If Tuesday night’s match is tight and the State College girls’ volleyball team needs a point, everyone in the gym knows who will be getting that set.
Taylor Leath knows it will be her time to deliver the big kill. She knows there will be pressure, and she is ready for it.
“I’m happy about it,” the senior outside hitter said. “I like to hit, I like to play, I like to pass. Whatever my team needs from me, I’ll do. It’s not like a ton to me ... That’s what I’m built to do and I have no problem with it.”
It is the burden that comes with being one of the top volleyball seniors in the nation, a prized recruit headed to a top 20 program on a full scholarship.
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The Lady Little Lions will be needing one of the best matches Leath, and all of her teammates, can muster Tuesday night when they face North Allegheny at 7 p.m. at Chartiers Valley High School in Bridgeville.
It is just a first-round PIAA Class AAA match, but it pairs the Nos. 4 and 5 teams in the state, according to the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association. The Tigers, who are stocked with good size at the net and won the District 7 title, knocked the Little Lions out of last year’s PIAA tournament in the quarterfinals.
Much will depend on Leath, who will be enrolling at North Carolina next fall and be a member of the Tar Heels, who are currently ranked No. 19 in the nation.
The 6-foot-1 outside hitter has picked up, or been nominated for, scores of statewide and national honors through her high school career. She leads the team with 4.7 kills per set — 355 total for the season — while hitting .376. She also leads with 203 digs, is second with 37 blocks and is third with 44 aces.
“I like the role,” Leath said. “I do really well when people are expecting things from me, and when I’m expecting them from myself as well. Being a leader has definitely been a journey for me, trying to mix being a vocal leader and being a leader wit body language. I’m not a super ‘woo-hoo’ type of person, but sometimes the team needs that.”
Expectations always rest a little heavier on the most talented, whether they like it or not. Even if leadership doesn’t come in the form of words, it still is expected in actions.
“Whether you want it or not, you’re going to get it,” coach Chad Weight said. “I’ve had a lot of talks with her and Christine (Irwin, a fellow talented senior), ‘However you guys are playing and whatever you put into it, everybody that’s out there with you is looking at you. What are you doing?’ They’re going to follow you. I talk with both of them about making sure you’re always putting forth everything you can.”
Leath also had the tough task this season of returning from knee surgery, which forced her to miss all of her junior year. Playing with the U.S. A-2 volleyball program in Iowa in the summer of 2012, she collided with another player, tearing cartilage in her knee. Following the strict instructions of her doctor, Wayne Sebastianelli, she even missed the first month of her club’s season after the Lady Little Lions were done last year.
The team had to wonder what might have been with three women bound for Division I programs on the roster. Setter Suzanne Horner is now the starting setter at Mississippi State, and outside hitter Emma Weakland is at Winthrop. Weakland also was lost for the season to an injury.
“Last year was hard, not being able to play,” Leath said. “States was like — you could taste it last year. If it wasn’t for Emma and me being out, I think we definitely would have been one of those top contenders.”
While the eye-grabbing part of Leath’s game is her athleticism, quickness and elevation above the net to drill a spike, there is more to her game. She also leads the team in digs and is an anchor on the team’s serve-receive.
“She does a lot of good things well, not just hitting the ball,” Weight said. “I know that’s what everybody looks at — tall girl who hits the ball really, really hard — but she passes well, she plays really good, explosive defense playing middle back.”
Leath is eager to get on to that next step in her life, moving to Chapel Hill and joining the Tar Heels, but she knows there are still matches to be played — possibly four of them — and there is plenty that rests on her shoulders.
“Now we have to play every game like it’s our last,” Leath said. “Every game we have to play like there’s nothing else to play for except for each other. I think North Allegheny is definitely a great team, but I think they’re also a beatable team. We have to mentally be there and physically be there as much as we’ve ever been before.”
And, should the match be tied 14-14 in the fifth set Tuesday night, there is little question where setter Janae Moran should be sending the ball.
“Without a doubt,” Weight said. “She knows.”