Maddy Pilon’s heart was racing.
It was the fall of 2014. She was a setter on the junior varsity volleyball team at Tumwater High School when two key varsity players were suspended for violating rules right before the Southwest District 4 tournament. Along with JV hitter Brooke Hare, Pilon got a text from coach Tana Otton asking her to come to her office.
“I still remember the moment,” she said. “I knew what she wanted to talk to us about, and I was scared to death. I couldn’t think straight the whole rest of the school day.”
Otton called Pilon and Hare up to varsity. Pilon was immediately put into the starting lineup, playing three rotations in a 6-2 system.
“She’s told me since then how nervous she was,” Otton said. “But at the time you’d have never known it.”
Tumwater rolled to the Class 2A state championship, beating North Kitsap in straight sets in the final, with Pilon picking up 23 assists. She credits Otton and her parents for giving her confidence.
“Coach Otton told me, ‘If you mess up, no one’s going to be mad at you, they’ll be mad at the girls who got suspended.’ My mom and dad said, ‘You know you can play at this level, so just play,’ ” Pilon said.
Two years later, Pilon is a college-bound senior committed to Eastern Oregon University. She leads the T-Birds (11-0, 6-0 2A Evergreen Conference) with a 9.9 assist-per-set average, and a 96.6 serve percentage.
“Every year she gets better,” Otton said. “She’s the best defensive setter we’ve had — one of the best in the state. She’s very competitive, doesn’t like it when the ball gets past her. She makes great digs and blocks.”
Pilon, third on the team with 2.3 digs per set and second behind Gonzaga commit Kennedy Croft in blocks, particularly enjoys blocking.
“Since I don’t get to hit, it’s fun to get up and block someone,” she said.
Although she says her older sister Morgan, now the starting setter at Northwest University, is her biggest role model, Pilon started out in YMCA and youth club volleyball, wanting to be a libero before being switched to setter.
At 5-foot-10, an inch taller than her sister, Pilon is longer than the average high school setter — something Otton appreciates.
“It’s really exciting when you get someone with that body type who can set,” she said.
Eastern Oregon agreed, seeking out its second Tumwater player in recent years, having recruited Pilon’s cousin, Emily Sampson, in 2007.
“I knew it was a good program and I enjoyed my visit,” Pilon said.
The Mountaineers’ current starting setter, Rachelle Chamberlain, is a senior. Pilon may have the opportunity to compete for playing time as a freshman, but she said she has some work to do to be ready.
“I have to get more consistent with the rotation on my sets and improve my eye work on defense,” she said. “Eastern Oregon plays a really fast tempo, so I need to read setters and hitters well.”
Otton has little doubt Pilon will succeed at the next level.
“She’s only going to get stronger,” Otton said. “She has a big upside.”
If she does get into the mix for the Mountaineers as a freshman, two matches on the schedule will be “weird,” she said. With Northwest and Eastern Oregon both members of the Cascade Collegiate Conference, she’ll match up twice against Morgan.
“I’ll hope she does well,” Pilon said. “But we win.”
Both sisters have volleyball at the top of their priorities outside of school, but Maddy has taken time out to play golf for Tumwater the past three seasons, and was a homecoming princess last weekend as teammate Cristina Hegarty was crowned queen, and volleyball manager Connor Ensign king.
“She was out there in her sparkly dress at halftime,” said Otton. “She’s really well-liked by her peers.”