Julianna Salanoa earned a spot on Timberline High School’s varsity volleyball team as a freshman in 2013.
But the Blazers, who were on their way to the Class 3A state tournament with a 21-1 record that season, were loaded at middle blocker, Salanoa’s position. She was a self-described “benchwarmer.” But, with talented middle blockers Riley Podowicz and Molly Emmons to observe, she said the season wasn’t a waste.
“I was able to watch, to see the decisions they made, which worked and which didn’t,” Salanoa said. “They passed along a lot of tips, not only about the game, but about staying positive and being a leader.”
She learned well.
Now a senior, Salanoa has helped lead the Blazers back to the Class 3A state tournament, which begins Friday at the Toyota Center in Kennewick, for the first time since her freshman season. Salanoa, considered one of the area’s most dynamic players by several local coaches, tallied 265 kills, 183 digs and 72 stuff blocks to pace Timberline during the regular season, which is why she is The Olympian’s 2016 All-Area volleyball player of the year.
Today, Podowicz — a former all-area player of the year herself — is a college junior, playing regularly at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and Emmons is a freshman playing at Southwestern Oregon Community College. Salanoa, who will sign her National Letter of Intent with New Mexico State on Wednesday, has developed into a mentor, with junior Kasey Louis learning from her.
“She’s super humble, one of the best teammates you could ask for,” Blazers coach Krista Manke said of Salanoa. “What Riley did for her as a freshman, she’s doing for Kasey and the other younger girls.”
Salanoa, who was also named the 3A South Sound Conference’s most valuable player on offense after hitting at a .464 clip and averaging six blocks per match, takes her leadership role seriously.
“We’ve got a young team, so (co-captain and setter) Natalie Stark and I do our best to guide them,” she said. “We can’t be hypocrites and say ‘this is how you lead’ and then do something else. We try to show them the right way to play, the right way to treat teammates and how to avoid negativity on the court.”
Salanoa got a late start in volleyball. Growing up with basketball and track, she didn’t pick up a volleyball until she joined her club team, Capital Ice, during eighth grade. It didn’t take long to decide which sport was her true love. A standout in youth track and a member of the Timberline varsity basketball team as a freshman, Salanoa decided to focus on volleyball beginning in the 10th grade.
“I love the teamwork, the way volleyball includes everybody and unites the team,” Salanoa said. “At Timberline, the coaches work really hard to create a family atmosphere. I love everything about it.”
College coaches noticed.
While Manke acknowledged that Salanoa is “dynamic, strong, fast and smart,” and Salanoa herself said recruiters told her they valued her “power, athleticism and versatility,” the key to ultimately landing a Division I scholarship may well have been an intangible.
“Her love for the game just spills out of her,” Manke said. “I had coaches tell me they were drawn to how obvious it is she enjoys playing.”
Interestingly, Salanoa will be the third Timberline athlete in the past five years to sign with NMSU, located about 1,700 miles southeast of Lacey. Taylor Hetrick, a pitcher, played for the Aggies’ baseball team in 2011. Sasha Weber, a guard, was a four-year starter for the women’s basketball team.
Salanoa said similarites between Timberline’s volleyball program, and coach Mike Jordan’s program at NMSU — which has won four Western Athletic Conference championships in the past five seasons — influenced her decision.
“They have a great family atmosphere, it reminded me of what we have at Timberline,” Salanoa said. “The coaches are really genuine. I gravitated toward them. There was good mojo at NMSU.”
Manke believes Salanoa will make a smooth transition to the Division I level.
“She wants to be good and has the drive to make it happen,” Manke said. “She works the extra hour, works in the offseason. She plays for her club, she trains and lifts. She’s open to different ideas, different styles of coaching.”
Beyond volleyball, Salanoa plans to pursue the pre-med track in college, though she is undecided as to whether to carry through to medical school or choose nursing as a career.
“I’m definitely going to find a job in the medical field that I fit into and work with children,” she said.
When Timberline plays its final match of the season in this weekend’s state tournament, an era will have come to an end.
“Julianna’s that rare kid you get 100 percent from — from her freshman year to her senior year,” said Manke. “I feel truly blessed and honored to have coached an athlete like her.”