Almost exactly two months after the conclusion of her college volleyball career, Penn State All-American middle blocker Haleigh Washington crossed the Atlantic to begin her first professional season with Italian A2 team Olimpia Teodora Ravenna.
Those couple of months between Penn State’s loss to Nebraska in the 2018 national semifinals and Washington’s arrival in Ravenna were just enough time for her to have surgery to repair a meniscus injury she sustained toward the end of her final college season.
A year later, Washington has made the jump up to the top Italian league, joining the roster of Volley Millenium Brescia. Like Ravenna, Brescia also played in the A2 division last year, but earned its promotion with a win over Ravenna (and Washington) in the final match of the 2017-18 season. Despite her team ending up on the losing end of the final scoreline, Washington tallied an impressive 18 points in that match, thus catching the eye of the opposing team’s coaching staff.
In its first season in Serie A1, Brescia has accumulated an 8-11 record, but the tally of wins and losses doesn’t quite tell the whole story. On Jan. 6, Brescia upset Igor Gorgonzola Novara, which features Team USA athletes Lauren Carlini and Michelle Bartsch-Hackley and is ranked No. 2 in the current league standings, in five sets. Then, on Jan. 26, Brescia knocked off Conegliano, which currently sits atop the standings and features national teamer Kim Hill, also in five.
Keep reading to hear from Washington about how her second season abroad is progressing and what she is looking forward to in the future.
(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Catch Washington and her Brescia squad as they compete in the 2018-19 Italian League season, streaming live right here on FloVolleyball.
FloVolleyball: How is the season going?
Haleigh Washington: Our season is actually going a lot better than expected. A1 is really competitive, so the top eight teams are all really good, the top three are obviously elite and have Olympians on them and they are really, really good. So I kind of came into this season with incredibly low expectations, like OK, we’re going to lose every game, but that’s OK. It’s my first year, I’m OK with losing. But we’ve had some major upsets. We upset the No. 1 and the No. 2 teams and we’ve had some good wins and we’ve fought with people and we’ve surprised people. I’m actually really proud of my little squad.
Flo: How challenging has it been to communicate with your teammates and coaches?
HW: [My teammates are] all very sweet. They’ve been very welcoming. When our coach is explaining a drill, they’ll always be like, “Hai capito? “You understand?” And I’m like, “Yes, thanks for checking.” I’m actually really lucky, I have two girls on my team who speak English, so we’ve gotten really close, but my neighbor who lives right next door to me, she doesn’t speak any English, but she and I are actually pretty close, just because she’s such a sweet girl. So sometimes it’s just being nice, that’s all you need. Language or not.
Flo: How do you build a relationship when you can’t speak to each other?
HW: As an extrovert, the first couple weeks, it’s very frustrating. Because I love to talk to people. I love the one-on-one relationships, the witty banter, the funny jokes. And not being able to do that was really hard, so I picked up other ways to make jokes and the easy phrases that can be turned into witty banter and stuff like that. You learn the little things. I’m really good at asking about how the weather is and are you excited for practice today?
Flo: How is life different this year competing in A1, versus last year in A2?
HW: I’m in a unique situation because [Brescia is] still very much an A2 program. Like you can tell that this is an A2 team that just recently transitioned into A1. We don’t have a large bus. We all just cram in these little 15-seater minivans. On bigger A1 teams, they give you more luxury ways of traveling because they want you to be as fresh as possible.
But the competition for one, is way different in A2 versus A1. It’s much faster. You have to be able to beat the blocker and the defense, which is really tough. Especially for me. It’s really easy for me to see the block, but beating the defender can be really challenging. You’re playing against people that have been, one, playing overseas for six, seven years, and, two, you’re playing against Olympians. The competition level is much different, and it’s awesome. And it’s humbling. It’s annoying because I get my butt kicked all the time. But it’s good for me.
Flo: How different is life as a professional versus as a college athlete?
HW: Everyone asks that, because a lot of these girls have been playing professional volleyball since they were 16. They don’t go to college. They play club and then they join a professional team, so a lot of girls want to know what college is like.
College is a lot more physical. You have heavy hitters in college. You have Simone Lee, you have Mikaela Foecke, you have Khat Bell. We play a lot higher and a lot slower and you don't have to read the game as much in college volleyball, whereas, at least in Italy, I can’t speak for Germany or France or anywhere else, but at least in Italy, the game is a lot faster, and it’s a lot more defense dependent. So it’s really hard to beat the defenders because these girls are flying all over the place. They all have really good volleyball IQs, they’re diving after balls, they’re scrappy. They never do it in practice, but they fly after balls in the game.
Flo: What was your experience training with the U.S. National Team last summer like?
HW: That was an incredible learning experience. I went into it with low expectations, really just I’m not going to be the best of the best. I am so insignificant here, and there’s a good chance I probably won’t last very long, so we’re going to see what happens. I picked up so much. I picked up how to read block. I picked up how to play at a faster tempo and my serving became more consistent.
I was fortunate enough to make a roster to go to the Pan Am Games, which was an awesome opportunity to represent USA, not just wearing the polo to the grocery store, but like going somewhere and representing USA in a tournament setting.
It was humbling to go from being like All-American Penn State college volleyball player to being like, “Who are you?” There are so many girls who have been playing for so long, so it puts a perspective on you. It taught me so much and I’m really excited to go back this summer. Again, low expectations. I’m expecting to get kicked out within the first two weeks, but excited nonetheless.
Flo: So you already know that you’re training with Team USA again this summer?
HW: Yes. Karch came out and did a visit in Italy, he did like an Italian tour. And he texted me and he was like, “Let’s get lunch and chat.” So we got coffee and caught up a little bit and then he mentioned me coming back and training. USA is really fortunate because they get to bring a lot of athletes into the gym this summer because there are so many tournaments. It’s the year before the Olympics, so on top of World Cup, there’s like the Olympic qualifier and then Pan Am Games, so they’re bringing a lot of girls back. I’m really lucky that I get to be in the gym and train amongst so much talent this year. It’s going to be a deep, deep talent pool and I’m excited for that.
Flo: You had one-on-one lunch with Karch, that doesn't sound like you’re totally insignificant.
HW: I will accept that. So Karch came and he visited Micha Hancock, she plays in Monza, and I had a free day that day so I was like, “OK, I’ll go watch Micha’s game, Karch will be there, I’ll say hello again.” He was treated like a god here. He’s so famous here. We walk into the gym, I’m just little Miss Nobody from this No. 10 team in the league, and they’re all like, “Karch Kiraly, so nice to meet you.” They put us in this VIP section, we got snacks, they were taking pictures. I was like, “I need to hang out with you more often. We need to go out in Hollywood together or something so I can get into these VIP sections more often.” It was cool, so yeah, got some Karch facetime. Hopefully that’s a positive thing.
Flo: What have been the downsides of playing overseas?
HW: For me, my physio this year has been less than adequate, and for someone who struggles with knee issues, it hurts not having that resource. Like at Penn State and in the USA gym, you have NormaTecs, which are really great, and you have [Hyperice] Hypervolts, and you have trainers that will help you do rehab and give you massages, and you have ice all the time. Whereas here, sometimes you have ice, maybe if they remember to turn the ice machine on, and there’s no way that you have a NormaTec. So like I’m thinking about all these things I want to buy to kind of prolong my career, and it’s like a $3,000 investment.
So downside is you really have to kind of take over your recovery. Like I bought gel packs that I freeze so if there’s not ice, I can at least use that to ice my knees. I learned how to do K-tape for myself so if my knee is hurting, I can do K-tape.
Flo: What’s it like to be pursuing a career that could be over with a single injury?
HW: Well, Russ [Rose, head coach of Penn State women’s volleyball] used to say to the B-side, you’re an ankle sprain away from having to go in. That being said, [on the starting side] you’re an ankle twist, a weird movement away from being done. And I used to be like, pssh, I’m 18, I’m fine. I was young and stupid. And I’m still young and stupid, but now I’m just a little older and I recognize that at any point it really could be over.
I just need to make sure that I’m living it now in a way that if I had to stop, I could be proud of the work that I’ve done and the people that I’ve affected and know that that’s my volleyball chapter and I’m excited for what’s next, but I did a good job, it was beautiful. Some days are better than others. The other day I hurt my knee and I was like, “If this is the career-ending injury, I’m pissed. I want to keep going, I want to keep getting better, I’m not ready to stop.” Some days I’m the profound philosopher and other days it’s not like that.
Flo: What’s next?
HW: My team here has offered me to come back. It’s good to know I’m not totally screwed out of a job. I can still buy food for myself next year if I have to which is good.
But my agent said, “You’re doing well in this league so maybe we can find you something good here.” I don’t think I’ve been doing good, I think I’ve been doing OK. There’s a lot of room for growth, so I’m excited about that and frustrated by that also. But I don’t know what the future is going to hold.
I would like to stay in Italy. In an ideal world, I stay in Italy. If I do stay with this club, I would like to stay here for two, three years and really commit to this program. I want to build it up to something more than i