Laurie Kelly came across hundreds of volleyball players during her 40-year career of mentoring athletes in the sport. There were dozens of talented players along the way, but there was something special about one in particular: Hailey Copinga.
“She had athleticism, but she had to work on skill. She was just a natural athlete, but she worked hard to be a good volleyball player,” said Kelly, who recruited and coached Copinga at Rocky Mountain College before retiring earlier this year. “I don’t think anybody could out-work Hailey. Early in her sports career she told herself, ‘I will never be that athlete that complains, doesn’t work hard or shows frustration in practice or in a game.’ She stuck by it. She was seriously the first one at practice, always in a good mood. She wasn’t a loud person but she did, she led by example. Nobody ever watched her play volleyball and saw any frustration at all.”
There was nary a need for frustrations.
Copinga moved from Utah to Billings in middle school, eventually attending Billings Skyview. It was there she caught the attention of another hall of famer, Vicki (Heebner) Carle, who recognized the potential and plugged Copinga in the varsity starting lineup as a middle blocker.
What ensued was an eventual all-state career, where Copinga ranked in the top 10 in multiple Class AA categories, specifically blocks, before catching the attention of Kelly, the longtime high school and college coach who was inducted into the Montana Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2005.
Under Kelly’s tutelage, Copinga became one of the top players in the Frontier Conference, showcased by her senior season as a right-side hitter for the Battlin’ Bears. She tallied 389 kills, 481 digs and 130 blocks on her way to Frontier Conference player of the year. Rocky finished the regular season undefeated, 12-0, against conference opponents.
After posting season-highs of 17 kills and 28 digs in a win over in-town rival MSU Billings, Copinga led the Bears into the Frontier Conference tournament, where they were upset in the league’s championship game by the University of Providence. Still, Rocky, which had been ranked in the NAIA top 10 throughout the season, advanced to the NAIA national tournament for the first time since 2014.
The American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) recognized Copinga as the Northwest Region NAIA player of the year, and she was eventually named first-team all-American.
“We’ve only had two first-team volleyball all-Americans in the history of Rocky Mountain College, of course, Hailey was our second one, (former Rocky outside hitter and current Rocky head volleyball coach) Yang Yang was our first one,” said Kelly. “People that watched Hailey would just watch her in amazement.
“If you look at the stat board, you wouldn’t think, she doesn’t lead in every stat, but she does everything on the court. She hits, she blocks, she sets, she digs and she serves. I mean, she does everything at a high level. She’s barely 5-foot-9 and jumps out of the gym, and people are just like, her athleticism, you can’t help but watch her play.”
Copinga finished her Rocky career with 962 kills, 874 assists, 1,352 digs and 345 blocks. Her accolades continued into the spring when the Montana Amateur Athletic Union named her a finalist for the 2019 Little Sullivan Award.
“She’s doing her student-teaching right now in elementary education, and I would love my grandkids, or even when my daughters (were in school), I would love to have her as the teacher for them,” Kelly said. “She is so positive and she makes me proud, I’m an educator, she makes me proud that she went into education, and she also wants to go into coaching. That brings a lot with it, too. She’s been coaching club, helps in camps and all of these things, I was totally blessed that I got to coach her and that we got her at Rocky.”
The 2019 Montana AAU Little Sullivan banquet will be held Saturday, May 4 at the Red Lion Hotel in Billings. Tickets to the event are available until May 1 and can be purchased by emailing email@example.com or by calling (406) 489-0251.
All current card-holding adult Montana AAU members, plus Montana media representatives, are eligible to vote for this year’s winners by emailing selections to firstname.lastname@example.org by Monday, April 22.
Montana AAU Little Sullivan Award 2019 finalists
— Choteau, MSU Billings basketball
Hailey Copinga — Billings Skyview, Rocky Mountain College volleyball
Makena Morley — Bigfork, University of Colorado cross country and track and field
Sydney Stites — Bozeman, Iowa State University softball
— Great Falls CMR, North Dakota State University baseball
Tres Tinkle — Missoula Hellgate, Oregon State basketball
Brandon Weber — Forsyth, MSU-Northern wrestling
Tucker Yates — Colstrip, Montana State University football