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Lafayette’s Leanna Deegan leads nation in kills as Leopards make strides in Patriot League

She entered the week leading the nation in kills per set (5.98) and total kills (353). And she’s not playing for a Power 5 team. She isn’t even playing for a mid-major program.

Lafayette senior outside hitter Leanna Deegan, just 5-foot-9, isn’t a typical “volleyball lifer.”

But she has become quite a force for her hometown college. Tiny Lafayette, which has just more than 2,000 undergraduates, entered the week in a three-way tie for second place in the Patriot League with Loyola Maryland and Army at 6-2, a game behind Colgate (7-1).

On Saturday, Lafayette travels to Army West Point. The Leopards will be trying to avenge a 3-1 loss to the Black Knights on October 8 that snapped their 5-0 start in league play.

Deegan was a three-sport athlete at nearby Easton Area High School — Lafayette is in Easton, Pennsylvania, about 70 miles north of Philadelphia. She also played basketball and lacrosse, and while others were taking part in their club volleyball seasons, Deegan was on to her next sport.

As a result, college interest for volleyball was sparse.

“It was hard to get my name out there (for volleyball) in that respect,” Deegan said. “And Easton isn’t a super-huge volleyball school. So it’s not like a lot of people are coming out to watch. It was a lot of me reaching out to coaches.

“It kind of took me until my senior year to realize (volleyball) is what I wanted to do in college. So I was really late in the process for that, so I guess that’s another reason there weren’t many opportunities in volleyball.”

Her decision came down to Lafayette and Hofstra, and Deegan chose to stay in her backyard and play five miles from the high school where she made her name as an athlete.

For some, playing so close to family and friends might add pressure. Deegan, however, finds comfort in the familiar surroundings.

Lafayette’s Leanna Deegan/Lafayette photo

“Most of my games, and even away games, my parents can be there, my friends,” she said. “And people I know from high school have been able to come, which is really nice.

“It always surprises me who comes to games, like my old teammates from basketball or volleyball.”

And one of the frequent spectators was a major player in helping nudge Deegan toward college volleyball: Jeffrey Corpora, her volleyball coach at Easton Area.

Corpora, now retired, became sort of a surrogate uncle to Deegan. Leanna’s mother, Helen, who was a middle blocker at Delaware, coached Easton’s middle-school team and later was Corpora’s assistant and junior-varsity coach.

As such, Corpora was able to watch Leanna come up through the ranks, champing at the bit to have her on the varsity.

Once she made it there, Deegan was as good as Corpora envisioned. But in a strange twist, an injury, he said, helped her reach another level.

During her junior year, Deegan injured a finger during Easton’s season-opening victory. The injury was severe enough to force her to the sideline, but perhaps it was more painful to her psyche.

One day not long after it was revealed Deegan would have to miss some matches, Corpora went into the gym and found her sitting alone in the stands.

“I think she was feeling a little sorry for herself,” Corpora said. “I went up and sat with her … and told her it was an opportunity to still be a big part of the team. I said, ‘But I need you down there with me.’

“That was the moment she truly embraced how the other girls looked to her. Not having her on the court hurt, but having her there supporting her teammates, and her teammates’ knowing that she was there every minute with them was phenomenal.”

Her presence was a boost to the team, and Deegan benefited because she was getting to see volleyball from a different perspective. She was watching it as a de facto coach rather than a player. Once she returned from her injury, Corpora said, her game took off.

“She became a better volleyball player by not playing volleyball,” he said. “She got to watch, and she got to listen, and she really got to see the game.”

Deegan credits Corpora with helping her development: “He was always big on me playing in college. He always wanted me to get to that next level. He was kind of always there as a figure for me volleyball-wise.”

Deegan might have been blossoming, but she was far from a finished product. She spent her freshman season at Lafayette trying to get accustomed to the speed of the college game as well as learn many volleyball terms and strategies that still were foreign to her — a byproduct of her relatively limited exposure to the game throughout her teens.

This was the player coach Ryan Adams inherited when he took over as Lafayette’s coach before the 2019 season, Deegan’s sophomore year. He already had an idea of what her capabilities were, but he was inheriting a program that finished 4-22 in 2016 and 5-23 in 2017 and 2018, including 0-16 in the Patriot League in 2018.

Adams was an assistant at Bucknell, also in the Patriot League, when Deegan was a freshman at Lafayette, and he recalled one of the Bison’s two meetings with the Leopards that season. Although his team won 3-2, Adams watched as Deegan torched the Bison for 34 kills on .441 hitting.

He noted her natural physical gifts, and when he took over at Lafayette, he set out to take her raw athleticism and turn it into volleyball athleticism.

Calling Deegan “probably the strongest woman I have been around, let alone seen on the volleyball court,” Adams began to make some tweaks.

The most significant was turning her back into a six-rotation player. To do that, he had to help her improve her serve receive. By her own admission, Deegan’s platform for serve receive isn’t the best, so Adams had her using her hands more to take advantage of her strength.

“My freshman year, I just hit front row. I didn’t play back row at all,” she said. “When you’re not doing that for a whole year, you kind of lose practice of it, and you have to start reading the ball better in the back row but also making sure you’re in the right space.

“Serve receive was especially tough for me to get back into.”

Deegan has made strides since. This season, she has 16 aces and is second on the team with 130 digs. Her serve-receive percentage is a serviceable .969.

Becoming a more complete player has benefitted Deegan and the Leopards — they are 6-2 in the Patriot League after winning only four league matches from 2018 to 2020 — but her calling card remains her ability to hit.

“The ball just sounds different coming off her hand compared to others,” Adams said, “which is pretty cool.”

Her numbers are staggering. In 16 matches, she has 11 with at least 20 kills, including two of more than 30. She had a season-high 36 (with a .418 hitting percentage) in a five-set loss to Sacred Heart and 31 in a four-set win over rival Lehigh.

Maybe even more impressive are the trio of three-set matches in which she had at least 24 kills — or eight per set.

As a testimony to her growth as an all-around volleyball player, Deegan is putting up her eye-popping numbers using more than brute strength.

“My freshman year, my mindset was, I’m going to jump and hit the ball as hard as I can no matter what,” she said. “I don’t care who’s in front of me. I’m just going to jump and hit it as hard as I can.

“But as the years go on, you’re looking more at the block. You’re looking more at using hands. You’re looking for open spots on the court, so even if I’m not hitting the ball as hard as I can, I’m hitting the ball to the right spot.

“We always talk about, as a team, that a kill is just a point no matter how hard you hit it. It’s not as cool, but it’s still one point for the team.”

Adams said: “I think just across the board with all our hitters, we talk a lot about bad situations and good situations. I think through her tenure here, it’s just her being mindful of what it means to be in a good (hitting) situation or a bad situation.

“I think she had the baseline athleticism, and it’s just now coming to the peak of having so many years of volleyball under her belt, especially at the college level. It has helped her become a true volleyball player — with a very heavy arm.”

Deegan’s dominance has helped open up opportunities for other players. Grace Tulevech, a senior outside, has 123 kills and a .250 hitting percentage — right behind Deegan’s personal-best percentage of .252. Sophomore middle Gracie Gibson is second in the Patriot League with a .313 hitting percentage.

Senior Madi Wahrmund has 97 kills and hits .242. The Leopards are on top of the Patriot League in hitting percentage (.221).

“It’s just a team effort,” Deegan said. “It’s not just me getting a lot of kills. We have been able to incorporate a lot of our other hitters.”

Another crack at Colgate looms October 24 in Easton. The Raiders swept the first meeting, but two of the three sets required “overtime.” That’s how close Lafayette is to having at least a share of first place.

The mere notion of contending for a conference title seemed far-fetched even a year ago. But the Leopards have shown they can be serious players in the race to the top.

For proof, consider they swept perennial league power American on October 1 (one of Deegan’s 25-kills matches). Lafayette hadn’t swept American since 1987.

“It’s a really crazy feeling,” Deegan said. “Our first two or three years, we were the bottom of the Patriot League. It’s the best feeling. We’re just having fun. Every time we step on the court, everyone is trying their hardest.

“We’re having fun, laughing, excited to step on the court instead of being like, ‘Oh we’re going to get crushed by this team we’re playing’ … Now that we have played almost every team in the Patriot League, we have gained a lot more confidence in ourselves.”

So confident that Lafayette has visions of competing in the Patriot League Tournament, something it hasn’t done since 2006, when it was the No. 4 seed.

As the season reaches the halfway point, the Leopards are in a comfortable spot, 2.5 games up on American and Navy for the No. 4 spot. Which is something when you consider that in Adams’ first year, 2019, the Leopards finished 13-19 overall (2-14 Patriot) and then went just 2-5 in the abbreviated spring 2021 season.

Regardless of what the final month of the regular season holds, Deegan said she already has a sense of satisfaction knowing the team is light years ahead of where it was her freshman season.

“Even now, winning this many games is something we’ve never done before, so it’s really cool to be a part of that,” she said. “Even if we don’t make it to the NCAA Tournament and just make it to the Patriot League Tournament, that’s a huge step for us.

“And it’s a good feeling to be a senior on the team and kind of lead the program into a better place than it started in.”

And that, Corpora said, is Deegan in a nutshell. As much pride as she could feel leading the country in hitting, she prefers to think of her accomplishments in terms of the team.

“She’ll never say how good she is,” Corpora said. “She probably doesn’t realize how good she is. If you listen to any of her interviews on the Lafayette website, she’s always praising her teammates. And that’s just her. She’s that type of kid.”

Chuck Curti is a sports writer/copy editor for the Tribune-Review and in Greensburg, Pa.
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