LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — UNLV volleyball continues to make history with each game that passes. They are undefeated Mountain West champs and have clinched a spot in the NCAA tournament.
A big reason for the success has been team captain Mariena Hayden.
"We literally started at the bottom and now we are at the top," she said.
Her passion for the sport dates back to when she was very young.
"I mean when I was born, my mom had a volleyball in my hand. So, I kind of been a volleyball player all my life," Hayden said, the UNLV senior outside hitter.
The Minnesota native started to catch people's attention when she was in the fifth grade playing with eighth-graders.
Then right before high school the groundwork for Las Vegas would start to be laid down.
"My aunt and uncle live out here, so they were like, 'come out to UNLV Volleyball camp just for fun. Come visit us for the summer.' I said yeah sure I'll come do it. I came out here and the coaches saw me and that's when they offered me to come out here when I was that young," Hayden said.
Hayden would continue to improve her game under the guidance and inspiration of her mother, who was a single mom.
She says her mother would drive her to all the tournaments, coach some of her camps when she was younger and even made some sacrifices along the way.
"I never realized it but she did a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff. She would tell me stories that she wouldn't eat so much at night because I was so hungry from playing all day," Hayden said.
And with her family's support Hayden would keep building her game in high school.
After recovering from an ACL tear her junior season she would lead her high school team to a state championship.
When it was time to pick a college she decided on the college that had interest from the start.
But in her freshman season, the UNLV program was far from what it is now.
"When we were freshman, the Mountain West was at its peak with Wyoming, Colorado State, Boise still being good, so we were just getting our butts kicked night in and night out and it was super frustrating," she said.
But in her sophomore year coach Dawn Sullivan took over and helped rebuild the program.
So far this year, the team won the Mountain West title and clinched a spot in the NCAA tournament, with Hayden leading the way with a team-high in kills and service aces.
"A very different player than she used to be. She used to kind of step on and play the game, and now, it's 'we're here and we're going to win this game.' It's a very different mindset. She's grown a lot as a person and a player," said Dawn Sullivan, UNLV volleyball head coach.
Hayden says she has enjoyed seeing how they've been able to turn things around at UNLV.
"Coming in now in our senior year and being able to handle our business now has definitely been worth going through all the growing pains as a freshman," she said.
Now, this will not be the senior's final season at UNLV.
She says she will return next season but both player and coach think the final regular-season home match will still be emotional for all six seniors.
"I think it will be very emotional. It always is. You know, these people are part of our lives and they always will be. They are very important and they are my family," Sullivan said.
"I'm gonna try to hold back the tears because it's gonna be a very emotional night for everybody," Hayden said. "But I'm super grateful for the opportunity to play here."