"Hey, do you date shorter guys?"
Whitley heard a guy—a student, staff, or coach, she had no idea—offer the line in her periphery as she pushed a bin of volleyballs to the assistant coach's office. She continued walking, neither stopping nor turning around.
"Not when that's the first thing they say to me."
Another male voice behind her hooted at her supposed "burn," and Whitley shook her head. Even on a good day, she would never dignify such an idiotic pick-up line, but today she really, really wasn't in the mood.
The article in the Northshore Sentinel had raised Whitley's profile around town already, and with students steadily returning to campus from summer break, her looming presence drew increasingly more attention. This had been the third guy this week to try the "shorter guys" line, along with the typical inquiries about playing basketball (yawn), modeling (eyeroll), the weather 'up there' (glare), and where she buys pants ("Why, are you going to pay for my next pair?").
If only I got even half that attention during practice.
While grateful the gaping stares from the players had mostly ended, Whitley did not appreciate the indifference that had taken its place. After all her individual accomplishments in her volleyball career, Whitley now found herself essentially serving as a silent inspiration totem. She stood on the sides and observed, doing her best to appear as if she had a role or even a directive of some kind. Watching the players, she made some mental notes but generally lost them after a few minutes when her mind wandered. She'd see errors in form, but not knowing how to contribute said nothing.
In fact, with the exception of some small talk following the inaugural practice with some of the players, Whitley had not said a word in any of the four practices thus far. Coach Richter never asked her opinion, had her lead no drills, and gave her no assignments with the exception of asking Whitley out of the blue to demonstrate form for a jump float serve, which went awkwardly. She needed several tries to complete the maneuver she rarely employed as a player and hadn't done since high school.
In the meantime, Assistant Coach Koga, being an alumni of the program, had an excellent rapport with the players, addressing them by name, and recalling their years in school, major, and hometown. Where Coach Richter pointed and shouted, Koga patted backs, called mini-huddles, and made herself near-omnipresent to the players. They responded well to Koga, who seemed an inexhaustible fountain of knowledge, encouragement, and leadership. If Whitley didn't know any better, she'd have assumed Koga was the head coach.
In college, Whitley treated volleyball like her job, which had been easy given the sixty-plus hours per week she spent on conditioning, practice, travel, and games. Now that volleyball actually was her job (part-time), it felt like a chore. Even with her reduced commitment, she felt detached, bored, and generally useless. She would only be asked one other thing from Coach Richter at the end of practice:
"Coach Valentine, can you take care of clearing the gym?"
Whitley returned to the empty gym, which felt uncomfortably quiet with the sudden absence of running bodies and the repeated impact of feet, bodies, and balls on the hardwood. Being a mid-sized D1 school, the Northshore University court was smaller than the one she'd grown accustomed to at Durrenburg. Whitley retrieved a ball from the remaining bin, gripping it in her hands. She'd hardly touched a volleyball since being sent home from team USA training camp. Despite having fallen entirely out of her old training regimen, her mechanics, ingrained from years of routine, felt as strong as ever.
Whitley palmed the ball with the ease a softball pitcher would a softball, letting her long fingers wrap around its surface. She strode towards the rear baseline while keeping her posture straight and upright—the volleyball court being one of the few areas Whitley gladly to show off every inch of her frame. She scanned an imaginary defensive lineup, taking in their positioning which would inform her shot selection. She noted a rear player who had taken a hard fall digging the last point—she would have to dive again if she wanted to prevent this next ace.
Reaching her mark, Whitley turned around to face the net, standing perfectly still. Unlike others, her serving routine involved no spins, bounces, tosses, or rolls. She did, however, scan the blockers at the net, making eye contact with each of them before allowing her gaze to fix on three points on the floor opposite the net, the first of which was typically her intended target. Given her height, athleticism, and aptitude, coaches and teammates (with the exception of Coach Grace) often encouraged her to jump serve, particularly in the heat of a game. Whitley never did out of respect for her own routine and accuracy. She also did not believe she needed such things to psychologically affect the game—her skill took care of the rest.
Whitley took a breath and tossed the ball into the air.
"Even for your height, that's a pretty high toss."
Without her feet leaving the ground, Whitley struck the ball sending it sailing across the net, and hitting her target—an orange cone on the rear left corner baseline—dead on. Despite nailing her target, she felt she had allowed for too much arc and not enough power. In her prime, she could have allowed for less margin of error, but she'd also grown at least three inches since she'd last played a game.
"Were you trying to distract me?" Whitley asked Koga, retrieving another ball.
"No," Koga replied. "I've seen you play. You don't get distracted." Koga had, indeed, watched literally hours of footage of Whitley Valentine, largely in the forms of recorded playoff games. In fact, she re-watched the entirety of the national championship match against Nebraska—Whitley had four blocks in the final set—at least once a month since the video had become available.
"Coach Grace used to give me a hard time about it. She ribbed me every time I did it but never forced me to change. Eventually, she stopped saying it.
"Were you too stubborn?"
"Yes, but I also practiced until it wasn't an issue."
Koga chuckled, retrieving the ball and tossing it across to Whitley. "You've gotten pretty good at serving that way."
"I was determined to show her I could. It would have been much easier to change my form." Whitley offered another high toss, this time leaping forward and striking the ball in the air, missing the notch on the floor she was aiming for by inches. Whitley snorted and retrieved another ball from the bin. "Ugh, too much movement. Throws off my accuracy."
Koga headed over and reset the cone along with four more, distributing them along the rear baseline. "Many players dream about being that accurate. Pretty impressive for someone who never jump serves."
Whitley took a few quick steps, tossed the ball up, and smacked it with almost frightening impact. The ball rocketed across the gym, striking the center cone like it had been hit by a bullet.
"Little too much power," Whitley tossed another ball into the air, and her jump serve sent the ball flying across the net towards the cone at Koga's feet. Koga clasped her hands for the dig, returning it to Whitley, who was already airborne, her belly button nearly level with the top of the net. Her forearm whipped around and she spiked the ball into the far corner where the ball grazed the edge of a cone, nudging it over slightly.
"Huh," Whitley muttered. "Two years ago I would have nailed that."
"Your jump serve is really coming along."
"It's like riding a bike. I used to do it all the time before I got really tall."
"What's 'really' tall?"
"Like, six-three or so," Whitley replied. "Ya' know, volleyball tall."
"Are you always this regimented?" Koga tossed the ball up and setting it in Whitley's direction. Whitley took a short, quick hop towards the ball." Koga moved towards the net, expecting a spike, and Whitley, at the last moment, set her fingers to the surface of the ball and instead launched a floater. Having already rushed the net, Koga threw a hand up, but missed entirely, and it struck the floor behind her, squarely in play.
"Only when it comes to volleyball."
Koga chased down her missed return. "Is there anything on this court you don't do well?"
Whitley snorted. "I'm a shit coach, apparently." She glanced around the gym, and leaned towards Koga, speaking to her through the net. "And to tell you the truth, I'm not the only one. You should be coaching this team."
Koga responded with an expression so diplomatically neutral it almost looked rehearsed. "You'll get used to her. Coach Richter has her strengths."
"You mean besides shouting and passive aggression?
Koga grimaced. "Um...yes."
"Don't worry. We'll keep that between us. Anyways, regardless of what you may say, I don't see how you stand it." Whitley lined up at the baseline and served again, striking with such force it flew over the net and impacted the center of the backboard above the basketball hoop. Koga's eyes widened for a moment.
"That one got away from you." She retrieved the ball and rolled it to Whitley, who caught it with her foot.
"I was aiming for the top of the square. So, did you come in here to be a ball caddy, or did you actually have something to tell me?"
"I want you to coach serving at tomorrow's practice. If it goes how I expect, I'd like to make you the permanent serving coach."
Whitley snickered. "You're kidding."
"I just watched you go from completely incapable of jump serving to pinpoint accuracy in about four attempts. They'll be best off with someone who's worked on it as much as you have. You'll actually know how to fix problems."
"What's Helen going to say?"
"I'll worry about Coach Richter," Koga set a cone on the ground a couple feet in front of her. "Want another shot? Hit this one and I'll owe you coffee before practice."
Whitley tossed the ball into the air, all the while watching Koga closely. She took a quick step and leaped into the air, allowing her body to twist slightly inward. In the half-second between Whitley's adjustment and striking the ball, Koga dropped her foot back, her hands clenched. Whitley spiked the ball directly behind Koga, who responded instantly by pivoting clockwise and digging the hit with her left hand. The ball floated upwards and landed in the near center of the court, perfectly in play. Whitley whistled, genuinely impressed.
"Good read. You went after it on pure instinct. You must have been one hell of a libero."
Koga climbed to her feet and fixed her bangs. "I got lucky. How did you know I'd go for it?"
Whitley pulled another ball from the bin. "I know your type."
Koga smiled and watched as Whitley served several more times, systematically aiming for the notches on the basketball court baselines, striking within inches of each. She slowly made her way towards Whitley who paused when she noticed Koga drawing closer.
"What's up?" Whitley asked.
"Whitley, I'm glad you're here. They may not show it, but it means a lot to the players as well. It feels awkward now, but I think once you find your place you're going to be invaluable to this team."
"Instead of invisible?"
"...it'll take time."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Whitley frowned as she tossed the ball into the air. She leaped and spiked it at the final remaining cone, sending it bouncing towards the far wall. Koga caught the ball as it rolled across the gym, under the net, and towards her feet.
"You could stand to vent a little, and basketball practice isn't for another hour or so. Would you like a setter? I'll reset the cones."
Whitley plucked another ball from the bin, pressing it between her two hands.
"No, I'm fine by myself."
"Ok, then I'll see you tomorrow morning, Coach Valentine."
"Thanks, Coach Koga."
Whitley returned already to her hitting drills as Koga headed towards the gym door. Out of the corner of her eye she caught the impact of a volleyball striking the basketball backboard and passing through the net.