Athletes understand it takes preparation, practice and execution to be successful, particularly when scaring the daylights out of their coach.
“She’s talking to her husband and they’re always on the phone,” North Idaho College sophomore volleyball standout Yang Yang said. “She opens the door, I’m hiding there and I jump out.”
This scene plays out almost daily in coach Kandice Gregorak’s office. Yang mixes it up, sometimes sneaking up on an unsuspecting Gregorak, who can’t see anyone from behind when she’s tapping away on her computer.
“I’m going to miss her so much,” Gregorak said of her 6-foot middle blocker from Yong’an, China. “She has a great sense of humor. I absolutely love that girl.”
Gregorak certainly loves the way Yang plays volleyball, noting that she influences games with her blocking, hitting, digging, passing and leadership. Yang (pronounced Yong) rarely leaves the court, usually departing only in lopsided matches.
“She makes the players around her better, which is what great players do,” said Gregorak, still a bit irritated that Yang wasn’t named MVP of the Scenic West Athletic Conference last year when she helped NIC to a league championship and a ninth-place finish at the national tournament.
The Cardinals are heading to nationals for the third straight year. NIC won its first 16 matches (three were considered exhibitions) and ascended to No. 1, but slipped after dropping four conference matches, two to Southern Idaho and two to Salt Lake. That made the path to nationals bumpy, but the Cardinals qualified with a tense four-set win over Salt Lake at the Region 18 Tournament. Yang had 20 kills, the last coming on match point, and fulfilled an earlier promise to Gregorak that she’d help the team return to nationals.
A few years ago, Yang had no intention of playing volleyball and had never heard of NIC. Gregorak, freshly hired and in search of players, was talking with former Cardinal standout Fei Gao, who now plays for NAIA No. 1-ranked Concordia University in Irvine, Calif.
“I need another one of you,” Gregorak told Gao, who mentioned Yang’s name. Yang was studying English at a school in Palo Alto, Calif., when Gregorak phoned.
“I was a little bit sick of playing volleyball,” said Yang, who left her parents’ home at age 12 to attend a “sports school” about an hour away. “I didn’t think I would play.”
Yang changed her mind and accepted NIC’s scholarship offer. She was fourth nationally in kills last year and 25th this season, despite battling myriad injuries. She has played both seasons with torn meniscus in each knee and a sore elbow she initially hurt four years ago in China. The wear and tear on her soon-to-be 24-year-old body often prevents her from being able to practice.
During matches, Yang said, “I tell myself I’m not in pain so I can focus on the game.”
Idaho (14-13, 12-5 WAC) closes the regular season at New Mexico State (19-9, 12-5) tonight. UI, NMSU and UT-San Antonio are tied for second and battling for seeding in next week’s WAC Tournament. …Washington State (12-16, 2-14 Pac-12) is home for its last four matches, beginning with Oregon State on Friday and No. 4 Oregon on Saturday. … Eastern Washington (4-25, 4-14) entertains Big Sky-leading Idaho State tonight and North Dakota on Saturday to finish the season. … Gonzaga (9-18, 1-13 WCC) entertains Portland on Thursday and visits Pepperdine on Saturday to end the season. … Community Colleges of Spokane (27-9, 10-4 NWAACC East) faces Umpqua on Thursday in the opening round of the NWAACC Tournament in Gresham, Ore.