Penn State Volleyball

Haleigh Washington talks good game, backs it up on top-ranked Penn State women’s volleyball team

Penn State’s Haleigh Washington, seen here last month, is a talkative team leader who’ll lead the Nittany Lions into the first round of the NCAA tournament at 7:30 p.m. Friday against Howard.
Penn State’s Haleigh Washington, seen here last month, is a talkative team leader who’ll lead the Nittany Lions into the first round of the NCAA tournament at 7:30 p.m. Friday against Howard. For the CDT, file

In nearly four full seasons with the Penn State women’s volleyball program, there have been a few certainties with Haleigh Washington.

The middle blocker could be counted on to be an efficient hitter, solid blocker — and to provide very little silence.

When fellow senior captain Simone Lee was asked earlier this week if Washington talked too much, Lee responded “Oh no!” — and Washington quickly interjected, “All the time!”

The top-ranked Nittany Lions, who’ll play Howard in the first round of the NCAA tournament at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Rec Hall, have had dozens of exceptional athletes over the program’s history, and quite a few big personalities as well. Perhaps none have been at the positive, larger-than-life level of Washington.

“Haleigh’s really an engaging human being,” said coach Russ Rose, who leads Division I with 1,242 wins. “Very bright and very interactive, and I’m a big fan of most of her routines. I think some of them ... should probably be put on a low boil. ”

But Washington’s ebullience is not limited to volleyball. Last summer, she gushed about all the sights and sounds she and the team experienced on a trip to Brazil, and she also giddily discussed an independent study she had just completed at the library —“It was a-maaaa-zing!” — with the opportunity to check out 15th century medieval manuscripts. (“That was pretty cool.”)

There are times, however, when she really does dial back the chatter.

Washington remembered a moment last Friday at Wisconsin, when teammate Heidi Thelen was blocked by the Badgers’ Kelli Bates. Washington recalled Bates turning around, staring at Thelen and letting out a scream.

“I was so fired up,” Washington said. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to go out there and I’m ... gonna ... do ... absolutely nothing.’”

Talking smack through the net is not her style, she said. Besides, Penn State was still leading 19-13 after that point in the second set and went on to win in four sets.

“That speaks for itself,” she said, noting her father had a big influence in the attitude. “Walking out of their gym with a 3-1 win over them speaks for itself. You don’t need to say anything through the net. You play the game, you respect the game, you get out of there.”

Washington also did something rare in that match: She made an unforced hitting error. Rose had no problem with the play, calling it the hardest-hit ball of the night by his team, but the senior still apologized for the mistake during the next timeout.

Washington is second on the team with 3.02 kills per set, and her .515 hitting percentage leads the nation. If she can keep finding that success, she would be just the third Division I player in the rally-score era to hit over .500. In the 2009 national-title season, Arielle Wilson hit .540 for the NCAA record. Washington has just 33 errors over 30 matches, most from getting blocked, but it’s still a pretty small number.

“One of the things about Haleigh’s success,” Rose said, “is to this point in time, they know where the ball’s going — and there’s still a challenge getting it.”

Washington also has 1,115 kills and a .462 hitting mark for her career. Wilson’s team record is .468.

Washington, by the way, knows all of these stats. In the middle of matches she is computing her numbers in her head.

“It’s a terrible habit,” said Washington, whose 1.50 blocks per set ranks 12th in the nation. “To any young athlete ... just play the game. Don’t worry about the numbers, don’t worry about anything like that. You’ll still be just as good of an athlete if you just play the game.”

Washington also made a habit, along with Rose and the seniors, of daily reminders since before the season that the team was in a conference-title drought. This senior class could have been the first to graduate without a Big Ten trophy, but the 17th in program history was clinched last weekend.

It is one of the many high standards the program sets, along with the seven NCAA trophies sitting outside Rose’s office. The last was won in 2014, when the seniors were freshmen.

The usual goal sits in front of the Nittany Lions for the next three weekends of December, and there is little doubt Washington will keep talking about it.

“You always want to leave the program better than you found it,” she said. “Which is tough when you’re coming in freshman year and they had just won a national championship, and then you win it freshman year, It’s really tough to leave a program that’s already sky-high, higher than that.”

Gordon Brunskill: 814-231-4608, @GordonCDT

NCAA women’s volleyball

At Rec Hall

First round: Pittsburgh (25-6) vs. VCU (30-2), 5 p.m.; Howard (16-15) at No. 1 Penn State (29-1), 7:30 p.m.

Second round: First-round winners, 7 p.m. Saturday