Sometimes there are only winners…
One of the things I like to do here at my site is to give you all something positive to believe in because all we get from today’s media is death, hatred, and Trump. It is enough to make the sanest of us want to slice our collective wrists with rusty, dull butter knives. Last week, my daughter’s Middle School volleyball team completed their season, I have got to tell you about it. I hope that you will leave with a renewed faith in some of the girls the schools are pumping out. There are a lot of words here, please hang with me.
Last week my family and I were consumed with all things volleyball and by the time it was over, we all were plumb worn out. My daughter’s coach is a graduate of the school. When Coach Wilson played at the school, her teams had a record of 60-0 at one point and won the state championship three times in four years playing varsity volleyball. I don’t care who you are, that is very impressive. Coach Wilson went on to play college volleyball at Pensacola Christian College. After her first month, the head coach called her to his office before practice. She thought that he was going to make her a starter, instead he told her that she wasn’t good enough to play for the team. She wasn’t just bad but she couldn’t even do the fundamentals of volleyball correctly. Her only chance stay on the team was to come in an hour before practice and learn everything all over. She spent her Freshman year wearing training wheels never creeping away from the end of the bench but she didn’t quit and she didn’t let herself be run off.
Her second year she got some court time and was a starter her Junior year playing on the back row and never left the court her Senior year. Just before graduating college, she had a job offer at a large private school outside Cleveland to be a Math teacher and the Head Coach of the High School volleyball team. She had the signed contract in front of her just waiting to mail it off when she decided to call the Principle of her former school. To her surprise, the Principle had an opening and it was exactly the same job description as the job in Cleveland. When she left our little Mayberry town, she swore that she wouldn’t come back but after a few minutes talking to the Principle she had verbally accepted his job offer.
Her first year back, she found that the program that she left four years earlier as the best in the state was now in shambles. The school had not put enough emphasis on the Middle School program and there was no talent on the High School team. At the tender age of twenty-one, Coach Wilson decided that she needed to start from the scratch. She became the Head Coach of the Middle School team. That year, they had one eighth grader, a couple of seventh graders and a handful of sixth graders. But there weren’t enough girls to have a full bench so Coach Wilson dropped down to the fifth grade and pulled six girls out to fill out the team. My daughter was one of those girls.
That first year, they got the ever living snot kicked out of them. We would drive two hours to play a match that was over in fifteen minutes. I don’t think they won a game let alone a match that first year. Last year, the team won a few matches but in the state tournament they lost twice and were out on the first day. But there were signs of improvement. This year they had seven eighth graders, four starters, one regular sub and two bench players. My daughter’s group are now seventh graders, provided the other two starters and my daughter was the other regular sub with three more girls on the bench. They were a strong team and after the first week of practice Coach Wilson told me they had a real chance to win it all this year. Coach worked them hard, they ran, they served and competed every day in practice. Wanting more competition, Coach Wilson invited a couple of the High School girls out on Saturday practices to play against the Middle School starters and Coach Wilson regularly played against the starters spiking the ball as hard as she could.
The first game of the season was against Elk Valley Christian School. This school resides at the edge of the flood zone from earlier this summer. Even at the edge of the zone, the school received extensive damage and was closed for at least a month after all the other schools. Almost everyone in that town lost something in the flood; many lost their house. I imagine all of the girls and their families were affected somehow. After that game, Coach Wilson was determined that her team would not lose another game this year. And they didn’t.
My daughter’s team went into the state tournament as the number two seed with a 14-1 record. Elk Valley was the number one seed also with a 14-1 record. Our girl’s didn’t get a return match with Elk Valley because the night they were scheduled to play was the night before the re-opening of their school. They had an open house along with other ceremonies so the game was canceled.
The number three seed was the defending State Champion from Beckley, WV. We were not scheduled to play them in the regular season and they came into the tournament with two losses and a lot of attitude. Their school is easily twice the size of my daughter’s school but with a reputation of several state championships including last year. We played them last year and when Coach Wilson called a time out, their coach wouldn’t huddle up her players. They stayed on the court and waited. Intimation at its best.
The fourth seed was from Huntington and they were the classic never make a mistake team. They had a great back line and always bumped the serve, got it to the middle and hit it back over the net. Well coached in the fundamentals, they were not a team that would beat itself. The fifth place team was from just up the road in Cross Lanes, they were the only team to beat Elk Valley this year and they had the very best player in the league. This young lady is already 5-10 and can jump out of the gym. She sports blond hair cut short with a strong face. She already has a broad back and her arms hang almost down to the floor. She is a total power player and wants nothing more than to drive the ball straight into the face of the girl on the other side of the net. My wife got mad when I called her a gorilla, but that is the best word to describe her. The thing is that off the court, she is one of the nicest, most polite young ladies you could ever meet. Their only problem was that she didn’t have a strong supporting cast, I described them as Snow White and the seven dwarves to my daughter and her team mates one day. One of the girls pointed out that only six people could play at a time so we amended it to Snow White and the five dwarves.
On Monday, we hosted Snow White’s team and beat them in two very close games. It was a great confidence boost for the girls. On Tuesday, we played a school that wasn’t very good. It was the last regular season home game for the eighth graders so they had their night getting their gifts and they proceeded to go out and win the match in fifteen minutes. Thursday the team had probably their very best practice of the year. Coach Wilson was pounding her serves at the team and they were returning them all. Imagine a former college player hitting a ball with everything she has at a twelve-year-old. It doesn’t seem fair but everyone handled the heater. I was impressed and excited.
The only problem was that in the game Tuesday, my daughter pulled a muscle in her shoulder when she was serving. It hurt and she couldn’t serve. She tried in practice to go but as it wore on, she couldn’t play. We tried treatments, ice and heat. We got the kinesiology tape but when she tried to warm up for the game on Friday morning, it didn’t look good. Coach Wilson put her in for a couple of plays on Friday morning but my daughter’s confidence was shot and I knew she was out. Our team dispatched their opening round victim in eleven minutes. It would have been faster but Coach Wilson emptied the bench in the second game. Their next game was against Beckley because they won their first round game just as easily.
Since we were hosting the tournament, our girls went back to class following their game but one of the most exciting things for me was that the entire school in attendance. The gym was electric as two hundred kids from Kindergarten to High School were cheering every single point. Originally the Principal wasn’t going to interrupt school to send the kids down but fortunately he is open to opposing arguments. I got chills watching my daughter and the other girls play in that environment.
The second round matchup was two verses three in a classic matchup of two teams that were mirror images of each other. They had two big girls and so did we but we had the better overall team and would have had a deeper bench of two girls that would be starters on every other team in the league except that my daughter was injured and mentally not confident enough to play. The gym was filled with parents, some students and the two teams that were playing in the second game. If the first game was the biggest crowd these girls had played for during the season, then the night game was the second largest. And both teams put on a show.
Beckley had the second best player in the tournament and she had a great supporting cast but we still had the best overall team top to bottom. The first match was a three-point game from start to finish. It was crazy exciting as neither team flinched. The points were long and included digs out of the net and girls running from sideline to sideline. Our team won the first game 26-24. Before the game, I spoke to several of the Beckley parents just because I’m a nice guy and I was fishing for information. They had four girls that played travel volleyball exclusively and these parents never thought that our school would be too much trouble for their team. They were very nice and they said all the right things but I could tell that they were very confident going into the tournament thinking that they would win it again.
After the first game, one of the dads made eye contact with me and he nodded. Not arrogantly but as a sign of respect. I felt good, we had two games to play only needing to win one while they had to win both. We had home court advantage and we had not really played at the level that they had practiced at just a day earlier. The second game, our first serve went into the net and their opening server ran off nine straight points jumping out to a 10-1 lead. I was so proud of the girls as they came back and kept fighting but they lost the second game 25-19. But our confidence had been shaken.
The third game was another close game but Beckley was able to fight off every time we closed within four points. They ended up winning the third game 25-21. It was a gut shot to everyone from our school. The dream season had come to a close. The girls were in the locker room for about twenty minutes, in tears. We didn’t stay for the next game choosing to take my daughter home. Several of the girls did and it was tough on them to watch knowing they were playing for third place.
The next morning, my daughter and I went to the gym early to watch the fifth/sixth place game. Snow White’s team was playing and she was a monster. They lost to the team from Huntington the day earlier so she took out her fury on the team that we beat in the opening round. She was incredible and there was no doubt that she is the best player in the league. Our girls trickled in as the first game went on. The mood was somber. They all cried all night. Coach Wilson was just as devastated. She said she was working on a couple hours of restless sleep. Up at five, she didn’t have anything to do so she tried to go to some garage sales but couldn’t find the motivation to do anything but walk around like a zombie.
We were playing the team from Huntington as they lost to Elk Valley in what was described to me as a match that was as exciting as our match. Our school has a great relationship with the Grace Christian School. The schools always compete hard but we very friendly with them afterwards. Coach Wilson competed against the Coach of Grace Christian and they are friends. I was talking to one of the parents after we lost the night before and they were so wonderful. One lady noticed that my daughter didn’t play and they were sad that she was hurt. I wished them well and the next morning told them that we were sorry that they lost. Our girls would have liked to have had the opportunity to play Elk Valley and at least have the chance to win the re-match.
We started out slowly but our girls put the wheels when Coach put in the super sub and first girl off the bench. She was a rock star on the court and pulled the team out of their funk. Coach started her the second game and they rolled to victory and third place in the state. The Championship game started and the team from Beckley walked into the gym with all the confidence. But there is something to be said for having a team that just five months ago wasn’t sure they would even have a school to play for this year. There is a different level of determination that comes from seeing your life turned totally upside down in the course of a single night.
That team from Elk Valley didn’t look like a championship team when they got off the bus but they played like one. They dominated a much bigger and more talented team from start to finish and did what our girls couldn’t do. They won the state championship.
I have said a lot of words to this point and I hope you are still with me. As soon as the game was over, while the girls from Elk Valley were jumping on each other, hugging and celebrating their Championship; and while the girls from Beckley were holding their heads and trying to figure out what had just happened; and while three hundred parents from six schools were standing up and stretching for a car drive home. The girls from our school, all fifteen of them ran to the door of the locker room to form a victory tunnel for Elk Valley. Only they were not alone in making the tunnel as the girls from the other five teams ran out of the stands to join them. Very soon afterwards the girls that had just lost from Beckley joined the other players to form a tunnel that reached out onto the court.
It happened so fast that I couldn’t get my phone out. At the time, I was surprised and now I am moved towards tears just knowing that these girls get it. When you are in the game, you play to win but afterwards your goal is to love and celebrate others. They didn’t learn that from me, they learned it from Coach Wilson and the other two assistant coaches.
Would those girls have done that for Beckley? I doubt it. Would the other teams have done that for our girls? I don’t know. On Friday night, I was a mess. I was mad, angry and just devastated. I was sad for my girls because they lost and I was sad for my daughter because she didn’t get to play. But after witnessing that spontaneous display of sportsmanship, I know that the tournament was meant to end just like it did. The right team won and the right teams taught a gym full of parents that we are so fortunate to have all of these girls in our lives.
Sorry for all the words but I really needed to get them off my chest. Until next time, keep on rockin.