BROADLANDS — Mariah Coleman's path to the future didn't start last week. Signing a national letter of intent seven days ago to play volleyball at Indiana University wasn't the culmination of her trek, merely another step along the tedious route.
The process didn't even start when she was a sophomore, and an enterprising coach decided to switch her from pounding volleyballs with her right hand to her more dominant left hand.
It didn't even begin the summer before her freshman year, when Brad Dalton — about to embark on his first season as the Heritage High School coach — persuaded Coleman to return to a sport she thought she'd left behind.
The real beginning came around the time she was in second grade and already was standing out in a crowd. She was 4-foot-11 as a 7-year-old.
"From a young age I hung out with the right crowd," Coleman said. "They kept me on a straight path. College and getting good grades were what you did.
"I knew I wanted to go to college. Having goals and striving to meet your potential is second nature when you surround yourself with people like that."
A different path
As Coleman developed into an athlete of prominence — one who earned Player of the Year honors on The News-Gazette All-Area volleyball team — the inevitable recruiting letters followed. Administrators at Heritage, which has 156 students in the high school, wondered if they were simply courtesy form letters.
"I thought, 'Everybody gets these letters,' " athletic director Lori Archer said. "Then one (college) team was here. Then another, and another."
The coaches found Coleman despite her playing only a part of one club season and competing in a prep league not known for producing Division I prospects.
"How I got here doesn't happen very often," Coleman said. "It's a very rare case. I'm not saying it's impossible, but it's unrealistic."
Learning to make do
The same is true of her entire journey. Anyone with less wherewithal, less of a tenacious determination, would be just another statistic.
Raised by a single mother, Julitta Allen, who struggled to make ends meet, Coleman is not accustomed to lavish surroundings or even what many would consider essentials. Neither her nor her mother has a car.
"I can't lie," Coleman said. "When I was younger, I was extremely frustrated. It was so easy for everyone else to go to sporting events, or buy new clothes.
"As I grew up and matured, I realized money is not everything, and you can't focus your life around what others have and you don't."
Fueled by love
What Coleman has had — and still does — are gifts more precious than greenbacks.
"When I was younger, there were two brothers in the picture (living at home) and it was even tougher financially," Coleman said, "but my mother loves her kids unconditionally. It's never about what I accomplished in volleyball. She has worked hard to give us the life she'd want for us."
Now, it's Coleman's turn to seize the moment. That's why college volleyball is the next destination, not her final one.
"I have an opportunity," Coleman said, "to make a life I've always wanted for myself."
The five-year plan
While at Heritage, Coleman set single-match (22), single-season (380) and career kills records (949). For some individuals her age — she won't turn 18 until December — there might be an assumption that the prolific play will immediately continue in college.
Coleman knows what to expect.
"I'll redshirt my first year," she said. "That way I won't be trying to play catchup. I'm aware of the fact that I have a long way to go. I wanted coaches to do that (agree to a first-year redshirt)."
It also will benefit her long term. Coleman plans to seek a master's degree and will receive a fifth year with her scholarship.
Coming from a family where there have been no college graduates, Coleman said a diploma will be "a big deal."
She added: "My brothers (Barry Allen, who lives in Florida, and Todd Pittsley, who lives in North Carolina) keep tabs on me frequently. They have been so supportive. They say do this because we didn't."
Laying the groundwork
The truth is, if not for volleyball Coleman might not be preparing to attend an institution of higher learning.
"I could probably get a few (academic) scholarships and grants here and there," she said, "but without the (athletic) scholarship, I could not go to a school like Indiana."
While Coleman played the game, Brad Dalton played an important role in getting his star recognition.
"I made a lot of calls, sent a lot of emails and sent videos to most of the top 15 programs in the country," he said.
It was an uphill battle, Dalton acknowledged. "Most coaches spend their contact days at club tournaments (in the spring and summer) where they can see 30 kids."
The fact that Coleman can jump and touch 10 feet, 7 inches helped convince coaches to take a look at an athlete who holds Heritage's high-jump school record (5-2) in track.
Minnesota came for a visit. So did Michigan State. So did Indiana. So did others.
The guiding light
Coleman appreciates Dalton's efforts.
"I was never college savvy," she said. "I didn't know what constituted a good school or how to get in touch with them. He put in a lot of work. Without Coach Dalton it would have been a lot tougher. Without Coach Dalton I probably wouldn't have done volleyball in high school."
Though he had one marquee, high-profile player, Dalton never forgot that he was the coach of an entire team. Sometimes that put him at odds with Coleman, the Most Valuable Player on a regional championship team this year that tied a school record for single-season wins (24).
"I may still be the bad guy," he said. "I gave her structure. I didn't have a separate set of rules for her. If she didn't have a ride (to practice), I didn't feel sorry for her. I told her she needed to call and I'd find her a ride.
"She would call 10 minutes before practice started and I would always be at the gym."
Coleman's life endured more upheaval last month. On Oct. 14, her grandfather, 86-year-old Wallace Harris of Longview, died.
"He lived next door to my mom's house, and I was there every day," Coleman said. "He played a huge role in my life. He was a father figure for me.
"You have staples in your life that hold you together and losing him was tough."
Harris was a positive influence for a teenager who last saw her father, she said, about eight years ago and hasn't spoken to him by phone for almost two years.
"The way it affects me is more subconsciously," Coleman said. "I'm so used to it being me and my mom it would almost be weird if he were in the picture."
Coleman isn't optimistic she will ever have a relationship with her father.
"I sort of feel time has passed," she said. "What is done is done. I'm the child. I don't feel it's up to me. He could get in touch with me. At this point, it would be hard."
Putting others first
Coleman's obstacle-filled background is one reason so many people are rooting for her. Another is her attitude and personality.
"She comes to school every day and has a smile on her face," Archer said. "There's not anyone she doesn't get along with.
"She is like the mother hen, looking after everybody else. She wants everybody else to be happy. She is very humble, and that has to do with her upbringing. She has had a lot of hardships and has not expected good things to happen to her. She is like, 'I can't believe this is happening to me.' "
"It has been a rough road," Coleman said.
Had she known in advance how unlikely it is for someone who grew up in a community of 250 (Longview) to earn a college scholarship without a year-round commitment to the sport, she might not have persevered.
"My biggest asset in all of this," she said, "is I went into every situation naive. If I'd known the odds, I probably would have doubted myself, and doubt doesn't allow you to achieve these things. It required an ignorant blissfulness."
Even now that her future is set, Coleman is not taking it easy and biding time until graduation. For the first time since entering high school, she decided to play basketball.
"A lot of people didn't approve of my decision, for fear of getting hurt," Coleman said, "but I can't sit for three months and get out of shape. Hard work is healthy for me and is creating a great work ethic.
"The basketball girls are great. I love surrounding myself with people who have goals and aspirations and will teach me things."
Scaling the heights
Coleman knows about goals and aspirations. She is moving closer to hers.
Her career path is "to own my own business," she said. Specifically, "I'd like to own a restaurant and a salon and spa," she said.
Oh yes, there's something else she'd covet. It's a passion which is as strong as volleyball.
"I love 5-inch heels," she said. "If I could hoard something, that would be it. You can be self-conscious being tall. I work on my posture. A lot of people stare, but for the most part I like it. If I weren't tall I wouldn't be as good as I am at the sport I love."
Players of the Year
YEAR NAME SCHOOL POS.
2011 Mariah Coleman Heritage MH
2010 Morgan Leach Centennial MH
2009 Cori Harris Centennial OH
2008 Alexis Braghini Centennial MH
2007 Lucy Coleman Monticello MH
2006 Ali Omahen Schlarman S
2005 Kylie McCulley Clinton OH
2004 Kylie McCulley Clinton OH
2003 Amber McKean CPCI MH
2002 Melissa David Champaign Central MH
2001 Carly Hill Monticello OH
2000 Carly Hill Monticello OH
1999 Julie Leman Champaign Central S
1998 Jenn Rousey Champaign Central OH
1997 Kate Hill Monticello OH
1996 Heather Wilson Rantoul S
1995 Amanda Ennis Champaign Central OH
1994 Sigele Overstreet Champaign Central OH
1993 Lori Greenwood Champaign Central OH
1992 Missy Erixon Tuscola S
1991 Missy Erixon Tuscola S
1990 Melanie Ward Prairie Central MH
1989 Jane Prasse Hooopeston-East Lynn MH
1988 Mindy Thompson Shiloh OH
1987 Jill Doty Hoopeston-East Lynn OH
34th News-Gazette All-Area First Team
NAME SCHOOL YR. HT. POS. COACH
Jessica Allhands Watseka Sr. 5-11 OH Krista Pufahl
Emma Cabutti Mahomet-Seymour Sr. 5-8 OH Lori Clark
Megan Casagrande St. Thomas More Sr. 5-11 MH Erika Tock
Mariah Coleman Heritage Sr. 6-2 MH Brad Dalton
Rachel Jones Centennial Jr. 6-0 MH Stan Bergman
Amber Meyer Tri-County Jr. 5-8 S Drew Robertson
Shannon Siuts St. Thomas More Sr. 5-5 S Erika Tock
Kelly Wachtel Centennial Sr. 6-2 OH Stan Bergman
Jaelyn Westfield Champaign Central Jr. 6-0 MH Evan Hook
Kaitlyn Zelhart Blue Ridge Sr. 6-0 MH Evan Miles
34th News-Gazette All-Area Second Team
PLAYER SCHOOL YR. HT. POS.
Alina Altmyer Champaign Central Sr. 5-8 OH
Lizzy Barnard Tri-County So. 5-9 OH
Jacy Cochran Fisher Sr. 5-9 MH
ChaQuera Cross Rantoul Sr. 5-6 L
Josey Fruhling St. Joseph-Ogden Sr. 5-7 OH
Kat Grimes Watseka Jr. 5-5 S
Kara Johnson Centennial Jr. 5-10 OH
Samantha Siddens Bismarck-Henning Sr. 5-9 OH
Jenny Srikant Urbana Sr. 5-9 S
Lexi Wallen St. Thomas More Fr. 5-10 OH
All-Area Special Mention
PLAYER SCHOOL YR. POS.
Audrey Aeilts Champaign Central Sr. S
Tina Aguirre Rantoul Sr. OH
Makenzie Baker Oakwood Sr. OH
Jamie Blue Urbana Uni High Sr. OH
Bailey Bryant Bismarck-Henning Sr. MH
Lauren Cloyd Centennial Jr. MH
Julia Cohan Arthur Jr. MH
Elise Dahlke Mahomet-Seymour Jr. OH
Kailyn Demith Champaign Central Jr. OH
Hannah Fink Fisher Sr. OH
Michaleen Forman Danville Sr. MH
Hannah Gaylord St. Joseph-Ogden Sr. OH
Hayley Gray Watseka So. MH
Jessica Greer First Baptist Sr. OH
Laura Gross Schlarman Fr. S/MH
Sabrina Hinton Bement Jr. MH
Emma Hoyer Urbana Uni High Jr. MH
Kaitlyn Hunt Monticello Jr. L
Mikayla Jones DeLand-Weldon Jr. MH
Meghan Lowry Arthur Okaw Christian Sr. MH
Abbie Magrini Mahomet-Seymour Sr. L
Sydni Meunier Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley Sr. L
Morgan Neisslie Cerro Gordo Sr. L
Natalie Neukomm CPCI Sr. L
Kortnie Schroeder Paxton-Buckley-Loda Jr. OH
Kaitie Shaw Westville Jr. OH
Ashley Tabb Arthur Jr. L
Taylor Wienke Heritage So. S
Kaitie Wildman Atwood-Hammond So. L
Jordan Wheeler Blue Ridge Sr. OH
All-Area Honorable Mention
ARCOLA — Cara Edwards, Jr., MH; Taylor Edwards, Fr., MH
ARGENTA-OREANA — Cali Melton, Sr., S; Hannah Millington, Sr., MH
ARMSTRONG-POTOMAC — Shayla Boen, Sr., S; Rachel Miles, So., MH; Shanon Reardon, Sr., OH; Erika Sieberns, Jr., MH
ARTHUR — Sherelle Coller, So., S
ARTHUR OKAW CHRISTIAN — Kristi Gingerich, Sr., S
ATWOOD-HAMMOND — Elaine Davis, Sr., OH
BEMENT — Samantha O’Brien, So., S; Taylor Wegrich, So., OH
BISMARCK-HENNING — Taylor Ellis, Jr., S; Morgan Gerbsch, Jr., L; Lauren McKenzie, Jr., S; Maranda Witty, Jr., OH
BLUE RIDGE — Emily Zelhart, Fr., S
CENTENNIAL — Lindsay Rogan, Jr., L; Allie Shannon, Jr., MH; Maddie Weldon, Jr., S; Jennifer Wise, Sr., OH
CERRO GORDO — Emily Richardson, Sr., S
CHAMPAIGN CENTRAL — Mia McDonald, Jr., S
CHRISMAN — Brett Bishop, So., MH; Daniele Hoult, Sr., OH; Shelby Ross, Sr., S; Paige Thevenin, Sr., MH
CHRIST LUTHERAN — Andrea DeBella, So., S
CLINTON — Morgan Hickman, Jr., S; Shanae Ritter, Sr., L
CPCI — Hillary Hines, So., MH; Dana Silski, Sr., OH; Maria Wilkening, Jr., S
DANVILLE — Alexus Jimson-Miller, Jr., OH; Shawneis Jones, Sr., MH; Morgan King, Sr., OH
DeLAND-WELDON — Rowan Crozier, So., S; Brittany Roberts, Sr., L
FIRST BAPTIST — Rachel Wells, Jr., MH
FISHER — Hannah Fink, Sr., OH; Aubrey Pettenger, Sr., L
GEORGETOWN-RIDGE FARM — Catie Brandt, Jr., S/OH; Erika Briggs, Sr., OH; Kelsey Buckman, Fr., S/OH
GIBSON CITY-MELVIN-SIBLEY — Erica Baillie, Sr., S
HERITAGE — Cedar Richardson, So., OH; Stephanie Sanderson, Jr., L; Jenna Wyant, Sr., OH
HOOPESTON AREA — Molly Crawford, Sr., OH; Devin McFadden, Jr., S; Beth Weston, Sr., MH
IROQUOIS WEST — Courtney Conrad, Jr., S; Haley Pence, Sr., MH
JUDAH CHRISTIAN — Brooke Childers, Fr., OH; Brenna Fouts, Sr., S; Emily Gewirtz, So., L; Christina Rummery, Sr., MH
LeROY — Hailey Fritcher, Sr., L; Stephanie Howell, Sr., MH
LOVINGTON — Kayelene Goodbear, Jr., S
MAHOMET-SEYMOUR — Kristen Belyea, Jr., S; Hannah Charter, Jr., OH; Makenzie Hartman, Sr., OH
MILFORD — Kinsey Knauth, Jr., S; Ashlen Portwood, Sr., MH; Kelsey Thrush, Sr., OH
MONTICELLO — Elise Pontious, Jr., S; Jaimey Watrous, Sr., S
OAKWOOD — Peyton Jones, Fr., MH; Ashley Wahlfeldt, Sr., S
PAXTON-BUCKLEY-LODA — Kayla Cowan, Jr., S; Catlyn Ekstrom, Sr., OH; Kandace Hofer, Jr., OH
PRAIRIE CENTRAL — Ally Krenz, Sr., OH; Kate Kupferschmid, So., L
RANTOUL — Heather Nigh, Sr., OH; Hannah Wascher, Jr., MH
RIDGEVIEW — Megan Jones, Sr., MH
SALT FORK — Emilie McFadden, So., MH; Toria Plotner, Jr., OH; Kirsten Thornsbrough, Jr., S
SCHLARMAN — Ella Black, Jr., OH; Janelle Marion, So., S/OH; Jordan Marganski, So., S/MH
SHILOH — Hilary Rhode, Sr., OH
ST. JOSEPH-OGDEN — Courtney Learned, Sr., OH
ST. THOMAS MORE — Ally Heffernan, Sr., OH; Brooke Schmidt, Sr., L
SULLIVAN — Paige Neuhauser, Sr., OH
TRI-COUNTY — Heidi Dague, Fr., OH; Autumn Meyer, Jr., L; Kyla Skinner, Jr., OH; Abby Smith, So., OH
TUSCOLA — Sam Kohlbecker, Sr., S; Mackenzie Seip, Jr., OH
UNITY — Madison Herbert, Sr., MH; Masey Robeck, Sr., S/OH
URBANA — Christie Stark, Sr., OH
URBANA UNI HIGH — Hannah Johlas, Sr., OH; Jo Ellen Machesky, Jr., L; Juliana Trach, Jr., S
VILLA GROVE — Amanda McCollom, Sr., MH
WATSEKA — Raychell Poplawski, Sr., L
WESTVILLE — Mikayla Rolinitis, So.
Big 12 Conference
SCHOOL CONF. OVERALL
Centennial 8-1 34-4
Normal Community 8-1 20-17
Bloomington 7-2 20-16
Cham. Central 5-4 23-14
Mattoon 5-4 22-9
Normal West 5-4 14-20
Danville 3-6 13-18
Urbana 3-6 16-18-1
MacArthur 1-8 11-17
Eisenhower 0-9 1-28
Corn Belt Conference
SCHOOL CONF. OVERALL
Bloomington CC 14-0 31-4
Normal U-High 12-2 32-7
Mahomet-Seymour 10-4 19-11
Eureka 7-7 20-10
Olympia 7-7 15-18
Rantoul 3-11 9-20
Prairie Central 2-12 8-16
Pontiac 1-13 4-23
East Central Illinois Conference
SCHOOL CONF. OVERALL
DeLand-Weldon 7-0 17-12
Decatur Lutheran 6-1 15-19
Urbana Uni High 5-2 19-11
Judah Christian 4-3 12-18
Bloomington Cornerstone 3-4 10-13
Decatur Christian 2-5 6-15
Christ Lutheran 1-6 5-21
Normal Calvary 0-7 2-22
Heart of Illinois Conference
SCHOOL CONF. OVERALL
Deer Creek-Mack. 11-1 27-6
Heyworth 11-1 28-4
Blue Ridge 9-3 23-8
El Paso/Gridley 8-4 16-11
Lexington 8-4 23-14
Tri-Valley 8-4 24-9
Fisher 7-5 18-14
Fieldcrest 4-8 19-15
Ridgeview 4-8 12-20
Tremont 3-9 9-19
Gibson City-MS 2-10 10-19
LeRoy 2-10 10-23-1
Flanagan/Cornell 1-11 3-25
Little Okaw Valley Conference
SCHOOL CONF. OVERALL
Tri-County 11-0 33-4
Arthur 10-1 24-7
Heritage 9-2 24-12
Arcola 6-5 13-18
Atwood-Hammond 6-5 12-18
Bement 6-5 9-15
Cerro Gordo 5-6 11-17
Martinsville 5-6 12-17
Okaw Valley 4-7 5-21
Shiloh 3-8 3-17
Lovington 1-10 1-17
Villa Grove 0-11 0-27
Okaw Valley Conference
SCHOOL CONF. OVERALL
St. Teresa 11-0 35-5
Warrensburg-Latham 9-2 21-8
Clinton 8-3 22-15
Monticello 8-3 17-13
Shelbyville 7-4 22-14
Tuscola 6-5 13-13
Sullivan 4-7 14-18
Argenta-Oreana 3-8 13-14
Central A&M 3-8 13-13
Meridian 3-8 14-13
Maroa-Forsyth 2-9 10-18
Unity 2-9 7-25
Sangamon Valley Conference
SCHOOL CONF. OVERALL
St. Thomas More 7-0 17-15
St. Joseph-Ogden 6-1 26-5
Paxton-Buckley-Loda 5-2 19-9
Watseka 4-3 32-4
CPCI 3-4 18-15-1
Iroquois West 2-5 11-21
Clifton Central 1-6 6-19-3
Momence 0-7 4-23-2
Vermilion Valley Conference
SCHOOL CONF. OVERALL
Bismarck-Henning 13-0 25-2
Chrisman 11-2 20-7
Schlarman 11-2 18-12-1
Armstrong-Potomac 8-5 16-14
Oakwood 6-7 11-18
Westville 6-7 10-17
Milford 5-8 13-18
Salt Fork 3-10 8-19
Hoopeston Area 2-11 4-22
Georgetown-Ridge Farm 0-13 0-20
Arthur Okaw Christian 28-7
First Baptist 20-13-1
N-G Top 10
TEAM (PREVIOUS) W-L COMMENT
1. Centennial (1) 34-4 Three of top four are juniors
2. Watseka (4) 32-4 Two of top four are seniors
3. Tri-County (3) 33-4 Top four are all underclassmen
4. STM (5) 17-15 Three of top four are seniors
5. Bismarck-H. (2) 25-2 Two of top four are seniors
6. Central (6) 23-14 Two of top four are seniors
7. St. Joseph-O. (7) 26-5 Top four are all seniors
8. Blue Ridge (8) 23-8 Two of top four are seniors
9. PBL (9) 19-9 Three of top four are juniors
10. Mahomet-S (10) 19-11 Two of top four are seniors