Presley Justice

Presley Justice (center) leaps into the air to spike the ball during a practice at La Grande High School on Tuesday, March 23, 2021. The senior will continue playing and learning at Kentucky Christian University.

LA GRANDE — The La Grande High Tigers volleyball team is preparing to fight in its final games of the season in one of the most challenging years for sports. The COVID-19 pandemic, in a sense, has stolen a year of play from the team that had grown up together — a team that challenged life and their rivals with equal ferocity.

As the chapter closes on five girls with the team, they practiced in the gym early in the morning Wednesday, March 23. With graduation around the corner, inevitable goodbyes loomed like a final deadline. But now it was spirit week, and the girls dressed up in colorful tie-dye shirts and wore garish hair for the occasion.

The team made its way to the gym and began setting up the net, donning surgical masks and athletic shoes while making jokes to one another. The chaos of chatter beget a cacophony of balls flying every which way and landing onto the gym floor with thunderous thuds as spikes, sets and serves.

For Jayde Wiggins, who plays for the varsity squad, as well as the high school’s basketball and softball teams, there was another challenge she fought. An injury in January 2020 left her unable to play the sports she loved — and COVID-19 made watching sports impossible as well. She recovered in time to play when the season opened, but months of isolation and healing wore down on the dedicated player.

“We were out of school, and even if we could do sports, I couldn’t,” Wiggins said. “All I could do was show up.”

It was her second injury of her high school career. As a freshman, she suffered a torn ACL in basketball that kept her from playing volleyball.

“It was, honestly, terrible to see all these guys playing and missing that,” she said.

Relentlessly, Wiggins recovered both times and her desire to play sports intensified. Obstacles to her seemed more like gasoline than rain. And now that the games have resumed in the midnight hour, it’s near time to say goodbye to the players she had grown up with for nearly half a decade.

“Volleyball is like a stress relief,” Wiggins said. “We come here, and we just let it all go.”

Wiggins plans on attending Eastern Oregon University to study physical therapy, close to home and family. She said while she wants to focus on academics, sports will remain a passion in her life. With the degree, she would be able to help others through the types of injuries she experienced and remain connected to sports in a fulfilling way.

Other players, such as Presley Justice, are setting their sights elsewhere.

Justice accepted a scholarship to play volleyball at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky, last year prior to the pandemic, and looks forward to the opportunity — and the stress that comes along with the responsibilities of playing for a college team.

“I have to do the best I can,” said Justice. “I have that expectation, for myself, that I’m playing at the next level so I need to act like I am.”

Justice admitted the burden can sometimes reach intolerable levels, and nauseating anxiety can disable her on the worst of days. During those times however, her team, family and coach lift her back up. With the decision to move across the nation, those support structures will be left behind — though the young star viewed it as another avenue for growth.

Justice cited Kentucky Christian University’s volleyball program as a main motivator, but she also expressed keen interest in becoming a more spiritual and religious person — a critical element she said that, along with her new team members and coach, would help with the homesickness of attending school across the country.

Three senior players who also are graduating — Hayden Robinson, Madison Hanson and Anna Green — will be attending colleges throughout the Pacific Northwest. There will be new friends and new challenges, and memories of when the pandemic made their friendships and desire to play stronger.

The Tigers have a 6-3 record for the season with five matches remaining.

The team plays a home match against Baker on Tuesday, March 30, then comes an April 1 match against Ontario. The final set of the season is April 6 against Powder Valley in La Grande.

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