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A redirected spike sailed toward the collapsed bleachers inside Natrona County’s Jerry Dalton Gym during a mid-week practice. An inconsequential would-be point during an ordinary scrimmage descended on its arc.

The receiving side resigned the point. Live to play the next one.

Except for a senior in the Fillies back line who gave chase. Grace DuBay dove toward the bleachers and flailed her arm under the ball. She made contact, but not enough to send the ball back over the net. Instead, it landed far to DuBay’s left, near a supply closet.

The insignificant point counted despite her efforts. She pushed herself up from the gym floor with a smile.

Her head coach, Michael Botkin, has learned to chuckle and shake off moments like this one. He recited a match two weeks prior at the Evanston Invitational when DuBay dove on an identical play. Her chin collided with the brick wall. The ball ricocheted away from play. Quickly, she leaned onto her right knee, complete with pad, brace and sleeve, and shot back up.

“I got it,” the senior told Botkin.

Botkin smirked.

“Yes, you did and you have the bruise to prove it, but you did touch it,” he told her. “You touched your face on the ground, too.”

Botkin’s default reaction is now a chuckle of disbelief. He’s learned that No. 4 will always get back up.

Science project

A bright-eyed DuBay walked into her freshman science class expecting a quality grade on her presentation, which she rehearsed numerous times before.

The assignment handed down by Mr. Tim Wilcox was to build a machine out of mundane household items — toilet paper rolls, cardboard, etc. In the end, each individual machine needed to perform a function. DuBay toiled over hers for hours before she felt it was ready.

She walked front-and-center when Wilcox called her name. She explained to the rest of the class her machine’s function. She pointed out each item used in its assembly.

Then came time for it to function. It didn’t work.

DuBay reset the machine and tried again. Same result. Her expression sunk. Botkin’s recollection of the events equated her look to “like they were taking Christmas away from her.”

Empathetic, Wilcox gave DuBay a day to identify and fix the problem. She left volleyball practice after school that day and headed for home. That project needed tending to.

According to legend, she spent four hours fidgeting with the machine, making sure it would work the next day. It had to work perfectly. It did. Grade earned. Christmas restored.

“That’s how she is,” Botkin reflected. “That’s Grace.”

A freak accident

Volleyball has always been DuBay’s preferred sport. She played as much as she could, even starting at Northern Colorado (NORCO) Volleyball Club at 11 years old. She played sparingly for the Fillies in her freshman season but came into her own as a sophomore. DuBay led the state in passing ratio (2.46) while averaging 3.2 kills and 5.7 digs per set. That was enough to earn all-state honors.

She followed that season with an appearance on the Under Armour/AVCA Phenom Watch List, which meant an invitation to the Under Armour All-American match — one of the country’s biggest all-star games for high school volleyball players. There she met college volleyball coaches. Not only was her dream to play college volleyball but she had also set the personal goal of committing by the end of her junior season.

DuBay returned to Natrona County from that all-star match as a starter on the Fillies basketball team. She experienced the same team success there, losing just one game while going undefeated through another conference season.

But that’s when her dreams were thrown into jeopardy.

The Fillies had already secured victory with 3 minutes left against Rock Springs in the 2017 conference finale. An early contest developed into a double-digit lead before the eventual 57-43 final. Substitutes for the starters checked into the scorer’s table. Fillies faithful inside the Mustangs Activities Complex prepared to cheer in appreciation upon the next whistle.

DuBay didn’t make it that far.

An odd scrum for a loose ball ended when DuBay’s right leg buckled and twisted under duress. She remained on the court, clutching at her knee. Trainers rushed the court and tended to her.

A round of scans confirmed a torn anterior cruciate ligament. She’d need surgery.

“In the moment I found out it was torn I really couldn’t believe it at first,” DuBay said. “But I got my surgery the next week and did everything fast to get me back as soon as possible.”

Dr. Dan White performed the successful operation. DuBay began physical therapy that same day.

Long road back

That spring was difficult. Instead of her typical club volleyball schedule, she spent countless hours stretching and strengthening her knee. Powered by the dream of committing to play college volleyball by the end of her junior year, she showed up to Nancy Robertson Physical Therapy every day.

Summer followed, which meant workouts with her high school teammates. This brought the inevitable meeting between Botkin and DuBay. There was simply no question where DuBay would spend her time.

“I want to be with my team,” DuBay told him.

She missed only one session with her teammates throughout the summer — and that was for a physical therapy appointment that couldn’t be missed. If she wanted to be on the court with her teammates, that’s what was needed.

“Every other time she was there or she was in the MAC (Mustangs Activities Complex), up in the weight room, fitness room, cardio room, rehabbing,” Botkin said. “All because she wanted to come back. That’s the kind of kid she is.”

Her junior season began with her on the bench. She watched as her teammates found success in early season tournaments. Her teammates knew that she would start the season on the sidelines but they believed she’d return at some point during the season.

“I have full faith that Grace will be back and she’ll be the same Grace,” then-senior captain Kristy Dick said before the season began.

Botkin didn’t hold the same belief. He tried to temper expectations. After all, DuBay was hardly six months removed from reconstructive surgery.

“I told them not to count on her,” Botkin said. “I said she’s probably about 10 months out, maybe 12. From start to finish. You didn’t know what her psyche would be.”

DuBay didn’t focus on time. From her sideline vantage point, she learned to see the game differently. She became an absorbent pair of ears, ready to soak in whatever knowledge she could from the coaches.

Each set brought a new lesson for the diligent student to scribble into her mind. There was always a chance she’d get to apply those lessons when she returned.

“That was a great learning experience by getting to see the game from a different perspective, on the side,” DuBay said. “I learned a lot.”

Months passed with the all-state player on the mend. The regular season came down to one game. DuBay went to her doctor’s appointment on Monday and the annual rivalry VolleyBowl with Kelly Walsh awaited on Thursday. She felt good about her physical health and the status of her knee. She built strength back into her right leg and could bend her knee with no pain.

DuBay walked out of the doctor’s office with a release. She was medically cleared to practice. The Fillies jubilantly practiced for two days before the rivalry match at Kelly Walsh High School.

That match started with DuBay right where she had been most of the season — on the bench. But this time she wore her full jersey.

Trailing 10-8 in the first set, Botkin subbed DuBay in for teammate Parker Moren. The gym erupted into cheers.

“It’s just indescribable with my teammates and my coaches and I couldn’t have done it without them,” DuBay said at the time. “I just feel so supported during those eight months.”

In one of the first following rallies, a deflected spike sailed toward the Natrona County crowd. DuBay was the closest one to it. Eight months removed from ACL surgery, with a bulky brace and sleeve over her usual right knee pad, she dove toward the stands in hopes of reviving a point for her team.

“I thought my heart stopped,” Botkin said. “I looked in the stands and I think her dad was the same way.

“She popped up right away and I thought, ‘That’s Grace.’ That’s who she is.”

Decision to make

Regionals followed the week after DuBay’s return. The week after that brought the state tournament. DuBay participated in all of it. She received notice that Utah State coaches would be in attendance for the final games of the season. Following the consolation match, Aggies coaches extended an invitation for an unofficial visit. They wanted DuBay in Logan, Utah, the next weekend.

“I’d love to,” DuBay responded.

She had exchanged emails with them throughout her rehabilitation but wasn’t sure if she made a lasting impression.

On that visit she received a scholarship offer. An affirmative would confirm her dream of playing college volleyball. But she also attracted interest from Wyoming. She couldn’t answer just yet. She had a decision to make.

While mulling her decision she once again made the Under Armour/AVCA Phenom Watch List and the accompanying all-star game. One of her goals was to beat the tallied score she earned the year before. Six weeks after playing in her first post-surgery match she walked in with determination.

“I was cleared two days before the VolleyBowl, that was my first game,” DuBay said. “And then we had regionals and state, so I got to play in six games. Then I made it back, went to the Phenom and scored 60 points higher and was the highest scorer there.

“It was just a great moment to reflect on.”

Having decided to sit out the basketball season of her junior year, less than a month after the all-star game, DuBay made a college decision.

On Jan. 17 she announced her commitment to compete in volleyball at Utah State — just under 11 months after undergoing reconstructive ACL surgery.

“My goal had been to commit during my junior year,” she said. “And I was really worried with my ACL that I would have to wait and commit during my senior year.”

A legacy

This season, DuBay’s passed on the wisdom she received on the sidelines last year. During practices she’s pointed out small corrections in form to her younger teammates. The kind of things she sees while playing behind them as a libero.

“She takes the freshmen under her wing because she knows what it was like being pulled up as a freshman,” Botkin said. “And you just let her do her thing because she’s so good at it and she’s such a good kid.”

Botkin expressed little doubts that she’ll be successful at Utah State.

“She’s going to own the campus,” he said. “She’s going to be great in the classroom and on the court.”

DuBay said she’ll sign her official letter of intent in November around the time she’ll make her official visit there for the year. The decision’s taken a load off her mind.

“It’s really nice to have my decision all the way done and decided so I don’t have to worry about getting recruited or anything,” she said. “I can just enjoy my senior season and go out with a bang with these girls, having a fun, memorable experience.”

Each year, Botkin has told the Fillies to leave a legacy. That sentiment carries more meaning than just leaving trophies in cases.

It’s about being a driven student, a respectful player and a giving teammate. It’s about the desire to be something memorable that young girls will watch and idolize.

Botkin knew DuBay could play when she first arrived to freshman workouts. But her lasting impact goes well beyond that.

“It’s the stuff she does outside of the lines, that’s what makes her special,” Botkin said. “That’s what makes her such a great leader and at the forefront of the program. ...

“I tell them to leave your legacy and she definitely has.”

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High School Sports Reporter

Brady Oltmans reports on high school and local sports. He joined the Star-Tribune in July 2016 after covering prep sports and college soccer in Nebraska. He also contributes to University of Wyoming sports coverage. He and his dog live in Casper.

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