In the quiet moments before almost every Marvin Ridge volleyball game or practice, Mavericks’ volleyball coach, Brook Hammers, says she thinks of former assistant coach Jeff Aten.
Aten’s death rocked the Marvin community when he suddenly died of a heart attack on March 25. The 55-year-old collapsed during a jog on the Marvin Ridge campus.
While Aten’s void has been tough, the memory of the Marvin Ridge volleyball coach, who helped start the Maverick varsity and middle school programs, lives on with his fellow coaches and players.
“There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Jeff and how much we miss him being around this volleyball program,” said Hammers, who is in her eighth year as the Mavericks’ head volleyball coach. She said Aten was one of the first people she met when she arrived at Marvin Ridge.
“Jeff and I worked side by side for eight years and he had a huge impact on everything we’ve accomplished.…To lose him was devastating not only for this program, but for the entire community. But his memory lives on in almost everything we do.”
The 2015 Marvin Ridge volleyball team has dedicated their season to Aten’s memory and they wear warm-up T-shirts that read “Aten Strong,” designed by his wife, Debbie Aten.
The Mavericks also will wear socks that don his initials “JAA.”
The Marvin Ridge Middle School volleyball team will host a tournament in October with his name – the Jeff Aten Middle School Volleyball Tournament.
While Aten’s impact is felt by all of those who coached or played with him, Marvin Ridge senior setter, Ally MacWhirter, says she feels a deeper connection to her late coach this year.
MacWhirter tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee about two weeks after Aten died. She was playing in a girls’ lacrosse game against Myers Park. As a result, she will not be able to play for the Marvin Ridge volleyball team this year.
While she can’t be on the court with her teammates, MacWhirter is still at every practice and every game, serving as an assistant coach, to help fill the void left by Aten.
“I played for Coach Aten since I was on the Marvin Ridge middle school team in sixth grade and he was a huge part of everything I did and our team did on the volleyball court,” said MacWhirter, who also is serving as the team captain. “It’s a very special thing for us to be able to dedicate our season to him, especially for the seniors, who have played with him for so long. It’s still very weird not to have him around. I think about him all the time during games and practices and what he would say to me. I try to say the same type of things to my teammates.”
This year’s Marvin Ridge team is as young as it has been in recent years with five freshmen, four sophomores, four juniors and only three seniors (including MacWhirter who is not playing on the court).
Despite their lack of overall experience, the expectations won’t change for a Marvin Ridge volleyball team that has won five straight Southern Carolinas’ Conference titles.
The Mavericks, who have reached at least the 3A state quarterfinals three years in a row, including a 3A state semifinal run last year, believe they can go even further this year.
“Our overall goals as a team won’t change this year,” Hammers said. “We want to win the conference, the conference tournament and then be playing our best volleyball in the playoffs.
“We won’t talk about the state championship, but of course that is the ultimate goal. We plan on being a force to be reckoned with in the postseason.”
While there’s always motivation to win games, this year is a lot more special.
“It’s just the little memories of things we’ve always done that really make it tough,” Hammers said. “When we went to the Charlotte Latin scrimmage earlier this season, I remember sitting on the bench and Jeff had been right with me every year I had been to that scrimmage. When I realized he wasn’t there, I just all of the sudden got very emotional. I wish he was here with us still.
…But we are going to make sure his memory lives on at Marvin Ridge.”
Jay Edwards is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Union County Volleyball
Here are some key volleyball players to watch this season:
▪ Carly Owens, Marvin Ridge, Soph.: Mavericks’ sophomore on the verge of a breakout season as she already leads her team in kills.
▪ Adriana Jordan, Marvin Ridge, Fr.: Thrown into fire as a freshman when senior setter, Ally MacWhirter went down with torn ACL.
▪ Myah Ward, Weddington, Sr.: Warriors’ senior leader, outside hitter is being counted to make big kills for her team.
▪ Megan Jones, Cuthbertson, Sr.: Cavaliers’ all-conference libero is part of a veteran group with classmates, Shae-Lynn Doran and Captain Taylor that look to vault Cuthbertson up the Southern Carolinas’ standings.
▪ Makayla and Meghan Haigler, Metrolina Christian, Sr.: Twin sisters look to help their mom’s team make a move in the Metrolina Athletic conference and beyond.
Games to watch
▪ Myers Park at Porter Ridge, Sept. 10: If the Pirates want to challenge Myers Park for the Southwestern 4A title, they will need to hold serve against the Mustangs at home.
▪ West Stanly at Parkwood, Sept. 15: The Rebels want to climb the Rocky River conference ladder and could get a huge boost if they can knock off the defending league champion at home.
▪ Hough/Hickory at Marvin Ridge, Sept. 26: Mavericks will get a nice late season test in tri-match with 4A power Hough, and 2A power Hickory.
▪ Cuthbertson at Weddington, Oct. 1 and Marvin Ridge at Cuthbertson, Oct. 6: If the Cavaliers are going to climb the SCC standings, this five-day stretch against their two biggest rivals will be a critical stretch.
▪ Weddington at Marvin Ridge, Sept. 29 and Marvin Ridge at Weddington, Oct. 15: Marvin Ridge has won five straight Southern Carolinas’ conference titles in a row, but the Warriors would like nothing better than to knock them off their perch atop the league standings.