establishing new roots Bringing the South to South Hadley by Brayden Walden '21

Growing up in McKinney, Texas, I knew a few things to be consistently true: One is that Friday nights are for football games, two is that BBQ should be considered a food group.

However, if you play volleyball, you don’t ever get to fully enjoy either of those things.

Volleyball in Texas is its own world, a cutthroat environment that is played year-round. Sure, football in Texas is a treasured past time, and my own school, McKinney North, has a 70-million dollar stadium. But in my world, volleyball came above any touchdown, homecoming, or anything else going on. I started playing during the summer of fifth grade, on my friends' recreational team. It was something fun to do to fill those long, hot days.

Photo Courtesy of Brayden Walden '21

Soon, I fell in love with volleyball. I wanted to play all the time, putting it before anything else. Practice was a priority. Hanging out with friends on the weekend? I had a 2-day tournament. Want to relax in between my high-school season and club? Nope, I’d rather be training. Volleyball is played year-round, but its demand is something you rarely hear players like myself complain about. To us, we didn’t just accept it … We embraced it.

I decided to stop playing softball, and even bowed out of band club, to dedicate all of my time to the sport I fell in love with. Over time, volleyball was not just for fun; it became a constant in my life. I knew that if I had a bad day or I was stressed, I could pick up a ball and get all of my frustrations out. Even on the first day of high school, the game eased my nerves.

I remember waking up so anxious about what was going to happen that day. McKinney High was a new place with 2,400 students, all coming from different middle schools. Not many people knew each other. However, I was one of the lucky few freshmen that knew upperclassmen from volleyball. So when lunch came around, I had a couple of girls to sit with, but I was still nervous about the rest of the day. How was I going to get through classes with no one who to talk to?

Yet, all of that anxiety settled when seventh-period gym class came around. We were practicing volleyball. As soon as I stepped onto the court, all of my thoughts and feelings from that day erased in my mind. I picked up a ball and felt the cool leather in my hands.

I felt at ease. I felt at home.

From that point on, my love of volleyball only escalated, and I spent countless hours training to be at the top of my game. Looking back now, I remember nights where I’d leave high school practice around 4pm, drive thirty minutes to lift weights and then get through a two-hour club practice.

Only once hours of training were done, my normal life of dinner and homework would proceed. Weekends were spent at tournaments too, where hundreds of other girls would pack gymnasiums to compete. We all wanted to see who would end up on top.

I never second guessed why I spent hours of training and sacrificing my free time. I knew I wanted to compete at a high level and to play in college. In club volleyball, teams are created based on skill and the top teams had rosters full of girls going to play Division 1. Unfortunately, if you weren’t on one of those top teams, it felt like the focus and training were taken off of you.

I began to doubt myself during this time, unsure if I could play in college because coaches were turning me down. I remember distinctly having a conversation with one of my own coaches in practice. They told me, “if you don’t aim for division 1 or 2 volleyball, then just give up now”.

Yet I kept training and continued to play hard. Despite not having college coaches in the stands watching me play, I still competed every contest at a high level, leaving it all on the court. Despite the doubts from others, I believed in myself.

Photo Courtesy of Buzz Photos.

Little did I know, I was being noticed and my opportunity to play at the collegiate level was no longer a dream. That opportunity was Mount Holyoke College.

On the weekend of my 18th birthday, my dad and I flew 1,698 miles from Texas to Massachusetts to visit Mount Holyoke. I had received an email from the coach saying that she was interested in my abilities. I had no clue where she had even seen me play, but my work ethic had paid off. I knew that this was my chance.

The day I flew into Logan Airport in Boston, it began to snow on the drive to South Hadley and I was wearing shorts and a sweatshirt. When we arrived on campus, it was a whole new world for me, and amidst the October snow the school looked enchanting.

On the day before my birthday, my dad and I were sitting on the coach’s office couch. We had been talking about volleyball and the school, but I noticed that the coach hadn’t yet mentioned anything about me playing a future role on the team. Doubt came rushing in, but at the tail end I heard her say, “well Brayden, we’d love for you to consider coming to play here at Mount Holyoke.”

My immediate reaction was a mixture of pure joy and a million thank you’s, said over and over again. Once we were outside of Kendall, I turned and looked at my dad.

“Is this real?” I asked, unsure of whether that had actually happened. After 10 years of scorching summer workouts, weekends missed, and injuries, my single dream had come true. It was my first acknowledgement of interest from a college and while I was happy, I soon realized that I didn’t know what to expect. I had only played volleyball and lived in Texas my entire life and I was now going to play volleyball and live thousands of miles away.

The next level, it turns out, demanded a lot. I was the only first year joining the volleyball team at Mount Holyoke. I had to step up and find my place on the team.

Our team knew we wanted to do better than the year before, having gone 5-17 overall. It was exciting to know that I was going to be a part of that rebuilding.

As I practiced with the team throughout preseason, what I needed to do athletically became clearer. I was going to bring what I learned from the South to South Hadley. I remember one practice we were running through a drill, and I ran to chase down a ball a couple feet away into the stands. As people were saying, “good save” all I said to myself was, “this is normal”. I had hustled, trained, and developed grit to fight through my doubts. I wanted our team to have the mindset that just doing the basics of what was expected of us is not going to get us to where we wanted. We had to work for it, even if it’s soaring into the bleachers.

I was going to bring what I learned from the south to South Hadley.

Come September, the first game of the season, my heart was racing. This was my first collegiate game, and I was going to play. Doubt came in: What if I messed up for the team? What if we lost because of me?

In high school, I was used to leading the team and calling plays on the court. Here, I was expected to do the same thing with a completely new group of girls, all older than I was.

Yet, those nerves wore off as I played each match. I realized that the rest of the team saw me as their teammate, not just a first year.

"We accomplished our goal of doing better than the previous season, earning a record of 10-12. The confidence in our abilities grew on the court."

"There was trust that everyone was going to give it their all to get the job done. I wasn’t the only one diving into the stands now."

Looking back on my first season, a lot happened that no one could have predicted. We had more success on the court than I think we predicted. We formed a team bond that I am so thankful for. Everyone’s endless support helped me when I had doubts, when I got homesick or when I needed to laugh.

Playing volleyball in South Hadley, I’ve learned a few things to be true: the people are kind, the passion for volleyball is incredibly high, and I’ve found a home here.

There's only one thing I struggle with now and it's no longer doubt. It's the weather. I’m not sure if this Texas girl can ever get used to that.

Created By
Brayden Walden


RJB Sports Photography and Brayden Walden.

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