By BRETT MARSHALL
For so many reasons, the 2013 Holcomb High School girls volleyball season will be one for the memory book.
At least, that's the way fourth-year head coach Jennifer Barrett will remember it.
No, there were no state championships, not even a state tournament appearance, even though the Lady Longhorns were one match away from that coveted appearance.
On the court, the memories will recall a 29-8 season record, a sub-state runner-up finish for the second straight time to perennial Class 3A power Hoisington, and at least one win over all of their bigger school Great West Activities Conference opponents. Toss in a first-place finish in the Scott City Invitational with a win over Class 6A Dodge City, and certainly Barrett has reasons to smile.
"The girls did a really nice job of working hard in the offseason to get ready," Barrett said. "We lost a couple of seniors, had a good group of returners with varsity experience."
Having gone 59-16 over the past two seasons, Barrett shared The Telegram's 2012 Coach of the Year honor with Ingalls' Kim Batman. But this year, with wins over many key teams in the area, the award is singularly hers.
But the season just completed is much, much more than about wins and losses, and finishes in the league.
This season is about life, and the choices that are made — some out of circumstances beyond one's control.
Such was the season for Barrett, her husband Lee, her family, and especially her 6-year-old daughter, Katelyn.
Katelyn was born with a defective mitral valve in her heart. The result is an enlarged heart, putting pressure on her lungs. Early last summer, in an appointment with their cardiologist in Wichita, it was determined that a surgical procedure to repair the valve was likely necessary.
"When we first got the news early in the summer, I went to coach [athletic director Jerry] Johnson, to explain to him I wasn't sure if I could continue coaching the girls," Barrett recalled in a recent interview. "He's done a great job for all of us, but in my case I thought I needed to have an honest conversation with him. I didn't want him to have to go out and find a new head coach a month before the season started.
"He absolutely said that whatever I needed, they would do whatever was necessary. He's got little ones, and he understands. It's great to have someone like that who's got your back. It's priceless."
And while Barrett did miss her team's Kearney, Neb., team camp, she was able to spend enough time with them to see the team's progress prior to the start of the fall season. Katelyn had her surgery in Denver at Children's Hospital in mid-August. The procedure, called a valvuloplasty, helps alleviate the pressure of the heart on the lungs. After a successful procedure, the Barretts spent a couple of days relaxing and recovering in Denver before heading home.
A month later in mid-September, they took her to Wichita for a check-up with her cardiologist. It was there that it was discovered that her pressure level wasn't as low as the physicians would have hoped. In the acceptable range, however, the doctors agreed to let Katelyn continue to self-moderate how much she does ballet and being in PE classes at school. They go back for a checkup on Dec. 23.
So, with all that to deal with, the only way Barrett has been able to remain coaching is through the support she receives from her family, her friends, her team and her school's athletic director.
Her parents, Randy and Linda Ackerman, handle a lot of baby-sitting duties while she is at practice.
"They watch them [Katelyn and brother Cameron], they bring them to the games before Lee gets off work and that allows me to coach," Barrett said. "I'm very fortunate to have the support system I have here. Without them, I wouldn't be able to coach. Knowing that they [children] are safe and in good hands, allows me to go do my job for a couple of hours and then go home to be momma."
Even during the summer months, when her status was uncertain, Barrett received encouragement from Katelyn when it had been mentioned that coaching might not be possible.
"She just said, 'why? I like you coaching' and that's pretty hard to argue with. So you know, having conversations with her, talking to her, she loves being around the girls. They're so good to her. I like that she has role models to look up to. The girls on the team were so understanding, and I couldn't have asked for a better group of girls to understand what we were going through."
Barrett said one of the defining moments of the year came when one of her C Team players came up to her and told her that when she feels like complaining, she thinks of Katelyn.
"She said when she is tired in weights or feels like not going hard in practice, she remembers that she is lucky to get to do all the things she gets to do, and thinking of Katelyn helps her push through those days. The girls are why I kept coaching. The ones that really get it — they make my job as a coach meaningful and so much fun."
So while all the accolades of a successful season on the court are appreciated. While all the postseason honors are meaningful. Jennifer Barrett has herself grounded in what is important in life — family, friends, and her volleyball players who have been like family. It's been a life-learning lesson for everyone. And the inspiration is drawn from a strong, courageous 6-year-old little girl whose life provides so much meaning to so many people.
Such can be the winning ways of life.