As career winds down, Decker-Jacoby of Brandeis and her dad reflect on the journey

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Shea Decker-Jacoby, named for the stadium in which the Mets used to play, is a 5-foot-9 senior outside hitter at Division III Brandeis University in Massachusetts. She got cut from her high school team, but stuck with club volleyball and got to play the sport she loves in college.
As her career winds down, Decker-Jacoby, who is from Los Angeles, and her father, Keith Jacoby, wrote this article together about her volleyball experiences, from the perspective of the daughter/player and father/fan.

Shea Decker-Jacoby: I played volleyball for the first time in fifth grade. My school started a co-ed development team of sorts to find players for the middle school team. I, of course, had no idea I was being developed for anything. I don’t remember who we played or how long we played. I do remember playing made me really happy.

I liked sports. The jerseys, the numbers, the orange slices at halftime … what was there not to like? My parents liked that I liked it and my sister played alongside me. I was “the athletic one” in my class and that made me feel good. I had played AYSO soccer with my sister and earned a junior black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Maybe volleyball was going to be just another sport, but something told me it was different.

Now, kids growing up watching LeBron James or Tom Brady dream of going to the NBA or NFL. I had no volleyball television idols to look up to or dream about. All I had were the girls a bit older than me on that middle school team. I remember cheering for Lauren and Maddy, Reni and Franny — I wanted to be them so badly.

I watched them fly through the air, hitting balls to the 10-foot line, throwing their bodies every which way to keep a play alive. Some of them eventually did play on television, for Virginia, Texas, and USC. I wanted to be a part of that and after two years of playing volleyball, I felt I was already better at it than I was at soccer. It was empowering.

The following summer, I went to a week-long sports camp at Loyola Marymount University. Initially placed with girls my age, I was soon was sent over to the older girls. The next year, I was placed with girls who were three years older. When the group leader looked at my name and age on the roster, she seemed puzzled. Then she looked up and recognized me. “Oh, you’ll be fine here.”

Back in middle school, Chip Schulte, the varsity coach, asked if I would try out for his club team, the Beach Cities Volleyball Club. When I got there, his first lesson did not involve a volleyball or a net — he gave me a grammar lesson. He asked me “How are you?” but frowned at my happy response. He explained the correct response is “Well, thank you,” not “Good.”

I did not think much of it at the time, but it was clearly a pivotal moment. My coach cared about the kind of person I would become, rather than just the player I hoped to become. He was not going be just a volleyball coach, but a mentor, teacher, and someone who looked out for me along the way. The sport clearly could be much more than a game or an after school activity.

A year later, Westside Neighborhood School’s varsity team won the league championship and my name was forever immortalized on a blue felt banner that hung high on the WNS gym wall. I was accepted at Marymount High School, a tiny all-girls school tucked away near the northern end of the UCLA campus. Marymount had fewer than 100 girls in each class, all smartly dressed in blazers and skirts. It had father/daughter dances and mother/daughter brunches. It also happened to have one of the most successful and elite high school volleyball programs in the entire state of California.

Keith Jacoby: Arthritis ended my very ordinary baseball playing career at age 16, but nothing could end my love of watching sports. Baseball, football, basketball and hockey all ran into each other and it was never enough. I grew up in New York City, which is primarily a pro sports town, and I worshipped the Mets, the Giants, and Islanders. On our very first date, my future wife — and Shea’s future mother — shared that she was at game 6 of the 1986 World Series, right there in person when Mookie Wilson’s ground ball miraculously went through Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner’s legs.

Up to that point, “game 6” was the most important sports moment in my life. My wife’s ability to produce that ticket on our second date was immortalized six years later, when we named our first daughter Shea, after the stadium where it all happened.

I love watching sports, but am realistic enough to know that even the most avid sports watchers probably do not understand the finer points of the game they are watching between bites of chicken wings. Players see the game in a totally different way. I never played volleyball and had no idea about anything having to do with volleyball. I was a volleyball know-nothing. So when WNS Coach Chip Schulte told me he ran a volleyball club and said Shea “was the volleyball player he had been waiting for his whole life,” he could have just as easily convinced me my daughter was going to become a legendary bull fighter. I had no idea.

But, of course, I was in. I knew there was a ball and they keep score and somebody wins. There you have it. I was sold.

Shea: It is a team sport. You cannot play or really even practice volleyball alone. I learned quickly success in volleyball is completely dependent on your teammates. It takes 25 points to win a game, sometimes more. No one person can do everything and every player contributes to the wins. And the losses.

Club volleyball is definitely a thing in Los Angeles. A coach for Great Britain’s Olympic team once told my dad that the Southern California Volleyball Association had more teams in it than all the volleyball teams in England. Perhaps, but for me, the volleyball court was the one place where I had the chance to meet girls from Los Angeles with different backgrounds than my own. There were girls who I played with for only one year, others for six years. I learned not everyone lived the life I did — two parents, safe school, my own room. At practice and at national tournaments, I met many young girls who did not have all the things I was lucky to have, but we all shared one thing. The parents. Who always cheered, always stayed until the end, always were on our side. These girls turned into my extended family and became my first lifelong friends.

Yep, and Beach Cities teams were pretty good. We were regulars in the Gold Bracket, the top SCVA division. And I earned a spot on the best team in the entire club, Beach Cities 14 Gold, coached by the best coach in the club, Tony Mayrie. “Tony’s Team” regularly qualified for the Junior Olympics (the “JOs” for short, a season ending tournament that has absolutely nothing to with the actual Olympics). When I was 13, I stared at their practices from the sidelines. They all wore the same shirts, like a college team. They would complete 600 jump ropes, 3 sets of 3 different leg exercises and a mile run before practice started. Joining Beach Cities two years prior, my number one goal was to get on that team when I was 14. And I did, I got the shirt, and it had a big number 2 on the back.

There were so many games, so many scrimmages. In the moment, every point mattered, every game felt like the most important one. I can’t remember now any scores from those first years. I vaguely recall a handful of matches. What I do vividly remember is cramming as many girls as we could into a five-person car, driving hours for away tournaments in Phoenix, Temecula and Reno, and getting lost with my dad on our way to practices at new locations. Everyone cheered during the games, but the drives, the pep talks and the friendships are what I’ve kept in my heart.

Shea with her Beach Cities club coach, Chip Schulte, and Brandeis coach Alesia Vaccari

Keith: Life on the Southern California Volleyball Association club circuit starts in darkness. First match at 8 a.m., be there to warm up by 7, and sometimes you’re playing in San Diego, young lady, so please go to sleep early because the alarm bell might go off before 5 a.m. Teams at the top of the 300-plus team SCVA food chain get to play in the best location, the Anaheim Sports Center: 60 courts, lots of food and parking and best of all, you could find it because it stayed in the same place each week. An untimely loss here or there and you’ll be sent to “other” venues, wandering around a beige Rancho Cucamonga corporate park looking for an unlabeled, recently converted three court facility, devoid of stands and snacks. As with many things in life, you have to show up and that means finding the court.

“Nothing hits the floor.”

That was team battle cry and Coach Chip’s primary coaching directive. Very sensible, focused advice for the newly initiated. The first rule of volleyball is that if the ball hits the floor on your side, the other side gets a point. The rule remains critical at all levels. Other rules would come in time: don’t be out of rotation, no back line attacks, double hits, lifts … In very short order, any respectable volleyball parent will learn to derisively shout “Lift!” at the referee when the other team won a point doing anything remotely resembling a lift.

Those same parents, myself included, would undoubtedly swear their daughter has never committed an illegal lift, not even once. No, not her. Not Shea.

Those early years were heady stuff. Shea picked up volleyball rather quickly, was made into an outside hitter, and BCVC was tantalizingly good. The U12 team missed qualifying for the JOs by one game –- a heartbreaking loss to Rancho Valley that was avenged two years later, and made several impressive showings at national tournaments. Shea’s middle-school team lost only one match in two years. The brass ring came in her eighth grade –- making Tony’s Team, the U14 BCVC team that was recognized as Beach Cities’ very best team. The girls were regulars in the top Gold Division, and neophyte parents like me starting asking more probing questions, like how colleges find players and were we sort of good or really good?

Looking back, of course, I do not remember more than two or three specific matches — a five-set thriller against a very good club that was definitely wearing red jerseys, a match against a Hawai’i team where the girls traded warm up jerseys afterwards. Each Saturday once a month, volleyball moms and dads literally hang on each point, critically analyze each substitution and carefully scrutinize each call.

“Why don’t we have instant replay, and why will the referees only speak to the players?? Seems a bit cowardly …” But in the end, you remember the breakfasts eaten on the way, the teammates giggling in the back seat, the talks on rides home. Beach Cities teams tried mightily to let nothing hit the floor, but now and again the ball, in fact, did. And you move on.

That was the first real lesson volleyball taught Shea. Resilience. Whether you win or lose, you think about why and make a mental note for next time, and then you let it go. After all, everyone is hungry, it’s time to eat.

The 2012 Marymount High School freshman team

Shea: I barely made the Marymount freshman team and I knew it. The coaches pulled me aside and said they were on the fence with me, but decided to give me a chance. I was thankful for the opportunity because I knew I worked hard during the tryout known as “Hell Week” and knew I was good enough to play with everyone else. I soon learned I was seen as a second-tier player. I was a 5-6 outside hitter. And worse, I did not play for the club that the varsity coach ran, her developmental team. The other girls had played together in that club since they were 10 years-old. I remember thinking on the sidelines that if I was just given a chance, maybe they would see I am just as good.

Perhaps I needed to change things. An upgrade. Tony was going to coach the 15s team but I did not go back to him. I left Beach Cities and joined a more well-known club, one that practiced at Marymount. I tried to become someone I was not, to validate my worth as a player and individual with the club name affixed to my jersey. Convinced my new club was going to guarantee my place on the junior varsity team next year, I was sadly mistaken. This lack of judgment is the biggest regret of my volleyball career.

When I walked into the gym for “Hell Week” my sophomore year and was greeted by classmates who seemed to have grown four inches in three months, and three incoming freshmen who were over 6 feet tall. Over by more than an inch or two … Two of them were twins. I would soon learn that those twins had parents who played volleyball and basketball at Stanford. Their mom played volleyball in the actual Olympics. Dad logged 10 years in the NBA.

I did my best during the tryouts, but something inside was preparing me for the reality that I would not be putting on my high school jersey again. I cried the day I got that letter of rejection. If I couldn’t compete in the high school level, what business would I have trying to play at the college level? I thought volleyball was over.

“You can’t teach height.”

At the time I believed that there was nothing that could be taught to help me compete with the 6-foot hitters and blockers. The day after I got cut, my dad asked me at breakfast if I still wanted to play volleyball. I looked up at him with my still puffy eyes.

“Yes.”

“Cool, call Tony today. Get back in the gym.”

Volleyball then started teaching me something else: Balance. I became proactive about getting school work done because I knew I would be spending my weekends playing for my club team. I might not have the will to open a book when I got home on Sunday night. I learned that playing soccer and running track helped my game, it did not interfere with it.

My parents are 5-foot-6 and 5-10 and did not play Division I sports in college or represent any nation at the Olympics. Still, you can’t teach height. No point in arguing that.

Keith: Agreed. 5-10 at best. Add it to the list of things that a parent cannot assist his teenage daughter with in any way. Geometry. Boys. Height.

The thing about Shea getting cut from the Marymount volleyball team was that it threw not just her perspective on her athletic career into question, but mine. To be sure, I had met more than my fair share of mildly to wildly delusional parents on fields, courts and in the stands. The baseball mom who assured me her ten year old son would someday pitch for North Carolina. The soccer dad dreaming of his child’s career at UCLA. I knew better. Players who make it to that level and beyond quickly leave Little League and AYSO behind. They so clearly upset the competitive balance of neighborhood sports that they are compelled to take their talents to travel teams, national development programs, South Beach, wherever. No local kid I had ever seen was going to be suiting up for the Angels or the Galaxy anytime soon.

Still. Shea seemed really good. I expounded at length to interested others (anyone I was near who was willing to listen constituted an “interested other”) that Shea had a “high volleyball IQ.” By which I meant that she knew where the play was moving towards, knew where to be and knew where her teammates should be at all times. Surely this was worth an inch or three in leaping ability.

Not so. It was no accident that tiny Marymount dominated far larger high schools, some housing over 3,000 students. That does not happen without an aggressive and successful recruiting system and a relentless NFL-style weeding and pruning of the roster. Shea’s services were no longer needed.

But she got up and brushed herself off. She did not let one person’s judgment, correct or not, stand in the way of her goals. She embarked on a richer high school experience that included Model United Nations competitions, summer programs at Oxford and Columbia, midnight showings of the Hunger Games and One Direction concerts. And volleyball.

Shea also went home to Beach Cities Volleyball Club and Coach Tony, and we had many happy post-game debriefs over sandwiches and pasta.

During those times, life happened. Mom called us when we were at Mimi’s Café after a long day of matches and told us the U.S. found and killed Osama bin Laden. I ripped the fender off the Lexus on the way to the Anaheim Sports Center. In 2014, a volleyball dad carefully explained to me that Obamacare was hurting his business and people like him were going to elect a new President someday who would repeal it. Crazy talk …

And Shea played. She stopped growing at age 15, a fact I accepted when she started her 16s season comfortably fitting into last year’s sneakers. Still, I hung on every point, attended almost every match, and hoped it would never end.

Shea: I walked into the Marymount quad one morning and was greeted by screaming, cheering, and very loud music. “Are you serious,” I murmured, “It’s 7:45 a.m.”

I learned two Marymount juniors had verbally committed to play volleyball for Stanford University and they were celebrating with their teammates. I was amazed and puzzled. How could someone know they were going to attend a school without knowing if they got in, without even applying, without even being a senior?

I knew little about college sports beyond the UCLA/USC football rivalry. I did not know there were NCAA divisions, or rankings or how to get recruited. So I got to work. I made a list of colleges I was interested in and then looked into their volleyball programs.

Keith: Now, I may not have known very much about jump serves or back line attacks, but applying to college was something I knew a thing or two about. Endless hours studying Barron’s Guides, US News and World Report rankings and SAT practice books landed me in the Ivy League, and I would offer those same well thought through tactics to Shea’s effort to land a spot on a college volleyball team.

Except I knew nothing about becoming a college athlete.

No matter, turns out there are over 450 colleges and universities that play Division III Women’s volleyball. We started sending videos, going to showcases and deftly glossing over the fact that Shea was not playing high school volleyball at all. Accentuate the positive. My high school’s valedictorian went to Brandeis, which landed Brandeis on our prospects list, along with a few Division I “reach schools,” including Notre Dame and Georgetown.

Turns out that Notre Dame already had their roster set without the help of any 5-9 hitters, but Shea generated some genuine interest from a number of colleges. When Smith College’s coach conceded Shea’s 18s Club team might beat Smith’s team, they were out. Shea had already decided not to go to my alma mater, Cornell, so its Division III neighbor to the east, Ithaca College, would not do.

Then came Brandeis.

Shea: I looked at the Division III volleyball rankings for the year previous and emailed all the coaches who were ranked in the Top 25 in the New England and New York regions. I wrote a lot of emails and completed a lot of online recruiting forms. At first, I was ignored, but eventually received some positive replies. Brandeis was not on my radar until my sister and I visited Boston. My dad told me Brandeis was where the smartest girl in his high school went and it was near Boston, a plus! I had never heard of it, but I sent the coach an email and signed up for a campus tour.

Coach Alesia Vaccari had only been at Brandeis for two weeks when I met her. A new coach with aspiring dreams to revamp the program. Brandeis had not had a winning a season in many years, but she was young and hungry, and had solid experience coaching and playing at the college level. She convinced me that I should come back when students and the team were on campus for an official visit. So I came back, committed, was admitted, and had my own loud music party.

Keith: Brandeis was a great academic school right outside Boston, the epicenter of American college life. It had a new coach and not much in the way of outside hitters on its roster. Brandeis admittedly notched very few wins in the previous three or four seasons, but Shea and I saw Brandeis as a value stock. The UAA Conference was Division III gem that covers more geography than the Pac-12 or ACC, stretching from Boston to Chicago to St. Louis and Atlanta, with New York, Pittsburgh and Cleveland thrown in for good measure. And Division III seasons wrap up in early November, leaving plenty of time to get ready for finals. I was sold, Shea was sold, and off she went to Division III.

The Internet is a blessing to parents who sent their outside hitters 3,000 miles away, you can stream the game right to your desk. Sometimes I throw the feed up on the 90-inch big screen TV in my office’s conference room, and when people ask, “Is Shea playing on television? “I reply, ‘Yes, she is playing on this one!”

Shea’s college volleyball career, as I have observed it, has been a master class in building success from the ground up, one step at a time. Shea started with eight other Brandeis freshmen, who were regularly outplayed and overmatched during that freshman season. But there was something going on there worth sticking with — they never gave up. They knew they were winners, or at least were on the edge of winning. They always genuinely believed the next match would go better and the breakthrough win was around the corner. Eventually wins came. In her junior year, Brandeis had a winning season and made the final four of the ECAC Regionals. The team is talking about making the NCAA Tournament this season. Well, I definitely am.

The level of play in Division III can be very high. Most Division I and II players will never be paid a single penny to play sports. While now and again a Division III player occasionally monetizes his or her skills, the true reward is to get to play. Watching on my phone, my laptop or in person, I have seen almost every kill, every block, and every dig Shea has ever made. She frequently plays against a fellow Marymount alum, but she is never bitter. She was the winner in the end.

Shea Decker-Jacoby

Shea: Division III volleyball felt a lot like what I imagined Division I volleyball would be like. It is a year round sport. There’s 6:20 a.m. practices in season and 6:45 a.m. lifts out of season. In season, you have practice five times a week, depending on the game schedule, and three times a week out of season. Christmas arrives in August when you get the gear for that season, fresh shoes, practice shirts and sweatshirts. Weekends are spent on planes and busses, traveling to play up to three matches in Maine, Pennsylvania or Cleveland. There are days where I questioned getting up before the sun to walk in the snow and lift weights while my classmates slept. Why have I dedicated my four years of college to this single activity?

Game day is a big part of the answer to that question. Brandeis does not fill large arenas. Or even small ones. But my friends are always there. The electricity runs through my body when the music is blasting during warmups. The excitement I have when I see my sister (who also goes to Brandeis!!) holding a sign that reads, “#2 — That’s My Sister!” and the pride that I get wearing Brandeis on my chest and Judges on my back doesn’t compare to anything I have experienced in my life. Up to this point.

It has not been all thrills and chills. The two first seasons were not easy. It was definitely difficult to get up and want to go to practice and invite my friends to games when we were losing. Some freshman girls considered transferring. Losing can make it hard to see change coming anytime soon.

But something told us to stick it out. We made a choice after our sophomore to cut everything out that was not working for us and basically start fresh. We changed our values as a program and reminded ourselves why we play volleyball in the first place. Playing in college is a privilege, and has been a privilege. You cannot just will it to happen, you have to make choices that make it happen.

Shea Decker-Jacoby attacks/Brandeis photo

On Sunday, Brandeis lost twice, falling to to Emory and then NYU in a conference gathering in Pittsburgh. It left the Judges 8-14 overall, 0-7 in the UAA. Against Emory, Shea led her team with seven kill and had two digs and a block. Then  against NYU Shea led with 18 kills, hitting .286 . She had five digs and a block.

For the season, Shea is second on the team in kills with 185 (2.37/set) and had 17 blocks and 101 digs (1.29/set) to go with 12 aces. Brandies plays again Friday in Northampton, Mass., when it plays Worcester State. Follow the Judges here.

Shea: I always knew that volleyball would come to an end, but I avoided thinking about it. Injuries occasionally kept me off the court. I got cut. But I have always found my way back and kept moving forward. This time is different. This time is really the end. Playing at Brandeis will be the highest level of competitive volleyball I will play in my life.

The group of girls with whom I am ending my career is not the group I started with. In the beginning, I played volleyball because it was the first time I felt like I was good at something. I stumbled upon the sport because I did not want to go to cheer camp. I was asked to try out for a club team. I wandered into one of the best high school programs in California without knowing it. I did not think about what I was doing or why I was doing it. I just wanted to play.

I have learned so much since then. How to work hard for something you want. That one person or one negative experience cannot define who you are as an athlete, a student, or an individual. I learned to control the things I could control – how hard I practiced, how I prepared, how hard I played. I learned that there is so much more to the game of volleyball than nothing hitting the floor.

Division III has no Heisman Trophy, no awards show where I will get to give a speech, so can’t thank every coach that I have had in my 11-year career. If I could, I would thank Chip, Tony, Coach Vaccari, and especially my dad. He was the most important coach I ever had, and never left my side. He never gave up on me, even when it seemed like everyone else did. He knew my dream before I knew it, dragged me out of bed for tournaments and drove me thousands of miles to get to the assigned court. I can never thank him enough for helping me live my dream out.

I don’t think I will ever give up playing volleyball. Whether it’s coming back to Brandeis for the Alumni game or peppering with friends on the beach, volleyball will be there. I could have never imagined that a seemingly random collection of girls from all over the country would come together at a small Division III program would help me grow as an individual and become my second family. I could have never imagined that waking up at 5:45 a.m. daily for practice would be something that I would miss. I could have never imagined that when I looked back I see faces, not scores. I see long bus and car rides, not the court. I see laughs and inside jokes, not wins or losses. I see my mom and dad and brother and sister cheering on the sidelines. I see that when you let nothing hit the floor, you achieve your dream.

Keith and Shea

Keith: Senior season has already delivered its share of thrills. A tournament in Southern California! Coach Chip got to meet Coach Vaccari, and Brandeis played a five set thriller against Division III 2017 Champion Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. There will be one or two more chances to topple UAA rivals Emory and Wash U., ten or eleven more post game debriefs with Shea over the phone. And a few more photos shots that dazzle the many Brandeis volleyball Facebook fans on my Friends list who marvel that I can get Shea and the ball in the same shot.

But one day in November, about the 10th or 12th of the month, somewhere in the dusky late afternoon of New England, it will be over. Career attack number 2950 or so, and career kill number 815 or 816 will be recorded as Shea’s last. Charles Barkley often comments on the end of athlete’s careers by noting that “Father Time is undefeated.” For its part, the NCAA gives you four years, not a point or a set more. For all but one team, the drama of a post-season tournament gives way to a chilly fall afternoon when you land on the short end of Game 3, 4 or 5.

Shea met Kerri Walsh Jennings at the 2016 Rio Olympics

But the volleyball dad and the volleyball daughter have gotten a few big things done. Shea got Dad to go back to the gym and we work out together often during the summer. In May, Shea will be handed a degree she worked hard for every day. She is looking at graduate school, maybe law school. We now know how to find volleyball on TV and we’ve traveled the world to see volleyball’s best in person at the London and Rio Olympics. Tokyo is only two years away.

Seasons end, but I don’t think volleyball season ever will be over for Shea and I. Shea will certainly find her way to a gym to get into a game with her work friends. She’ll probably play it cool and quietly talk her way into a men’s game, and then show them a thing or two. Her summer internship was at a law firm where the name partner loved volleyball so much that he built a court in the office itself. The game is just too good to walk away.

I think that one day, Shea will see a small girl holding a ball, staring puzzlingly at that impossibly high net. Shea will tell her that the net is not so high, and explain that the most important thing is to work together with your teammates. If you do, nothing will hit the floor. And as that girl’s ball sails gently over the net for the first time, both of them will smile. And it will start again.

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