‘A night when God’s grace was present’
By the time Fedell made it to her daughter’s side in the East Texas Christian Academy gym in Tyler, two men cradled Morgan’s head. Blood pooled on the floor. As Fedell leaned into Morgan’s face, she heard the panic in her daughter’s voice.
“Am I dying?”
Only a few moments earlier, nothing was more important to the girls of East Texas Christian and Summit Christian Academy of Cedar Park than winning a bi-district match. One perennial contender with hopes of finally winning state; the other, a newcomer to the concept of winning, making the playoffs for the first time.
Two groups of girls who didn’t know a thing about each other before that fall night. Two sets of priorities that would change before the ambulance arrived. As emergency personnel looked after Morgan, her teammates prayed and huddled in the locker room.
Diann Preston has taught and coached at the Tyler school — which is associated with Churches of Christ — for 15 years.
They’ve made the playoffs the last nine. This was a particularly good team led by four seniors — including Morgan, an all-district setter — and its title hopes were as bright and promising as a crisp fall morning.
Now one of their leaders was on her way to the hospital with an injury as yet undetermined, and a season was on the line.
What should they do?
“Our teammate’s in trouble,” one of the girls said at last. “If she’s in trouble, we need to go with her.”
And so they decided to walk. Every last one.
On their way out of the locker room, Preston told her athletic director they were forfeiting the match and asked him to relay the news to Summit.
As they were leaving the building, the East Texas girls noticed something odd. Everyone at the game — home fans and visitors, coaches, officials, even the Summit girls — had congregated on the gym floor. Hands on backs, heads bowed, strangers beside strangers, they filled the space where only minutes earlier a volleyball game had been played. No one cared about the score anymore. No one cared how far they might go. All that mattered was a 17-year-old daughter and sister and teammate and friend and opponent who dove for a ball and didn’t get up.
The Summit girls had beaten the crowd to the punch. As soon as Morgan went into convulsions, they went to their knees. When East Texas’ athletic director, Aubrey Ballard, found Summit coach Kelly Stephens and told her she’d won by forfeit, the news seemed out of place. No one would have blamed her for accepting it. Summit had never even made the playoffs before. In her first year at the school, Stephens knew how important a playoff run could be for a building program.
She also knew her girls. They refused the forfeit.
“If it had been us that it had happened to,” Stephens explained, “we would have wanted to play.”
So Stephens offered a rematch two days later in Cedar Park, outside Austin.
Meanwhile, Morgan’s mother, brothers, stepparents, teammates and a hundred East Texas classmates and friends filled a Tyler hospital waiting room. The diagnosis: Morgan had suffered a concussion. She needed staples to close a wound at the back of her head. By 1 a.m., she left the hospital flanked by her senior teammates, who had refused to leave until she did. In a few days, doctors told her, she’d be fine.
There was just one problem: Not only would she be unable to play in the rematch, she couldn’t make the bus ride to Cedar Park.
So she sent a letter in her place.
To the Lady Eagles and Lady Panthers and their fans,
Tuesday night was a changing point in my life, not because it was the varsity volleyball playoffs, but because it was a night when God’s grace was present, and his love filled one small East Texas gym. I cannot express enough how much my coach, Diann Preston, and the Lady Panthers mean to me, in that they would sacrifice an important game so that they could be with me in the hospital. It would not have been wrong of them to continue the game, but I keep hearing over and over, that the game is not what’s important. What is important then? I have thought about this over and over and would have to say:
• a team that puts heart before a win,
• an audience that stops immediately and is silent so that a calm spirit could fill the gym,
• two teams that immediately huddle to pray,
• medical aides in the audience who rush to assist or to hold someone’s head or hand,
• paramedics who arrive quickly and professionally,
• fans afterwards who form a circle to pray and then rush to support family in the hospital,
• and a team who refuses to accept a forfeit.
Lady Eagles of Summit Christian Academy, you are on the list of my heroes. I was told your team and coaches huddled to pray, I was told your parents and fans have called to check on my condition, and I was told that you would not accept a forfeit, rather arranged to continue the game as is, on another day. So, who will be the real winners tonight? I think the real winners have already been pronounced. …
Summit officials passed out copies of the letter before the match, which resumed tied at one game apiece, with Summit leading the third game, 19-18.
Without its star setter, East Texas seemed out of sync. Maybe Summit was better. Maybe it simply wasn’t meant to be.
In the emotional locker room after their big win, Stephens read her Summit players the letter Morgan had written.
“It was hard,” Stephens said. “I kinda had to hold myself together.”
“Very good letter. Very heartfelt.”
Summit went on to lose in the next round to McKinney Christian. As for East Texas, the loss capped a roller coaster week. They’d seen their friend injured and wondered if she’d come out whole. They’d been uplifted by the magnanimity of an opponent, and they’d seen their dream crushed.
In the end, how do a coach and a gaggle of teenage girls reconcile all that?
“Well, our first goal when we started the season was to glorify God,” Preston said. “Part of that would be how we treat our teammates and fans and officials. So, when I look back, yeah, we wanted to go far. But we had an awesome season. And Morgan’s OK.
“Coaches always say, ‘What if?’ But, at the same time, I think our goal was met. We showed love for a teammate.
“A game is just a game.”
Still, it was a game that brought them all together, teammates and opponents and fans and officials, and it was a game that teaches a lesson even now.
From here on out, as Morgan wrote, she’s on a mission to make sure of it.
Can two small Christian schools make a difference? They already have.
(Story reprinted with permission.)