#31: Coach Valentine

The team had completed their 3-on-3 scrimmages, bringing the practice to a close. "Good job today, ladies," Coach Richter shouted across the court, clapping her hands.

As the players filed out to the lockers, Coach Richter promptly headed out to her office, leaving Whitley and Koga to field any remaining questions. Whitley and Koga were in the habit of touching base after practice. Their debrief sessions prepared them for meetings with Coach Richter, who expected them to be clear and concise with their thoughts and input—even when she herself was not.

Taking Koga's advice, Whitley worked to get to know the players over the last week, beginning with their names and positions, and eventually their class years and majors. True to her word, Koga also asked Whitley to coach serving, a task Coach Richter soon removed her from to coach the hitters on footwork. Being an outside hitter herself, Whitley knew her exercises well and was comfortable coaching the girls, though she resented having spent so much time reviewing serving.

Following the end of practice, one player continued to run the footwork drills, even after most of the team had already cleared the gym. At 6'3", the curly-haired redhead was an intimidating presence at the net. To Whitley, the girl's pigtails, freckles, and agreeable attitude made her seem almost pixie-ish. Every cycle, she would look to Whitley for approval like a younger sister to her older sibling. Whitley remembered her as the starry-eyed girl from the inaugural team meeting who admitted to having a picture of Whitley in her high school locker. Finishing her drills, she jogged over to Whitley, who struggled to recall the girl's name.

"Nice job today...um..."

Something short. Eyes? Isis? Sia? Sissy? Asia?

"Isla."

"Shit. Sorry, Isla. I'm terrible with names."

Please don't ask me a question. Please don't ask me a question. Please don't—

"Oh, it's okay! I just was hoping to get some feedback from you on the spiking drill. I think I've got the steps down, and I'm doing my best to follow them. My footwork still feels awkward."

"Huh." Whitley stalled, glancing around the gym for Koga, who was unfortunately still coaching the liberos. She was on her own. Whitley dug deep in her memory, struggling to recall a time when she'd last had difficulty with footwork. Isla waited patiently, gazing up at Whitley with eager anticipation. Coming up blank, Whitley improvised.

"Have you ever ballroom danced?"

"No," Isla said, looking down. "I always thought I was, um—"

"Too tall," Whitley finished with her. "I know. I've been there, believe me. Anyways, I took a week of lessons once when I was in middle school, and they kept drilling me on the basic step. I would repeat until I had blisters. Then, when I finally got it, I'd watch the teachers dance and be like, 'why don't they look as awkward as me?' I could barely recognize the basic when they did it."

Isla laughed. "Sure."

"It was definitely still there but, the thing is, they weren't doing the step, they were dancing. See, the steps are there to give you a framework. Watching you on the drill, I can tell you're practicing the steps to remember them. The thing is, you need to practice to forget them. Start paying attention to your body, your jump, your height, your spike. Visualize the entire move from the ball to your body." Whitley noticed Koga walking over and lobbed a volleyball towards her. "Koga, set me up. Surprise me."

Without skipping a beat, Koga squared her body, raised her hands, set the ball straight back up and jumped back. Noting the distance, Whitley took two quick steps, a large gather step, and leaped into the air. Isla watched, awestruck at the elegant power of Whitley's body in motion. Striking the ball at its apex, Whitley sent it rocketing towards the rear left corner, where it hit the rear baseline. Whitley landed and looked back to Isla who was radiant with admiration.

"See what I mean?"

"Yeah, I-I think I get it."

Whitley reached over and patted Isla on the shoulder, keeping her distance out of concern the girl might try to hug her. "We'll work on it in breakout drills tomorrow, Isla. Okay?"

The girl's eyes lit up even brighter upon hearing Whitley say her name. "Okay!" Whitley raised her hand for a high(ish) five. Isla slapped Whitley's palm with gusto before jogging towards the locker room. As she reached the gym door, she turned back and waved. "See you tomorrow Coach Valentine. Coach Koga!"

Koga returned Isla's wave before turning to Whitley. "So, Coach Valentine, what do you think of her?"

"Height-wise, she's almost my type. As a rule, though, I prefer them darker. Also male."

Koga gasped, and Whitley gave her a wry smile. Koga cleared her throat and offered a stiff chuckle. "I mean, what do you think of her ability?"

"She's talented, athletic, clearly loves to play."

"What does she need?"

"Obviously her footwork needs some help. She needs to add some weight, but conditioning will help. She's also an underclassman, so a lot of that will come with experience. She'll be good."

"Why not 'great'?"

Whitley considered the question. "She needs swagger. She loves playing, but she doesn't love winning. When things get competitive, you need a different mindset. She—"

"Isla."

"Thank you. Isla plays the same, regardless of the stakes. When you're determined to win, you think differently. She doesn't have that mentality."

"Do you think she can develop it?"

"Honestly? No. Not with her attitude."

"What would it take?"

"You can't just turn that on. You're born with it, or someone instills it in you. If she's going to get there, she'll need to get an earful from someone she'll listen to." Koga raised her eyebrows, and Whitley nodded. "Oh, I see. You want me to coach her."

"There you go, Coach Valentine."

"Any ideas?"

"Maybe you can make her more 'your type.'"

Whitley laughed. "I don't know if that's good for anybody."

Whitley's phone vibrated in her pocket. Retrieving it, she saw she'd missed a call during practice, and the caller had left a message. She put the phone to her ear and held up a finger. Koga nodded and went to the gather the remaining volleyballs and put the bins away.

Whitley, this message is to confirm your appointment with Dr. Loeb for 2:45 PM, this Thursday at the Endocrinology Clinic at Kellsburg Gen—

Whitley ended the message with a grumble.

"Hey, everything okay?" Koga called over.

"Sure. I gotta' run. See 'ya later." She headed out of the gym to the assistant coach's office to grab her bag. Her appointment was not for another few days, and Whitley already dreaded it. More pressing was the hunger tugging at her insides. She'd overslept, and only had time to wolf down four boiled eggs, two granola bars, a banana, and an apple during her drive to campus. It'd been three hours since, and she was starving.

Whitley turned the corner and stepped into the office, not particularly concerned over it being unlocked with the lights on. She snagged her gym bag and fished around for her keys.

I'll hit the lunch buffet. Probably take it easy on the pizza, but the guys at the sandwich bar know me pretty well and can hook me up with a double-decker. The pasta salad should be out so I can snack on that while I'm waiting before I get to the—

"Oh, hey! I haven't seen you before."

"Shit!" Whitley shouted, leaping into the air. She whipped around to see a thin, bespectacled young man standing right behind her near Koga's desk. Dressed in jeans and a green polo shirt, he wore his hair in a clean side part. He resembled a late-20's Harry Potter, but the only thrill this guy had experienced lately was wearing his shirt untucked.

"Whoa, Sorry!" he said, holding up his hands. "Didn't mean to startle you."

"Who the hell are you and why are you in my office?"

"Coach Richter requested video footage from last year's Kellsburg game. I was dropping off a copy. Sorry, I don't think we've met."

"Whitley Valentine," she said with a quick wave, still recovering from the shock. "I'm a new assistant coach for women's volleyball."

"I believe it!" he blurted, gazing up at her. Whitley glared down at him, and he summoned the friendliest smile he could muster. "So, we should probably get to know each other. I'm—"

"Gonna' go ahead and stop you there. Not interested."

"Excuse me?"

"Excuse you indeed, you creep. How about you find something else to do other than stalk around here. And, once again, I prefer taller and darker. "

"Oh, I'm sorry I didn't mean to...I wasn't trying to—"

"Whatever. Practice is over, and I'm ready for some lunch. Trust me, you do not want to get between me and lunch."

"No problem! Well, I'm just getting going. Let Coach Richter know the video she requested is up on the network drive. I had one of the student workers do the conversion, so I wanted to bring you the raw file just in case I didn't encode it properly."

Whitley gasped. "Oh God, you do work here."

"Yeah, I'm Percy Fouts. I actually think you might know—"

"Alicia and Krysta!" Whitely gasped, gesturing wildly at him. "Holy shit, you fucked both of my roommates!" Just as Whitley shouted the words, Koga walked in on them. She froze in the doorway and immediately backed out.

Wearing a look of mild embarrassment, Percy offered a nervous shrug. "Well, not at the same time."