MILLVILLE — When the Riverhawks repeated as 4A state volleyball champions last month, No. 3 was certainly a big factor once again.
However, the role Nia Damuni played in helping Ridgeline repeat was a bit different in 2022. The 17-year-old daughter of Waqa and Val Damuni was asked to do more as a senior and, like any good leader, didn’t shirk the added responsibilities this past season.
“We had a big target on our back this year,” Damuni said. “We had a purpose this year, but it was hard to defend a state title. ... Anybody on our team can play any position, so it was fun getting to hit, and Alyssa (Anderson) did a great job setting. We tried some new things this year, but we have been working so much on it that we knew what would work.”
That is music to head coach Jaicee Roden’s ears. She wanted her setter to lead on and off the court. Roden felt this team could repeat, but needed everyone to buy in again and a lot of that weight was on Damuni’s shoulders.
“She and I both knew that our team had the ability to go as far as the girls would take us,” Roden said. “It required multiple discussions on how to lead both on and off the court. It not only requires attention to leadership on the court, but also developing skills in removing pressure from others and eliminating distractions. Both leadership and winning are not natural instincts. They require attention, growth and training. In order for Nia to continue to see success the way she likes to see it and for her to play a similar role for our 2022 team as she did our 2021 team, we knew she needed to continue to grow both on and off the court. And with no surprise, she did.”
Indeed, she did. Damuni was much more than a setter in the 6-2 offense Ridgeline ran most of the 2022 season. In a valley full of talent — three of the four semifinalists at the 4A state tournament were from the valley and West Side finished second in the 2A ranks in Idaho — Damuni stood just a little taller. That is why she is repeating as The Herald Journal All-Valley Player of the Year for 2022.
After nine straight Sky View players earned the award, Damuni makes it two straight for Ridgeline as she picked up the award in 2021.
“I was pretty shocked last year,” Damuni said. “I think Ridgeline has a lot of good players coming up.”
While Damuni had a team-best 556 assists, she got more involved this season with hitting. In 98 sets, the senior had 82 kills.
“My assists decreased, but I feel like my play has gone up for sure this year,” Damuni said. “It felt more consistent.”
The 5-foot-10 senior had more blocks (34) and digs (228) this season. She also increased her service aces drastically with a team-best 71, while serving at 92.5 percent.
“As a team, we serve and pass a lot, so I get a lot of serving reps, and Jaicee has helped me with my serve,” Damuni said. “I didn’t do basketball last year so I could focus and get in lots of reps last winter. I set and served a lot.”
“It’s no surprise that she got better in serving,” Roden said. “She also got better with other technicalities. She became a smarter setter who ran an offense, not just a setter who sets the ball. Her growth is exciting, and it will be fun to continue to see her grow and become even better. With how Nia works, she and I both expect strong development and progress. She’s always had the natural athleticism, but she compliments it with her work ethic.”
Ridgeline played a tough schedule and suffered some losses early on. But once Region 11 play rolled around, the Riverhawks were ready. They ran the table in region and headed to the state tournament with plenty of momentum. They dropped just one set at state.
“I think playing at a higher level against 5A and 6A schools really prepared us for region and the state tournament,” Damuni said.
“Nia is the leader you want on your team,” Roden said. “Leadership is earned not given, and she works with and for her teammates. She wants to be great and she does not ever exclude the process of greatness. She leads in our team discussions and conversations. She leads in our film sessions. She leads our offense. She really has grown to be a trusted and respected leader from both her peers and her coaches.”
Was repeating as state champions sweeter than winning it all in 2021?
“A state championship never gets old,” Damuni said. “For sure this year was pretty sweet going back to the ship and getting the title again. We worked hard last year and this year we worked hard, but it was just different. The team and chemistry was so strong.”
Damuni and some teammates were captured in photos with the state trophy following the three-set victory against Desert Hills. It looked like they were rocking it like a baby.
“We just had to bring our baby back home,” Damuni said with a laugh.
When asked about some fond memories from the past season, Damuni listed bus rides, taking a self-defense class with her team, dinners and other activities away from volleyball. She couldn’t pinpoint a favorite match.
“All of our preseason games were fun,” Damuni said. “We may not have won, but we worked hard. And of course the state match. Nothing can beat that. It was fun sweeping the region, but the state match was a good way to go out of high school. Everybody on my team just played the best I’ve seen them play.”
Has Roden thought about not having Damuni next year?
“We will miss Nia, but she is doing exactly what she should be doing at the place she should be doing it,” Roden said of her three-year starter. “She deserves the opportunity to go play big D-1 ball, and we are thrilled to support her in her future. We are also excited to spend time developing our future as well.”
Last month Damuni signed to play at Gonzaga next year.
“The process was difficult at first,” Damuni said. “Jaicee was a big help and of course my family. It’s discouraging when schools say no.”
Gonzaga was at several club tournaments Damuni played in. Then her club team traveled to Spokane, Washington, for a tournament. She visited the campus on an unofficial visit and was offered a scholarship.
“I’m so excited,” Damuni said. “The coaching staff, it just felt like home. The campus is really pretty. They told me I can help build the program.”
With brothers playing football at Stanford, Idaho State and soon BYU, her parents will be traveling all over the west.
“Hopefully, they will make it work,” Damuni said.
“Gonzaga is such a good fit for Nia,” Roden said. “Her coach at Gonzaga is excited and ready to welcome her with open arms. For me, it’s an honor to send another female athlete to go get an education and have the opportunity to get the full college experience, especially the volleyball piece that will require her to master the process of development and growth. Her time there will serve her for the rest of her life, and all kids, including Nia, are deserving of opportunities create a great life for their adulthood.”
How would Damuni like to be remembered at Ridgeline?
“I want to be remembered as a good teammate, a good leader, just a good friend to everybody, especially the girls that were my teammates,” Damuni said.
ABBY FULLER, SR., WS
There was no three-peat for the Pirates this year, but they came oh so close.
West Side had to settle for second place at the Idaho 2A State Tournament. With a 35-6 record, the Pirates had another outstanding season, and a big part of that was Fuller.
“Abby is the most humble volleyball player I have ever coached,” WS head coach MeLinda Royer said. “She carried our team offensively the entire season. She never gloated about the mind-blowing kill she got or the amount of good she was doing on the court, but was proud of her team and what we accomplished. She was always most excited when her teammates did something well.”
The Pirate outside hitter finished the season with a mind-blowing 634 kills, hitting .220. Fuller served at 93.4 percent, with a 2.20 service rating. The senior finished with a 2.06 on serve receive and came up with 429 digs.
“Abby led our team with her quiet, gentle personality and was explosive on the front row and more than dependable on the back row,” Royer said. “Each and every practice she worked hard to make her team better. Abby is a legend at West Side. While she won’t wear the West Side volleyball jersey next year, her example will continue on the court. I am excited to cheer her on in her college volleyball career.”
Fuller is weighing a lot of options as to where she will be playing next year.
RYANN VAIL, SR., GC
The Wolves were already a solid group going into 2022, but the addition of a 6-4 middle blocker made them even more dangerous.
Vail moved to Cache Valley from Utah County for her final season of volleyball and fit right in with Green Canyon. She ended up leading 4A with 96 blocks in 104 sets played.
“Ryann was such an important part of our team,” GC head coach Maddie Larsen said. “She has such a presence on the net and makes the back row’s job easier. She is always wanting to improve and communicates with coaches and teammates about what she can be doing to make those improvements. Not only is she a great volleyball player, but she’s a great person and teammate. She is always making others laugh, being a friend to everyone and keeping things positive on and off the court.”
Vail finished her one season at Green Canyon with 113 kills and served up 36 aces. She also came up with 40 digs. The senior wants to play at the next level, but has not made a decision yet.
“Wherever she goes, they’ll be lucky to have her,” Larsen said.
MELANIE HIATT, SR., SV
This Bobcat did everything for her team, thus earning the title of this award.
“She really can play anywhere you ask her to,” SV head coach Sheila Sorensen said. “She loves hitting the quicks in the middle or going for the slide on the right side. She hits a great ball from the back row and is powerful on the outside. Mel has been our captain and leader this year. She stays calm but fierce when competing for her team. She leads by example and works hard to prepare for competition. She trains just as hard as she plays.”
Hiatt has been the starting outside hitter for Sky View the past three years. The senior is also a solid passer and defender.
She led her team with 343 kills, hitting .274 as the Bobcats finished third at state. Hiatt also had 273 digs, served up 60 aces and had 50 blocks. The senior had 522 receptions and maintained a 2.1 passing score out of 3.
“She is amazing on the court and in the classroom,” Sorensen said. “She maintains a 4.0, while taking college courses. We will miss her in our gym next year. She will keep doing amazing things.”
Hiatt has earned academic all-state honors for volleyball and basketball.
For her career, she finished with 970 kills, 183 aces, 145 blocks and 910 digs. Hiatt has signed to play volleyball at Snow College.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR
ALYSSA ANDERSON, JR., R
While Anderson is not entirely new to the varsity squad, this was her first time being a regular with the Riverhawks. The junior certainly fit right in with a host of seniors in helping the Ridgeline repeat as 4A state champions.
“Alyssa already has a presence in our program. She is respected and loved among her teammates, and she has always pushed our level of play to be better,” Roden said. “However, I think this year was the year everyone else got a taste of Alyssa. She is always working and her growth rate in one year has really inspired a lot of her teammates and coaches. She went from playing a few minutes last season to being an impactful starter and finisher. Our team needed her this year and even relied on her in numerous matches to score points. She’s always giving everything she can, and it’s so fun to see her step into the spotlight a little. She is an incredible athlete and individual, and I anticipate that there is plenty more of where that came from.”
Anderson had 206 kills, while hitting .299. Not bad for a setter. The junior actually played a lot as an outside hitter, but in the 6-2 formation with Damuni did set the ball and finished with 280 assists on the year.
“Alyssa came prepared to compete and did an excellent job doing so,” Roden said. “She was a dual threat both running an offense as a setter and attacking in that same offense as a hitter. I’m really proud of her because she came in ready to work and play a role, no matter the role. Alyssa is making her name known. She was consistent, reliable, coachable, hard working and she demanded that opponents knew where she was at on the court. People knew to expect our returning starters from last year, but not everyone was prepared for Alyssa.
“It’s funny because Alyssa’s natural personality is quiet, calm and easy going. She’s super pleasant and easy to like. However, her on-court performance this year was loud, aggressive and forthright; I can imagine that it was easy for opponents to not like her on the court.”
Anderson also served up 58 aces and contributed with 39 blocks and 153 digs.