Over the last three years, Tumwater High School volleyball has had three different head coaches, causing plenty of change for one of the state’s most recognized programs.
The dinners are a lively, fun get together for the players, one they all look forward to. But this week, the mere mention of the upcoming feast has Aliyah Willms almost in tears.
“I’m a crier,” said Willms, her voice cracking as she fights back tears. “When I think of volleyball, I think of these girls.”
Willms is one of five seniors on this year’s squad – five individuals who have played together and bonded for years.
Willms quickly wipes her eyes and is immediately consoled by fellow seniors Ellie Bocksch, Leah Cairns, Rachel Schultz and Rose Foisy. Willms is far from the only one tearing up.
“We’re all criers,” Cairns said.
There’s a good reason for that. This is a close-knit group. A unit that has remained consistently strong even when everything around them changes.
“This is a family,” Foisy stated.
If it wasn’t, the T-Birds may have stumbled along the way. Instead, with the five seniors serving as both the team’s backbone and heart, Tumwater hasn’t missed a beat and currently find themselves once again sitting atop the 2A Evergreen Conference standings.
“They care about each other so much,” said Jordan Stray, who shares head coaching duties with Jill Giuduce. “It certainly has made this transition easy.”
“They’re connected,” Giuduce added. “They are all about building each other up and making this team better. They have such a strong dedication to loving each other and playing for each other.”
Each week, the players jot down team and personal goals on flash cards to share with their teammates. This time around, a straightforward doodle perfectly captured the overall feelings of the team’s seniors.
“Mine was simply a teardrop,” Cairns said about her recent goal card. “I knew this was going to be my last first home league game and it made me sad thinking about that. We just want to cherish every moment we have together.”
While they have been playing together since they were 10, their roads altered a bit when they reached high school.
Bocksch and Cairns both found themselves on varsity as freshman, helping the T-Birds to their third 2A state championship in 2016. The other three made their way through the ranks before arriving on the varsity squad later in their high school careers.
“We all started playing together and it’s great that we are able to finish together,” Schultz said. “We all took different paths, but to be able to finish off volleyball together means a lot.”
The group already knows their final regular season home match on October 31 against Black Hills will be an emotional one. Just bringing it up has a few of them once again getting teary-eyed. Even though this team clearly wears its heart on its sleeve, that doesn’t mean they aren’t laser focused and determined on getting Tumwater back to where it belongs – the state tournament.
“As a program we’ve just built such a name for ourselves,” Cairns said. “And we want to be the group of seniors that leads this team back. Part of it is personal because as seniors it’s our last chance.”
As they usually do, the T-Birds played a stacked non-conference slate this season, taking on traditional-rich 4A powers such as Olympia, Bellarmine and Curtis.
“I think this group of seniors have shown it’s still Tumwater volleyball,” said Stray, who served as an assistant coach at the Tumwater the previous four years.
The T-Birds, which missed the state playoffs for the first time in nine years last season, impressively opened its EvCo slate by sweeping its four opponents.
“Getting straight sweeps is the goal around here,” Cairns said. “My confidence has grown so much by being part of this program, going from a freshman and not knowing my place to where I am now as a senior. The program has changed but were still Tumwater.”
That they are and with plenty of talent. Bocksch was the only non-senior to make first-team all-conference in 2018. Cairns was a second-team selection, while Willms was honorable mention.
“It’s such an honor just to play for this program. This is my fourth year on that team and it’s just been surreal. Everything we do, we do it all for the team and my teammates and the coaches,” Bocksch said. “You only get four years of high school volleyball and we’ve had three rounds of coaches. It’s been a wild ride, but it’s been a good one.”