At first, the freshmen who play for Columbia River’s volleyball program thought they were in trouble.
Instead, they were just being loved.
The seniors — their older “sisters,” if you will — wanted to welcome the newcomers to the family.
So they interrupted the frosh practice, telling the younger players that they did something wrong and had to report to the head coach’s room right then. There was even talk of some extra running. When the players arrived, though, they saw that the seniors had cooked them a pancake breakfast.
With a side order of smiles.
That was the Saturday of the first week of practice. It left quite an impression on the freshmen, but it also had an impact on the seniors. The seniors, after all, remembered how tough it was when they were freshmen.
“I was the one who had to sweep the floor. ‘Yo, freshman, sweep the floor,’ ” said senior Katie Trimble, who made varsity that season. “I never felt welcome to the team. I never felt wanted or needed.”
“We got yelled at a lot,” senior Grace Boyer-Quick recalled of her freshman campaign on the junior varsity squad. “You felt like you weren’t an important part of the program. I honestly felt I was never going to make an impact on the program. It was really hard to deal with.”
Today, Boyer-Quick is one of the best players in the region, set to sign with Seattle University in November.
But this story is not about being great at volleyball. It is about being great teammates.
“I’m a big believer in servant leadership,” second-year coach Moe Perez said. “Being in athletics as long as I have, I’ve seen my fair share of different team aspects. The teams that have leaders who are willing to serve others … they walk away learning a lot more about what it means to be a team player.”
The Columbia River seniors, juniors, and sophomores showed up to cheer on the freshmen at the first summer league competition in June.
“They did not even know us, but they were cheering us on,” freshman Andrea Rupke said. “From then on, I could see this was a great program and I wanted to be a part of that.”
“Wow, big people are cheering for us,” freshman Holli Chose said.
Rupke said she used to attend River matches and saw some of the players she is now hanging out with in practice.
“Being in their presence, it almost felt unreal,” Rupke said. “But they made us feel we were welcome.”
Chose felt a connection to Boyer-Quick immediately.
“She’s been like an assistant coach for our little team,” Chose said.
It started right away, too.
“That first day of practice, I felt comfortable. That’s the word for all of this: comfortable,” Chose said. “I felt like I fit in.”
Quite a change from when Trimble and Boyer-Quick were freshmen.
“That’s the idea,” Perez said.
In fact, Perez has given all of her players some words by which to live at River.
“To leave the program better than we found it,” Boyer-Quick said. “Help the freshmen. Make sure they’re comfortable. And when they get older, they will make it even better.”
“Moe said it was like a family. ‘OK,’ I said, ‘We’d call ourselves a family,’ ” Chose recalled. “But it actually does feel like we’re all sisters.”
Besides the breakfast, the players also are planning to volunteer at a local food bank.
“Our program is not just based on being a really good volleyball team,” Boyer-Quick said. “We’re really focused on volleyball, but that’s not what it’s all about.”
And for some fun together away from the sport, the Chieftains are going to go to a pumpkin patch.
So, sure, there are seniors, juniors, sophomores, and freshmen, too. Those are their classes in school. Yet, they mean relatively nothing on the volleyball court. There are older sisters, not superior sisters. There are younger sisters, not interns who always have to sweep the floor.
“It’s so refreshing,” Trimble said. “We love everyone from the C team to varsity. It’s not three separate teams. We’re all one big family.”
Paul Valencia covers high school sports for The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4557 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/360paulv