A blindfold is not a usual part of Tumwater High School volleyball team’s practice, but it was exactly the thing coach Tana Otton needed to help her team communicate better.
With the rebuilding T-Birds off to a 2-1 start against their typically challenging preseason schedule of 4A schools — a loss to Curtis, followed by victories over Olympia and Bellarmine Prep — Otton noticed senior Kennedy Croft was often the only one talking during games and practices.
“In a game situation, I’m always going to be vocal,” Croft said. “But to be the only one talking was exhausting. It wasn’t my teammates’ fault, they’re developing. They know the expectations in our program, but they haven’t experienced it firsthand until now.”
Otton sought ideas from other local coaches, incorporating some from Timberline coach Krista Manke. At one recent practice, she scratched a few fundamental drills from the agenda and forced her squad to speak up. Croft was forbidden to talk and, ultimately, blindfolded.
“We have drills where the girls are supposed to count off the successful repetitions, but all you would hear was Kennedy’s voice,” said Otton, who is Croft’s mother. “When she wasn’t allowed to talk, the others heard how quiet it was and started counting.”
Then, with Croft blindfolded, the other players directed her to pick up a ball, move to the service line and serve.
“That was kind of fun,” Croft said. “I trust my teammates.”
Croft was the offensive star of the program’s Class 2A state championship team last season as a junior, but had seven seniors surrounding her, taking the leadership burden off her shoulders.
Now, the Gonzaga University commit is the lone returning starter on an 11-player roster that includes five sophomores.
“It’s a weird feeling being the oldest,” said Croft, a 5-foot-10 outside hitter who is closing in on 1,500 career kills.
“I’ve always been the young one. Even last year, with so many seniors, I felt a lot younger than everyone.”
“Her role is so different this year. She’s always been a key performer, but we had girls like Maddy Pilon (now playing at Eastern Oregon University) and Cristina Hegarty to be the vocal leaders.”
The drill has helped the team. There was a time when Croft might not have received her mom’s practice time innovations so readily. Now the Tumwater record-holder for kills in a single match (42) and aces in a season (53), Croft is a polished product.
“When she was a freshman, though, there were days I did not want to go home with her after practice,” Otton says with a laugh.
“I didn’t know how it was going to be,” Croft admits. “I’d sat at practice when I was a kid. I knew how she coached, but I didn’t know how to talk to her as a coach and not my mom. I’d say whatever I felt like saying.”
Then, one afternoon midway through her daughter’s first season, Otton drew a line in the sand.
“She kicked me out of practice,” Croft remembers. “I walked out kind of in shock. I realized I was being a little baby and needed to change.”
Another change, coming next fall, is one Otton is ready for.
“I will love every second of stepping back and watching her play in college, to just be a mom and be proud of her,” she said. “She’s ready. From playing club volleyball all her life and at Tumwater, she’s getting a little bit smarter than me, anyway. Sometimes I’ll be making a point to the team, she’ll correct me and be right.”
Croft remains excited by her choice to attend Gonzaga. She committed to the Bulldogs following her sophomore year, when she was The Olympian’s All-Area volleyball player of the year.
“Gonzaga has everything I wanted from a school and a volleyball program,” Croft said. “I can’t wait to get to college. The intensity is higher, everyone has a purpose in being there. I’m excited to work to earn a spot in the rotation.”
First comes the pursuit of a goal for her high school career she had to reluctantly revise.
“Kennedy’s the most competitive human being I’ve ever met,” Otton said. “When she got to high school, she had her heart set on winning four state championships.”
Eventual champion Burlington-Edison ended that dream with a second-round win in the 2015 state tournament. Tumwater battled until losing 16-14 in the fifth set and ultimately settled for the fifth-place trophy.
“I’ll still think about that match randomly, right in the middle of practice,” Croft said.
Her revised goal?
“Three would be nice.”