When Nooksack Valley went two-and-out during its first Class 1A State Tournament in five years, senior McKenzie Impero didn't shed a tear.
She was disappointed but not upset.
Her high school career had come to an end, but the legacy she helped start had hopefully just begun.
Impero and the Pioneers came a long way since their 2-13 record four years prior, when Impero and teammate McKinna Larson where just starting out at varsity outside hitter and setter, respectively. Nooksack Valley finished this year with an 11-9 record.
"We lost and got out that Friday, but I wasn't upset," Impero said in a phone interview. "I actually didn't even cry, because I just felt really accomplished. I never thought we would make it as far as we did. We made our biggest goal, and that was good enough for me."
Playing in the Yakima Valley SunDome was especially gratifying, given the Pioneers totaled 14 wins during Impero's first three seasons. During that span, Nooksack Valley didn't advance past the first round of the 2011 Class 1A Tri-District Tournament.
State was the crown jewel for Impero, who has an intense love for volleyball and aspires to play at the next level.
"Volleyball is the only sport she plays," said Nooksack Valley coach Jenny Simmons in a phone interview. "She's really strong and athletic and could have played basketball and could have ran track. You don't always get to see the fruits of your labor, so I think for her, to accomplish (getting to state) gave her good confidence."
Impero is The Bellingham Herald's All-Whatcom County Volleyball Player of the Year. Sehome coach Kristy White, whose Mariners finished with a 15-6 record and advanced to Day 2 of the Class 2A State Tournament, has been selected Coach of the Year.
Impero realized her passion for the game toward the end of her sophomore year and has since made volleyball her No. 1 priority.
"I've played basketball before, but with volleyball, I've always felt that fire," Impero said. "I used to dread going to basketball practice, but I've never once dreaded going to volleyball practice, no matter what."
She played club volleyball after the 2011 season and logged plenty of hours in the weight room and gym strengthening and working on her game during the winter and spring months.
"Her offseason work was really huge for her," Simmons said. "She was always in the gym every open gym session. She did summer league tournaments and was doing a lot of stuff on her own. She put in a lot of hard work."
It was the kind of work that allowed her to blast shots into small open spaces on the floor with pinpoint accuracy.
As a two-year team captain, Impero developed into a leader and a player the Pioneers could always look to when they needed a key point in a match.
"A lot of players stepped up for us this year, but when it comes down to needing a point, we could look at her with confidence," Simmons said. "She was consistent for us in that area, and that's maybe something she wasn't always able to do in the past years."
Impero displayed her ability to lead and take over matches throughout the season, but that ability was most evident during the Pioneers' regular-season finale against Lynden Christian.
Nooksack Valley rallied from two sets down to pull off a dramatic 3-2 win. Impero compiled 26 kills, 23 digs and served up four aces.
"In the past, we have never really been able to finish matches," Impero said. "We won most of our matches this year, but when we'd get to 23-20 or 24-20, we just couldn't finish. It was cool to see that we had improved and could finish."
While Impero couldn't help bring a state trophy back to Everson, her impact may have reverberating effects on future Nooksack Valley teams. She and Larson spearheaded a movement to bring much more credibility to the Pioneers - a volleyball team Simmons said is often overlooked for basketball and softball at the school.
"It helps having somebody who helps build your program up," Simmons said. "(She) and McKinna did that. It has been huge for us. Volleyball isn't sometimes the sport of choice at Nooksack Valley. It's something we're trying to build, so they really helped us as we build."
Impero even said she's noticed an increasing intrigue in volleyball amongst her classmates. She said many students have taken notice of the squad's success this season. She hopes that drives more girls to the sport.
"I know the program has had some really rough times the last few years," Impero said. "Showing that hard work does pay off if you work together is really rewarding. I think I proved to a lot of people just how good the sport really is and how fun it is. I have a lot of faith in the team, and I'm really happy to see what they do next year."
The Nooksack senior is in the process of putting a recruiting film together and contacting colleges. After leading a youth volleyball camp for fourth though sixth graders as part of her senior project, she also sees coaching the sport in her future.
Reach Andrew Lang at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-756-2862
THROUGH THE YEARS
The Bellingham Herald's All-Whatcom County Volleyball Athlete of the Year winners:
2012: McKenzie Impero, Nooksack Valley
2011: Jasmine Hommes, Lynden Christian
2010: Jasmine Hommes, Lynden Christian
2009: Andrea Vicic, Lynden Christian
2008: Jessi Roberts, Lynden
2007: Jessi Roberts, Lynden
2006: Jessi Roberts, Lynden
2005: Kara Bergerson, Mount Baker
Reach ANDREW LANG at email@example.com or call ext. 862.