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A Competitor

Aug 28, 2022

Editor's Note: The following story is part of a series highlighting the members of the 2022 Washington State Athletic Hall of Fame Class. The Hall of Fame induction will take place, Sept. 16-17, at the Washington State University campus. The induction dinner will be held Sept. 16 at Beasley Coliseum with the 2022 class also being recognized at the Washington State-Colorado State football game at Gesa Field the following day. For ticket information on the induction dinner, please click HERE

Throughout her life, LaToya Harris has put together a list of goals.

The lists are updated frequently. Over two decades ago, when she arrived as a freshman volleyball player at Washington State University, Harris put together a list of goals to achieve for the season and career. 

And one other noteworthy item.

 "Hall of Fame," she said. 

That goal will become reality when Harris is inducted to the Washington State Athletic Hall of Fame in September.

Fighting to be the best

"Competitor," is how Cindy Fredrick, the WSU volleyball coach from 1989-2003, described Harris.

Harris describes herself that way, too, and that competitiveness was instilled at an early age in Portland, Ore., as she participated in a variety of sports, including softball and basketball, which Harris described as her two favorite sports.

"I was competitive in everything I did," she said. 

In the seventh grade, Harris' older sister introduced volleyball to her, and, while it was not something that appealed to Harris initially, she tried out for a club team.

She was introduced to volleyball coach Darren Buckner, who coached her on the finer aspects of the sport.

"I developed a passion for volleyball," Harris said.

During the recruiting process, Harris drew interest from schools, but discovered she was being passed up due to her height (5-foot-7), notably receiving a rejection letter from Stanford.

That is, until Fredrick and assistant coach and husband Dr. Mashallah Farokhmanesh visited Harris at her Portland home. 

"I felt a connection," Harris remembered from that visit. "They said if you come here you will have the opportunity to earn this. But you're going to have to work hard."

Those were words Harris loved to hear.

"If you are going to give me the open door to work hard I'm going to get it," Harris said. "I loved fighting for things."

"We told her, 'The thing that could hurt you is that you will always be 5-7 and if you are playing against someone who is 6-1 or 6-2, they are going to lose their vertical as the match goes on and so are you, but you're 5-7,'" Fredrick said.

"She did a lot of training, and that was one of the things that set LaToya apart from other athletes," Fredrick added. "She had that physical ability but she didn't take it for granted at all.

With the challenge presented to her, Harris set out to improve her vertical leap.

"One thing my grandma instilled in me is that if someone tells you can't do something you find a way to do it, and do it better" she said. "I trained every day and my vertical started improving."

Improving to the point that Harris' vertical leap reached 31 inches.  

"She was inspired always to never let anybody undermine her or to say you can't do this," Fredrick said. "Every opportunity she got, she trained hard. She took full advantage of her God-given physical traits and enhanced them every chance she got."

Harris drew motivation competing against players taller than her. 

"We played teams that were tall, and it was even about winning, it was more about proving something," Harris said. "I found myself looking above the net and thought 'Wow this is different.'"

As she worked to excel on the court, Harris was confronted with adversity off. During the spring heading into her sophomore year her grandmother passed away.

"That was hard," Harris said. "She was my rock. And it made me feel like wanted to give up."

The adversity solidified Harris' fortitude.

"Everything you have to understand that nothing is going to be perfect, but how you balance that from failures who you are build character," she said. "I found myself showing who you truly are outside of sports and who LaToya was as a person."

No. 1 Stanford at Bohler

In 1997, the volleyball program advanced as far as the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament. The Cougars earned back-to-back NCAA appearances in 2000 and 2001 with Harris named All-Pac-10 First Team honors in each of those seasons. 

Heading into the 2002 campaign, Harris and her senior teammates: Adrian Hankoff, Holly Harris, Kortney Jamtaas, and Chelsie Schafer, who were dubbed the 'Fab Five' had a goal in mind that exceeded an NCAA Tournament appearance.

"I still have a picture hanging downstairs of them," Fredrick said. "They were making faces at me because they got so tired of hearing about the previous team that had gone to the Elite Eight. That was their goal."

Harris and the Cougars could take a big step toward that goal when they faced No. 1 Stanford at a packed Bohler Gym in 2002.

And for Harris, there was extra motivation.

"Every time played Stanford that was in the back of my head, that letter," Harris said. 

It was Senior Night and Harris, along with her fellow 'Fab Five' teammates were playing their final game at Bohler Gym.

"It was a phenomenal match," Fredrick said. "Every player on our team had to play a very, very good match, and they did."

Especially Harris.

"That game we were fired up," Harris said. "It was time to let loose."

The stat line reflected how much Harris showcased those weapons against Stanford, recording a double-double with a career and match-high 29 kills and 18 digs. In addition, she hit a season-high .460 for the match. In addition, she tallied three service aces to establish a WSU career record with 136.

"Everything that we worked hard for was let out in that match," Harris said. "It was the best I played in my life. I felt unstoppable."

"LaToya's serving was just incredible," Fredrick remembered.

Harris and the Cougars upset Stanford in four sets unleashing a wild celebration on the Bohler Gym floor.

"It was tears. People hugged us and we didn't even know who they were," Harris said with a laugh. "Will never forget that moment."

The win propelled the Cougars to an Elite Eight run, the second in the past five years.

"For Washington State University to be in the Elite Eight twice, that was phenomenal," Fredrick said. 

"I loved those women," Harris said of the 2002 team. "I loved Cindy and Farok. We went through everything together. We deserved it. I would go back and do it again if I could."

Lists of goals continue

After WSU, Harris went into coaching and coached Lewis-Clark State for seven years, succeeding Jen Greeny when she became the head coach at WSU.

A mother of two kids, Harris decided to move back home of Portland and focus on family. She is now a personal trainer and works at Nike focusing on health and nutrition.

And she also continues to coach volleyball at her old high school, Parkrose.

"I've coached volleyball for 20 plus years and I realized my passion is coaching, period," she said.  

On the 20th anniversary of the Elite Eight season and the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the women of Harris' life including her family: sister, mom, aunt and grandma, and Fredrick are foremost in her thoughts. 

"That's how I became who I was because of the women in my life," Harris said. "Women are capable of so much if we continue to challenge ourselves. 

And Harris continues to challenge herself by continuing to make a list of goals.

"You have to grow or you are just standing still," she said. "My purpose I found is to impact others with what I was challenged with my examples in life and I have been able to do that."

When Harris learned of her Hall of Fame induction, her mind went to the list she wrote down as a freshman.

"When I found out, I thought, 'Wow, I checked off a goal and am grateful for it,'" 

And she reflects on her time at Washington State she is grateful of what it means to be a Coug

"You can only be one to understand. Whenever you see someone who is a Coug you can feel something. It's family. It's strength. It's extraordinary. It's nothing less than a fight."