Nearly two years after the fact, Rachael Adams can still visualize the series of events that changed her life like a scene from a movie.
With her teammates on the Mount Notre Dame (Cincinnati) volleyball team preparing for practice in the midst of the 2005 playoffs, Adams, then a sophomore, entered the gym sullenly and without any athletic equipment. The sound of voices and bouncing balls waned with her every step. By the time she was ready to speak, the silence was deafening.
"Everyone already knew what I had to say," Adams recalls. "But I knew I had to go to my teammates in person and apologize for letting them down. Telling them I'd failed two classes and couldn't play was one of the hardest things I've ever done."
The experience was as excruciating as Adams expected. Admitting to failing two classes was embarrassing enough, and the added impact of letting her teammates and coaches down made it even harder.
But as she turned and walked back out of the gymnasium in the scene's final dramatic moment, something unexpected happened -- she felt better. Adams, a member of the team's starting lineup the entire season, was still distraught that she couldn't practice, play or travel with the Cougars, yet she also felt a combination of relief and excitement. She'd messed up, but she couldn't wait to redeem herself.
"Everything turned around starting then," Adams says. "I'd been acting immature for a while. I was really careless on the court and in school, just not taking the time to do things right. Ever since then, I've taken charge of my life and not left it in other people's hands."
Adams, now a 6-foot-2 senior middle blocker, has transformed into an honors student at Mount Notre Dame while also developing into one of the nation's elite volleyball players. She was a member of the U.S. Youth National Team in 2006 and 2007 and led her club squad, Team Z, to a national championship this summer.
As of press time, she'd narrowed her list of dozens schools offering her a scholarship to Florida, Texas, UCLA and USC, all of which opened the 2007 season ranked in the Top 10 of the NCAA Division I coaches poll.
"At 6-2 with a 36-inch vertical, we're talking about a girl who can touch 10-6," says MND coach Donna Mechley. "Considering the net is only 7-4 and an eighth, she's dominant in the air. She's taken spikes off the forehead she gets up so high."
When Mechley first met Adams, the coach never could have imagined her pupil would turn into one of the state's best players. In fact, if not for a fortunate coincidence more than three years ago, Adams may have never played volleyball for Mount Notre Dame. Adams just so happened to be staying over at her friend Bridgette Brownfield's house the night before Mount Notre Dame's incoming freshmen summer volleyball camp began. Brownfield, now a senior volleyball player for the Cougars, planned on attending the camp; Adams did not. But with nothing else to do while Brownfield was at camp, Adams tagged along and found a spot in the stands to do some summer reading.
It wasn't long before Mechley, noticing Adams' perfect volleyball frame, approached her with the offer to jump into some of the drills.
"Her timing at net was terrific. In that area, she was a natural from Day 1," Mechley says. "As coaches, we could tell pretty quickly there was a lot of potential there."
After stints on the freshman and junior varsity teams as a ninth-grader, Adams was called up to varsity for the playoffs. In the final game of Mount Notre Dame's sectional semifinal loss to Seton, Adams' varsity career got off to an inauspicious start.
"I was so nervous that I ran to the wrong position when I got into the match," Adams says. "I noticed the Seton coaches laughing at me. I'll never forget that moment. Every time we play Seton, I want to ask the coaches, 'Who's laughing now?'"
Adams showed improvement as a full-time starter as a sophomore, but the same attitude that was derailing her academics was plaguing her on the court. By her own admission, she was a selfish player who often lost her focus and got overly rattled by her own mistakes.
The wake-up call she desperately needed came courtesy of a pair of F's that fall. She immediately got her act together and even surprised herself by making 2006 U.S. Youth National Team, which won the NORCECA Continental Girls' Youth Championship in Florida.
Adams returned to Mount Notre Dame full of confidence as a junior and quickly began realizing the potential the coaching staff had seen in her two years earlier. She racked up 311 kills and 104 blocks and led the team to a 16-5 regular season record. She continued to dominate as the Cougars rolled through the sectional and regional tournaments -- including an especially fulfilling triumph over defending state champion Seton in the regional semifinals -- to enter the Division I state tournament on a roll.
Just one year removed from her ineligibility debacle, Adams redeemed herself by playing two of the best matches of her life as MND cruised to a three-game triumph over Solon (13 kills) in the semis and a four-game victory over Mother of Mercy (24 kills) in the finals.
"We were so prepared for that state tournament, I just knew we were going to win," Adams says. "As it got closer and closer I could just tell it was our year. Everything came together for us. And for me, it was like a movie-script ending."