State champ Kaitlyn Leary stands alone

For much of her freshman year at Padua (Cleveland), Kaitlyn Leary was playfully called "Little Leary" -- a reference to her admiration for her older sister, Heather. Kaitlyn often styled her hair and dressed like Heather, and the two even shared clothes and had several of the same friends.

"I try to be like her," the younger Leary says. "I embraced [the nickname]. I always look up to her."

Now a senior, Kaitlyn has finally shed the nickname in favor of the moniker "The Hammer" -- an homage to her ability to dominate opponents with thunderous, well-placed kills. Last season, the 6-foot outside hitter fully stepped out of her sister's shadow by leading Padua to its first volleyball state title.

But while the Ohio State recruit is no longer teased for her fascination with her older sister, Kaitlyn knows Heather has had a profound effect on her high school success.

"Ever since I was little, she has taught me a lot," says Kaitlyn, who learned the game during backyard sessions with her sister and mother.

As a freshman, the younger Leary witnessed first-hand her sister's importance to the varsity squad. Padua wasn't a contender for a state title in '06, though behind Heather's play the team was expected to make the playoffs. But during a preseason scrimmage, Heather elevated for a kill and came down wrong, tearing an ACL.

"[Kaitlyn] was very upset for Heather," Padua head coach Tony Messina says. "All of us were very devastated."

The injury, though, opened up an opportunity for Kaitlyn, allowing her to play on varsity as a freshman. And she wouldn't be alone; Heather was along for the ride every step of the way.

Despite the fact that she would miss her senior season, Heather continued to fulfill her duties as a captain by attending the majority of the team's matches and offering support for her teammates. She often gave Kaitlyn words of encouragement and advice on how to deal with the pressures of being a freshman on varsity. Her presence during games was invaluable in teaching Kaitlyn how to be a team player and a leader.

Like she had done with her sister's sense of fashion, Kaitlyn soaked up Heather's leadership qualities and utilized them in her own career.

"She's always very calm, always keeps her cool," says Kaitlyn's best friend, senior setter Meredith Bolmeyer. "The younger girls look up to her."

The first season after Heather graduated, Kaitlyn more than doubled her kills, going from 153 as a freshman to 367 as a sophomore to make the All-Ohio third team. She continued to develop as a junior last fall, racking up 400 kills and 217 digs in leading Padua to a berth in the Division II state final.

"She has kills that are just highlight reels," says Messina. "This is a kid that just quietly did her thing."

Kaitlyn's leadership and commitment to excellence manifested itself in the state final.

"She took charge of the state championship match last year," Messina says of his star's performance in a 3-1 win over Alter.
She recorded a match-high 23 kills and added 13 digs and two blocks in the final. With the championship within reach in the fourth game, Leary rose up high and emphatically slammed down the game-clinching kill to propel Padua to the crown.

"I just wanted to hit it so bad," Leary says. "It was a perfect pass, I called for it and I hit it. I just wanted to finish it so bad."

It was a fitting conclusion to the season for Kaitlyn. A proud Heather made the trip home from college and sat in the stands wearing her younger sister's spare No. 13 jersey.

"It was exciting to be at the game. All my friends were texting me and saying the sportscasters were going crazy," says Heather of the match, which was locally televised.

After winning the title, the individual accolades poured in for Kaitlyn. She was named to the All-Ohio first team and received District Player of the Year honors in addition to taking home North Coast League MVP hardware. She also transcended local recognition by earning a spot on the PrepVolleyball.com All-American team and was selected for a second time to the U.S. Girls' Youth National Training Team, subsequently serving as an alternate for the squad that competed in the FIVB Girls' Youth World Championships.

But even with the state title and the honors, Leary knows there is more to accomplish during her senior season.

"If I graduated this year and didn't win [another] state title, I'd feel disappointed," Leary says. "It's our senior year, and we have the core of the team back."

With that in mind, Leary ratcheted up her offseason workouts this summer to get into even better shape for her final high school season.

"My goal would be to play in the Olympics," Leary says. "It was a lot of fun to play (on the U.S. training team). Everyone was really good."

Thanks to her budding success on the court and rise to national prominence, Kaitlyn has even picked up a few young followers. During a club tournament earlier this year, a fan approached her and asked, "Kaitlyn, could I take a picture with you?"
She happily complied, realizing that being known as "Little Leary" was so 2006.

David Auguste covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.