NEW CARLISLE — All Shaye Tolch wanted was a high five.
Prior to her senior season of volleyball at New Prairie, the setter made a list of goals. Written at the top of Tolch’s list in black ink was, “Get more high fives from Coach.”
Not “Block more shots.” Not “Get 1,000 career assists.” Not even “Make an All-Conference team.”
None of those were as important to Tolch as a simple high five from head coach Jordan Staus. She seldom gives them out, and Tolch received just one in a mentally-draining junior year.
A tough-nosed attitude and brutal bluntness make Staus an intimidating presence. She has high expectations for her players and doesn’t hand out many affirmations in general. Rather, she looks for ways in which she can help her girls improve. Those receiving this constant, constructive criticism can get worn down fairly quickly. It’s easy for Staus’ feedback to get in one’s head and cause a negative reaction, which was the case with Tolch.
Going into her junior year, Tolch looked forward to becoming the Cougars’ starting setter. She went through a managerial change with Staus coming in for her first season at New Prairie, but figured she’d still be a part of the starting six for the entire schedule.
When tryouts came around, each player told Staus what position they played. Tolch, naturally, said she was a setter. She was the only one primarily listed as such and was a upperclassman to top it off. Starting seemed inevitable. However, Staus had different plans.
Tolch was fundementally behind where Staus wanted her to be in order to play full-time and decided someone else had to start over her midway through the season. Then-senior Sarah Fronk, a middle blocker at the time, was trained to become New Prairie’s starting setter after she had enough of Tolch’s play.
“I had to do what was best for the team,” Staus said. “I didn’t think (Tolch) was ready for that role at the time. She hadn’t been on varsity, hadn’t had that experience. I wanted to train her the way I wanted to set, which just took longer to do. It’s not that I didn’t think eventually she could (be our starting setter), I just wanted to work with her more so she could get things done the way I wanted them to.”
This move caught Tolch off guard. It was tough to stomach the fact someone who’s never set before was just trained specifically so she could play less. A junior season Tolch was so looking forward to quickly turned into one of the most difficult couple months of her life.
Often times, Tolch cried to her friends because of how difficult it was. Staus admits she was hard on her, and Tolch’s teammates won’t argue with that. She constantly got singled out at practice for mistakes, seeming to happen far more often than to her than the rest of the team.
“Coach was so hard on her last year,” said junior Elise Swistek. “She’d make her cry, tell her she wasn’t a good setter, it was rough. But we kept trying to cheer her up, tell her we believe in her and that she’s fine.”
Tolch eventually got worn down from all the criticism and mental breakdowns, forming a dark cloud of negativity over a sport she loved immensely just a few months prior. Nearing the conclusion of the season, she seriously contemplated if it would be her last year of volleyball. Serious, emotional conversations with her parents and close friends on the team ensued.
“Come on,” said Katie Hancock, then-junior middle and one of Tolch’s best friends. “You have to play next year. We need you. I won’t have any fun without you.”
Plenty of Tolch’s teammates shared the sentiment. Almost all of them played together on both club and school teams ever since moved to the New Prairie school district in sixth grade. They grew extremely close, and Tolch’s best friends weren’t about to let their junior season be the last time they played together.
That ended up being the deciding factor for Tolch. But a changed mindset made coming back much less intimidating than it once seemed, as she realized she may have taken Staus’ criticism too personally.
“Honestly, she just wanted what’s best for me that whole time,” Tolch said. “She always says that when she stops talking to someone, that’s bad. While she was really hard on me last year, she never stopped trying to help me out. That showed me she really did care about me and was just trying to get me better and get me ready for this season. Looking back on it, I shouldn’t have gotten as down as I did. I was more putting myself down rather than listening to what she had to say. Once I realized what Coach was really trying to do, it made want to keep going.”
Staus’ instruction style is different than any coach Tolch had. Sugar-coating problems and taking caution during criticism were commonplace previously. It took a season’s worth of call-outs, crying and contemplation for Tolch to understand Staus’ philosophy, changing her psyche completely.
Instead of seeing Staus’ pointers as a verbal battering ram, Tolch soaked in every bit of information she could and used it as motivation. For the remainder of the year and offseason, she vigorously trained on improving her “left, right, set, push” routine of setting — a technique of using the power from your legs to set the ball that Staus stressed was imperative for Tolch to improve in order to start.
These aspects of Tolch’s game were always in the back of her mind when training two, three times per week leading up to the season. A dedicated repetition of fundemantals finally paid off in a practice early this year.
Tolch set a ball to an outside hitter who spiked it downward. The girl who defended the attack made contact with the ball, but over-passed it back onto Tolch’s side of the net. She jumped and immediately tipped it onto the floor for a point, surprising the opposition. Tolch and Staus had been working on this tactic all year, as Staus puts a premium on her front-row setter being sound defensively.
“That was good,” said a pleased Staus.
She motioned over to Tolch and stuck out her right hand. Finally. It was happening. The two connected on a highfive that meant so much more than any other in Tolch’s life. She looked over to Hancock, her mouth agape, stunned at what just happened.
“I was shocked,” Tolch said. “I couldn’t believe it finally happened, and neither could my teammates. Everyone was really excited for me. They knew how much I needed that.”
The two have high fived “five or six times” since. Aside from Tolch celebrating her 1,000th career assist in the first round of sectionals, the high fives with the coach are the only times she’s really relished in any sort of recognition.
Setters are the quarterbacks of volleyball teams, but without the praise. They control where the ball goes every possession and have to be mindful of mixing up looks and executing a gameplan. If they do their job, nobody will say a thing. They’re just doing what’s expected.
Tolch doesn’t need any praise though. She’ll save that for her teammates. But on the rare occasion that Staus gives her some in the form of a high five, it sticks out. The high fives this year symbolize so much more than a short moment of praise. They symbolize someone overcoming a mental struggle and negative self-image; how one can take criticism and use it to improve; that with self-confidence and the support of those around you, you’re capable of doing much more than you thought possible.
“If you want to be a good setter, you have to be mentally tough,” Tolch said. “That’s what Coach did for me. She never gave up on me. It’s going to set me up for life after volleyball, too. When I deal with bosses and professors that’ll be hard on me in the future, I’ll be able to handle it just fine because of her.”
Class 3A Hanover Central Regional
West Lafayette (24-8) vs. Griffith (6-15), 10 a.m.
New Prairie (27-7) vs. Kankakee Valley (25-9), approx. noon