In their opening weekend, the Emory volleyball team swept 3-0 at the Emory Classic, which featured visiting teams Guilford College (N.C.), Johnson and Wales University (R.I.) and Sewanee: The University of the South (Tenn.). Instrumental in capturing all three games was junior right-side hitter Leah Saunders, who was named this week’s University Athletic Association (UAA) Volleyball Offensive Co-Player of the Week and Emory’s Athlete of the Week.
Saunders, an anthropology major and native of Simpsonville, S.C., has found great success as an Eagle. In her freshman year, she was named UAA Rookie of the Year and received an honorable mention on the All-UAA team. And she’s only gone up from there.
In her sophomore year, Saunders was named for the Emory Classic All-Tournament Team, Emory National Tournament All-Tournament Team, American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Honorable Mention All-American, AVCA All-South Region Team, UAA Most Valuable Player, First Team All-UAA, NCAA Championships All-Tournament Team and finally, was named an NCAA Champion.
All of her success hasn’t come easily, though. Saunders said that the physical hardship of the sport has been equally as challenging as the mental one.
“The amount of intentional focus and energy that is demanded of the sport is something I didn’t realize until we lost my freshman year in the Elite Eight,” Saunders said. “Since then, the team has been determined to develop our minds as much, if not more, than our bodies so that we can peak in November.”
Saunders has been able to learn and grow through these obstacles.
“Every year is a little bit different, but from coming in my freshman year to now, I have a new perspective of what it means to work hard and play for others,” Saunders said. “I would say it’s definitely a learning curve that I’ve had to experience, but it never reaches a definitive ending. You just have to keep pushing yourself a little bit further each day.”
Head Coach Jenny McDowell believes the program would not be the same without Saunders.
“We were so fortunate that [Saunders] chose Emory,” McDowell said. “She could have easily played in the [Southeastern or Atlantic Coast Conferences]. She is the most dynamic athlete I have ever coached at Emory. She can do it all.”
In the 2019 Emory Classic, Saunders saw action in all 11 of the team’s sets and averaged a team-high 3.82 kills per game. She also closed out the weekend with an exceptional hitting mark of .359 (42-14-78) and 2.73 average digs per set while serving seven aces, the highest mark on the team.
Against No. 8 Johnson and Wales, Saunders was in a league of her own. She recorded a career-high 21 terminations, added 14 digs and finished a match-best four service aces.
Saunders left the tournament proud, not only of herself but also of her team.
“Getting my career high in kills was pretty big for me,” Saunders said. “I had imagined that making an accomplishment like that would feel more individualistic, but since I’m a part of such an incredible team and program, it truly felt as though we were just playing our game and working hard.”
In addition to her humbleness, Saunders’ hunger to win is a defining aspect of her greatness, according to McDowell.
“Her competitiveness and desire to win [is what makes Saunders so special],” McDowell said of the star. “She is best in the biggest moments, and she loves the pressure … We know we can always count on her when the score is 13-13 in the fifth set. She is the type of player that every coach dreams of having on their team.”
McDowell is looking forward to Saunders’ remaining two seasons as an Eagle and is excited to see her “become the best possible player and leader she can be.”
“I am so thankful that I have these next two years with her because she is such a special athlete and person,” McDowell continued. “She has made a major impact in her first two years, and now she is leaving a legacy these next two years.”
Saunders credits McDowell and the Emory volleyball program for her motivation to play at a higher level.
“What motivates me is the culture and standards we have in our program,” Saunders said. “I know that the women who played before me and the women who will be playing after I leave will carry on the reputation of this incredible program, and I want to be someone who contributes to it in a meaningful way.”
On the court, Saunders is anything but average. Off the court, though, Saunders lives the life of a typical college student. She involves herself in extracurriculars such as Emory Miracle, Emory B Positive and Alpha Delta Pi sorority, and she spends time with friends to make sure her life feels balanced.
As for the future, Saunders wishes to be a coach someday, acknowledging her interest in the technicalities of the sport.
“I like to think about the game and what things may or may not work,” Saunders said.
For now, she’ll continue to dominate on the court as part of a team ready to defend their national championship title.