Updated Thu, Dec 5, 2013 7:08 pm
Katie Horton looked up at the banners in the rafters in the Ohio University Convocation Center with wide eyes.
At the beginning of the season she was just a freshman, new to collegiate volleyball.
A product of Westlake, Mich., Horton said she had every intention of learning from two of the Mid-American Conference’s best. Ohio returned its top two hitters from the previous season’s MAC regular season title team. Juniors Kelly Lamberti and Chelsea Bilger were firmly entrenched in the rotation as Option A and Option B. The coaches of the MAC selected them to the Preseason All-MAC Team, along with sophomore setter Abby Gilleland.
Even with the bevy of left-side hitters, Horton managed to stand out in Ohio’s preseason scrimmage. It was hard to overlook her on the court. At 6-foot-1 with long legs and gazelle-like strides, Horton would take two or three big steps on her approach, rise up to Gilleland’s high set and send the ball the other way with authority.
Sure, her timing was a little off from time to time – Horton said the speed of the game was the biggest adjustment from club to Division I college volleyball – but she had the tools of a point-scorer.
Ohio head coach Ryan Theis was certain Horton would contribute, even as a newcomer to a solid rotation of left-side hitters.
“Katie Horton is a big, high-above-the-net kid who can score points,” Theis said after Ohio’s 3-0 weekend to open the season at the Oregon Classic. “That’s what we’ve seen in practice. [Horton] can play.”
Horton’s role in the rotation increased substantially on Sept. 6, when, just four matches into the season, Bilger came down awkwardly on a routine attack on the left pin in the first set against nationally-ranked North Carolina. Ohio’s second best point-scorer tore her ACL on the play and immediately left the Bobcats with more questions than answers at the outside hitter position.
Right after the fact, Theis turned to Horton. The freshman took 35 swings in that five-set match – good for second on the team behind Lamberti’s 38 – but only converted eight of them into kills. Her .114 hitting percentage in the match was the second lowest of any player on either team with more than 10 attempts.
Despite Horton’s early struggles, Theis continued to stick with the freshman as his No. 2 hitter. In 31 matches this season, Horton ranked second on a well-balanced Ohio offense with 287 kills (2.50 per set). As a team, the Bobcats finished first in the MAC in hitting percentage and second in kills.
Horton rose to the occasion in pressure situations as well.
When Lamberti went down in the third set against Ball State on Oct. 19 with an ankle bruise, Horton led the team with a career-high 12 kills on a .343 clip.
The next weekend, she upped her career high to 13 kills in a grind-it-out road win over Northern Illinois. Lamberti played but was far from 100 percent.
Two weekends later Horton elevated her game again. The freshman posted 32 kills across two five-set wins on the road over Bowling Green and Miami to lead the Bobcat offense and bump Ohio into the driver’s seat in the MAC title race.
Horton earned a spot on the MAC All-Freshman Team for her efforts this season. She also won two rings as a regular season conference champion and a MAC Tournament champion.
While it may come as a surprise to some, performing under pressure is nothing new to Katie Horton. No one knows that better than her sister, Keri.
Keri Horton also plays college volleyball. A sophomore at NCAA Division III Marietta College, Keri is just an hour southeast of her younger sister by car.
“It’s really nice knowing that she’s so close because our parents are so far away,” Keri said. “If I want a little bit of home I can just come over here for a night or the weekend, and if I get to come over and watch [Katie] play it’s even better because I don’t get the opportunity to see her play as much because I’m in season too.”
Katie and Keri Horton used to spend their days playing volleyball in high school. The two were members of Maumee’s Premier Academy, a prestigious volleyball club in Northwest Ohio just outside of Toledo.
In 2012, Premier expanded its club offerings to include beach volleyball, and both sisters said they were approached about playing on the new sand courts.
Keri initially declined the opportunity because of other commitments, but later changed her mind.
“After watching Katie play her first tournament I was like, ‘I want to play to, it sounds fun,’” Keri laughed.
The two sisters got the chance to play together for Premier in the 18’s division of the USA Volleyball Junior Beach National Championship the summer or 2012.
“We both came in super nervous and not knowing what to expect,” Keri detailed. “We always told out coach we really wanted to play together but she was really hesitant to put us together because we were sisters and she thought we were going to fight.
“The final game came and the team got really intimidated by Katie, and we just got to have fun and play like we wanted to.”
Supportive parents Dave and Laura Horton, who watched every moment of the tournament from the audience, said they saw their daughters’ success coming.
“They were paired up with other partners all along,” Dave said. “The coach didn’t really want to pair them together because she was afraid of like a sister thing, but we knew from [watching them play in high school] that if they got together they would play.”
Katie and Keri qualified with separate partners and actually competed together for the first time in the national tournament in Milwaukee, Wisc.
They dropped their first set as a team before running the table for the remainder of the two-day competition.
“I knew they had it in them,” Dave said. “They were nervous together really the first game. Once they got going there wasn’t anybody touching them. They were good.”
“It was really exciting,” Laura said. “To know that they could be on that stage together in actually their first and last chance because Keri did go off to college that year.”
As Keri moved on to college, Katie added a junior beach national championship to her resume and vaulted into the top 100 on PrepVolleyball’s Senior Ace list, attracting the attention of Division I programs like Ohio.
Though Katie plays a couple divisions above her big sister, she still looks up to Keri and sees her as an inspiration.
“I got started because of my sister,” Katie said about the time she picked up volleyball as a freshman in high school. “I saw how much she loved it so I wanted to follow in her footsteps and go play volleyball with her.”
“It’s really obvious that Katie’s a lot better than me, but I’m so happy that she has this opportunity and she’s actually playing and we’re playing the same sport,” Keri said. “That’s my little sister, like I’m so proud of her.”
The Horton parents share the sentiment. Though they live miles away, the two have regularly made trips to see their daughters play volleyball this season.
Katie mentioned that her mother played a little bit of volleyball back when she was a student.
“I played a little bit in high school, nothing like this,” Laura said. “It was back in the day when, you know, you went and played sports during school … you didn’t have as many opportunities as the kids do now.
“We’ve always encouraged them whether it’s volleyball or any other sport to get involved,” she continued. “Luckily they both found a sport they liked.
“It’s real exciting to sit there and think that, you know, you’ve worked that long and that hard in raising them, and that they take an interest in what you’ve done in your life.”
As Katie Horton’s role continues to evolve for Ohio, Theis has confidence that she can get the job done on the left side.
“Katie obviously got better over the season and is now, to me, a dominant left-side point-scorer,” Theis said.
Horton should be a fixture in the Ohio offense for the foreseeable future. The Bobcats’ outside hitter rotation isn’t getting any thinner. Bilger will return from her knee injury in 2014, Lamberti has another year as the Bobcats’ go-to hitter, and Theis signed First Team All-State hitters from Iowa and Ohio to the 'Cats' 2014 recruiting class.
But if Katie Horton proved anything in the back half of her freshman season, it’s that she can perform in the moment. And she’s got three more years to do it.
That should make Ryan Theis very happy.