Kennedy Croft is quick, she can jump, she can hit a volleyball with force and accuracy. She grew up in a home where the sport is a big part of family life.
Unanimously, though, Croft, her teammates and coaches identify a quality that can’t be taught as the key to Tumwater High School’s 5-foot-10 outside hitter being named The Olympian’s 2015 All-Area Player of the Year as a sophomore.
“I’ve loved volleyball forever,” said Croft, the daughter of T-Birds coach Tana Otton. “I was looking at my old Twitter posts and noticed I was always tweeting about volleyball and I thought, ‘I’m so weird.’ I hope when people see me play, they can see how much I love playing.”
Tumwater assistant coach Sidney Reid has known Croft since before she joined the T-Bird staff in 2003. She recognized the passion Croft had at an early age.
“Kennedy has a drive; she wants to be the best,” Reid said. “It’s not her mom telling her to play, it’s all her own desire and love of the game.”
Her intangibles have produced tangible results for the T-Birds, who begin the defense of their Class 2A state championship at 1 p.m. Friday against Franklin Pierce at Saint Martin’s University.
I was looking at my old Twitter posts and noticed I was always tweeting about volleyball and I thought, ‘I’m so weird.’ I hope when people see me play, they can see how much I love playing.
On her way to MVP honors in the 2A Evergreen Conference, Croft compiled a .423 hitting percentage as the T-Birds went undefeated in league play. During the preseason, she hammered a Tumwater-record 29 kills in a win over 4A’s second-ranked Curtis — a mark she nearly equaled with 28 in a District 4 championship game victory over Ridgefield last weekend.
A year ago, Croft made varsity as a freshman but felt out of place at first, concerned that her early promotion might be viewed as tied to her mom’s status as the head coach. But by the time she played her way to first team all-league honors, there was no doubt she belonged.
“She did such a fantastic job of maturing and evolving into a varsity player,” Reid said. “The other coaches at state (won by the T-Birds in straight sets over North Kitsap in the final) couldn’t believe she was a freshman.”
Senior teammate Jaeya Reed watched outsiders’ doubts melt away as Croft’s first season went on, but says the team never had a problem embracing a freshman star.
“She proved she deserved the position,” Reed said. “Kennedy’s very humble. She does the job quick and easy. There’s no doubt she’s going to put the ball away when we need her to.”
Maddy Pilon, Tumwater’s record-setting junior setter, agrees.
“She’s strong, mentally and physically. She can hit, she can pass, she can set,” Pilon said of Croft, who plays all six rotations. “I listen to her voice during games. She’ll let me know where she wants the ball and I know no matter what she’ll get a swing on it.”
Croft and assistant coach Reid both recall the same earliest volleyball memories.
Visiting Otton at her home, Reid watched 8-year-old Kennedy pass a volleyball to herself off the living room wall, again and again.
“I’d try to make 10 in a row, then 20. When I got to 300 in a row it finally got a little boring, but we had family competitions, too, with my mom and my brother,” Croft said.
She became good, and by eighth grade she made her first trip to club nationals with Puget Sound Volleyball Academy. Croft was stunned to receive a recruiting letter from the University of Idaho, the first of dozens that have arrived since.
She has made unofficial visits to Washington, UCLA, USC and Portland. Beach volleyball, the latest addition to the NCAA’s list of championship sports, could be on the docket in college and beyond.
For the moment, though, her focus is on helping the T-Birds make another successful run in the state tournament.
“I love all my teammates so much. People who don’t know volleyball think the hitters are always the best players,” she said. “But our defense does such a great job of keeping the ball in play. Maddy puts up so many good sets, Jaeya’s leadership is important.”
Hitters may not always be the best players, but for the next two-plus years, Tumwater’s opponents have a challenging one to account for in their game plans.
ALL-AREA VOLLEYBALL TEAM
MH Hali Ehresmann, Capital, jr: Ehresmann was dominant at the net this season, leading the Cougars in blocks (39) and kills (172). She played all around and also led in digs with 176.
MH Julianna Salanoa, Timberline, jr.: At 5-11, Salanoa is one of the strongest hitters in the area and a challenge to defend. She racked up 198 kills and 49 blocks for the Blazers this season.
OH Alex Porter, North Thurston, sr.: The 3A Narrows MVP led the league in kills percentage at .409 and finished with 151 total. Coach Jackie Meyer calls Porter the Rams’ go-to player who rarely made an error.
OH Lauren Wilson, Olympia, sr.: Essential during crunch time, Wilson played every set of every match and led the Bears in kills (257), blocks (39) and points scored (316).
S Julia Fleener, Olympia, sr.: Coach Laurie Creighton said Fleener is the glue that held the Bears together and pursued every ball at the expense of her body. Fleener racked up 572 assists, led the team with 35 aces and scored 177 points from the service line.
S Maddy Pilon, Tumwater, jr.: Pilon tied the school record for single-game assists with 59 this season in last week’s district championship match against Ridgefield. She will make her second 2A state appearance with the T-Birds on Friday.
L Cristina Hegarty, Tumwater, sr.: Hegarty had a seamless transition to libero this season after previously playing at outside hitter for the T-Birds. She leads the team with 292 digs, and as of Friday has a 2.22 pass rating on 491 attempts.
Player of the year: Kennedy Croft, Tumwater
Coach of the year: Tana Otton, Tumwater
Outside hitters: Caroline Franklin, Black Hills, sr.; Morgan Masters, Tenino, sr.; Jaeya Reed, Tumwater, sr.; Steffany Sweet, Capital, sr.; Ashley Tuiaana, Timberline, sr.
Setters: Abby Guerrero, W.F. West, sr.; Kailey Losey, North Thurston, sr.
Liberos: Bryse Gilmore, Centralia, sr.; Ellie King, Black Hills, sr.