By Tony Hooker
As the football, volleyball and cross-country seasons came to an end this weekend, as always, I was hit by the realization that the careers of many of the athletes I’ve covered had reached their conclusion. I was also reminded of how fleeting the opportunity to compete at a high level really is.
Of the millions who suited up to represent their schools this fall season, only a select percentage will ever compete in their chosen endeavor again. Of course, this melancholy observation is somewhat balanced by the fact that there will be a new crop of ballers waiting to be given their chance. As I’ve written before, it’s the athlete’s circle of life.
For those of us here in the river city, we say goodbye to another group of seniors whose unique personalities and dedication have made their mark on the programs they have been a part of.
Volleyball players Ragin Baker, Reagan Cheely, Maris Eversole, Molly Mixell and Jordyn Ray were key components of teams that ended a losing streak that spanned several years. The days of penciling in a win when facing the Blue Devils are long gone, as evidenced by a match win over Okaw Valley and close losses to Cumberland and Tri-County, among others, who both went on to win regional titles. These matches, along with first round IHSA regional wins in two of the last three years, are ample evidence of the program’s improvement.
Of course, for these five girls, it all starts on the softball field, where they’ve reached unprecedented levels of success since their junior high days. For most of them, their two favorite sports seasons are softball and fall softball!
All of this led me to wonder if their focus on softball for so long helped or hindered their performance in other sports. The answer, of course, proved to be too nuanced for my thinking, so I went to the resident expert for her opinion. Coach Jeana Block, whose daughter Kyleigh is a standout on both squads, has a unique perspective. According to the coach, the team has been on the brink of excellence, just like the softball 9.
“I think we were really close to winning 20,” Block said when I ‘ambushed’ her before her son Connor’s football game. “Success in softball has taught these girls to win,” Coach Block added.
The difference? Belief, according to the coach. You see, in volleyball, because of nearly a decade of losing, there is no expectation of winning. Whereas, in softball, after winning numerous state and national trophies over the course of their careers, the belief that they’ll succeed permeates the entire program from junior high through high school. “We haven’t learned how to finish matches,” the coach stated. “We don’t expect to win the close ones, yet.”
For her part, Block recognizes that at small schools, programs have to have multisport athletes to fill their rosters, and that can sometimes impact programs in these days of specialization. “If we had one or two club volleyball players, it would make a world of difference,” the coach said. “They would be exposed to a much higher level of competition than they currently face.”
It’s a conundrum that many athletes face. Play multiple sports well or do their best to excel in a single endeavor. It’s why some schools are “volleyball” schools, and some are “softball” schools.
As with everything, there are no absolutes. Villa Grove, along with their coop partners Heritage, for example, is expected to have good boys and girl’s basketball teams this year, after experiencing success on the football field and softball diamond. The Devilettes, though down in numbers for 2019-20, should put a competitive, entertaining squad on the floor.
At any rate, congratulations are in order for those whose seasons and careers have ended, and best of luck for those who are about to begin.