ASHLAND — Strolling across the Ashland High campus on a postcard autumn afternoon, Taylor Hartrick flashes a captivating smile and pauses to soak in the surroundings: the sun, the colors, the whole scene. This is the moment for which she has waited, and who could blame her for savoring it?

ASHLAND — Strolling across the Ashland High campus on a postcard autumn afternoon, Taylor Hartrick flashes a captivating smile and pauses to soak in the surroundings: the sun, the colors, the whole scene. This is the moment for which she has waited, and who could blame her for savoring it?

"I really love it here," says Hartrick, an honor student and senior co-captain on the Grizzlies' volleyball team. "It's absolutely beautiful. The team I have here and the life I have here, I wouldn't change for the world."

Hartrick, a middle blocker, was one of five seniors who were honored before Tuesday's match against Mazama. She's a front-runner for Southern Sky Conference player-of-the-year honors and is attracting significant attention from universities up and down the Pacific Coast for both her play and her grades. But if not for a twist of fate, none of it might have happened.

The oldest of two siblings, Hartrick wasn't exactly thrilled the day in 2006 that she learned her mother, Gretchen, had gotten a new job with a company in Talent and the family would move to the Rogue Valley from Bend.

A native of Alaska, she had lived in Texas and western Washington before moving to Oregon as a fifth-grader. But this was different. This was high school, not the ideal time to be nomading around the country.

"When my parents first told me we were going to move, I was completely devastated," she recalls. "It was my first year in high school. It's hard to make friends when you're a freshman. All I was thinking was 'another freshman year, and I don't want to do that.' I knew a lot of people there and it was sort of safe there."

The move turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. At Ashland, she found welcoming friends, a nurturing atmosphere and a state-championship volleyball program that would help hone her skills.

"After I moved here, I was so thankful that it happened," she says. "I was terribly shy when I first moved here. Ashland's completely changed me. I've become a completely open person, and I think it's because of the way the seniors welcomed me when I first came here. I never ate lunch alone. They made sure of that. Because of that, I learned that people aren't scary."

A bad experience as a freshman at Mountain View High left an indelible impression.

"The seniors bought a tub of ice cream and spilled it all over the bus," she says. "And they made the freshmen stay and clean it up. It made me feel terrible. We were all angry. That was my idea of seniors.

"Then I came to Ashland and it was 180-degree change. Each of the girls on varsity has a little sister (on the junior varsity or freshman teams) who they write notes to before games. We take them out to lunch, we hug them on the quad and stop and talk to them."

"She's amazing," says freshman Katie Bottimore, one of Hartrick's two volleyball sisters. "She's a really good leader."

A second-team all-SSC selection as a junior, Hartrick compensates for a lack of blazing speed or tremendous leaping ability with an strong work ethic and refined technique. As the Grizzlies' middle blocker, she leads the team with a .314 hitting percentage and in blocks (1.4 per game) and ranks third in kills (2.6 per game).

While many teams substitute a defensive specialist for their middle blocker in back-row rotations, Hartrick's defense (second on the team in digs) and passing are so sound that she rarely leaves the court.

"Taylor's a sparkplug," Ashland coach Jodee Scott says. "She's one of those players you want to have on the court all of the time. Taylor's ball control is so good and her court presence is so strong, we wanted to have a place on the court for her in both front row and back row."

Hartrick plays on elite-level club teams during the winter and spring, travelling hundreds of miles to compete in tournaments across the western United States.

"They're so different; they're almost like two different sports," she says. "I've played with girls from all over the Rogue Valley in club. With high school volleyball, you get to look forward to state. With club volleyball, it's almost like every tournament is a little piece of state. It's very, very different."

It was playing club volleyball that gave her an additional opportunity to be noticed by colleges. She's been to George Fox University in Newberg and has a visit planned to Western Oregon next month. Several other NCAA Division II and III schools have also contacted Hartrick, who has a 3.65 grade-point average.

It would be easy to envision Hartrick as a coach, infusing future generations with her knowledge of and love for the game. It's also not hard to see her as an attorney like her present coach, Scott, or perhaps a politician or championing a given cause.

"I'm just going to take it year by year and see what happens," she says. "I have no idea what I want to do, and I like it that way. I would not be OK with having a set plan at this point."

Her daily focus is on the here and now, a chance to leave high school with a state title. Ashland has been to the Class 5A state tournament in each of Hartrick's two varsity seasons, finishing fourth and third, respectively. Ashland won the 2005 title in Class 4A prior to reclassification.

The Grizzlies are ranked second in Class 5A.

"Everything we do, our mindset is state," Hartrick says. "... Every practice and every game between then is to get there."

Regardless of what the next three weeks hold, it's clear Hartrick has few regrets.

"I've had way too good of a time," she says.

Mark Vinson is a freelance writer. To comment on this story, call 776-4479 or e-mail sports@mailtribune.com