SALISBURY, Md. – How do you tell the story of a team, a coach, and a player who suffered their greatest loss off of the court? How do you tell the story of that same group that claimed their greatest victory off the court as well? The story of the 2016 Salisbury University volleyball team is one of adversity but yet hope that even in the darkest of moments the light shines through. Light in the form of a coach who never wavered and a team that stood by and surrounded their teammate with love and hope.
There are books on coaching, videos to watch, plays to learn and call, situations to evaluate, decisions to be made before a match and in game depending on how the match or contest is going or what your opponent throws at you. In fact there is just about everything imaginable out there to help a coach prepare for a certain situation and how to get through it. However, there are the few situations coaches and teams for that matter can't prepare for because there is no manual for it, no book, no video, and no play.
This past season sophomore Gabby Fox of Carroll County, Maryland lost her father Bryan Fox very suddenly on the morning of September 2. The team was heading to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for a tournament at Gettysburg College when Head Coach Justin Turco was alerted of the news. With modern technology and the quickness that information can travel Gabby's mother, Dorothy, thought it was best to and asked Coach Turco to take the phones away his players as they neared the destination. A "social experiment" he called it as Assistant Coach Michelle Meehan walked up and down the aisle of the bus taking each player's phone. They laughed and rolled their eyes at him as they handed over their devices.
Turco knew exactly what he was doing making sure that it was in person that Gabby knew of the passing of her father as opposed to via text from a friend, family member, or teammate hearing it from someone else.
All of a sudden the questions how do you play the tournament, how will our opponent play against our game plan, all became irrelevant and didn't matter anymore. The more important questions were: How do you tell Gabby? Who tells Gabby? How is her family? How do you decide how to tell the team? When do you tell the team? Is there a game plan for this? How do you play a whole weekend with this lingering? How to go on?
On September 2, 2016 the Salisbury University volleyball team boarded a bus headed for Gettysburg College for a tournament just like they have many times before. Gabby recalled the morning saying, "I was half awake on the bus while some of the girls did homework and Katie Stouffer was strumming her ukulele," Fox recalls.
Meehan had taken the players phones attempting their "social experiment" with the players to assure that Gabby wasn't alerted to the news. When awoke she had multiple vague text messages on her Apple Watch and immediately went up to Coach Turco and asked to call her mom. He obliged and while her mom didn't tell her exactly what had happened she did tell her "I love you."
When they arrived to Gettysburg, Gabby's brother and mother were there waiting to tell her the news. "'Why?' was the biggest thought running through my head to be honest," Gabby said. "Why did this have to happen? What will the family dynamic be now? How will my mom, brother, and I move forward? How did this happen? How is the rest of my family?"
After Gabby had told the team what had happened after their first match they came back with what Gabby described as "puffy noses and red faces." Parents were of course wondering what had been said to them outside the gym at Gettysburg. With the news now spreading through the parents it became less about the tournament and more about the emotions of their teammate and how they help her.
"It was text messages, it was little notes 'Hey! Let's go get ice cream' or 'Hey let's just talk about life and classes.'" They helped make Gabby feel loved by just being there for her but not forcing conversations about what had happened. There were many different ways Gabby's teammates rallied around her and helped her through this moment and it wasn't just after the death of her father but even more so as the year progressed they just reminded her they were there, who she was, and that she was loved.
Two text messages that stand out were sent to her on Christmas Eve by her teammate Katie Stouffer and then one on Christmas Day from Sydney Davis. "They reminded me I wasn't alone," recalls Gabby. "They again made me feel so loved and cared for and reminded me I wasn't going through this alone." It was just an extremely "special" feeling knowing her teammates cared that much about her.
One of her toughest days Gabby recalled she just didn't want to leave the locker room and needed time to "break" and get out emotion before heading out to practice. "I remember just wanting to sit and be alone for a little bit and let my emotions out after a tough day before heading out to practice. Coach Turco sent Nicole [Venturelli] in to just sit with me," Gabby said. She and Venturelli are roommates and best friends, as well as teammates. "It was a relief to just have her there and she knew she didn't have to say anything, her just being there was comforting enough for me."
Practice was one of Gabby's favorite times of the day because she knew it was the three hours of the day where she could show up to Maggs Physical Activities Center and just play the sport she loved with her family. "It was the best part of my day because it was my escape from everything that was going on in my life at that moment," said Gabby.
Throughout the experience Gabby was reminded of a story in the bible where this woman named Mary was mourning because her brother, Lazarus, had just died. Mary had fallen to the ground, crying out to Jesus, in great despair from the whole situation. But the coolest part of this story, Gabby thought, is when Jesus saw Mary in one of her darkest moments; He came alongside her, got down on the ground next to her and held her hand, to weep with her.
Through it all at every turn, every bump in the road, every moment when it felt like the world was caving in Gabby's teammates extended their hands and picked her up when she needed it and told her "it's okay we will get through this together." When asked about her teammates and what they meant to her Gabby just sat back with a giant smile on her face let out a little laugh and said "They are the best girls in the world, ahhh I love them so much!"
Coach Turco and Coach Meehan
"What could I have done better? Is there something I need to change in the scheme?" What else can I do to help you girls?" Pop your head in the day after a match win or lose and these are the questions Head Coach Justin Turco normally will ask his players in their individual meetings. "He shoulders the losses more than we do and he uses every opportunity he can to learn," says Gabby. On September 2, 2016 those questions didn't quite matter anymore, they became an afterthought at least for that day. Instead of "what can I do better" it became "what can I do?" Arguably the toughest moment of Justin Turco's young coaching career sat in front of him and his staff and he needed to find a way to rally his team, comfort a player, and keep his emotions in check while doing all of it, plus coach a tournament and season.
Gabby was recruited to Salisbury in the fall of 2014 but suffered a torn ACL her senior season in high school which would cause just about any school to pull an offer but not Salisbury and certainly not Turco. "I remember calling him to tell him and he told me not to worry and that I would have a spot here and be part of this team and he was excited to have me," Gabby said. In a way even before she was an official member of the maroon and gold, Turco stood by her in a tough situation and certainly wasn't going to let that change now.
As the days moved on from September 2 Gabby understandably had to be with her family and no one was more supportive of that then Turco. As the funeral arrangements were made Gabby was needed at home meaning she would need to leave practices, miss practices and days at Salisbury yet through it all Turco never changed his attitude of family first.
The perfect example of this was a simple yet extremely moving text message exchange between Turco and Gabby on the same day of her father's passing. Turco sent her an update on the matches at Gettysburg and that the team had in his words "pulled that one out for you." Gabby responded and thanked him profusely for everything he had done for her that day and proceeded to thank him for being so understanding and tell him how great the Salisbury volleyball family was. Turco responded with two simple texts yet powerful and moving; they read "Of course you are family" and "Of course Gabby. Tiff and I will always be here for you."
Over the winter break Gabby was back on campus to take classes however, as she worded it "I was really alone." Knowing this Turco was constantly checking in on her saying "come over to the house and meet baby Brady" or why don't you stop by to hang out with Tiff and I." Small simple gestures that meant the world to Gabby and as she said so many times throughout this whole ordeal "made me feel so loved."
Assistant Coach Michelle Meehan made sure Gabby knew how much the team supported her by always sending a text or a note to ask how she was, how her family was, if she would like to come to the match, or even when she asked if Gabby would like the team to come to the funeral and that a lot of the girls wanted to surprise Gabby by simply just showing up. However, above all Michelle constantly reminded Gabby how special being part of this team and family is and it certainly showed throughout.
These two coaches didn't need to act in this matter they could have easily done the bare minimum and continued planning their season. Instead they went above and beyond what was asked of them and let a player know she was loved by more than just her immediate family and that they would be here for her no matter. Both Turco and Meehan became more than coaches on September 2 they became role models, shoulders to cry on, a rock to lean on when times got hard, but above all they became a friend to someone in need and that's something that no coach can ever find in any manual. That is quite simply an instinct and natural reaction. To sum him up Gabby could only use one simple word "selfless, he's so selfless."
"On my recruiting visit I remember Coach Turco asking me what I wanted most in a program. I told him 'I want a family! He sat back in his chair and just smiled." Gabby recalls that conversation as if it were yesterday sitting in Turco's office in the Maggs Annex during her official visit to Salisbury University.
National Collegiate Athletic Association Division III Athletics may be one of the most interesting levels of athletics in the entire country. Rarely do you come across a program where family, winning, and a commitment to the son or daughter of a parent isn't stressed from both an on the field and off the field perspective. Of the three words family is the one that resonates the most with both recruits, parents, administrators, and above all coaches. Coaches want to build a family atmosphere for the player so that when the player leaves their family to come to a school they enter into another.
On her visit Gabby remembers sitting around a dining table in Commons and just talking with all the girls. "They made me feel wanted and a member of the program already," Gabby said. "If one stood up to get something they would ask 'anyone need something while I am up?' sometimes it was one person, sometimes it was everyone, and sometimes it was a simple no thank you I am good." They were simple acts of decency but ones that went a long way in helping Gabby decide where she wanted to go, what family she wanted to join for her collegiate experience, and ones she would above all never forget. Almost three years later nothing has changed "the dinners are the same and the offers are asked every night we eat together," she said.
That's what Coach Turco built and is continuing to build at Salisbury University and that culture was never tested more than on the morning of September 2. He needed to rally 15 women and his three assistant coaches to help their teammate get through arguably the toughest moment of her young life. There is no play or coaching book on how to do this, this has to be done through the mind of the coach standing in the situation and making a snap decision in the moment on how you will deal with this from start to finish.
There is a song titled "You Raise Me Up", written by Rolf Lovland and Brendan Graham but made famous by Josh Groban. Throughout the song the chorus repeats the following verse, which fittingly couldn't apply more in this situation.
"You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas
I am strong when I am on your shoulders
You raise me up to more than I can be"
This verse truly describes a family and what 15 young women did for their teammate. When she needed it her teammates helped her walk through a storm and put her up on their shoulders when it became too tiresome to continue to walk. They helped her rise above the tragedy and kept her moving forward both on the court but most importantly off the court.
Gabby even received support from other people and teams. The Salisbury University field hockey team all signed a card to simply show that they were thinking about her and her family. Assistant Athletic Director Jessica Stoltz reached out to Gabby writing her a card saying she was thinking about her and letting her know if she ever needed anything she could always just stop by her office to talk. It's acts like this that made this moment that much easier for Gabby and showed her what being part of the Salisbury Athletics family is all about.
Family isn't something that we choose, it's something we are born into with our immediate family and something we become part of when we join a group. The Salisbury University volleyball team held together as a family rose above a tragedy to one of their own. For better or for worse family stands by each other and gets through the highs and lows of life together and as one group keeping each other moving and picking each other up when one falls. Family makes the good times great and the hard times easier.
There is a family mentality that is both preached and executed upon by the coaches at Salisbury University. They, like so many others at the Division III level, make sure that their players buy into the aspect of the program because that is part that is most important. It is the part that is most valuable to a program and can have a profound impact on winning or losing but even more importantly on the comradery of the team, which can translate to winning or losing.
It didn't matter what the record on the court was for this team, it's what the record off the court was. For one season when hardship strikes the Sea Gulls posted a 1.000 winning percentage and defeated every obstacle that presented itself.
As she looks back now just over seven months removed from that day, Gabby recalls that a coaching staff and team helped her through the most difficult and darkest time of her life.
This story is one that will be told again and again and Gabby has one person in particular she will tell the story to when he is old enough, Brady Turco, the new born son of Justin and Tiffany. "It'll be a story of victory, just love and grace. Hey Brady listen to what your dad did and he'll be aware of how much more of a superhero is dad really is."
"They were some of the coolest people I ever met. They are some of the smartest, most athletic, greatest looking people ever, and they love unconditionally. It's truly been an honor to play with them and for them develop into my family. They are part of this story forever; it doesn't end with the tragedy of my dad passing away. It's a story of hope that will be told throughout my life. It is about this group of girls and coaches that kept me where I needed to be."
When Gabby mentions the names of the players she was gifted to play with and a coach she got to play under she will call them a family and that just doesn't end when they graduate or when she moves on. "I know they will be in my heart forever," Gabby said.