The last hit of Khalia Lanier’s junior season is one she doesn’t like to talk about.
It came on Nov. 8, 2014. Locked in a five-set nailbiter with Chandler Hamilton in the Division I state volleyball semifinals, Phoenix Xavier Prep already had leaned heavily on Lanier, its big outside hitter.
But with Xavier trailing by one and Hamilton needing a point for the win, Lanier’s powerful right-handed strike found the net, eliminating Xavier from the tournament.
The pain set in almost immediately and hasn’t subsided much since.
“That was heartbreaking,” she said. “I just remember going back and saying, ‘How could I miss that shot?’ That was so hard for me. I feel like I let my team down with that one shot.”
Never mind that Lanier would finish with 29 kills in the semifinal against Hamilton – more than double any of her teammates.
And no matter that Lanier was the biggest reason Xavier won the Division I championship in 2013, when she was named azcentral sports’ Big Schools Player of the Year as a sophomore.
A straight-A student in the classroom, Lanier likewise only accepts the best of herself on the court.
“She works harder than anyone else, even on the little things, because that’s just who she is,” Xavier coach Lamar-Renee Bryant said. “There’s a difference between wanting to get a ribbon and a T-shirt and wanting to win. She truly wants to win.”
As she enters her senior year – Xavier kicked off 2015 with a Thursday match against Chandler Basha – Lanier is drawing from experiences both negative and positive to help her navigate her final high school season before heading off to college at USC.
Mentioned by several outlets as a National Player of the Year candidate, Lanier spent last month in Lima, Peru, playing for the U.S. Girls Youth National Team in the FIVB U-18 World Championships.
The 6-foot-2 outside hitter accounted for the third-most points on the team during the tournament, which ended with the U.S. falling to Italy in the gold-medal match, but her first trip to South America was memorable for something else.
“Seeing how there’s appreciation for the sport outside of your own little world – that’s just so fulfilling,” Lanier said. “Seeing little girls from a Catholic school who don’t play volleyball coming to the games and asking for autographs. Guys our age are like, ‘Can we please have your autograph? You guys are so cool.’
“It makes you want to work even harder. Like, what more can I get out of this? What more can I do for other people when I’m playing? Because it’s so awesome seeing the reaction other people have when you have energy and you’re doing well. It’s about more than yourself.”
The chance to watch and play against the world’s elite while receiving top-shelf instruction from some of the country’s best coaches doesn’t hurt, either. Bryant has already noticed improvements to Lanier’s ball control and, on defense, her ability to read opposing hitters as she goes up for blocks.
Her mission is clear – to end her career with another state title. Along the way, she might pick up some additional individual hardware.
But it’s good to know she’ll remember the little moments in between, like the ones she recalled after a recent practice, of a 13-year-old Khalia just getting adjusted to life at Xavier, yet already focused on making it to the top.
“Every practice I’d be like, ‘Am I doing good enough?’ ” Lanier said. “I was a little freshman. I was crying all the time. Now, stepping into a senior leadership role and being the one who’s pushing other players and holding everyone accountable, trying to get things done, it’s different. But it’s good.
“It feels good to grow.”