She wasn’t diagnosed with senioritis, but Sydney Kirker had no interest in stress.
She was going to play the game she loved for the last time and by golly, Kirker was going to make it the time of her life.
For the 2020 Tallmadge graduate, the final curtain meant no more drama.
And much like rhythm and blues’ singer Mary J. Blige, Kirker’s farewell tour would be more of a "Family Affair" rather than endless nerve-racking auditions for total strangers.
The easygoing teenager may have considered these words by the "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul" as well.
"Take me as I am."
"All throughout my senior season, I had no idea that I wanted to play in college, so I was really just playing for fun when the season started," Kirker said.
Kirker had plenty of fun during her senior year. She plans to continue having more fun when she attends college too.
And the best part about it is this: She doesn’t have to leave her volleyball at home.
Kirker decided to continue her academic and volleyball careers at Bethany College, a private liberal arts college in West Virginia.
Kirker, who has yet to decide her major, chose Bethany over Hiram College. The standout outside hitter/defensive specialist felt the rural 1,300-acre campus was her best option when it came to leaving her "situations at the door."
"I chose Bethany because not only did I love the volleyball coach and the volleyball program, but the campus was so small yet nice," Kirker said. "The dorms were the nicest out of any of the other schools that I looked at.
"Toward the end of my college search, it was between Hiram and Bethany, but I chose Bethany because I felt the need to get a little farther away from home."
Kirker, a three-year letter winner for the Blue Devils, thought crushing balls over the net would be a thing of the past once her senior season ended last fall.
Her new coach, on the other hand, thought differently.
Jim Maloof, who took over as head coach of the Tallmadge volleyball team prior to the 2019 season, persuaded his most lethal front-court terminator to keep swinging.
"She wasn’t interested in playing in college," Maloof said. "I talked to her at the beginning of the season about it and then I talked to her in the middle of the season."
They had one more conversation once the season ended. When that discussion took place, Kirker decided to put retirement plans on hold.
That’s because the Blue Devils suffered a heartbreaking five-set loss to Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary in a Division II district title match. By the way, it was the fourth consecutive time Tallmadge, which finished 19-6 in 2019, was the runner-up.
Kirker earned three of those trophies. It’s a safe bet that she probably hasn’t spent too much time polishing them.
If she still has them, of course.
"I said to her, ‘I don’t want to push too far, but you can’t have it end like this,’" Maloof said. "She told me she wasn’t ready for it to end. That’s when she made her decision."
Kirker’s new team knows something about unsatisfying endings. The Bison, led by head coach Courtney Kline, saw its 2019 season end in the quarterfinal round of the Presidents Athletic Conference. Bethany, which competes at the Division III level, finished 17-15.
"Bethany has a very strong varsity team which I am just hoping to get a spot on," Kirker said. "Starting would be ideal, but I’m honestly just hoping that I get to touch the varsity court. Bethany is one of the few schools to also have a JV (junior varsity) volleyball team. If anything, I hope I will be able to start on JV."
Kirker received honorable mention to the Suburban League American Conference all-star team twice during her career with the Blue Devils.
As a senior, Kirker led the team with 278 kills, which ranked third in the American Conference. The former middle hitter also led the team in percentage of what Maloof calls "good passes in serve receive," to go along with a 35.2 kill percentage, 280 digs and 29 service aces.
"Sydney is very outgoing and very confident," Maloof said. "She brought the energy level. She has a positive attitude and she keeps spirits up."
Prior to Maloof’s arrival, Kirker spent her previous two seasons working with former head coach Jennie Perdue.
Just like her senior year, Kirker experienced no "Rainy Dayz" when she played for Perdue.
"Playing for Coach Perdue for two years was a very fun experience for me," Kirker said. "Her coaching style is very different from other coaches that I’ve had in the past. Her practices were very light and fun.
"She was very much about attitude and culture on and off the court as well as our playing and skills. I had a lot of fun playing for her as I also improved my teamwork and leadership skills."
Kirker had to abruptly leave her comfort zone when Maloof took over the reins. That wasn’t a bad thing, though.
Eventually it wasn’t, at least.
"When Coach Maloof came in to coach my senior year, it was a huge change," Kirker said. "Coach Maloof is an amazing coach. He is very goal-oriented and he doesn’t like to lose. I wasn’t sure about him at first just because his coaching style was so different from Coach Perdue, but I grew to love it.
"He really helped me improve my skills as well as my court intelligence and awareness. On top of that, he was really my main support system and help during my college search. He was actually the person who recommended I look into Bethany."
Kirker had established herself as a dominant force in the front row prior to Maloof’s arrival. However, the fast-rising teenager believes she took her game to another level last fall.
"Coach Maloof always pushed me to be the best athlete and player I could possibly be even if I was really just playing for fun," Kirker said. "He helped me improve my skills and court intelligence. He taught me everything I needed to know about strategy. With him, the faster, the better.
"Low passes, quick sets and fast arm swings were everything. I focused really hard to improve on my power and quickness of my arm swing. This is what made the crucial difference in my play from last season to this season."
Kirker got to unleash her newfound powers with her own flesh and blood by her side too. Kirker’s younger sister Ellie completed her sophomore season as one of Tallmadge’s two setters in 2019.
"Before my sister started high school, the last time we had played on the same team was when I was 11 and she was 9," Kirker said. "Since then, we would pepper each other in the yard and every once in a while, sub on each other’s teams.
"Honestly, it was an amazing experience to be able to play with her again. She has become such an amazing player over all of these years and she never disappointed myself or her teammates."
Interestingly enough, the older sibling started her career as a setter. Kirker played volleyball’s version of the quarterback position for Impact Sports Academy in Akron before eventually turning her attention to being a punishing force at the net. By the way, Kirker’s mother, Marlene, is the director of operations at Impact.
"When I was 14, I was asked to set from the back row and hit up front," Kirker said. "Once I did that, I fell in love with hitting and decided that I just wanted to focus on that, so I tried out for Tallmadge High School as an outside hitter my freshman year and that was the first season I played that position."
Kirker also was a member of the Buckeyefire Volleyball Club in Macedonia. Unfortunately, her season has been cut short due to a respiratory tract infection known as the coronavirus.
Whenever this global pandemic disappears, Kirker plans to be in "full swing" again as she gets comfortable in Brooke County.
And since "green" will become her new favorite color during her first "day" on campus, perhaps a California punk rock band may have the best way to describe why having fun can lead to a promising career beyond high school.
Without the stress, of course.
"It’s something unpredictable, but in the end, it’s right. I hope you had the time of your life."
Kirker sure did.
"This season, my hits were harder and faster than they’d ever been before, which caused me to have an amazing senior season," she said.
Reporter Frank Aceto can be reached at 330-541-9444, firstname.lastname@example.org or @Faceto_Gannett.