Former Red Devil volleyball standout Ajahonna Archuleta excelled at a variety of sports coming up through the Uinta County School District system, but volleyball was always tops on the list.
“I started playing volleyball in about the third grade, and just fell in love with the sport,” Archuleta said. “I played all throughout middle school and high school.”
That love of the sport eventually landed her on the campus of Western Wyoming Community College this past season, suiting up for the Mustangs under head coach Fredann Soto.
The desire to play at the collegiate level, however, didn’t start in full force until her senior year at Evanston High School.
“I didn’t really want to move on until my senior year,” she said. “I was more competitive my senior season. Something clicked, and I was like, ‘This might be something I want to do in college.’ So everything went from there.”
An All-State selection in volleyball her senior year for the Red Devils, Archuleta was also a force on the hardwood as well, something she plans to explore for the Lady Mustangs next season.
“I’m going to play [for WWCC] next year,” she said. “I’m going to rest my body this year, then get back into it next year and play both volleyball and basketball.”
Archuleta’s first season with the Mustangs was a productive one; the freshman right side hitter played in 34 matches, starting three and averaging 1.61 kills per set. She said meeting new people has been a highlight of her first year at school, though being a student athlete leaves little time for anything besides classwork and practice.
“The classes are definitely more challenging than high school,” Archuleta said. “My brother [Elijah, also a student at WWCC and manager of the basketball team] did tell me this, but I didn’t believe him — he said that you’re going to spend most of your time in the library, the team room or the study hall room. And that is where you spend most of your time.”
As for play on the court, Archuleta said college volleyball is played at a much faster pace, and the players are taller.
“Those are the biggest differences,” she said. “And it’s a lot more competitive.”
That said, when she went to Western for her initial visit, she was able to practice with the team and get a feel for what to expect.
“When I came down for my official visit I got to practice with the team a couple of times,” she explained. “That really helped prepare me for what playing at a higher level would be like.”
The Mustangs had an outstanding 2019 season, posting a 24-11 record and just missing a chance to compete in the NJCAA National Tournament. The team entered the Region IX Tournament as Region IX-North champs, and won its first match against McCook Community College in straight sets 3-0. Unable to hold on to that opening-match momentum, the Mustangs lost back-to-back matches against Northeastern Junior College and Eastern Wyoming College to end their season. It was a strong season for a team that started slow, according to Archuleta.
“We had a lot of team chemistry, we clicked really well,” she explained. “But we didn’t start our season off very well, I think we were 2-6 at one point. We picked things up in our third and fourth tournament, and we won both of those. After that, we just went on a winning streak. Regionals didn’t go as planned, but it was a fun season.”
Archuleta will be one of six returners for the Mustangs next season, and she’s hoping the group can make another run at the Region IX title.
“We play together really well,” she said of her fellow freshmen. “I expect us to keep the winning streak going, because we know how good we can be next year. We just need some height. If we get that, I think we’ll be OK.”
Coach Soto also has a lot of confidence in her returning players, and that, coupled with some talented recruits, the Mustangs will again be in the hunt for a trip to the national tournament.
“I think they are a talented bunch of girls — they all work very, very hard, and are very dedicated when they come into practice,” she said. They show that they want to be here. They are truly in it for all its worth. We are picking up some new recruits very soon, and I think they will do well next year.”
Archuleta said she enjoys playing for Soto, herself a Region IX volleyball standout who still ranks 10th all time in single season blocks at Casper College.
“She’s a really good coach,” Archuleta said of Soto. “I love her as a coach. She’s so much fun. She meshes with us really well. It’s really fun playing for her.”
For Soto, the feeling is definitely mutual.
“I absolutely just love Ajahonna,” she said. “She is a very talented athlete, works very hard, is very dedicated to the sport. She’s just amazing. She’s a very coachable athlete — she’ll ask questions, and changes things when we need her to change things. And she works super, super hard. I’m very blessed as a coach that she decided to choose Western.”
Looking back on her freshman season, Archuleta said the memories made are too numerous to mention, though a straight-set win over a nationally-ranked team and a teammate’s magically-shrinking Crocs were definitely a highlight.
“We played Utah State Eastern and beat them in three — they were ranked ninth in the nation at the time,” she said, adding with a laugh, “Then at regionals, our middle’s Crocs shrunk like two sizes. On the bus ride there, she holds up her Croc and goes, ‘My Crocs shrunk.’ I held them up to mine, and they were half the size of mine. They were supposed to be a size 8 and shrunk to a size 6. I didn’t know Crocs could shrink. That was pretty funny.”
Looking toward the future, Archuleta, a Pre-Health major at WWCC, said she’d definitely be open to continuing her volleyball career at a four-year school following her sophomore campaign.
“As of right now, I think I would like to go play on,” she said. “That’s a ways off though, we’ll see how things go. But I’m definitely interested.”