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Haley Sawyer

Experience at nationals brings Sawyer closer to her sport

ASHAWAY — Haley Sawyer of Ashaway and her partner Jaime Harrington of Warwick received a lot more than a 28th-place finish at the 2014 USA Volleyball Junior Beach Tour National Finals July 28-29 in Milwaukee.

The 12-and-under partners, who earned a national tourney bid by winning the New England Regional in Newport, discovered the benefits of experience, reaffirmed their passion for the sport and appreciated the privilege of growing up near the Atlantic Ocean.

“We’ve only been partners for a short time, and we were playing at the highest level of play against teams, I later found out, that have been together for years,” Sawyer said. “Experience level was the biggest difference from the regionals to the nationals. The teams from California, Florida and Texas were more developed skill-wise and communicated well. They instinctively knew where their partner would be at all times and worked together.”

Sawyer and Harrington won about half of their 20 games at the tourney, played on Radford Beach off the Lake Michigan shore. Nearly 300 doubles teams from ages 12 to 18 competed for a national title and ranking in their respective divisions.

Regionally, Sawyer, a seventh-grader-to-be at Chariho Middle School, and Harrington, whose mother Kelly coaches the Pilgrim High girls’ volleyball team, compete favorably against older divisions. They won U12 and U14 and placed fourth in the U16 division at the Hampton Beach, N.H. tournament during the first weekend of August.

In the nationals, the Rhode Island duo lost a close three-game set during an elimination round. If they had won, their would have finished among the top 15, according to Haley’s mother Mary, who played intercollegiately at URI and stays active in adult beach volleyball tournaments.

“That was a heartbreaking loss,” Sawyer said. “We were competitive against all teams, losing by only three to five points in games to 21. Both Jaime and I are more accustomed to play six-person volleyball on indoor courts. She is a libero and I am a setter, so we had to adjust to using all skills: serving, service receiving, passing and kill shots that you need in beach volleyball.”

In addition to competition at the nationals, competitors also took shifts as volunteer officials and scorekeepers. Games commenced continuously on 16 courts spread out on the Radford Beach park sand.

“The site and the atmosphere was fantastic,” Sawyer said. “The sand was very sugary, not like the somewhat rocky sand that we have on the ocean. The weather was great and it was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had in volleyball. Not only did it test my athletic ability, the experience demanded that I show sportsmanship and gave me responsibility of administrating during a game as an official or scorekeeper.”

Sawyer graduated to the U12 national level, honing her game since elementary school while performing for the Ocean State Volleyball Club in West Warwick. She loves both the indoor six-person game and outdoor two-person beach brand of the sport.

Her mother Mary, who is recreation director for the Town of Hopkinton, said there is a movement to add beach volleyball as an NCAA sanctioned sport, giving volleyball enthusiasts two options to pursue the game in college.

Haley plans to continue competition in beach volleyball tournaments and in regular volleyball during New England Region Volleyball Association play with her OSV club. She possesses athletic genes with her mother’s collegiate volleyball experience and her father John’s past career as a freestyle skiier at the U.S. National level.

Haley said she plans to play at Chariho High in two years and hopefully at a higher level some day.

“My experience at the nationals brought me closer to the sport,” she said.

There was only one critique she had of the experience. The Lake Michigan water was quite chilly and carried a pungent smell from an algae proliferation that has plagued the Great Lakes in recent years.

“The beach is beautiful and Lake Michigan is so huge, it looks like the ocean, but nobody stayed in the water nor swam,” said Sawyer, who played numerous games on the Watch Hill beach in front of Taylor Swift’s current home. “We’re very lucky around here to have the Atlantic Ocean, Misquamicut and Watch Hill as our main beaches.”

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