COLUMBIA — She dove for the ball as it bopped off her hands out of bounds. Hickman's volleyball season ended along with senior Loren Brooks' high school career, and she stayed on her back staring up at the ceiling lights for a brief moment.
Then she bounced up to her feet.
On the other side of the court, third-seeded Smith-Cotton players took a team picture after winning their opening-round match in the Class 4, District 9 tournament in straight sets 25-11, 25-15 while Brooks and the Kewpies huddled around coach Greg Gunn.
They wrapped up their 3-24 season with a 13th straight loss.
"With the season like we've had, where you're dealing with defeat, it's hard to keep your chin up and keep smiling," Gunn said. "But we talk about how we do this for fun. This game is for fun. It's hard to do, even for myself. You get caught up in the win-loss column and forget that this is a game about fun."
One player who helped maintain that outlook throughout the season, Gunn said, was Brooks, the team's starting libero who came to Columbia this summer after moving from St. Joseph, Ill.
"Hopefully, I did help them out because I know one person can make a difference," Brooks said.
Brooks came to Day 1 of Hickman's tryouts to continue playing the sport she came to love in seventh grade for its team aspect.
"She was a blessing," Gunn said. "She was an unknown quantity coming in. She was a senior, all of 5-foot-2, and I didn't know anything about the school she was coming from or anything, but the first day she walked in, she just fit right in. She acted like she'd been here her whole career."
"She had no problem making friends and being accepted by the group," he said. "She took on somewhat of a leadership role as hard as that would be for a new kid."
As the season went on, Gunn said, she was the player running ahead of the team during practice conditioning, turning back around to run with the teammate finishing last.
"Encouragement, that's what I've tried to do a lot," Brooks said. "Sometimes, we're bad, but I've tried to stay happy. I try to encourage them all."
She took on a primary role on the defensive side, but her teammates say her role went well beyond that.
"You didn't really have to know her that well, and she'd just be friendly with you. She's just that kind of person," sophomore Emma Drake said. "You could always see her trying to pick us up when we were down. She was always one you could hear."
Monday night, Brooks was on the court knowing her volleyball career was over. It hadn't hit her yet, she said.
"It will hit me later," she said.
Supervising editor is Erik Hall.