On and off the volleyball court, Chris Leverenz is a boisterous woman with an infectious laugh. But her voice takes on a dreamy quality when she talks about the happiest place on earth.
No, not Disneyland — although she is a self-proclaimed “Disney freak.” The trip that would bring her the ultimate joy is to the winner’s circle at the state volleyball tournament.
In 20 seasons as Auburn Riverside High School’s coach, Leverenz has gotten close, taking her program to state nine times, including a Class 3A runner-up finish to Hanford in 2007.
But that elusive title is the one she dreams about. And with the undefeated Ravens ranked No. 1 in Class 3A, this just may be the year the magic happens.
“How good would that be to be a state champion?” she asked, rhetorically. “It would be amazing. You get tired of being second and third and fourth.
“You want to know what it feels like, so we can hope.”
Leverenz, 53, has been hoping for a long time. She went to the state championships for the first time as an assistant under legendary Auburn High coach Nancy Zehnder, whose teams lost in the finals four times (1988, 1991, 1994, 1997).
When Auburn Riverside opened in 1995, Leverenz was hired to steer the volleyball and softball programs. She stepped down from the Ravens’ fastpitch team in 2012 to not only put her sole focus into volleyball, but also to concentrate on her new position as the dean of students at Mount Baker Middle School within the district.
There is something special about this Auburn Riverside volleyball squad, she said. It has very much to do with its overall chemistry.
“For me, that’s the known important piece of any team,” she said, adding that she emphasizes off-court team bonding. “I have had some very talented teams in the past who have fallen short.
“This year, I’ve got the right connection. I’ve got the right group of kids.”
Carson Heilborn, an all-league setter and one of this year’s captains, said Leverenz instills a strong work ethic and sense of personal accountability in her players.
“She really just knows how to inspire all of us and get us going and working hard as a team and individually,” Heilborn said. “We love ‘Lev.’ She’s an amazing coach.”
Zehnder said the Ravens’ cohesiveness is apparent — even from the bleachers.
“The kids love her, and she has a great passion for it,” she said. “You can’t beat that.”
But can it translate into a state championship?
Leverenz said her message is always clear: “Make sure you’re making yourself better for November.”
“You can say all you want — gosh, we have chemistry, and this is a talented team — but it’s the ultimate goal as a coach,” she said of winning a state title.
Leverenz’s steadfast determination is well-known among her peers.
Tony Batinovich, the longtime volleyball and softball coach at Puyallup High School, understands what it’s like to be a perennial runner-up. He finally won a Class 4A fastpitch state title last spring in Spokane.
“Every year is different, of course,” he said. “But you keep plugging away for the kids because eventually it’s going to click right, and maybe you get a little lucky.
“It would be awesome for Chris if this is her year.”
Of course, the former Washington State University two-sport standout does have a life outside volleyball. In her spare time, Leverenz can be found walking Tyler, her 14-year-old yellow Lab; spending time with family; reading; and traveling —especially to the house of the mouse.
“Disneyland makes me feel young,” she said. “I love life, I love people, I love to be social.”
Leverenz is often asked if she will retire once Auburn Riverside wins a state title. She can’t help but laugh at the idea.
“Oh gosh, if I keep having years like this, it’s going to be a long time,” she said.
Growing more serious, she added that coaching is an elemental part of herself.
“If I’m Chris Leverenz, volleyball and softball coach, and I don’t have those things, who am I?” she said. “(Retiring) is going to be when I truly know who I am with those things.
“We’re always in search of our identity, and I want people to know the other person besides the coach and the educator.”
So the Ravens shouldn’t be worried?
“No, not right now,” she said with conviction. “I’m not there. These kids keep me young.”