Tragedy into triumph: STM's Mica Allison set up for success

Tragedy into triumph: STM's Mica Allison set up for success

WHITE HEATH — St. Thomas More senior Mica Allison sat in her family's living room one evening in mid-May, put her head in her hands, and bawled, tears of joy and sadness spilling out uncontrollably. Six months had passed since that awful, life-changing day when her brother, Cale, died last November, but Allison carried it with her wherever she went.

Cale wasn't a big talker, but when the two talked, it was always a deep conversation. He wasn't necessarily athletic, but he took pride in every accomplishment his two sisters, Mica and Leah, made.

He wasn't social, but he was protective of his youngest sister. They'd talk every evening when she drove home from school or practice as she approached their family's small country neighborhood just outside of the no-stoplight-town of White Heath.

"We live out in the country, so it's kind of scary, but I would always call him and I'd be like, 'Are you home?' " she said. "And he would walk out kind of and walk me back in. And if he wasn't I'd stay on the phone with him as I walked in. He was always there for me."

So when Cale died suddenly, it left gaping holes in her life that would never be completely filled.

But on that day in May, she felt her brother's spirit as her mother sat her down in the living room and told her that she was notified that Mica was named to the provisional roster for the U18 USA Volleyball national team

"I was like, 'I know this is Cale, and he's giving me this opportunity,' " Allison said. "Him and God. I don't want to disappoint anyone in my family, and I don't want to disappoint him. That was when I was like, 'I really have to work hard for this.' "

After the worst moment of Mica Allison's life came some of the best. In fact, from that moment in the living room on, her volleyball career could hardly have played out more perfectly.

First, her underdog Illini Elite team won an AAU national championship. Then, she was named to the U18 national team's final roster for the World Championships in Argentina, where she started for the Americans in August. Finally, she led STM to a state championship in November.

On top of it all, a scholarship opened up a semester early at Auburn, where she committed as a sophomore, so Allison will be able to enroll a semester early and start school in January.

"I don't know any other way that it could be any better than it has been the past year," she said. "I know that everything I've done in this last year I couldn't have done by myself. I pray a lot that I just make him proud. Everything I do now, I do it for him."

* * * 

Had Stan Bergman not coached Allison for one year with Prime Time Volleyball Club, Allison might never have begun her trajectory toward becoming one of the top setters in the country.

Early on, she wasn't necessarily supposed to be the setter of the family. Her older sister, Leah, who was offered and accepted a softball scholarship to Toledo shortly after Cale's death, had stronger setting ability as young children, according to their mother, Kim Allison

But with her strong personality and dominant left hand, Kim knew her daughter was meant to set.

"Knowing the sport and Mica's personality, I just knew she had the right personality to be a good setter," said Kim Allison, who played for Parkland and Central Florida. "When she first started playing club, she was also very effective as a hitter, and they saw her as a stronger hitter than a setter."

Luckily for Allison, Bergman stepped in to coach her club team at Prime Time for one year in the seventh grade, and after an injury to his team's setter, he decided she was his setter.

"The one girl that they had put on the team as a setter had broken her hand," said Bergman, who would take over at STM three years later. "I was told that maybe we ought to think about another setting situation and I had to say, 'No, we're going to stick with this one.'"

By the eighth grade, she began receiving college interest. And by her sophomore year, she decided to commit to Auburn instead of more traditionally strong programs.

Of course, Allison has never stayed exclusively at setter.

With STM running a 6-2, Allison split her time between setter and hitter.

Her freshman year with the Sabers, she finished second on the team in kills to The News-Gazette's 2014 Player of the Year Lexi Wallen. By the end of her career, she led the program in career blocks and aces and finished second in kills and digs and fourth in assists.

Over the summer, that versatility paid off.

* * * 

Across the net were giants, or at least they looked like it.

The Italians, who would go on to win the tournament, were the most imposing team Allison had ever come up against at any level when the two teams squared off in the quarterfinals of World Championships

"They were huge, they were good, they could put the ball down," Allison said. "It was weird knowing that they were only 15, 16 and they were already that good and they were playing to get paid. It was crazy to us."

Even though there were taller, more athletic players on the team, Allison had worked her way into the starting lineup, and she wasn't even a setter.

Instead, she played opposite hitter and passed in serve-receive, something that she had never even practiced because she normally exclusively plays setter in the back row.

"She's just an all-around player, and they said that's one of the reasons they kept her," Kim Allison said. "On the roster, they could have only so many players, so having a player like Mica who could hit, who could set, who could fill in lots of different holes as a utility kind of player. But then to end up working her way to where she was a starter on the court was pretty amazing."

And although the Italians loomed larger than any opponent she had ever played and they wound up topping the United States 25-7, 25-16, 25-15, the experience gave her immense confidence.

"Once we got on the court playing with them, it was just another match," Allison said. "They looked like women, they played like women, they were insanely good, but playing against them, it wasn't like we had balls bouncing off our face or anything. We were just playing volleyball with them. Even though we did get beat pretty bad, it was still cool."

After taking eighth in the tournament, Allison's flight landed early in the morning back in Champaign on Aug. 31. Later that evening, she played with the Sabers against Tri-Valley, a 25-21, 25-22 loss. Right away, Bergman could tell he had a different player on his hands.

For one, she was used to blocking giants like the Italians.

"We said, 'Mica, you're jumping too high,'" Bergman said, "because the balls would actually be deflecting off of her elbows. That's one thing it took her a long time to adjust to."

Allison, though, settled back into the high school game, and she raised the level of her team along with her.

"The pace and the experience and the confidence that she gained through her club season and her national season was huge for us," Bergman said.

By the postseason, the Sabers had just three losses, the last coming to eventual Class 1A state champion Payson-Seymour without Hayes Murray, the Sabers' other All-Area first-team setter.

"I would have never admitted it to the girls, because I try to remain as humble as I can ... but I think in the back of my mind," Bergman said, "I thought we had a chance to get to state, be in the final four, and obviously being champions was in the back of my mind."

* * * 

Bergman doesn't remember if he breathed over the final point state championship as Brianna Hopper tipped the ball over the net and it fell to the ground to give the Sabers a state championship. The feeling at the end of a match in which Allison racked up 12 kills, 12 assists, five digs and two blocks in a comeback 18-25, 25-19, 25-22 win against Quincy Notre Dame, though, was euphoric.

"Everything froze in my mind," she said. "It's still frozen, how that play played out and how it happened. ... It was just a wonderful moment to share with (my teammates). You don't even have to say anything. You just look at them and they know what you're thinking, or you can give them a big old hug. You've just got those warm fuzzies and that feeling of accomplishment under your belt."

Bergman also came into the year with baggage. His grandmother, who he described as "the person I'm probably closest with on earth," died in February. He and Allison worked through their grief together.

"You redirect some of that energy in a different way," Bergman said. "Instead of feeling sorry and feeling terrible about it, it's more or less, 'What would they want for each one of us in this situation or in our life at this point. Would they want us to feel sorry for them or would they want us to do things differently, or would they want us to succeed?' So we would just have small little conversations like that, so I hope through the conversations that we did have that it helped her as much as it helped me."

Through her grieving period, Allison had no shortage of support. Her family was always tight-knit, and if anything, they may have grown closer.

Now, she's on the other side of a 12-month period that was both nightmarish and dream-like. And the Allisons can only think of that time period in one way.

"It definitely feels like we're being blessed by Cale," Kim Allison said. "It's meant good things for both of the girls. It definitely does feel like Cale is still present and touching our lives."