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Accidental attachment

Wreck re-ignites SSHS senior's passion for volleyball

Austin Colbert

— Just before her senior season started with the Steamboat Springs High School volleyball team, Hayley Johnson was in a car wreck that possibly changed her life. While the injuries were relatively minor — she was rear-ended and suffered a concussion — it made her aware of how important the sport is to her.

"It sucked being out for three weeks and watching my team, but it also made me realize I wanted to play volleyball," Johnson said. "I'm glad I stuck with it and played my senior season. I wouldn't be playing in college if I hadn't played my senior season."

Johnson, who will be graduating from SSHS this spring, plans to sign with the Penn State Beavers to play volleyball in college. The Beavers, based out of Monaca, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, are one of more than two dozen satellite campuses that are part of the greater Penn State University system.

The large number of campuses allow for the competing schools to play in their own league, the Pennsylvania State University Athletic Conference, with many of the schools playing at the NCAA Division III level.

"Once she decided to play, she was all in, all season. And she was a really key component for the success of our team," SSHS volleyball coach Wendy Hall said. "She's been somebody on the fence about wanting to go on in school at all. I think that's the most exciting piece for me — that she's going to go on to college. And the fact she gets to play volleyball is just icing on the cake."

A Colorado native, Johnson had been living in Iowa before she moved to Steamboat Springs prior to her sophomore season. She only started playing volleyball in the seventh grade, but soon found a love for the game that caused her to stop playing all other sports. But, between the difficulties of school and her struggles on the court, this love hit a low point last summer.

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Both before and after her car wreck, Johnson gave serious consideration to walking away from volleyball forever.

"I had a pretty rough club season my junior year, and I kind of lost my passion for volleyball a little bit," she said. "But, I was super sad when I couldn't play in that three weeks."

Her passion re-ignited due to missing the early portion of the season, Johnson returned to the court and was a force for the Sailors. According to MaxPreps, she finished second on the team with 196 kills, only five behind senior Jenna Miller, and led the team with 3.1 kills per set.

With a deep senior class, the Sailors went on to finish 20-5 overall and won their first league title since the 2002 season, before a heartbreakingly early exit in the regional tournament.

"She had a slow start to the season. And I think that actually fueled her fire. When she did come back, she realized how much she loved it," Hall said. "She was a force at the net for us. She was the girl that was kind of our hammer. When we needed somebody to bring a ball down, she was the girl to do it."

Continuing her education after high school had never been a high priority for Johnson. She told herself as a sophomore that the only reason she would go to college would be if she could play volleyball, an option she nearly let slip away by quitting before her senior year.

Then came the car wreck, and the concussion. Then came Steamboat's best season on a volleyball court in more than a decade. And then, with help from a national recruiting website, Johnson was introduced to the Penn State Beavers and suddenly she finds herself a soon-to-be collegiate athlete.

"This season, I feel like I took my ability to a whole new level. I have Wendy and all my support to thank for that," Johnson said. "The first game I came back, I remember being mad at myself for how I was playing, for how I wasn't as good as I thought I should have been playing. You could just see by watching film how I progressed that whole season. I'm really proud of how it all played out."

With Johnson's commitment to the Beavers, the tally of future college volleyball players is now four from the Sailors' 2016 senior class. Maddie Labor signed a letter of intent in November to play at Regis University in Denver, while twin sisters Abigail and Maritza Wiedel are both set to sign with Minnesota's St. Olaf College this week.

"It was hard to imagine her not wanting to continue to play. I think it was more the academic piece that she wasn't sure about," Hall said of Johnson. "I just love seeing those little success stories. Sometimes, it's the sport that brings out the student. It connects the student to something else. That's a wonderful part of sports."

To reach Austin Colbert, call 970-871-4204, email acolbert@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @Austin_Colbert