Sharon Vanis was ready to leave Veterans Memorial Coliseum. It was mid-November and the Chandler Hamilton volleyball team, which Vanis has coached since 2007, had just won its second 6A state championship in a row.
In a series of joyous moments, the Huskies piled in celebration at midcourt, hoisted the championship trophy and took class photos to remember the occasion.
By the time the clock ticked past 9 p.m., Vanis began to pack her things and head for the bus. As she did, Jordan Middleton shouted for her from across the scrum.
Coach, can we take a picture?
Vanis, of course, obliged. For the past four years, Middleton has been the star at the center of Hamilton’s program, helping deliver Vanis not just her first title but a dominant repeat this past November.
“Volleyball — it has to be a team sport,” Vanis said. “But you get that one athlete you can build around and that's kinda what happened.”
As much as Middleton has helped Vanis, though, the reverse also holds true. For the past four years, Vanis fostered Middleton's development, culminating not only in two state championships but a pair of Gatorade Arizona Player of the Year awards, the second announced Tuesday morning.
So there they were, half an hour after the senior had led Hamilton past Phoenix Sandra Day O’Connor with a match-high 25 kills, sharing an embrace and posing for a photo each will cherish forever.
“Every single year, I've taken a picture with coach and I just wanted to keep that going,” Middleton said. “Coach has done so much, not just for me, but for the whole entire team to get us to this point. She has worked us to be our best, give our best on the court, no matter what. And I think coach is really deserving of it. She's always wanted state. We got her one last year and now we got her one this year.”
Next fall, MIddleton will head to USC, a program she chose because “they feel like a family,” just as Hamilton does.
Vanis won't be left starting from scratch next fall. She returns junior outside hitter Neomi Beach, who was key in this year’s state championship win, as well as four other varsity players.
But for each, this recent championship was a moment to pause and reflect.
Middleton, for her part, envisioned this moment five years ago, when she was in seventh grade. By that point, her future in volleyball was evident. The sport would play a key role in her high school experience and beyond. She was exploring options for which high school to attend. Tatum Thomas, a teammate of hers on the club side Arizona Storm Elite, implored her to pick Hamilton.
The duo dreamt of nights like that one at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, when they finished their high school careers together, as state champions, 51-7 over the past two seasons.
“It feels amazing,” Middleton said. “I feel ecstatic about it, honestly. To me, it's unbelievable. Last year, we made history getting our first one but now we just (got) back-to-back ones.”
Vanis is quick to point out that Middleton is not among the athletes she had to mold into a star. By the time Middleton arrived at Hamilton as a ninth grader, she was already 6-feet. And though she began her career as a middle hitter, Vanis knew she would soon star on the outside, which she did over her final three seasons.
Plus, she carries the off-court qualities required for continued success.
“She's humble,” Vanis said. “She works hard. She could come in and be uncoachable. (But) she's the most coachable kid I know.”
Middleton’s defense and backcourt attack were two key areas of improvement as she developed, but the biggest was her serving game.
There’s a reason Middleton started as a freshman and became one of the nation’s most sought-after recruits as a sophomore. But titles borne out of tournaments are fickle. In the past decade, No. 1 seeds in Arizona’s top level have won the state tournament less than half the time.
To win one state crown, then, was a dream Middleton carried since middle school. To win two, now, is a memory — remembered by a photograph — that Arizona high school volleyball's newest player of the year will carry forever.
Theo Mackie covers Arizona high school sports and Phoenix Rising FC. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @theo_mackie.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Hamilton's Jordan Middleton wins second volleyball Player of the Year award