Even those players blessed with natural athletic ability will never achieve greatness if they don't find ways to maximize their own talent while elevating the play of those around them.
This year's Deseret News Most Valuable Players showed how hard work enhances talent while inspiring teammates.
6A MVP, Madi Robinson, Lone Peak
Madi Robinson’s natural ability makes her one of the best athletes in the state. Her work ethic makes her elite.
“Madi is simply one of the hardest working, no-nonsense kids I’ve ever been around,” said Lone Peak head coach Reed Carlson. “She wants to get in early, stay late, and she cannot get enough of volleyball. She’s not ok with just being good. She’s driven to be the best she can possibly be.”
The senior outside hitter led the Knights to a 6A title with 450 kills this season. She also earned 42 blocks and 230 digs.
“Her commitment raises the level of play in our gym,” Carlson said. “We spend a lot of time talking before practices about different sports psychology subjects, and one of them is the different character traits of champions. We talk about how you’ll earn what you earn; you’ll get what you give. Madi is a perfect example of someone who was able to earn something special in volleyball because of her hard work.”
Carlson said Robinson wasn’t always the best player on the court.
“When she first started playing, she had the arm, but she hadn’t put it all together,” he said. “All of these kids have watched her hard work translate into success. If you look at her, she’s a good athlete. What’s inspiring is what she’d been able to do. She’s taken herself to a whole new level simply by working really hard.” Robinson works just as hard off the court, as she maintains a 3.9 GPA. She has signed with BYU and will play for the Cougars next fall.
“She is really driven, not really a social butterfly,” Carlson said. “She’s a really nice, loving kid, but she’s just driven. She doesn’t like a lot of distractions outside of what her goals are. She’s not fueled by typical teenage requirements of a social life. She gets a lot of that socializing through volleyball.”
5A MVP, Annie Mecham, Box Elder
Speed isn’t something one might see as a valuable trait in volleyball. But it is one of the traits that set the junior setter and team captain apart from her peers.
“There is such a faster tempo offense that she controls just with her pure athleticism,” said Box Elder head coach Kristine Harding. “She’s able to get to balls that most girls would have to bail out on and resort to forearm passes instead of getting their hands on it.” Her speed allowed the Bees to run a much quicker offense than many of their opponents, and it gave them the edge against Bountiful in winning the 5A state championship.
“Her natural ability to run a faster offense with our middles, I felt that’s what separated our offense,” Harding said. “We had aggressive strong middles that our setter could set. I don’t think we’d compete at that high level if I didn’t have Annie running the court.”
Mecham was voted team captain by her peers, and she distributed the ball to the Bees all season.
“As much as her setting game helped us, her defensive game is huge,” Harding said. “She can get to some balls that nobody should be touching. She has these natural, quick reflexes. She makes those major hustle plays.”
Mecham is a hard worker who gave up basketball to focus on volleyball last year. She is also an honor student.
“She’s very focused,” Harding said. “She’s very positive on the court, and She’s very confident. She holds her teammates to a high standard.”
4A MVP, Emily Smith, Park City
Emily Smith’s volleyball career could have ended her freshman year when she suffered a serious shoulder injury.
Instead, she met with head coach Matt Carlson to discuss how she might be able to stay involved with the sport she loved.
“She said, ‘I’ll try being a setter’,” Carlson said. “So she switched to setter as a freshman, and she trained every, single day because she wanted to be good so bad. That’s just the kind of person she is. She’s probably one of the most competitive kids I’ve ever coached.”
Smith, who has committed to Utah, finished her junior season with 888 assists and 241 digs.
“She is definitely one of our emotional leaders,” Carlson said. “If she was up and intense, our entire team was intense.”
Smith learned to elevate the play of those around her through a positive example and her own hard work.
“What she learned how to do this year was take that intensity and turn it into inspiration,” Carlson said. “Having a kid who has that leadership and three years as a starter, it’s a huge advantage. It brings a little confidence to the program.”
As a younger player, Smith’s high expectations for herself and her teammates could be seen as demanding. But this year she learned to both praise and encourage, while never settling for mediocre. That drive helped the Miners earn their first volleyball championship in school history.
“She’s so committed and loves the game so much, that Friday after the state tournament, she said, ‘Can we come set again on Saturday?’” Carlson said laughing. “It was like, that (championship) was great; now let’s go get another.”
3A MVP, Marcie Jo Stapley, Morgan
It could have been a blow to Morgan’s championship hopes if senior middle blocker Marci Jo Stapley was an ordinary athlete.
But the three-year starter and honor student is far from ordinary. In 82 sets, the Snow College signee earned 379 kills and 43 solo blocks.
“She is a warrior,” said Morgan head coach Liz Wiscombe. “She had a really painful injury that’s really rare and hard to heal But there was never any question about whether she’d play. She played injured at state and you would never have known.”
Stapley has a long list of volleyball skills that helped the Trojans win their third-straight 3A title, but maybe most impressive was just her sheer strength.
“She farms with her dad,” Wiscombe said. “She is so physically strong. One of the hardest things about being going for UEA weekend (for volleyball) is she said, ‘I won’t get to go do the calves with my dad.’”
Stapley’s blocking was key to the Trojans’ tournament success, but it wasn’t just her skills that helped her team win a championship.
“She became a better blocker this year,” Wiscombe said. “She wanted everyone to compete, but she was very positive in building everyone up. Marci was always making sure everybody is doing well.” Stapley is a three-sport athlete, playing varsity basketball and throwing the shot put and javelin.
“She does it all,” Wiscombe said. “She will be really hard to replace.”
2A MVP, Hunter Vernon, North Summit
There isn’t anything Hunter Vernon can’t do on a volleyball court.
“She has amazing skills,” said head coach Sam Stephens. “She’s probably our top passer, probably our top digger. She’s a good server, and she sees the court really well. She’s what you hope for as a coach.” And as good as her physical skills are, her mental acuity is equally impressive.
“She’s pretty mentally tough,” Stephens said. “In fact, she’s just tough all around. She’ll play through pain. She wants to be on the court. She wants the ball when the game is close. She has confidence that she can put it away.”
The senior outside hitter led the Braves to their second straight 2A title with a gritty performance. She finished the season with 249 kills, 37 blocks and 223 digs.
Vernon has struggled with knee injuries, one in her sophomore season, and one in her junior year. Still, the Snow College commit has been a varsity starter for volleyball basketball and track until her knee injury last year.
She was the Braves’ only senior this year, and she developed into a worthy team leader.
“She has always been one of the best players,” Stephens said. “This year, really stepped up as a leader. She embraced everybody, no matter if they were sophomores or whatever. She believed in them. It was really great. She showed them with her example.”
Vernon is also a fun-loving teammate who works hard but never loses perspective.
“She is just really fun,” Stephens said. “She loves to have a good time, but she can be serious when she needs to be. She is a hard worker, who always wants to do things the right way. She wants to get better, and she puts in the time to do that. You don’t get those athletes very often.”
1A MVP, Karlee Eyre, Panguitch
Karlee Eyre will be the player Panguitch head coach Troy Norris talks about for years. That’s because the junior middle blocker went from being a bench warmer to being one of the keys to the Bobcats’ successful 1A title run.
“She hardly played at all last year,” said head coach Troy Norris. “She could always hit the heck out of the ball, but she couldn’t keep it inbounds.” A long-time coach, Norris said that a lot of times players who don’t play will sulk and their parents will complain.
The Eyres did none of that.
“She comes from a family where they understood and never made excuses,” he said. “They kept encouraging her, and she worked hard in the spring in our club volleyball program. She was able to come back this year and earn the 1A MVP. It’s a story I will tell for years. Girls that don’t get to play, who are willing to keep working and stay positive, look what can happen.”
Eyre’s a three sport athlete — basketball and track — and she has a tremendous amount of power behind her swing.
“She’s got an arm swing that’s unreal,” Norris said. “She can hit the ball really, really hard. But her best skill is probably blocking. She led the state in all classifications in blocking this year. And when we played bigger teams, she was the one who kind of shut them down.” She finished the season with 184 kills and 106 total blocks.
Eyre is not the kind of athlete to rely just on talent or rest on her laurels.
“I know everyone says this, but she’s so coachable, such a hard worker, dedicated and just a team player,” Norris said. “After every single practice, from fifth grade until now, she comes up and thanks me for coaching. Every, single day. I’ve never met a more appreciative girl.”