Years from now, when Emily Whitelaw flips through her yearbook and recalls her senior season of volleyball at St. Mary’s, the 26-2 record, a 11th state tournament berth in 13 years and individual accolades won’t begin to tell the true picture of life lessons learned during those three months of competition.
Whitelaw and her Pirates teammates did more than just accumulate stats and roll to the Tri-Peaks League title with a 10-0 mark. They persevered through injuries and illnesses. They solved problems while many, including Whitelaw, played out of position. They gave each other a shoulder to lean and cry on. They learned how to be strong, keep their composure and the real meaning of playing for each other.
“We were really close this year,” Whitelaw said. “We trusted each other. We knew when we had people out with injuries we all had faith in each other. Coming up to state, and everything that was happening, it did make us a lot stronger. We knew we were playing for each other, and it did make us a lot stronger, on and off the court.”
Before the season, senior Laura Broerman tore her ACL and missed a good part of the season. In early September, standout Bria Sweeney, another talented senior, badly injured her left ankle and missed a month.
Longtime Pirates coach Melissa Sweeney turned to Whitelaw to move from her home as a middle blocker to the back row. She never doubted that decision for a second.
“She stepped on the back row and had 16 digs that first match,” Sweeney said. “Usually, the middle blocker plays the front row and gets subbed out. She definitely was a key to our success. Emily helped set the culture, the belief that she had in our team, not only by her actions on the court, but her demeanor on and off the court.”
That demeanor was tested not only through injuries, but also after illness swept through the team during the postseason. Whitelaw and the Pirates were hit with the devastating news that the mother of junior Nicole Niles had died after a bout with breast cancer.
“As coaches, we went off the strength of the girls,” Sweeney said. “I’m still in awe. I don’t think they know what they did and how they did it. Emily just fit in on the back row and there was never any hiccup. Everyone took things in stride, but I was impressed with Emily’s presence on the court. She was calm, and that was good for the team.”
Whitelaw did a good job of hiding her nerves, because under that uniform, her heart was beating twice as fast when she moved out of her comfort zone.
“In club, we move around, so we play everything, but I had never played that position in a game,” Whitelaw said. “I didn’t want to show I was scared. Being a senior and captain, the underclassmen looked up to us. I had to fight through it. Focusing on passing was probably the biggest adjustment of changing positions.”
Whitelaw cherishes her high school memories and will take them with her to Colorado-Colorado Springs, where she’ll return to the middle after signing her National Letter of Intent last month.
She was tempted to sign with Colorado Christian, where her older sister, Christina, plays basketball after a record-setting career at St. Mary’s. But in the end, UCCS won out.
She gave a little credit to big sister as she remembered her going through the recruiting and college-selection process.
“I definitely watched her go through all of it, and it did help,” Whitelaw said. “Like her, I had to decide my sport and made list of pros and cons. Colorado Christian was one of my top schools, but I had more pros for UCCS, and I know a lot of the girls on the team. And it’ll be nice being close to home.”
And for reminiscing? Whitelaw probably won’t remember her team’s final record, and that’s OK with her.
“I think when I think back to my senior year in volleyball, I will think about my team and how close we were and how far we got playing for each other,” Whitelaw said. “I’ll really think about what we went through to get that far, even though we didn’t win it all.”