and I’m dedicated to helping them improve and teach them traits that will help them be successful human beings.”