#51: Your Problem

Coach Richter, you are the source of your Whitley Valentine problem.

Okay, before you get defensive, I'm not saying Whitley isn't problematic. I mean, we both know she's a challenge—a substantial one. But you also need to consider what she brings in terms of...

Let me start over.

I remember the first time I saw Whitley Valentine in action. I was a senior in high school, and she was a freshman at Durrenburg University. She'd been one of the most highly recruited volleyball talents in the country and, at the time, that didn't mean much to a barely mid-level talent like me. I'd arrived at practice early to find a bunch of my teammates gathered around watching a video of Whitley Valentine knocking out an opposing setter with a spike. As impressive as the hit was, what struck me most was the entire play preceding it.

It was Whitley's second game at Durrenburg, and they were up against nationally-ranked Illinois. Behind-the-scenes, Whitley battled senior and team captain Vivian Wolff for the starting outside hitter position at one of the best volleyball programs in the country. As we know, super-tall players often rotate out in the back row because they aren't as fast, right? Not this time. All six-foot-nine inches of Whitley Valentine was out there working her butt off to prove she's not only the tallest player on the court but also the best setter, defender, and everything else. She was also the only one keeping the game close.

So, Illinois sends a serve to the far back-right corner. Whitley reads it like a book and dives from the middle-back position, not only saving the play but also blasting it high into the air. Now, as far as the defense is concerned, she's gone, and they adjust, not realizing the height of the hit gave Whitley time to recover. The Durrenburg setter sets up what, to everyone else, looks like a kill for the middle blocker. Instead, Whitley rolls onto her feet and in, like, three giant strides is back in bounds. The DU middle fakes a hit down the center, getting two Illinois players in the air. Meanwhile, Whitley leaps from the back row, flying in out of nowhere and sends a crushing a spike to the opposite side. The Illinois player didn't even see it coming. It knocks her off her feet and she's out like a light.

Next game and for the rest of her college career, Whitley started outside hitter. The kicker: it turns out, is Coach Grace had already primed Wolff to move to middle blocker and just wanted to see how hard Whitley would push herself to earn the spot. It was coaching every bit as remarkable as Whitley's play. In the end, Whitley bumped her already high-level game into the stratosphere and made herself the most feared player in NCAA volleyball for the next four years.

Whitley was—and still is—one of the single best volleyball players on this planet. She also comes with a lot of baggage. She hasn't proven herself much of a strategist, her attitude towards authority is questionable, we're halfway through the season and she still only knows half the players' names, and her temper could use some work. She's infuriated you, questioned your decisions, and served up more than her share of snark.

Keep in mind though; she's never challenged your authority in front of the team. She's run the drills you told her to run. She's done every menial task you've asked of her, from overseeing conditioning to tidying the gym before and after practice. When she got ejected, sure, I made a show of trying to hold her back and you yelled her name, but neither of us actually told her to stop. That game wasn't going well, and we needed something. Whitley's competitiveness boiled over and—oh wow, I remember as she left the court she shot the Kellsburg bench a look so icy I even got chills. From then on we dominated the game.

Now, look at today's NSU game. We were down two sets and our team doesn't claw back from that kind of deficit. But Whitley wouldn't have it. She jawed in a few faces, fired up our defense, and toed the line with the officials. In a lot of ways, that ejection has done for her as a coach the same things that spike did for her as a player. You could think of it as a display of her physical power and stature, but it's also an example of her passion for the game and her commitment to winning.

Helen, you've created a family here. The players support each other, and you bring them together. You hired me for strategy and to coach defense, and I've got that. I don't know if Whitley will be a good coach. I think it's mostly up to her to decide if she wants to be. I do know she brings what we don't have and can't be taught—an inherent ability to inspire the team and affect the game by her mere presence.

In the end...Helen, you are the Northshore University Head Volleyball Coach. You wanted my opinion. Well, I'm telling you that having Whitley Valentine here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for this program. She's shown, in her way, she's willing to work with us. Question is: are you willing to work with her?

Coach Richter nodded slowly. "I'm still irritated she skipped out our debrief."

"She told us she would."

"What did she say it was? A costume party?"

"I'm not sure."

"Well, thank you, Koga, for your insight. I'll...think about what you've said."

Koga patted her coach on the shoulder. "It's why you hired me. Go head over to TGI Fridays and celebrate with the rest of the team. I'll catch up soon."

Coach Richter left the locker room. Koga got out her phone: