COLUMBIA — Hickman junior volleyball players Jessi Strother, Chloe Perkins and Hannah Babcock share a bond.
“They’re like my sisters,” Babcock said. “We know each other so well and it’s like on the court and off the court, so we know how each other plays. We just know everything about each other.”
This close-knit relationship makes sense, considering the whirlwind of a season they went through this fall. The Kewpies sprinted to an 8-2 record before falling into a midseason slump. Hickman was 12-12 after losing to rival Rock Bridge on senior night, but the team rebounded to win the District 8 title.
Although the Kewpies lost in the sectional round of the state tournament, the trio is ready to have a strong season next year as seniors.
“I’m excited to be one of the main leaders on the court,” Strother said.
Perkins is eager to build on the team’s chemistry, and plans on training in the offseason with Strother and Babcock as members of the Como Elite club team.
“I think we’ll improve our skills all around and not in just one particular area,” Perkins said.
Improving as a group is something they’re used to — they’ve known each other since the seventh grade. Babcock and Strother even played together for the Columbia Vipers volleyball club in sixth grade, and Perkins joined them the following year.
The connections don’t stop there. Strother and Perkins were also neighbors at one point, and all three played varsity as sophomores. These unique bonds have unified them as friends and given them plenty of common ground, but their personalities still differ as much as their styles of play.
An imposing thud echoes throughout the gym whenever Perkins hits the ball in full force. The outside hitter’s trademark orange game socks attract even more attention. She explodes off the floor like she’s got a jet pack strapped on, a purple-and-gold flash streaking across the net. Perkins’ airborne efforts are an aspect of her game that Strother, a setter, admires and depends on.
“I can set her anything, and she’ll be there,” Strother said. “She’ll be there every single time, no matter if I mess up, or if my set is way past where it should be. She’s still going to be there, and she’ll still be jumping high.”
After a late-afternoon practice, Strother and Perkins sat together on a table by the entrance to Hickman’s gym, surrounded by the rustle of early autumn leaves being swept into the halls by a gentle wind. The two friends laughed as they reminisced about the mutual dislike they shared for each other in elementary school and how they argued during kickball games. As they became friends, Strother discovered that the only thing louder than Perkins’ spikes might be her personalty.
“She talks all the time, you can’t shut her up,” Strother said. Perkins jokingly interjected a loud “Yup!” or “Yeah!” as Strother described her friend’s talkative nature.
“She’s got a bubbly personality and everyone likes to be around her,” Strother said. “Everyone wants to know her. Everyone does know her.”
Other students walked by them, and it seemed like Perkins was running for student body president. She constantly had to stop talking in order to respond to friends’ greetings. One student after another exchanged hugs, handshakes and waves of the hand.
In some ways, Strother is the opposite of Perkins, who, laughing and talking exuberantly, greeted friends as if she hadn’t seen them in years. Strother, however, interacted like she was moving to a different state the next day, hugging one friend with her eyes closed, as if it were a last goodbye.
Unlike Perkins, Strother’s on-court persona doesn’t mirror her normal attitude. The “sweetheart,” as Babcock described her, becomes a model of focus when she plays. Her eyes enlarge whenever she’s ready to set, her intense glare locked on to the descending ball. Her concentration is written on her emotionless face. It’s as if a nuclear bomb would go off if she somehow missed her set. When her set leads to a Kewpies point, her intensity explodes. Strother jumps and down uncontrollably and pumps her clenched fist. Perkins knows what goes into her teammate’s efforts.
“(Being a setter) requires a lot of running and thinking,” Perkins said. “You have to able be able to set five different people, so you have to just have your mind game on, and I know that she’s focused on the game.”
If Perkins and Strother are polar opposites, Babcock lies somewhere in the middle. The 5-foot-6 libero stands between the 5-foot-8 Strother and the 5-foot-4 Perkins. Strother brings intensity, while Perkins brings a mix of energy and humor. Babcock brings consistency.
“She gives it her all, absolutely everything all the time,” senior defensive specialist Emily Brengarth said.
Babcock seems like she’s at peace when she plays. During the last game of the regular season against Rock Bridge, the Bruins cheering section decided to have some fun at Babcock’s expense. Because of a uniform controversy, Babcock wasn’t wearing her jersey but a bright yellow T-shirt with her number on it. Chants of “Get a jersey!” echoed from one side of the Hearnes Center bleachers, but Babcock wasn’t fazed. The libero continued to dive on the floor at every possible angle, refusing to let any ball hit the ground.
Babcock carries herself with composure even when she’s not in uniform.
“She’s a lot more quiet (than Perkins and Strother),” Hickman coach Greg Gunn said. “She’s a little more reserved.”
Babcock’s longtime friend would beg to differ.
“If you need a laugh, I’d just go around Hannah,” Strother said. “Anytime I’m around her she’ll bring up something from playing with the Vipers that will make me laugh.”
Gunn is eager to see what the trio will be capable of after another year of experience, as well as gaining confidence from being the defending District 8 champions.