#76 - Game On

Whitley woke up at 6:30 AM on Saturday to hit the treadmill in the hotel gym, followed by thirty minutes of Pilates and fifteen minutes in the sauna. After returning to her room to shower and get dressed—being careful not to wake Julie—she headed down for a breakfast of four boiled eggs, a plate of hash browns, a stack of bacon, and two bowls of blueberry oatmeal—before leaving the hotel and walking to the volleyball tournament site.

First on her agenda was another meeting with her interviewers for Sunday. Breana steered the meeting and filled Whitley in on details while Luis asked only a few questions in-between staring at Whitley's legs. They discussed a variety of topics that might come up in the live show. Whitley made it clear she would not answer questions about her height, her past and future with USA volleyball, or her family.

Knowing she would be expected to attend at least one of Clara and Margie's matches, Whitley chose their first, which the two won efficiently: 15-7, 15-4. She sat in the front row and, knowing she would be on camera, made an effort to stay engaged and cheer when she needed to. Despite Clara and Margie dominating their matches to remain undefeated, the banner image of the tournament website that evening would be an image of Whitley applauding courtside, standing head-and-shoulders above the crowd.

Whitley ended her day with a volleyball workshop for junior high and high school players on footwork and defense. Her year coaching at NU improved her confidence leading clinics, and she found herself having more fun than she anticipated. Afterward, several girls expressed their excitement for the upcoming Northshore University volleyball camp, with one high school senior girl telling Whitley she hoped to play for NU the following year.

Afterward, Whitley met her freshly-tanned travel companion for an early dinner. Julie had slept in until 11:00 AM and spent most of the afternoon sunbathing on the beach. The two debriefed over sushi and sake, where Whitley's appetite ran up a $325 bill that Julie paid without a flinch. Whitley went back to the hotel for a power nap while Julie headed to the hotel bar to meet Luis who had invited Whitley to join him and Breana for drinks.

Whitley woke up at 6:00 PM to find she'd received several texts from Margie. 


Whitley sighed.


It was worth a shot. 

Whitley saw she'd received several messages from Julie as well. 

 
"And I'm going to have to miss that spectacle."

Whitley made the fifteen-minute walk from the Coastside Hilton to Lyon State College, where tournament officials had reserved the gym for clinics during the day and competitor use in the evening. She found Margie at the basketball courts struggling in a game of one-on-one against a much taller girl. Their duel had gathered a small but rowdy crowd that hooted as the taller girl drained a mid-range jumper and took her change.

Whitley watched closely as Margie pulled out all the stops, struggling to play a more physical game against her bigger, faster, stronger opponent who sank another near-uncontested layup.

Clara stood near the sideline taking video, turning several heads herself with a yellow sundress that ended at mid-thigh. Her lithe, 6' frame—lifted to 6'4" by her thick clog sandals—had attracted its own gaggle of admirers who were too intimidated by her height to approach. The group was momentarily distracted from both Clara and the game as Whitley entered the gym. Meanwhile, Margie's opponent executed an impressive spin move into a short-range sky hook.

Whitley waited for Clara to finish filming before elbowing her gently. "Looks like Margie's cheating on me."

"I can't imagine you're too torn up. I figured you wouldn't show or find some lame excuse not to play."

"Speaking of which, why aren't you playing?"

"Don't want to risk injury before tomorrow's matches." Clara patted her chest. "Also, because I'm in a bikini, not a sports bra."

"Uh huh. Anyways, shouldn't you be worried about Margie?"

Clara chuckled. "Come on, Whitley. You've known her as long as I have. You think I could talk her out of this?' Clara raised her phone and filmed as Margie fell for a ball fake, her opponent spinning left for an easy finger roll.

Whitley studied the tall college-aged blonde who—judging by her relative height to the 6'1" Margie—stood at least 6'7". She had short, cropped hair with green highlights. Her long, toned physique reminded Whitley of a pole vaulter, with her shredded abs and thick, muscular legs highlighted by a midriff-baring tank top and short shorts.

"Who is she?" Whitley said.

"A friend of ours. I'll introduce you once they're done. At the rate this game is going, that should be soon." Clara recorded as Margie's opponent opted for the mercy-kill, sinking a mid-range jumper over an exhausted Margie. "That's game," the girl announced with a Slavic accent. She reached down and offered a hand to Margie, easily pulling her to her feet and patting her on the back. "You played very well."

"Put a sock in it," Margie said, wiping her face with her sweat-drenched t-shirt as the two left the court. The tall blonde's crystal blue eyes lit up with recognition at the sight of Whitley.

"Oh wow! Whitley Valentine! I admire your playing. It is cool to meet you!"

Her low tenor voice was like a massage to Whitley's frontal lobes. "Sorry, what?"

"Is it my accent? I can be difficult to understand sometimes."

"It's nothing like that. I just...what was your name?"

"Berenika Cibulka. You may call me Nika, if it is easier."

"Oh no. 'Berenika' is fine. My dad played international ball. My first crush's name was Januszy. Anyways, what are you doing hanging around these two?" Whitley said, pointing out Clara and Maggie.

Berenika laughed. "We played at UCLA together. They were seniors when I was a freshman."

"Durrenburg played UCLA my senior year," Whitley said, squinting as she studied Berenika's face and frame. "I'm pretty sure I would remember you."

"I was a setter at that time," Berenika said, holding her hand at shoulder height. "Also, much shorter."

"She was a solid player as a freshman," Clara said. "Then she grew—thirteen inches—into one of the most feared middle-blockers in the NCAA."

Margie smirked at Whitley. "Familiar story. I'm surprised you haven't heard of her."

"I don't follow much volleyball outside my conference. Damn, thirteen inches in four years? That's wild."

"I am like you, Whitley. I have grown a lot in a short time. I think I am still growing as well. Maybe one day I will be as tall as you?" She looked expectantly at Whitley. "If I may ask, how t—"

"Your arms are really impressive, too," Whitley said.

"Aren't her quads incredible?" Clara playfully smacked Berenika's thigh, her hand bouncing off solid, flexed muscle. "Freaking thighs of steel."

Berenika laughed. "I started lifting weights so I would not get too thin as I grew, but then I got big too." She continued flexing her legs, and noticed Whitley staring. "Would you like to touch them?"

Whitley squeaked, then slapped her hand over her mouth and cleared her dry throat. "No, I'm cool."

"I mean, seriously, body goals," Clara said. "Even if you did remember her, Whitley, you probably wouldn't have recognized her."

"I have changed a lot in the last five years. Also, my hair was much longer then. When I started getting really tall, everyone said I looked like...um." Berenika snapped her fingers, struggling to recall the name. "The basketball player. Elena Delle Donne."

Whitley swallowed, and nodded. "Yeah, uh huh. So, are you involved in the tournament?" Whitley asked, trying to shift the subject.

"I was, but Clara and Margie defeated us today." She smirked at Margie, who was still catching her breath. "You could say. I wanted a little revenge. You are going to play Margie next, yes?"

An exhausted Margie waved her hand. "Nope," she wheezed. "Not this time. I pass."

"I'll play you," Whitley said, to the surprise of everyone—herself included.

"Oh? I would be honored! I did not know you played basketball."

"I did when I was younger, but mostly against my Dad, and eventually Margie. But, whatever. I’ll change things up."

Berenika grinned, pleased. "Okay! I hope you don't mind, but I would like to wager. I have always found I play with more passion with something on the line."

"Yeah, I feel you." Whitley said. "What do you have in mind?"

Berenika smiled. "If I win, I want to know how tall you are."

"Sure, and if I win, we go out for dinner tomorrow after the tournament. Your treat."

"Wait!" Margie said, raising a finger in the air. "Whitley, since we helped get you this gig, I get to make some amends to this deal."

Whitley turned to Berenika. "You just whooped her ass. You gonna allow this?"

Berenika smiled. "Sure. Bring it on."

Margie grinned impishly. "If Whitley wins, Clara and I will pay for your food out of our winnings after we win the tournament tomorrow."

"Whoa, whoa!" Clara said, "You wait a—"

"Fine by me," Whitley said. "I hear there's an excellent seafood restaurant nearby and, I am jonesing for crab legs.

"And if Nika wins, then you tell us all how tall you currently are."

Whitley rolled her eyes as she started her pre-game stretches. "Fine."

"...in tomorrow's live interview."

Whitley paused, considering something, before shrugging. "Fine. Can we get this started?"

"Absolutely," Berenika said, bouncing the ball to Whitley who bounced it back. "Play to fifteen. Make it, take it."

"Let's do this."

Berenika received the ball and immediately launched a long shot from outside the arc, banking it in. "Two - zero," she said, checking the ball back to Whitley, who grinned as she returned the check.

"Game on, then."