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Adam Fondren, Deseret News
Leinata "Bubs" Leakehe passes the ball during practice at West High in Salt Lake City Monday, Sept. 18, 2017.
We are all striving to be better. We’re all on each other. We’re just encouraging each other to be better. —Bubs Leakehe

SALT LAKE CITY — It was not a lack of talent that cast a cloud of uncertainty over Leinata Leakehe’s volleyball future as her freshman season at West High came to a close last fall.

It was, instead, her negative decisions.

“It was just so hard for me freshman year because I was never going to class,” said the sophomore outside hitter who is known to her friends and family as Bubs. “I got hooked onto a boy who really wasn’t anything anymore to me now.”

Her first year of high school was Kim Norman’s first year as the Panthers' head coach. As the very accomplished coach sought to change the culture of a program mired in mediocrity, Leakehe was trying to find herself.

“Coming into sophomore year, I have learned where to stand as a person,” she said. “It’s been wonderful (to have Norman as a coach). It’s changed me as a person. …She’s taught me everything – more than volleyball.”

Norman, whose coached successful high school and college programs, said she walked into the gym at her first practice and pointed out that the team didn’t have a championship banner in the rafters since 1978.

“And, they said, ‘Well, we don’t win here’,” she said of how failure had become an acceptable reality that impacted far more than whether or not the school’s sports teams won games. “We changed everything … It was hard. Everybody was fighting against it, and here is Bubs, she is a freshman leading our team statistically — and in the win column — but she couldn’t lead us in the community.”

Players were lackadaisical in their approach to training, practice and their education. Interestingly there were a number of new coaches who came into the school, and all of them were selling the same ideas.

“All of us new coaches came in without talking to each other on the same page,” Norman said. “We had all created successful programs, and we knew the key ingredients. …If you talk to us, you’re going to get almost the same classroom-community-court-family feeling.”

Norman said the team had enough success with the new changes, which included strict standards for school attendance and achievement, that they earned a play-in game to the state tournament.

“We missed the state tournament in a five-game battle with Layton,” she said. “And even though we missed it, it created an environment of hope.”

Coaches stumbled upon a community grant that several players were able to access in order to earn an opportunity to play club volleyball in the off-season. Meanwhile, some of the players were part of the Panthers state championship softball team.

“I think women’s softball winning that state championship has also created, well, it gave them hope that it was possible,” Norman said. The 16-and-under High Country club team that many of the girls played on won nearly every tournament they entered, and the success made them hungry for more.

Leakehe said winning not only gave them confidence, it also was a bit of a reward for all of their hard work. She and the boy broke up but remain friends, and now she said she’s focused on improving her own life.

“(Kim) was always lecturing me, and my parents were always lecturing me,” she said. “And I guess I just got tired of it. I changed for myself.”

She still leads the team statistically (168 kills), as the Panthers enter region play with just one loss and impressive aspirations.

“If I didn’t have volleyball, I think I would just be a regular student who wasn’t making any changes, just doing school.” And she said Norman not only has them taking care of each other as teammates but also trying to improve the entire school culture.

“We are all striving to be better,” Bubs said. “We’re all on each other. …We’re just encouraging each other to be better.”