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Nov. 29, 2021

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La Center volleyball senior Summer Senske grapples with loss of dad to COVID-19

By , Columbian staff writer
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La Center volleyball senior Summer Senske hugs her mother, Sonjuliane Hayes, during a senior night ceremony before a match on Oct. 12 at La Center High School. Senske returned to volleyball this season after her father, Tim, died of COVID-19 in January. The sport connected the two and now Senske grapples with a season without him in the stands.
La Center volleyball senior Summer Senske hugs her mother, Sonjuliane Hayes, during a senior night ceremony before a match on Oct. 12 at La Center High School. Senske returned to volleyball this season after her father, Tim, died of COVID-19 in January. The sport connected the two and now Senske grapples with a season without him in the stands. (Joshua Hart For The Columbian) Photo Gallery

It’s almost a given that at every La Center High School volleyball match, Summer Senske hears her father’s voice cheering from heaven’s window.

The biggest wins and the toughest defeats this season are the hardest for Summer, a senior back-row specialist, to take. That’s because she wants to share her successes and struggles with Dad, but can’t because Tim Senske died months ago from complications of COVID-19.

Volleyball is what connected father and daughter, despite living 70 miles apart. And returning to the sport for the first time since her dad’s passing in January hasn’t been easy on Summer, because the man with a loud voice who filmed matches on his phone, did goofy dances to lift her spirits and calm her nerves, and used “kiddo” in every compliment or critique still tugs at the teen’s heartstrings.

“That’s how he supported me — through volleyball,” said Summer, 17. “I can still see him during games, and I can still hear his voice yelling at me.”

•••

Summer is Sonjulaine Hayes and Tim Senske’s only child together. The couple divorced when their daughter was 6.

Tim Senske later remarried, lived in Keizer, Ore., and worked as a commercial plumber. He enjoyed the outdoors, the Green Bay Packers and Oregon Ducks. Circumstances from divorce made it harder for her father to be an active parent, Summer said, but as Summer grew older, their relationship grew stronger.

She still soaks in precious conversations, special memories and life moments shared together. Volleyball is no exception, but other heartfelt times remain fresh, too — her father making the drive to see her get ready for the 2019 Homecoming dance is an unforgettable one.

“Every time he came home,” Summer said, “he was always so happy he got a picture.”

Unforgettable, too, was the day Summer saw her father for the final time — hours before his death Jan. 25, 2021.

Tim Senske tested positive for COVID-19 on Dec. 31, and soon after, the virus took over. He spent much of January hospitalized at Portland’s Legacy Emanuel Medical Center from serious COVID-19 complications starting with pneumonia, and later, organ failure. Calls via video chat were how the two stayed connected early in his stay, and again late when Tim was placed in a medically induced coma.

Summer said she feels fortunate to be allowed inside her father’s hospital room the day he died. Hours after her visit, he died at age 43.

At the time, Tim Senske was one of nearly 2,000 known Oregonians who succumbed to COVID-19. The passing also came one week before tryouts for last winter’s condensed seven-week high school volleyball season. The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association’s “fall” sports season last school year ran Feb. 1 through March 20.

No way did Summer feel ready to play; too many raw emotions, too much pain, she said.

As time passed, the joy to play volleyball returned.

•••

By the time summer came, Summer felt ready for volleyball to be back in her life for her final year of high school. Volleyball coaches often say how the sport is all about momentum. For Summer, momentum on the mental aspect is all about ups and downs. It has hit Summer harder than she imagined this season.

“I go out there on the court and I tend to freeze up and that’s all I can think about is (my dad) and it affects how I play,” she said.

Breakthrough moments are what she craves in a season filled with uncontrollable grief and pain that’s made for on-court performance struggles at times. A player who makes mistakes just isn’t the Summer her coaches, teammates and family know. This coming from a player who rightfully earned her first varsity spot nearly two years away from the game.

Support by others, though, has never wavered.

Teammate Lizzie LeBouef said her friend’s positive energy can be infectious — a “hype-man”-type of spirit, the setter said, but also someone who recognizes when comfort is needed. Head coach Cymany O’Brien also works to support Summer when her emotions take their toll. She knows the player the senior can be. When mind and body are in sync, a rock-solid defender emerges.

“I love watching her play defense,” O’Brien said. “She’s an aggressive defender and will sacrifice her body for the ball.”

It’s been equally hard for Summer’s mom, Sonjulaine Hayes, to watch her daughter’s playing struggles from the stands. But, much to Mom’s delight, a turning point came in La Center’s four-set victory at 3A Heritage on Oct. 11.

“It was like I had my Summer back,” Hayes said. “I could tell she was on the other side of that grief and that paralyzing feeling.”

Perhaps that turning point came at the right time. As the high school fall postseason looms, La Center sits in second place in the 1A Trico League behind Castle Rock. Few teams in Clark County have the front-line size like the Wildcats; two stand 6 foot 2, and a third is 6-0.

Summer happily talks how the tight-knit volleyball program and community of La Center is the right place for her. In this year of tragedy, she has also grown up. This season hasn’t been easy for her, but the sport that brings so much joy to the teenager is the same joy that fuels her connection to her father. When reflecting on the past 10 months, Summer is proud of her perseverance — as her father watches every moment through heaven’s window.

“I realized I’m a lot stronger than I thought I was,” she said. “It made me realize how strong I am mentally and all of that because it is really hard. You don’t know how tough the battle is until it happens to you.”

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