Mekeel Christian Academy volleyball coach Kevin Islip needs to pick a captain.
He takes the process seriously, and will wait until the season is underway before naming one or maybe two. Islip doesn’t know exactly what factor will settle his choice — leadership traits are a given — but he’ll know it when he sees it.
“It’s one of the most important decisions you can make for the team,” the fourth-year head coach said. Captains “have to make the whole team better by being there.”
He paused, thinking back to last season.
“Carly was an easy choice.”
Carly Sinnott had been the unanimous preference of her teammates — the vote was advisory; Islip gets the final say — even though the junior had just transferred from Shenendehowa High School. The coach liked what he initially saw in the outgoing and talented player, but he was still looking for the moment, the sign, that would make up his mind.
He was presented with two.
One came in an early-season game. Shortly before the opening serve, Sinnott learned her best friend’s sister had committed suicide. Distraught, Carly sat out the first minutes of the game — only to wipe away her tears and to tell Islip she was ready to play.
Days later, Sinnott fell down a flight of stairs, injuring her shoulder and unable to lift her arm. Yet she showed up to the next practice, dressed, ready to play . . . one-handed.
And that’s when Islip knew he had a captain.
“She was the leader,” said Gladstonya Greenwood, a senior middle blocker from Watervliet. “She was ‘The Captain.’ ”
But Carly, along with her infectious smile, encouraging leadership and overall gregarious nature, is gone now. The 17-year-old Clifton Park resident died early in the morning of May 13, after falling 50 feet the night before while hiking in the Plotter Kill Preserve in Rotterdam.
As a testament to how well-liked she was, a hashtag Twitter campaign #GetCarlyOnSportsCenter was launched as a tribute. It went viral, and ESPN noticed. In the early morning of May 27, Sinnott was featured on ESPN2’s midnight edition of “SportsCenter,” showcasing her as one of its “3 Stars of the Night.”
“Carly Sinnott, my star of the night,” anchor Scott Van Pelt said.
That was spring. Now it’s fall, and with it a new volleyball season has arrived.
Mekeel needs a captain.
HONORING VS. MOVING ON
Mekeel and Shenendehowa volleyball teams will both memorialize Sinnott this season. Such displays should be a given, but it’s a balancing act between honoring a fallen teen and teammate and wanting kids to look forward.
“I was actually torn,” the 45-year-old Islip said. “We are actually trying to move on and trying to get the team to focus on good things.
“But I’m at the point, ‘How do we help the girls move on?’ They still think about her, but it’s not as raw.”
There is no playbook for this. Mekeel is a school of a little more than 300 students in grades K-12 that graduates 20 to 30 students a year. There is no precedent for them.
Shen, a much larger school, has dealt with the loss of athletes and other students — most notably Chris Stewart, a football player, and Deanna Rivers, a softball player, who both died in a 2012 car accident.
Shen volleyball is honoring Sinnott, who played junior varsity for the school, with special jerseys with Carly’s CS initials, plus a halo and angel wings, on left sleeves. Also, an Oct. 15 home match against Niskayuna will raise funds for a memorial fund in Sinnott’s name.
“She was still very close to our program,” varsity coach Lori Kessler said. “She was the kind of person that could light up the room at any time because, while serious about volleyball, she was quick to laugh at herself. She brought smiles and laughter to everything she did.”
Mekeel will have jersey patches with CS initials on the right shoulder. There are special warmup shirts being made in Carly’s memory with an infinity logo, a testament to everlasting life and her strong Christian faith. Monday’s 5:15 p.m. season opener at home against Middleburgh will be preceded by a moment of silence. Something bigger is planned in her honor in October for Senior Day vs. Amsterdam. Her picture will be up in the team room off the locker room.
Honor will be paid. Tears will be shed. And matches will go on.
REMEMBERING THE PAST, MOVING FORWARD
This season Mekeel is a young team, and not deep: Two seniors, five sophomores and two freshmen. They won only two matches last year. And Islip still has to make that decision regarding who will shepherd the Lions on the court.
Last season, Sinnott was Mekeel’s unquestioned leader — but not its best player. That was Clare Nelson, now a 15-year-old sophomore from Pattersonville. Nelson, an outside hitter, made second-team all-Western Athletic Conference.
Nelson said a balance can be struck between remembering Mekeel’s fallen leader and moving forward. In fact, she said, one can help the other.
“She should not be forgotten. Even though she’s gone, she not really gone,” Nelson said. “I still ask, ‘What would Carly do in this situation?’ I try to represent her the best I can.”
Mekeel needs a captain. But even though she’s gone, the one they had continues to lead.
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