Kentridge High School’s Zaiah Calvin showed what can happen in one year.
As a junior, she was a role player on the Chargers volleyball team. In the offseason, she dedicated herself to working on her skills and improving on the mental aspects of the game.
That set up a big senior season for her and her team. The Chargers, at one point in the season, were ranked the ninth best team ... in the nation. Kentridge went on to finish 25-1 and take third place in the Class 4A state tournament.
“Last year, it was kind of, ‘Hold your breath,’ ” Kentridge coach Eric Han said. “This year, it was, ‘Please serve Zaiah.’ Her ball control improved. She always had great leaping ability, but she refined her skills on offense too.
“It was crazy to see the leap she made from last year to this year. Last year, she would start on maybe a handful of teams and make that team better, but this year, you put her on any team Washington state, and instantly it’s better.”
Calvin says as a sophomore and junior, she would sometimes get frustrated on the court, and let her emotions get the best of her. This year, Calvin set out to not let the mental side of the game get in her way.
“I just thought, since it is my senior year, I’m going put everything into this season,” Calvin said. “Going through all of my high school years, I used to have a bad mental game when it came to playing, and when I made mistakes, it would just overtake me.
“It wasn’t the best, but I would show it on the court. I would mess up, and then keep continuing not letting the play go from when I messed up. … After I let everything go and just played my game, I just had fun.”
That fun translated to victories, and helped her team break into to the 4A state tournament bracket after coming up just short of advancing the previous three seasons. For all of her efforts, Calvin is The News Tribune’s All-Area volleyball player of the year.
Calvin was coached in the club season at Puget Sound Volleyball Academy by Bobby McGivern, who is also a co-head coach at Emerald Ridge, a perennially tough 4A program. He said Calvin’s willingness to work was the key.
“With our club team, she was our third outside hitter,” McGivern said. “She would just work hard during practices, and then whenever she had an opportunity, she would always make the best of that opportunity. I think with her, it was just being patient, and then seizing those opportunities.”
McGivern discovered that coaching against Calvin was not nearly as fun as coaching her. The Chargers defeated Emerald Ridge, 3-1, in their second match of the season.
Kentridge won 24 consecutive matches — and dropped just 16 sets all season with 15 shutouts — before its only loss of the season to Richland in the state semifinals. The Chargers won undefeated 4A NPSL Cascade and 4A West Central/Southwest bidistrict titles, and Calvin was her division MVP.
“Coaching against her, we had to know where she was at at all times,” McGivern said. “To the point where you have to kind of cheat your defense towards her, so our blockers would lean more towards her. I know we’re forcing someone else to beat us, but she was the go-to girl, so you’ve got to put a solid double block on her.”
Calvin, who is still considering a number of colleges looking for the right fit, has a jump reach of nearly 10 feet, which helps offset one thing that some might consider a detriment — her height. Calvin stands about 5-foot-7, Han said, which is the same size as the Chargers’ starting libero.
Some might see it as a challenge to overcome. Calvin never saw it for anything more than what it was.
“I don’t feel as short as (what) my height is,” she said. “I feel like I could be 5-9 or even 5-10, just because of how high I jump. My height doesn’t really affect me. When I feel short is when I see a 6-4 girl right beside the net and I’m like, ‘Whoa. She’s so tall, and I’m so short.’ Every girl feels like that when they’re shorter than a taller girl.”
Her size might have impacted how she was viewed by her opponents from time to time, but Calvin could quickly change perception with one hit.
“When they see me, if they’ve never heard of me or seen me play, they’re like, ‘Oh, short hitter on the outside.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, thanks,’ ” Calvin said. “Then they see me jump and they’re like, ‘Whoa, big hitter on the outside.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, thanks.’ ”
Calvin led the Chargers in kills (3.0) and digs (2.0) per set while exhibiting a new calm on the floor.
“You watch her demeanor the whole time she’s on the court, and it’s always the same,” McGivern said. “She doesn’t yo-yo. She doesn’t go through the ups-and-downs. She just stays even-keel.
“I think what she had to realize this year was being that leader and her teammates looking at her, she just had to stay in it mentally.”