When coach LaToya Harris stands with her team on the volleyball court at Lewis-Clark State College, here’s the remarkable thing: She doesn’t stand out.
Sure, she is the only one wearing black crop pants instead of blue shorts and a white tee, but, suddenly it hits you—this is the woman who tallied 1,459 kills during her WSU career and still holds the record for service aces.
Her Cougar teammates voted her the team’s most valuable player in 2000, 2001, and 2002, and she remains the only WSU player to ever earn that award three times. In 1999, as a freshman, she was an honorable mention on the Pac-10 All Conference team, and was named to the All Conference First Team every year after that. She finished her collegiate career by leading her team to a remarkable Elite Eight appearance at the 2002 NCAA tournament, only the second time WSU has advanced that far.
Harris is still fit, still wiry and athletic. But she’s also still just 5’ 7”, diminutive by volleyball standards.
It’s 3:30 in the Activity Center at LCSC on a warm August afternoon and just two days before Harris and her team leave for California and their first tournament of the season. This is her first year with LCSC. She is taking over for another Cougar volleyball veteran, Jennifer Stinson Greeny ’98, who moved on to Pullman last spring to coach the WSU volleyball team.
After graduating from WSU, Harris did a short stint as an assistant coach before moving to Sam Barlow High School in Portland where she coached her teams to a 55-28 record in conference play and advanced to the state tournament two times in five years. Leaving her Portland players was one of the hardest things she’s ever done, she says, but she had set her sights on college coaching long ago.
Once the workout begins, the gym is a cacophony of voices: “Mine, mine, mine. Tip, tip, tip”—as they run, literally run, through the drills. Harris’ voice is constant as well. “There you go Chelsea! That’s the way, Kelli!” But 20 minutes in, Harris decides her players are losing focus and she lines them up for sprints. “You stop talking, you run,” she says.
Finding time to visit with Harris is not easy. A pre-season poll of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) picked LCSC first in the Frontier Conference and seventh in the nation. She’s in the hunt for a national title.
At LCSC, she says, the level of play is comparable to mid-Division 1. Players choose LCSC because it offers high-caliber play in a less pressurized environment. “I want to develop student-athletes,” Harris says, and she also wants to create teams that bond like family, creating life-long friendships. It goes without saying that she also wants to win.
“She’s a driven person no matter what she does,” says her former WSU coach, Cindy Fredrick, who now coaches at UNLV. When you’re the shortest person on the court, you have something to prove, Fredrick says. Harris responded by developing a 31-inch vertical leap and a wicked left-handed slam, useful for service aces as well as kills.
“LaToya works really, really hard,” Fredrick says. “That’s one of the qualities about her that’s always going to be there.”
Harris was a high school superstar, earning 12 varsity letters in basketball, softball and volleyball. She came late to volleyball, she says, but it combines the best of the others: the focused, adrenaline-fueled teamwork of basketball with the satisfaction of smacking the ball hard. You know those highlight tapes of baseball players making spectacular catches? In volleyball, digs requiring that kind of athleticism might happen three times during one point.
When Harris was 15, a club volleyball coach told her there is always someone out there doing what you’re doing, working just as hard as you are. “I never let that go,” she says.
Especially not after a cadre of elite schools, including Stanford (which has had 19 Final Four NCAA appearances in the past 30 years) scouted her and then passed her over, explaining, politely, that she wasn’t tall enough.
“Cindy didn’t care how tall you were,” says Harris. “She looked for something inside of you.” And so, Harris came to WSU, along with four other freshmen who had what Fredrick was looking for.
“They called us the Fab Five,” Harris says with a smile. Adrian Hankoff ’03, Holly Harris ’03, Kortney Jamtaas ’03, and Chelsie Schafer ’03. “I miss those girls.”
“The remarkable thing about them was their unremarkable-ness,” says Frederick, laughing. No one on the team was over six feet, she said, but they played, and beat, teams where it seemed like everyone was. On November 16, 2002, when Harris’ team upset No. 1 ranked Stanford 3-1, 10 of 13 players on the Stanford roster topped six feet.
(That same year WSU advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight and lost to Florida in Gainesville. Florida went on to win the national championship by defeating Stanford.)
“Whatever you do, we’re going to do it better,” Harris says. That was their attitude. “It was amazing to have teammates who felt the same way I did. We were very competitive.”
As a coach, it’s her job to help the LCSC team reach higher. At WSU, Harris says, she learned from two of the best—Fredrick and her assistant coach and husband, Mashallah Farokhmanesh. “They shined you up and made you something you didn’t know you could be.” In 1999, Harris’s freshman year, the only year she didn’t win the MVP award, the coaches chose her for the Strength and Conditioning award.
Maybe you don’t need to stand tall or stand out to be outstanding, but you do need to work hard. That’s the attitude she hopes to find, and foster, in her players at LCSC. “The majority of the game is mental,” she says. “It’s up to the players and how bad they want it.”