#38: Teachable Moments
This was either the best day ever or the worst.
Coach Koga asked that I come to the Kellsburg High School gym for a Saturday morning scrimmage. With the NSU team using the primary gym, we were relegated to the older, smaller, adjacent building with stone walls and assorted athletic equipment crammed along the perimeter. It had since been converted to a weight room, but the equipment had been moved aside to let teams squeeze in practices during the Kellsburg Invitational Tournament.
We split both games on day one of the invitationals, losing one and edging out a win in game two, bringing our season record to 1-3. While the loss was frustrating and the win was sloppy, Coach Richter praised my efforts in both games. I'd moved into the starting lineup this year. I crossed my fingers and hoped they would groom me for team Captain next year.
More than anything, though, I wanted Whitley Valentine's approval.
Whitley had done a poor job hiding her dissatisfaction after yesterday's game, and I'd overheard her venting to Coach Richter. She did not mince words, and I understood her frustration. I had played well this year, but I wished our record better reflected my effort. Our team lacked a sense of urgency, and Coach Richter either did not feel the need to instill it or did not know how to.
I arrived with Tanica, our starting libero, and our setter, Logan. Coach Koga greeted us as we entered the gym. Near the net, Whitley worked with Monique, an outside hitter who subbed off the bench for me. I felt a twinge of envy before Koga pulled me aside after instructing Tanica and Logan to warm up for a three-on-three scrimmage.
"Isla, we're looking to bolster our rotation. As part of that, we want to strengthen our second unit."
Talking strategy. Awesome.
"You've been consistent for us, and consistent is great."
"We're considering bringing you in off the bench."
Worst. Day. Ever. "But I'm a starter," I said.
"We count on the second unit for consistency, and you have been solid on that front all season. But, if we're going to strike early, we need intensity. Now, we're going to have a three-on-three scrimmage. If you think you've got it, I want to see it."
"Good," Koga said, clapping her hands. "Isla, Logan, you're with me. Tanica, you're with Whitley and Monique."
The idea of getting moved out of the starting lineup was bad enough. The knowledge that Whitley Valentine could be behind the decision was a punch in the gut. I was Coach Richter's golden girl. If this decision had come from anyone, it was from Koga and Whitley. I looked over to Whitley, who had taken Monique by the shoulders and whispered in her ear. The two laughed before huddling up with Tanica. If I was going to prove I deserved to start, I was going to have to outshine Monique and stand up Whitley. This was something I lacked the confidence, skill, and—at a mere 6'3"—the physical stature to do.
"Gartner!" Koga yelled behind me. "Get over here!"
I jogged over and listened as Koga, who had served as team captain in her playing days, mapped out a game plan. Their opponents lacked a setter—a possible advantage since Tanica was a defensive specialist and setting was hardly Monique's specialty. Then again, that meant they had two skilled attackers including Whitley, who didn't exactly have a weakness.
As we lined up at the net, I fought the urge to shrink in Whitley Valentine's imposing presence. Her head stopped inches below the top of the net, and she reached as high standing on the ground as I could jump. That, in itself, would have been frightening enough, if I weren't already well aware of her capability on the court. I'd seen her defensively decimate the most talented hitters in the country with her combination of sheer size and defensive instinct, and—like millions of others—I'd seen her lay out dozens more with her frightening power and dead-eye accuracy.
Whitley didn't talk trash. If anything, she seemed almost indifferent, as if the effort it would take for her to flatten us was a joke. There was no environment where she was more at home than on the volleyball court. Gazing down at us through the net, she ignored Logan and me, but studied Koga, before ordering adjustments to her teammates. Fortunately for me, Whitley directed Monique to play at the net, while she hung back to cover roughly half the floor with her absurd reach.
Koga served long to the far back corner. Whitley read Koga's serve like a book and passed to Tanica who had moved to the far left to set up Monique, leaving me to play defense at the net. I leaped up, extending my arms to block the spike, only to have Monique tap a floater over my outstretched arms. Logan dove behind me, unable to save the point.
If I was to prove I deserved to start over Monique, this was no way to begin.
"What did I tell you?" I heard Whitley say to Monique, who laughed and slapped Whitley's palm. I was being predictably outplayed—she wanted Monique to start, and she was using me to prove it.
Lining up for Tanica's serve, I shifted to the right, and Whitley shuffled over in an almost unconscious adjustment on her part. Second-guessing myself, I all but lobbed the ball back to their side of the net on my return. Whitley passed to Tanica, who set up Monique for another spike. I leaped up, and she shot it right through my arms for the kill. Two possessions in, we were down 2-0.
"Gartner! Get your head in the game." Turning around, I saw Coach Koga glaring up at me. "Attack," Koga said. "Even on defense. You attack. Don't play timid. Make her afraid of you."
I did my best to shut out the doubt in my head and play normally. The game progressed from there with both sides accumulating points evenly. Tanica, while skilled, had a hard time keeping up with my attacks. Monique was stronger on offense than defense, but I still managed several blocks for points. While Whitley did an excellent job setting up her teammates, she also passed up several opportunities to bail them out. If she'd been giving it her all, we'd have lost twice over by now.
After a marathon scrimmage, we found ourselves tied 12-12. I set up a spike for Logan, who was hardly an expert attacker. Tanica easily dug the attack, and Monique moved in to set up Whitley for the kill.
"Left!" Koga shouted from behind me. Either Logan was going to block it (not likely), or I was going to have to dig. I caught Whitley's eyes trained not on the ball, but on me—she smelled blood in the water. At the very least, I resolved not to shut my eyes. It paid off, as I noticed Whitley's eyes drift to my right. I took a chance and dove.
The impact of Whitley's palm on the ball and the ball to my hands seemed instantaneous, and it stung like crazy. Playing off of my save, Koga set up Logan again, who took them by surprise and scored the kill. Having pulled ahead 13-12, we moved in for a quick huddle.
"Nice save!" Logan said, patting me on the back. "How the heck did you read that?"
I shook my head. Even I wasn't sure.
"Isla, you're faster than Whitley," Koga said. "She can only adjust if you give her time. Don't play. Attack."
It had never occurred to me Whitley Valentine had weaknesses, save marijuana. Whitley was a lot of things—intimidating, tall, strong, hot—but fast was not one of them. Her height and length enabled her to cover a lot of ground, but her defense relied more on knowing where to go rather than getting there quickly.
Koga slapped my back. "Let's finish this strong, Gardner."
Resisting my urge to fidget, I moved into position and held still. Through the net, I watched Whitley. She looked at Koga, who also did not move. I scanned the far side of the court. Whitley adjusted, moving to the middle. I took a step as if she would aim for the back right. Whitley moved accordingly. As expected, Monique did the same.
Logan, one of our stronger servers, nearly scored an ace on a serve to the rear corner, but Tanica got there in time, and they managed to return. As Koga and Logan set me up for a spike, I kept my eyes forward but sent my shot to the open left side. No one touched it.
"There you go!" Logan shouted behind me. "Let's finish this!"
Logan served, again, and the play proceeded like the last one. Once again, Koga and Logan set me up for a kill. I saw Whitley lining up. I'm going to jump higher than her, she's going to raise her hands, and I'm going to strike right through them because she's nowhere near fast enough to stop me.
We were up fourteen to twelve. If I could beat a team with Whitley Valentine, I could beat anyone. Monique delivered a spike to Tanica, who dug the point. Whitley set it up to Monique, who gave a marshmallow of a spike to Koga. I let my gaze fall on the left side of the court, and watched as Whitley directed Monique to cover. I would jump early, leaving Whitley little time to react. "Game, set—"
A giant hand came out of nowhere, blocking my shot. I could not fathom how Whitley had gotten to the block in time. One thing was apparent: she'd moved Monique because she wanted to take care of it herself. Her expression had gone stone cold, and she barked a few directions to her teammates as she lined up to serve.
Whitley launched the ball high into the air, took a few short stutter steps before leaping high enough that she was essentially spiking from the rear baseline. She creamed the ball, adding a little topspin for emphasis. Logan tried to return, but it shot sideways off her arms, leaving a visible welt. A surprised Koga looked up to Whitley, who had already turned her back to return to the baseline.
"Thirteen-fourteen," Whitley said, lining up again to serve. She performed the same maneuver a second time with the same results. Koga frowned as her eyes remained locked on Whitley, who paid her fellow coach no mind. Whatever teachable moment Koga had engineered for the scrimmage evidently did not account for Whitley's aversion to losing.
Whitley delivered a scorching serve directly at Koga's head, leaving her the unenviable split-second decision whether to attempt an overhead dig at a ball that would likely pass through her fingers into her face or simply duck. Her hands instinctively went up to guard her face, and she yelped as the ball hit her wrists, shooting into the net. Logan managed to save it, and I bumped it over the net.
Not expecting the return, Monique was slow to react, leaving Whitley to save. She passed to Tanica who set up Monique for the spike which struck the far rear line—narrowly, but clearly in bounds. Whitley, livid at having nearly lost the game, strode over to Monique. They had a quick exchange, and Monique nodded with nervous affirmation. Whatever Whitley had told her, Monique was now as afraid of losing this match as Whitley was determined to win it.
"Game point," Whitley announced icily, firing her serve to the far right corner. With renewed vigor, Koga dove for the dig. Logan set me up for a spike, but Whitley's presence at the net forced me to send my attack directly to Tanica, who passed forward. Whitley moved over for the set. I watched her, not noticing her right arm moving in for a sneak attack. I glanced away to Koga whose eyes had gone wide. I whipped my head back around just as Whitley's spike sent the ball whizzing past my ear like a cannonball.
Frazzled from near-decapitation, it took me several seconds to realize I'd been holding my breath. Koga, who also looked like she had narrowly missed getting hit by a speeding truck, held it together well enough to preserve her coaching instincts. She called the players in for a huddle, praising our poise and aggressiveness. We listened as well as we could. None of us had ever experienced anything as beautiful as those last four points. Whitley's play had been dominant, fearsome, elegant and—most importantly—inspiring.
Koga broke the huddle. Monique and Logan headed out of the gym. Tanica stuck around to debrief. I walked over to Whitley, who casually checked her phone as she packed up her things. She didn't look up until I was a few feet away.
"Nice job out there," she said. My expression must have been something because Whitley chuckled. "No, really. You had some good reads. You should follow your natural instincts more."
"I will," I said. "Thank you for pushing us, and for showing us how it's done."
"What, did you think I was going to lose that game?"
"It'd be stupid of me to think you would."
Whitley smiled. "If you perform in today's matches like you just did, we'll have a dozen points on the board before they know what hit them."
I nodded, catching the significance of her statement. Whitley zipped her bag and was about to walk away when an impulse hit me. "Will you take a selfie with me?" I blurted.
"Sure," Whitley said, amused. "Shall we go overhead?"
"Probably best," I said, handing my phone to Whitley, who raised it up to capture the two of us from above. She handed the phone back to me as I saw Koga and Tanica approaching. I thanked her and turned to leave, but she tapped me on the shoulder.
"Hold up a sec. Can you stick around for one with my phone as well? Ya' know, for posterity." Whitley gave a small sigh, "and Instagram."
"Cool. Koga, get in here. Tanica, can you take a shot of us?"
Koga walked over, high-fiving me on the way. We clumped together as Tanica held up Whitley's phone. "Alright, y'all. On three!"
Best. Day. Ever.