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The City Journals

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

Nov 22, 2021 12:02PM ● By Julie Slama

After initially being uncertain, Hillcrest High School captain junior Emma Walters, seen here Aug. 24 setting a ball against Taylorsville High, relishes her role as the team’s setter. (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 hitter.  

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.

Even with an early season injury, she returned quickly and was named the MaxPreps player of the match Sept. 16, Sept. 28 and Oct. 5.

She and her Hillcrest teammate junior Francesca Gazani Bazan, were able to play with their club team 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 is helping 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.”

Gazani Bazan, who was named MaxPreps player of the match Sept. 11 and Sept. 23, also leads the state as of Oct. 7 in the most digs, with 388.

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.”

This season Hillcrest is in a new region, 5A region 7, facing new competition. As of Oct. 7, they were sitting in sixth place with four games left in regular season play. They had accumulated wins over Cottonwood, Uintah, Logan, Bonneville and Cyprus high schools. State playoffs begin Nov. 2.

Guymon said being able to do more normal-looking season activities such as dinners and gatherings “makes all the difference” with the team.

“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.”