For both of The Californian’s All-Area Volleyball Co-Players of the Year, McKenna Painton and Haylee Roberts, a great high school season was preceded by a summer challenge.
Roberts, a Liberty senior, played with a travel team comprised almost entirely of Division I college-bound players that provided a wickedly competitive environment in practices and matches.
“They were such skilled players, and they really prepared me to come back and totally change my perspective on volleyball,” said Roberts, who is now college-bound herself, to national runner-up Oregon. “I played more intense but still saw the court better after that.”
For Painton, a Centennial senior, the challenge came from within. She knew that the Golden Hawks had won the 2010 Central Section title behind senior Alyssa Gammel and were runners-up last year with senior Lauren Campbell. But this year, she was going to be the senior leader.
“I knew that as a senior who had been on varsity for four years, it was time for me to step up and be a major leader,” Painton said. “I think that since I had that experience, girls looked up to me in that way — how seriously I took volleyball and knowing how much I do want to win.”
Both Roberts and Painton did plenty of winning — with Roberts’ Patriots edging Painton’s Golden Hawks for the Southwest Yosemite League title and then in the Division I semifinals en route to a five-set loss to Clovis West in the championship.
“Going into senior year, we all were like, ‘This is our last chance to prove something and do something,’” Roberts said. “I think of this season as a success even though we didn’t win Valley. We came and proved ourselves and played hard all season long.”
Roberts, a 6-foot-3 middle blocker, was incredibly efficient. She averaged 4.4 kills and 1.9 blocks a game — both top five in the county — playing against the toughest competition in the section, and she rarely made an error. Her kill percentage of .478 meant that nearly half of the time she spiked the ball, it found the floor.
“She didn’t just have one shot; she could pretty much hit the ball anywhere she wanted,” Liberty coach Lean Slayton said. “To have a girl her size at this age, it’s kind of young for a girl that tall to be able to move the way she does. And a lot of girls will use that height and not work on their vertical. She works. She loves volleyball as much or more than anyone I’ve coached.”
Likewise, Painton’s success came because of many hours on the practice court and in the gym.
“She’s very gifted, however she never settled for that,” Centennial coach Brooke Roberts said. “She didn’t have seventh-period class, so she would go work out and then come to practice.
“I’d say, ‘Gosh, you work so hard,’ and she’d just kind of smile and say, ‘Coach, I gotta get my flow on.’”
Even though Painton has almost always been an undersized outside hitter at 5-foot-8, her hard work and intensity paid off with a scholarship to Cal State Fullerton — as a defensive specialist.
“I’m really excited for it,” Painton said. “I’ve always kind of liked defense more than offense, and it’ll be a change. I think I’ll be able to adjust to it.”
The statistics back her up. Painton, known as an intense player with a rocket right arm, averaged 4.6 kills a game for Centennial this season but also contributed 4.4 digs.
“I see that she’ll be a great defensive player,” Roberts said, “but gosh, can she hit the ball. But she has great ball control. She plays the whole game. She’s a great defense, blocks well, and oh my gosh, she’s so quick. So just reacts so quickly and sees things unfold.”
What unfolded this year is two volleyball seasons by senior leaders at rival schools that were built with hard work for years.
Both Roberts and Painton are now Players of the Year to show for it.
“It’s such an honor just to be categorized with such great players who have received the award before me,” Painton said. “Now we’re a part of it.”