There might as well have been quicksand on the Sterling side of the net in the gym at Stillman Valley High School on Oct. 29.
For with each passing point, the Golden Warriors sank closer to elimination in their 3A regional semifinal match against Dixon.
Sterling lost the first set 25-22, and fell behind 7-1 in the second set to the Duchesses.
All Dixon really needed was a couple more points to knock out the top-seeded Warriors.
Then it'd be over. Finished. Complete.
The upset. The disappointment. The hurt.
The thing to remember about volleyball is that it is, first and foremost, a game of action and reaction.
The action had not gone the Warriors' way. They needed someone to react.
Who else was it really going to be than Kiarra Harris?
"We started out slow, and they came out and beat us," Harris said. "We were just like, 'Oh my gosh,' and as a senior, I didn't want to end my season losing to Dixon and not getting a title. So we had to push ourselves, hit the ball, and come down with the win."
See, the 19 kills she bombarded the Duchesses with that night as Sterling rallied were a big reason she's been named Sauk Valley Media's volleyball player of the year.
But that match itself was a microcosm of her contribution to the Warriors. There was the obvious physical effort. The unrelenting will to win, and there was something else.
When the Warriors put away the second set, Harris had rotated to the bench. From her seat, she was the loudest person in the gym, rooting as teammates like Gabby Sandoval and Kaylee Martin made set-clinching plays.
Dale Dykeman met Harris as a freshman. At the time, he was the sophomore coach, and she was a tall, athletic freshman with potential with a capital 'P' pinned to her shirt.
Moved up a level, Harris made an immediate impact on a coach who a year later would become the varsity coach. Her height made her a natural for volleyball. Her coordination set her apart.
"Sometimes, you get tall kids, and they are loose and gangly, that wasn't Kiarra," Dykeman said. "She was fast. Her fast-twitch muscles are amazing. You see that now. Some of those blocks at the net. When she lands, she's right back up."
But it wasn't the physical ability that just put her ahead of her peers. Harris also understood the game.
"She was able to mentally function in the game," Dykeman said. "Sometimes, you will see freshmen that know what they should do, but can't react fast enough to do it. That thought process has to occur before a reaction. Her reaction was the right move to make. That's what stood out to me."
Harris moved up to varsity her sophomore year. She was surrounded by talented, more experienced hitters like Jenn Rahn and Krista Loos, who was the 2012 SVM player of the year.
According to Dykeman, she had about 50 kills that first season. As a junior, with Rahn and Loos still around, she had about 150 kills.
In her first year as the Warriors' main hitter, Harris had 326 kills and 140 blocks. She led the Warriors to a second-place finish in the Northern Illinois Big 12 West – behind state runner-up LaSalle-Peru – and a regional championship.
"It's definitely different knowing that I had someone to look up to," Harris said. "Tell me what to do, how to hit, change my form, and be comfortable with them."
Loos, Rahn and several others graduated after a successful season last year, leaving the Warriors with three seniors coming back in Harris, Darien Bardoner and Brooke Williams.
While there was no doubt that Harris had the physical tools to be the force at the net that Sterling needed, she knew that she would have to be more of a vocal leader for the team to succeed.
"Being the senior, I just had to make the freshmen and sophomores feel comfortable, and play like they can play around us," Harris said. "It was hard, but it worked."
She convinced her coach of the strides she had made during a summer league game in Eastland. The match wasn't going well, and a freshman on the court for Sterling was freezing up.
Harris made the impact between plays the Warriors needed.
"We were playing Rock Falls, and one of our younger kids was on the right side, and they weren't working very hard," Dykeman said. "Not purposefully; they didn't know what motion to make, so they didn't make any movement. She called them on it. She said, 'Look, if you are playing on the varsity floor, it has to be faster, and it has to better.' That's when I knew that she was ready to take that leadership role, and hold kids accountable."
With freshman Kaylee Martin entering the program with high expectations, and back-row player Jamy Trancoso, a sophomore, taking on the key libero role, it was up to Harris and Bardoner to take the young players under their wings early in order to make the team work.
"I am just an outgoing person," Harris said. "I'm not going to make anyone feel awkward. Growing up, I already knew Kaylee, so we were already comfortable. With Jamy, it was just a matter doing everything I could to keep her head up."
The next action
Harris is going to spend the winter playing her other love – basketball. She'll likely be in the running for SVM's basketball player of the year.
She hopes that both sports are in her future at the collegiate level. Right now, she's received more interest for basketball.
"I'm not going to be picky or selfish on where I go," Harris said. "I think I'll stay close to home for the first couple years. I'd love to play both sports, but we'll see what happens."
Taking on a leadership role wasn't the only added pressure of the season. She had to get used to college recruiters watching in the stands.
"When I was younger, I didn't pay any attention to them because I didn't think they were there for me anyways," Harris said. "It's a lot different when you're the senior, and they are looking at you. That's something no one ever really tells you about."
She's unsure of her career plans. She's looked into physical therapy, but also has an interest in criminal justice and becoming a cop.
There also might a spot on the sideline in her future.
"I'd love to become a coach," Harris said. "Probably basketball, because that's what I've been around my whole life. I just love working with people."
While she's not positive about her future now, look out.
When she does figure it out, expect her to react by attacking it like a set hanging in the air – she'll kill it.