COLUMBIA — Bailey Lawson would be happiest in her volleyball Spandex and a chef’s hat.
That’s how Libby Lawson describes her daughter — a member of the Rock Bridge volleyball team, which just reached the state quarterfinals, and an aspiring culinary force at the Columbia Area Career Center.
Libby and Warren Lawson help run Club CoMo, a thriving Columbia volleyball club, because their daughter fell for volleyball as a fourth-grader in a youth league put on by the Missouri volleyball team. As the Tigers charge forward to a 29-0 record, one 16-year-old product of that program’s community outreach stands in her kitchen, intertwining her family’s food-loving heritage with a new passion for volleyball.
The love of food came first.
The Lawsons trace the cooking bug back to both of Bailey’s grandmothers. Warren Lawson’s mother, an Italian named Geri Lawson who made a mean lasagna, read cookbooks while her kids watched television. Libby Lawson's mother, Carolyn Riley, grew up in southern Missouri and cooks both gourmet and home-style comfort food.
The love of cooking trickled down to the next generation, and then the next.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in southern Columbia, the afternoon light is warm through the floor-to-ceiling windows at the Lawson home. Hoosier sugar cream pie and chocolate raspberry cake are on the menu. The teenage chef moves around the kitchen purposefully, quickly, not wasting time dallying between the sink and the island and the pantry. Like movements on a volleyball court: Purposeful. Efficient. Precise.
“Scheduling it is the hardest part,” she says of the cooking process. “Actually doing it is just methodical.”
"Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" plays on Food Network in the background. Her mom sits at the second island, watching from the sideline, out of the way until she’s needed to add a spoonful of flour to the pie crust dough.
Bennett Lawson, 12, walks in. He and his father have just finished a round of "Call of Duty: Black Ops," playing in the basement where black-and-white photos of 1-year-old Bennett and 5-year-old Bailey depict the sister reading to her baby brother and blowing bubbles to him.
She is saved in his phone as “Awesomeness Person In The World.” Why? He smiles and shrugs; it’s not the sort of thing that needs an explanation. Meanwhile, the Awesomeness Person In The World is busy spinning a double-decker cake on a Lazy Susan, spreading frosting.
“I don’t know if I can play tomorrow,” she says. The high school volleyball season just ended, and club tryouts are underway. “My arm’s sore from icing this cake.”
She pipes the rim of the cake, dots it with raspberries and puts the cake on the counter for a photo for the food album on her phone. She turns it so you can’t see the bulge; not all the ingredients cooperated today.
There’s a culinary skills competition, a national competition that two other Columbia Area Career Center students won this year. Cooking is competitive. Perhaps that is one reason Bailey can move so well between court and kitchen, making birthday cakes for teammates and jumping around the house in sample uniforms to make sure they have enough give to play in.
The other love, volleyball, a chess-like game that requires thinking at least two moves ahead, can’t be traced back quite as far as the Italian lasagna. Bailey Lawson was in fourth grade when she first tried the sport, going to the youth league that the Missouri volleyball team still holds at local elementary schools. Her coach was former Missouri star Jessica Vander Kooi; a photo of the two is still up in Bailey Lawson’s room. That same year, she also went along with a friend to an open gym with high schoolers.
“They were really good and really tall, and I was short,” she said. But she was hooked.
She played with the Columbia Vipers club through sixth grade, then skipped an age group and tried out for Club CoMo when she was ready for more competitive play. The director of Club CoMo at the time was ready to move on, and within a year or two, the Lawsons and one other family, the Mattsons, stepped in. The two families provide a volleyball club that, last season, welcomed girls from Ashland, Boonville, Centralia, Columbia, Fayette, Fulton and Mexico, Mo.
Thanks to the guidance of Scott Mattson and Warren Lawson, Club CoMo now has eight teams and two developmental academy groups, each with two coaches. Its new status as a 501(c)(3) corporation gives players more opportunities for fundraising.
Missouri head coach Wayne Kreklow and his wife, Missouri director of volleyball Susan Kreklow, joined the Club CoMo board this year as advisers. Junior Emily Wilson, sophomore Lydia Ely and freshman Linda Steinhardt are lined up to help coach this year.
Bailey Lawson fell in love with volleyball at the right time because it’s been a bit of a charmed year for volleyball all over Columbia. Rock Bridge beat Helias Catholic High School for the district championship in a morale-building win over a team among the perennially strong programs of Jefferson City. Columbia College won its 25th consecutive American Midwest Conference championship, securing a bid to the NAIA National Tournament. And most prominently, Missouri is undefeated, setting records following a 2012 season burdened by athletes transferring out of the program and other difficulties.
Bennett Lawson is no more a volleyball fan than a foodie, but he still shows up for his sister's games. He’ll tell her good serve; she’ll say, you only saw one? Yep, but it was good, he’ll say. After all, she’s the Awesomeness Person In The World.
Even the Awesomeness Person In The World gets tired, though. At the end of the afternoon, she sits on the floor, leaning back against the cabinets. The windows are darkening. Bela, the family Goldendoodle who thinks she's a lapdog, snuggles up against her legs.
The pie is cooling. The cake is chilling. And the chef is ready for some rest before she hits the court again. After all, this is a big year for volleyball in Columbia.
Supervising editor is Nina Pantic.