Haylee Mathis walked through the Enlow Center doors, after school on Dec. 12, looking as busy as normal.
Her long, dark brown hair brushed the covers of the books stacked in her arms because her backpack was full — its zipper holding on tightly as her fingers squeezed the bottom of the pile of books.
She dumped her luggage into the first two rows of the bleachers, talking herself through the first sentences of a research paper she needed to write that night.
She looked the part of an everyday high school student, down to the red Mickey Mouse sweater she wore — “Today’s a Disney theme. I’m not just wearing this,” she explained of St. Anthony’s Homecoming week.
Mathis had a laundry list of things to do, including a trip to the bank and the essay, but first was a newspaper interview.
The Bulldogs’ star player this season was about a week from graduating and thought the madness of people wanting to talk to her was over when she committed to Washington State to play volleyball, ending a competitive recruitment process last year.
But she wasn’t complaining. This is how she prefers it and wanted it when the girl from Strasburg decided to go to high school at St. Anthony, instead of following the unit pipeline to Stew-Stras.
Mathis recognized some academic cuts being made at Stew-Stras and said she thought going to St. Anthony, instead, would set her up for the future.
“That was kind of scary,” Mathis said. “A lot of people think I came here because the volleyball is good. That was a perk.”
Stew-Stras finished second in Class 1A at the IHSA state tournament at Redbird Arena, while St. Anthony fell one set short in a Class 2A Super-Sectional loss.
She is reminded of both schools’ seasons every day by a neighbor in Strasburg.
Mathis and a Comets player, whom she wouldn’t name, live across from each other, where a grass lane runs along a prairie to the player’s house, opposite Mathis’ driveway.
A sign sits at the front of the lane.
“They have their nice, little ‘Stew-Stras State Bound’ or ‘Good Luck at State’ signs,” Mathis said in December. “I have to see it every morning. It’s still there.”
St. Anthony beat Stew-Stras to win the National Trail Conference tournament championship in October, coming a few weeks after a loss to the Comets that changed the outlook of the Bulldogs’ season.
The Comets came into the Enlow Center and beat the Bulldogs in the middle of the season, leading St. Anthony head coach Kristie Bailey to make a change to her team’s offensive game plan.
Bailey, who couldn’t be reached for comment on this story, made Mathis more of an outside hitter — something the Washington State commit hadn’t done.
“It’s like everything is frozen around you,” Mathis said of when she’s about to spike a ball. “I can’t hear anything unless it’s Rachel (Schmidt) yelling at me.”
Mathis said she was concerned about how the move would effect the team’s rotation, but freshman Jenna Woltman stepped in as a setter and Mathis performed well.
“Pretty much every time they gave me the ball, I got the kill,” Mathis said.
She will be a setter at Washington State, which is the position she has played since she started volleyball in third grade.
Mathis was easily entertained as a child. She said her parents could put her in front of a TV, with some toys, and she would be there for hours, but she was no less active than other kids her age.
She remembers learning how to set — actually set. In third grade, her dad told her to try tipping the ball, instead of bumping it so she could keep balls alive close to the net.
When she finally did it in a game, her coach was confused.
“We got the point and my coach said, ‘Where did you learn that?’” Mathis said. “My dad just told me to do it.”
* * *
The University of Illinois started recruiting Mathis in eighth grade, at which point she was only beginning to realize the potential she had in the sport.
She always played a level up — on the eighth grade team in seventh grade, a varsity setter as a freshman — but she said her future only became clear when volleyball started getting easier for her.
“It was like I was ready for the next step,” Mathis said. “I’m playing at this high school level, but you can tell I shouldn’t be.”
Inevitably, colleges noticed her skills, too. Recruiters and coaches filled her inbox with “thousands” of emails during her first two years of high school.
Programs nationwide wanted her: Washington State, North Carolina, South Carolina, Minnesota, Indiana State, Southern Illinois-Carbondale, and U of I are the schools Mathis could remember.
She responded to every one of them, sometimes only thanking them for their interest, because she learned it isn’t smart to eliminate schools too soon.
But it was a tricky process, as she experienced with one unnamed university who tried to force her into a commitment earlier than she wanted to make one.
“I didn’t really want to go there, but you can’t eliminate people because if your Plan A and Plan B don’t work out, you still want Plan C,” Mathis said. “It’s a risky business and not always a truthful one.”
Add expensive and misleading to the list, Mathis said.
She took college visits her junior year, which Mathis said is considered late for volleyball players, and many of them ended without a scholarship offer.
Washington State’s staff let Mathis know they wanted her from the beginning, sending a recruiter to see her before she went to Pullman, Wash. for a campus visit.
Her visit to the university was unlike any other, which sold her on the program. She remembers meeting Washington State Athletic Director Bill Moos during the trip.
“I’ve never met the man in my life,” Mathis said. “I walked into the athletic director’s office, he shook my hand and said, ‘You’re Haylee Mathis,’ and gives me a hug.”
He continued, talking about Mathis’ chicken egg business and her piano lessons like he’d known her all of her life.
“(All the colleges) pull out the bells and whistles,” Mathis said. “(Washington State) pulled out the ones that meant the most.”
Now, Mathis is packing her suitcases for the flight to Pullman on Tuesday — two for her and one for her mom.
She doesn’t know what to expect when she gets there, but she has set goals like any other forward thinker.
“I want to be a competitor and I want to play,” Mathis said. “(The Pac-12 is) the toughest conference and best conference in the nation. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Alex McNamee can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 123, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Haylee Mathis walked through the Enlow Center doors, after school on Dec. 12, looking as busy as normal.
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