Haley Sawyer’s arms were covered with bruises — and she couldn’t have been happier.
Sawyer was 10 years old at that time, and had just attended her first real volleyball practice. Her mother, Mary, was an assistant coach with the Ocean State Volleyball club team. She persuaded her daughter to go with her to the practice for a 14U team.
Sawyer ended up participating in the workout and found her passion.
“I walked out of that practice and just loved it,” she said.
That passion made Sawyer one of the top high school volleyball players in the state and has landed her a preferred walk-on position in Division I at the University of Rhode Island next season.
Sawyer, who lives in Ashaway, ended up playing with the 14U team despite being much younger. She was more than ready after getting plenty of touches on the ball in the backyard and at beaches growing up with her mother, who played at URI.
“I honestly think that was a big part of it,” Sawyer said. “I guess as a younger athlete I was really determined to be the best and outwork everyone. I found a passion and wanted to become better.”
Sawyer played one season at Chariho High before transferring to the Academy of Business and Finance program at North Kingstown High. The program is open to any student in the state.
She had to sit out the first half of her sophomore season as a transfer, but played the last half of that first season at NK. Over Sawyer’s three years, the Skippers were invincible, posting a 59-0 record and winning three consecutive Division I titles.
Sawyer, a 5-7 outside hitter, was first-team All-State her junior and senior seasons.
“We had an incredible group of girls,” she said. “We had 23 girls on the team, which is huge, and every single one of them was a solid varsity player. They all played club. They all worked hard, and we didn’t get lazy. We pushed each other to work even harder.
“Our practices were very competitive. Some of our scrimmages with our teammates were more competitive than some of our games.”
Sawyer was also introduced to weightlifting during her time at NK.
“We lifted as a team three or four times a day after school. Coach [Dennis] Shabo talked with me about a weightlifting and conditioning club they have after school. It was completely foreign at first,” she said.
Sawyer took advantage of the club during the offseason, too. She was part of the Century Club after attending more than 100 workout sessions after school.
She credits weightlifting with improving her jumping ability, an important skill for an outside hitter.
Sawyer’s original plan was to play beach volleyball at a Division I or Division II college. But when she toured those schools she couldn’t find one that “clicked.”
She then began to consider playing indoor volleyball in college. Turned out an opportunity was right down the road at URI.
“I reached out to the URI coach (Nicki Holmes) and I met with him. We talked for two hours, most of it about life. And he told me I would have a spot on the team,” Sawyer said. “I’ve always been a Rhody fan. My mom played there, my grandfather was a professor and my grandmother worked in communications. And I went to see them play a lot growing up.”
Sawyer will be a defensive specialist for the Rams. A defensive specialist generally plays on the back row and can attack. She hopes to eventually become the libero, which can only play back row and cannot attack.
“I like the speed of the game — you always have to be on your toes,” Sawyer said. “Not only does it require a lot of physical abilities like jumping, sprinting and hitting, but you have to be able to read setters and hitters.”
Sawyer will double major in psychology and criminal justice. She hopes to attend law school one day.
She said she’s learned a few things during her time as a Skipper.
“I’ve learned there is always room to grow. You have to work hard in order to succeed,” Sawyer said. “If you want to be the best, you have to train, you have to eat the right way, you have to get sleep and you have to be a good teammate and student. I’ve learned dedication and drive that will help me with other things in my life.”