GRAND HAVEN – At first glance, Grand Haven senior Ashley Slater is your typical high school student.
She binge-watches “The Office” on Netflix. She saw “Avengers: Endgame” over the summer – and loved it. She had a handful of teammates over to her house on a recent school night to tie-dye their socks — purple, of course, in preparation for their Bucs’ Pride night. By her own admission, the one thing she can’t leave the house without is her cell phone.
Upon closer inspection, however, Slater is anything but typical. She’s 6-foot-2 — and growing. She boasts a 4.0 GPA, and is capable of swinging her right arm into a volleyball at dizzying rates of speed toward her opponents.
Slater was recently named one of 10 finalists for Michigan’s Miss Volleyball award. She’s the first Grand Haven player since Emily Lachmann in 2015 to be selected as a finalist, and when the four-year varsity player found out she made the list following a tournament last weekend, she could hardly believe it.
“It was kind of surreal,” Slater said. “It’s a really great honor, especially when there are so many great candidates this year. It’s cool to be recognized.”
Cool — that’s a good way to describe her style of play. As one of four seniors on this year’s Bucs roster, her calm demeanor has set the tone for a team that has started the year hanging around the top 10 of the state’s Division 1 polls.
“She brings everyone together,” junior outside hitter Mackenzie Gross said. “She has this voice of just being calming, that way when plays or matches get chaotic, she just steps in and gives really good advice.”
Gross and Slater were fast friends upon becoming teammates a couple of years ago, connected by being younger players on a roster full of upperclassmen.
“On the court, it’s all business, but off the court, not at all,” Slater said. “We just wanted to have fun.”
Watching Slater play, it comes as no surprise she’s played the sport almost year-round since sixth grade. That requires tremendous dedication. Was there ever a time when she wanted to take a break?
“Never,” said her mother, Lisa.
Ashley owes her athletic genes to her parents. Lisa was an athlete growing up in Spring Lake; her husband, Brett, is a Grand Haven native and stands at 6-foot-3, which explains the height.
“We always gave her the option, we didn’t want to put any pressure on her at all,” Lisa said. “We wanted her to do it for the love of the sport and to have fun doing it. She ended up being the one that dragged us everywhere.”
Ashley’s athletic achievements can be traced to her home life, where she says she learned the values that have shaped her into who she is both on and off the court.
“My parents never settled for anything,” Slater said. “They have such great work ethic. They put 100 percent into everything, being there for my sisters and I, anything.”
There’s even the feel of wisdom that belies her age, still a month away from turning 17. Grand Haven head coach Aaron Smaka said Ashley possesses an “old soul.”
“She’s got a phenomenal sense of what her priorities are,” Smaka said. “She has a big-picture mentality where she realizes that volleyball isn’t everything.”
It was more than just volleyball that went into Slater’s decision to head to Wake Forest University next year. Although it’s a 12 hours drive to the campus in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, something clicked immediately in Ashley’s head during her visit.
“Everything just felt right,” Slater said. “It’s a great academic school, they have everything that I was looking for. I loved the coaches, the campus, I loved all the girls on the team. Everything fell into place.
“I’m thinking about majoring in something on the medical side of things. Wake Forest has a really great health and exercise science program, that was really appealing. I’d love to do something in athletics.”
A ‘voice of reason’
Grand Haven’s 2016 team was loaded with talent, with eight seniors that went on to play college volleyball. And there Ashley was, using the first part of her freshman year to adjust to a new position on the junior varsity team. By the end of the regular season, her rise was too much to ignore and she ascended to the varsity squad.
Her first week as a starter at the varsity level just happened to come during the week of districts. During a five-set regional final loss to Rockford, she led the team in kills.
“There’s your coming-out party,” Smaka said. “Then coming into her sophomore year, she loses those eight seniors. She had to develop into that leadership role.”
It didn’t always come easy, but one of the things that has impressed Smaka the most about Ashley on the volleyball side of things is her ability to be more than an elite attacking threat. As a senior, she’s capable of playing all six positions on the court and beginning to excel defensively.
“She used to get picked on,” Smaka said. “Teams would come after her, they would try to rattle her. Now, she’s in a mental space where it’s really tough to do that. She’s grown and I think she’s more confident.”
That mental growth has manifested itself in more than just her own game.
“She’s a voice of reason,” Gross said. “On and off the court. Ashley’s one of those team moms, where she’ll say ‘Drink some water. Eat some food,’ she’s definitely one of those people that will keep track of people.”
“One of the places she’s grown the most over the last year is in her leadership,” Smaka added. “I’m seeing her develop as a captain and use her voice to make the people around her better. Ashley was always a great talent, but now she’s affecting others. She has a serious desire to improve and make herself better.”
Ashley has the rest of the season to continue to move herself up the Bucs’ leaderboards in career stats. Through Sept. 12, she’s racked up a team-leading 276 kills and 62 aces, as well as 120 digs — good for second on the team. She’s on pace to hit 600 kills, not far off of the program record for a season.
There’s something behind the calm demeanor that has enabled Slater to take the next step this season. Earlier this week, Grand Haven was down 22-10 in the first set of their match against Whitehall. With the help of her teammates, Slater was involved in 10 straight points to help the Bucs come back, winning the set 25-23 on their way to a sweep.
“She’s a pretty happy-go-lucky person,” Lisa says. “She does like to win, though. Inside, she is very intense. She’s definitely not afraid to take the bull by the horns and do what she can do to win.”
With her time as a Bucs volleyball player winding down, there’s still a couple things Ashley wants to accomplish.
“The seniors and I definitely want to go out with a bang,” Slater says. “I’m not going to get an experience like this again, so I want to leave a lasting impression on the younger girls, just like they did on me.”