It’s a close game between the Desert Ridge and Corona del Sol junior varsity volleyball teams. The Jaguars need just two points to secure their first victory over the Aztecs at the junior varsity level in years.
Up steps sophomore Jada Blake. Blake takes over the game, killing the ball the next two plays to secure the victory for Desert Ridge.
It was at that point head coach Anthony Millanes knew he had a star in the making.
From leaving scars on her older sister in the game “Scorpion” to frequently asking to go shopping or on hikes, Blake was always adventurous and competitive.
Millanes describes her as “full of life” and “a genuinely good kid.”
“She's this little ball of light,” older sister Kiana said. “Her energy just rubs off on the people around her.”
But things changed once she began high school.
Freshman year presented new challenges as a student athlete and as a result her grades slipped, and she became shy and reserved.
“I just felt like I was needed everywhere,” Blake said. “I needed to be at volleyball, I felt like I had to be there for my mom, and it all made academics much harder.”
Volleyball became more important than ever serving as an escape from the world and a place to let her frustrations out. For that reason, Blake was able to confront her struggles and overcome them.
“All the outside problems, you can let it out while you're at volleyball, it's not like you have to bring it all in.” Blake said.
Her mother, Brianna Becker, played a role in reinforcing that her athletic career wouldn't happen without maintaining good grades. Becker instilled a strong work ethic by reiterating that she could get anything she strived for with hard work.
Blake credits Becker as her idol for teaching her everything she knows.
“I would not be the way I am without her,” Blake said.
Additionally, Blake found joy in volleyball through her teammates. She loves the team aspect and coming together on the court after every dig, block and kill.
Now a senior, her energetic and lively self has returned both on and off the court.
Millanes coached Blake for one year on junior varsity and the past two years on varsity. He highlighted her maturity as an area of growth.
“She turned her grades around and got on track to be college eligible.” Millanes said. “She's gotten a lot more serious about just improvement and overall getting better.”
Millanes calls her “one of the most vertically gifted kids” he has seen. Still with room to grow, Millanes is excited to see her future in collegiate sports. He believes she still hasn’t come close to her best.
Chosen by her teammates as a captain, Blake has more responsibility and thrives as a player the others can look up to.
“She's really just a positive vocal, visual aspect for the girls to look at,” Millanes said. “So that day when we're in a tough match, they can look to her for the steadiness of a leader.”
Playing every set so far and leading her team in overall kills, she leads by example. Her confidence and balance help keep the team focused and positive during matches.
“She’s always had that urge to win,” Kiana said. “I can't always tell when she wants to win but she really does. It's deep down.”
Blake has ambitions to play in college. Every practice and every game is an opportunity for her to get better and prepare for the next level of competition.
Already with a few offers, she wants to keep her options open to pick the best school for her.
“I know I want to play at the next level,” Blake said. “My biggest motivation for going to practice and games is to get better and test myself to what I can handle.”
Witnessing every step of Blake’s growth, Kiana is proud of her achievements and perseverance.
“She's very dedicated to volleyball, reaching out and talking to all these college coaches on her own,” Kiana said. “And at the same time, she's sitting here like ‘I think I might want to start a magazine.’
Blake triumphing over her freshman year struggles helps make the next step to college a little less scary. All of the friendships and lessons Blake has learned from volleyball make it more than just a sport to her.
In many ways, it shaped her to become who she is today and going forward.
“I would not be as much of a hard worker today, if I didn't go through that and it could have happened at any other time in my athletic career.” Blake said. “[Volleyball] taught me so much.
“It taught me discipline, it taught me hard work and it taught me what happens when you successfully reach the end goal.”
Noah Velasco is a sports journalism student at Arizona State University covering Desert Ridge athletics.