Chris Leverenz slid backward off the bleacher seat and onto her feet in Auburn Riverside High School’s gymnasium. She laughed and wiped a tear beginning to stream from her eye.
It’s because she was asked the question she knew was eventually coming: Is she prepared to have just one more weekend to coach outside hitter Calley Heilborn?
“You’re going to make me emotional. Oh my God,” said Leverenz, who has coached the Ravens for 23 years.
“I’ve coached some amazing kids and kids I’ve had great relationships with. But this team as a whole has really connected with my soul. I don’t know why, but I think Calley is a big part of that.”
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“It’s made it hard for me to ever imagine her going away.”
There’s been very few players, if any, to come through Auburn Riverside’s illustrious volleyball program that are like this Heilborn – and her older sister, Carson, was the Gatorade Washington state volleyball player of the year four years ago.
For the second straight time, Calley Heilborn has been selected as The News Tribune’s All-Area high school volleyball player of the year. She hopes to lead the Ravens to their second consecutive 4A state title, her third overall state title and a fourth consecutive trip to at least the state semifinals.
“She’s an all-around kid,” Emerald Ridge co-coach Bobby McGivern said after his team lost, 3-1, to Auburn Riverside in the 4A West Central District championship match on Saturday. “She passes well, hits well. Then her effort – she is scrambling into the stands to get the ball.
“We told our team, Calley is going to get her kills. She’s so crafty. You just have to set up your defense as best you can and hope you can sometimes be in position to get some digs.”
Heilborn has started all four years, even as a freshman on that 3A title team in 2014 led by her older sister. Now Heilborn, who committed to Western Washington University over Boise State and Wichita State, plays alongside her younger sister, Camden.
Auburn Riverside opens the 4A state tournament against Skyline at 11:30 a.m. on Friday at the Toyota Center in Kennewick in what has already been the most successful four-year run Leverenz said her program’s ever had.
“We’ve worked so hard to just try to get there,” Heilborn said. “And now that we’re here, trying to win it all again – oh my word, oh my word. It’s going to be so hard, but it’s going to be so fun.”
And expect a different Heilborn than even the one that was the 4A state tournament MVP a year ago.
For as good as Heilborn has been the past four years, Leverenz saw a switch flip this past weekend.
If Heilborn has one weakness, Leverenz said it’s confidence – knowing she’s the best hitter in the state and playing like that. But early in last week’s district tournament Leverenz told her team that someone had to step up. Someone had to be a leader.
“And I didn’t say it to anyone in particular, but I said, ‘Somebody has to be a hero and carry us through this,’ ” Leverenz said. “The next play, Calley comes down and hammers the ball and she comes down and points at everybody and you could tell she was intense. And she was like that the rest of the way through the finals.”
Even Heilborn said she doesn’t get in zones like that too often.
“I was just happy, but intense and focused and wanting to win so badly that I was trying to go for every single ball,” Heilborn said. “That kind of zone has happened before, but it’s not as long. It’s weird. It’s so weird.”
As good as she is – and has been – she naturally deflects attention to others. It’s what draws everyone to her. After a practice this week, the 6-foot-1 Heilborn was surrounded by eight of her teammates, noticeably towering over them, as they chatted with her.
“She’s best friends with everybody,” older sister Carson Heilborn said. “And I think that’s because she’s always herself. Even her freshman year, we were on the same team and usually freshmen are super shy and back off, but Calley is the one rolling on the ground, super excited, after every good play – just being herself.”
“I feel better as a player when I’m next to her,” said Auburn Riverside’s senior setter, Ciera Zimmerman, who is committed to Colorado State. “She’s the positive energy on the team.”
Every year, Leverenz has a day where they ask their seniors to talk about how they started in volleyball and their experiences.
So up came senior middle blocker Anna Maracich. She sat on a stool and was asked how her life would be different if she wasn’t part of Auburn Riverside volleyball.
“And she starts getting emotional and she’s like, ‘Well, can I just talk about my friend, Calley,’ ” Leverenz recalled. “And then all the sudden everyone is in tears and Calley is looking at her like, ‘Oh, crap.’ And she said all these things about how amazing of a human being Calley is, and a friend and sister and volleyball player and she says, ‘I don’t think people realize how wonderful Calley is.’ ”
It starts with the Heilborn parents. Karl and Caroline Heilborn said they always tried to define success for their four children – Carson, Connor, Calley and Camden – as growth and character over wins and losses.
“Why do all the C-team kids love her? Because she loves them,” Caroline said. “We don’t care a rip that she’s a great volleyball player. That’s the top of the birthday cake. It’s that loving part though, and how do you share and be giving of yourself?”
And volleyball just came naturally. Karl played beach volleyball after graduating from Renton and attending UW. The Heilborns would play just about every day with a raggedy net strung from their garage to the basketball hoop in front of their home.
But they also stressed cross training. Carson, Calley and Camden all play tennis along with volleyball, and they grew up playing soccer and basketball and putting up with the summer camps their mom designed – with biking, obstacle courses, red rover and anything else to get the kids moving.
Caroline lost out, though. She earned her master’s degree in vocal performance and she teaches drama and opera.
“At 9 a.m., you’ll hear little kids over at our house singing opera,” Calley laughed.
“I tried to keep my kids off the volleyball court!” Caroline yelled in angst. “It wasn’t for me not trying!”
They grew up playing the cello, piano and everything else Caroline could conjure.
“They did every music lesson known to man and I had them in every single one of my plays and they were so dang good … and then they went to the dark side!” Caroline yelled again, clenching her fists in the air.
“But, no, I love it. And, of course. I’ve fallen in love with volleyball after all these years.”
And she said that’s because of Leverenz’s coaching. Caroline said that Leverenz and Calley are like twin souls.
“Yes, Calley – just her heart and mine are like connected,” Leverenz said. “I had Carson and I was like nobody will ever pass up Carson because she was the coolest kid, too. Calley’s cool, but on an even different level. She’s quirky and silly and back in our day someone would have called her kind of nerdy, but in this arena she is the coolest kid.
“I know that when the going gets tough, Calley and Anna and all these girls are not just playing for themselves, they are playing for me. And I’ve never had a team like that to this degree.”
She, again, wiped a tear away from her eye.
“And I get emotional about that.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677