WALLA WALLA — During last year’s NWAACC volleyball tournament, Chantelle Zamora was just a spectator.
This season, the Walla Walla Community College redshirt freshman has blossomed into a first-team all-conference player and co-MVP of the Warriors.
Now, Zamora is be tasked with leading the Warriors into the first round of the NWAACC Championship tournament at Mount Hood Community College on Thursday.
The Warriors finished with a 26-13 record overall and a 10-4 mark in the East region.
“I’m excited,” Zamora said. “I’m ready to go and play hard. I just hope we pull it all together as a team and we play as a team. I know we have the potential to be so good; sometimes we just don’t pull it all together.”
With 16 teams vying for the championship, the Warriors have their work cut out for them to bring home a conference title.
But with Zamora in the fold, Walla Walla features one player who is more than accustomed to overcoming challenges.
Coming out of Walla Walla High School, the 5-foot-7 Zamora was considered too small for the college game by most coaches. Even Walla Walla head coach Tim Toon was hesitant to guarantee a spot on the front row, even though she had plenty of success during her time as a Blue Devil.
“When we recruit, we hope for the best and Chantelle has exceeded and shattered that hope in a positive way,” Toon said. “She does a lot with what she has.”
With her options trimmed to two schools, Zamora decided on Walla Walla to stay close to home and in hopes of earning a shot at outside hitter. Zamora decided to redshirt last season to ensure she could compete at the college level.
“I always knew I wanted to go on and play,” Zamora said. “It’s my passion. Volleyball is everything. I definitely wanted to go and play, but being an outside hitter and being a hitter was definitely unsure.”
But about halfway through her redshirt season, Toon realized Zamora was more than capable of playing at the college level.
“Probably about halfway though last fall, I realized she was going to play front row,” Toon said. “By the end of last year, she would have started for us. That’s the kind of significant growth and maturity she showed in that redshirt season.”
Zamora said effort was key for her personal growth during her redshirt campaign. She spent time in the gym to get stronger and worked with a jump rope to increase her vertical leap.
Toon credited Zamora for her relentless effort to become the player she is today.
“During that redshirt year, it’s easy to get distracted a little bit because you’re not playing,” Toon said. “I’m really proud of her that she delayed the short-term gratification to get better. I think that’s paying off now. I hope that she sees that it’s been worth it.”
Fast forward a year and Zamora’s progress has been nothing short of stunning. She finished first on the team with 375 kills and 494 digs this season. With her 32 blocks and 29 service aces, Zamora’s first-team NWAACC selection was virtually a no-brainer.
But for the coach who recruited her, Toon saw this coming.
“Last spring, I predicted she would be an all-conference player,” Toon said. “I didn’t know if it was going to be this year or next year. She’s just continued that explosion and growth and had a phenomenal first year of playing — just met and exceeded all my expectations.”
More importantly, Zamora was also selected as co-MVP of the Warriors, along with teammate JaLisa Jose. Zamora said the recognition is indicative of the work she put in last season, but her teammates were equally important to her individual success.
“It wasn’t just me and JaLisa — even though we did get MVPs,” Zamora said. “It’s great and it feels great. But, we couldn’t have done it without our other teammates.”
Now the once-overlooked Zamora is making other NWAACC coaches re-think passing on her.
“She’s always fully aware and had the desire to be a hitter,” Toon said. “I’m sure that motivated her to some point. That motivated me to show other teams in the NWAACC that in fact she can play. People are sorry they passed on her now.”
The Warriors open the championship tournament with a match against Tacoma at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday. Walla Walla beat Tacoma in straight sets during the second round of the tournament last season.
With a grizzly regional slate, featuring Blue Mountain (37-5 overall, 14-0 in East region play) and Spokane (31-14 overall, 11-3 in East region), Toon said the Warriors are more than battle tested.
“We’re not going to freak out if we lose some points or lose some games,” Toon said. “This team, they can rise to the occasion. We’ve had flashes of brilliance. We just need to be brilliant for four days and I think we’ll bring home a trophy.”
The Warriors have finished in third place or better at the NWAACC tournament in six of the last nine seasons. Toon said this year’s roster is capable of peaking in time for the tournament.
“It’s going to take playing every ball tough,” Toon said. “It’s going to be minimizing errors. We’ve had lots of positives all season, but intermingled with that streaks of five, six, seven points where we play really poor. We’ve got to avoid that, we can’t afford to bury ourselves in that fashion.”
As for Zamora, Toon can count on her unwavering effort.
“You have to leave everything on the court,” Zamora said. “You can’t take anything back — you just have to play.”