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Pocatello senior Hailey Buffat signs with Walla Walla on Tuesday afternoon.

Mark Wetstein only coached Hailey Buffat for the final two years of her Pocatello soccer career, but it took a fraction of that time for him to realize what he had in his starting centerback: a leader.

She took control of the team, he said, using a combination of her voice and her play to lead the Thunder to two state tournaments.

So on Tuesday afternoon, Buffat parlayed those talents into a college opportunity, signing with Walla Walla Community College as her senior year comes to a close.

“I’m just really excited. Nervous, too,” Buffat said. “It’s going to be a whirlwind. It’s scary. I’ve never even been to Washington other than when we visited. I’m going to need a little bit. I’ve only lived here my whole life.”

Lots of things factored into Buffat’s decision, which came down to Walla Walla and Yakima Valley: For one, when Buffat and her family took their visit, Walla Walla wasn’t quarantined due to COVID, which allowed them to see head coach Gabrielle Parks teach a class, tour the campus, hang out with players and go to lunch with coaches.

It also didn’t hurt that like Pocatello, Walla Walla has its own old town.

“That definitely made me feel at home,” Buffat said.

Buffat had to earn the opportunity, though. She did so, in part, by leading the Thunder to last season’s 4A state tournament, where the club fell in the consolation match. Statistics don’t jump off the page for defenders like Buffat, but she did register one goal that season, adding two assists and 25 steals.

When it comes to her leadership, though, she’s a little torn. Part of it feels natural. The other part, she thinks, she had to develop as she got older.

“I like to think I understand the game very well,” Buffat said. “In my position, I kind of have to understand everyone else’s position, so I need them to be in certain spots to make the game go better. So I take in that lead being vocal on that team.”

She doesn’t have much time left in Pocatello — only a few months — so as her friends and family chatted Tuesday afternoon, Buffat reflected on a few of her favorite memories in a high school uniform. One practice, she remembers, lightning lit up the sky and rain fell to the ground. The team kept playing games — “just having fun,” she said. “It was so good.”

That’s the thing about that Pocatello team: Lots of the players are moving on to the college level. Buffat joined teammates Keli’a Tatom (Utah State Eastern), Seanee Still (Blue Mountain), Kjerstin Bunderson (undecided) and Raquelle Trogden, who is going with Buffat to Walla Walla.

“I think it’s awesome,” Buffat said. “We’ve all grown up together playing soccer, either against each other or with each other, so it’s just nice to see how everyone is improving.”

At Walla Walla, Buffat plans on taking classes to become a physical therapy assistant. As a Warrior, she’ll take pre-general classes and another year at a physical therapy program. Since her freshman year, she’s dealt with back problems, which have led her to physical therapy.

“So I’ve just learned the ropes,” she said. “I also want to stay involved with sports, and I love helping people. So it comes naturally.”

Greg Woods is a sports reporter at the Idaho State Journal. Follow him on Twitter at GregWWoods.