The girls volleyball team at a southern Illinois high school looks to win their first state championship in school history and cap off a perfect season in the process. But if you ask the players, they'll say it's not about them. It's about their beloved coach.
It's a story that goes far beyond volleyball. It's a story about a dream and a diagnosis.
With the sun setting on one of the last days of the season, the seniors at Edwards County High School have their final volleyball practice in their home gym. But their coach makes this practice as intense as their first.
"I knew with everything going on that we probably wouldn't have a very good practice," said Linda Oxby, the girls volleyball coach at ECHS. "And we haven't."
Every bump, set spike has to be flawless because Coach Oxby, the gym's namesake, expects nothing less.
"Come on, those other teams are going to hit like us," Coach Oxby yelled. "We've got to start picking it up!"
Coach Oxby calls her style 'old school' and it doesn't take long to find out why. She doesn't coddle her team but she definitely encourages them.
"The kids have changed a lot these days," Coach Oxby said. "I think they're a bit softer than they used to be. Sometimes, they don't really know how to work to get something but this group of girls knows how to work."
Playing for the beloved Coach Oxby is one part fear and another part adoration.
"There's a lot of tough love," said Riley Messman, a senior at ECHS. "There have been many nights where I've gone out in my car and beat the steering wheel. She's an amazing coach. She can be hard at times but she always pushes us to do our best and she gets the best out of us."
"They know what I'm like," Coach Oxby said. "They know how to read me. They usually do what I ask them to do... usually."
Each year brings a new team and a new set of challenges in coaching teenage girls. Yet somehow, Coach Oxby's teams achieve the same result year after year.
They just keep winning.
"There are ten girls with ten different personalities," Coach Oxby said. "Sometimes drama has cost us."
With a career record of 632-179, Coach Oxby has established a winning tradition at Edwards County High School. In her illustrious 24 year career, 19 of which spent coaching the Lady Lions, Oxby has led teams to conference, regional and sectional championships as well as the state championship tournament.
"Last year, we made it and I think that was the whole goal: make it to state and we were done," Coach Oxby said. "We went up there and we kind of fell apart. We did things we never do. This year, we have some experience and they're focused. They have a goal in mind and they're wanting to achieve it.
"We all feel like it's our time to step it up," said Whitney Beck, a senior who recently signed a letter of intent to play college volleyball at Butler University. "We've got to play for [Coach Oxby]. We're definitely doing that this season. I think we've been pretty successful so far."
You don't have to look any further than a hometown newspaper to find evidence of that claim. With a record of 40-0, the Lady Lions have steamrolled team after team after team. In fact, the Lady Lions have only dropped three sets all season.
Despite all the banners and brass trophies prominently displayed in the gym named after her, Coach Oxby has never achieved the perfect season. She's never won the final game on the final day of the season either.
"I've been to the state tournament seven times," Coach Oxby said. "You get so close but you're so far away."
But the Lady Lions are back.
Before the big games this weekend, the seniors practice one last time in their home gym. It's their coach's final practice here, too.
"This is my last year," Coach Oxby said. "People keep saying ' you can go next year' but physically, I cannot do it anymore. I love the game. I love the sport. I love this community. But it's time to pass the clipboard on."
Coach Oxby expects everything from her players and her players can expect everything from her. She pushes them her team to never quit because she has never quit.
"I have stage 4 breast cancer that cannot be cured," Coach Oxby said. "The whole goal right now is to maintain it and [doctors] have kept it maintained but my numbers have started to go up. That's not a good thing but I'll still fight."
The diagnosis came two years ago in the middle of the sectional championship. Oxby says she began to experience some back pain and thought it was a kidney stone.
She received the diagnosis on game day.
"I can't even remember that game because I don't feel like I coached that night," Oxby said. "In the big scheme of things, with everything on my mind, it was just a game of volleyball when you're thinking about what I was just diagnosed with.
The cancer has since spread to her bones including her spine. Instead of sitting at home watching as time slips away, Coach Oxby sits at mid-court.
Besides, it's the perfect place to keep on coaching.
"She's definitely a role model and someone I look up to," Messman said. "If I can be half as strong as her in my life, then I know I can go far."
"A couple of months ago, [doctors] suggested I should go back on chemotherapy," Coach Oxby said. "I told them I wouldn't until volleyball is over."
"I look at quality of life and quantity of life. This is my life right here, these volleyball girls right now. I think another month is not going to make any difference."
It's the team's final night at Linda Oxby Gymnasium before their pursuit of perfection takes them to Bloomington, IL for the state championship. There are two games left to play but you can say this team and this coach have already gone out on top.
"We've had a lot of battles on the volleyball court," Coach Oxby said. "That's the way I look at it with cancer. It's a battle and I'm going to continue to fight."
The Lady Lions play Fieldcrest Friday afternoon at 1:30. If they win, they will play Saturday afternoon for the state title. If not, the team will play for 3rd or 4rd place.
Both games game will be aired online.
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