Veteran officials will tell you that the majority of calls that occur during a contest fall within the 50-50 variety.
Meaning that when the whistle blows, one half of the gymnasium will be critical of the result, while the other fanbase celebrates it.
IHSA volleyball official Sharon Walker (right)
had the rarity of making two calls in a volleyball match on September 11 that were so unanimously supported by both teams that they will not soon be forgotten by anyone in attendance.
Coincidence or not, her evening started with a 50-50 call of a different variety. When the Stanford native arrived at Tri-Valley High School in Downs to work the match between the host Vikings and local rival LeRoy High School, Tri-Valley’s assistant coach informed her that there would be a variety of special fundraising events occurring that evening to help a Tri-Valley family in need.
Wanting to support the cause, Sharon ran back to her car and grabbed some cash, which she used to buy some cupcakes and several 50-50 raffle tickets.
“I’d never worked a game before where they were doing something like this,” said Sharon. “There are lots of Volley For the Cure
matches, but I had never been a part of one. As officials, we set the tone for the match, but we are also members of the community. Volleyball has been a big part of my family's life and I wanted to give back.”
Tri-Valley head coach Jamie Ward addressed the crowd prior to the start of the match to explain that the fundraising efforts were going to the Spencer family. Raegan Spencer (pictured M)
, a junior on the Tri-Valley team, was participating that evening, but her brothers, senior Austin (R)
and freshman Mason (L)
, were 300 miles away fighting a rare and deadly disease. Austin had been one of the top players on the Tri-Valley basketball team as a sophomore, but became sick with what was initially believed to be mononucleosis as a junior. As he struggled to get better, leukemia was then believed to be the cause, before he was finally diagnosed with the autoimmune disease HLH (Hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis) and XLP2 (X-linked lymphoproliferative disease). Because the genetic XLP2 disease generally surfaces very early in life with dire results, there are believed to be approximately 50 people on Earth currently living with the disease. Austin was treated by a renowned expert on XLP2 at a hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was joined by his brother Mason, who was also diagnosed as having XLP2. Both underwent bone marrow transplants to help fight the disease, with Raegan serving as the donor for Mason, enduring a procedure that included having her hip bone stuck over 200 times to extract the marrow.
“It took a couple of weeks for me to be able to walk right,” said Raegan. “But it was obviously nothing compared to what my brothers are going through.”
With her mother, father and brothers required to stay in or near the hospital in Cincinnati, Raegan’s maternal grandparents moved to Downs so she could continue attending school at Tri-Valley.
“Coach Ward has been like family through this whole thing,” added Raegan. “She has looked after me and set up all these fundraisers to help our family offset the medical costs. I’m so thankful and don’t know what I would do without her.”
Just before the varsity match got underway, Ward announced the winning 50-50 raffle number, but no one in attendance came forward with a winning ticket. Moments later, as the match got underway, the officials took a timeout to clear-up a substitution issue with the table crew. Ward decided to fill the down time by having Raegan pull a new 50-50 number. She read the new number and Sharon, amidst sorting out the substituting issue with her fellow officials, produced the winning ticket from her pocket. She took the microphone and announced that she would be donating her winning sum back to the Spencer family, which drew a raucous ovation from the crowd and a big hug from Raegan.
“I was speechless,” said Raegan. “I just kept telling her ‘thank you’ and she told me to come see her after the match.”
“I didn’t really know what I was going to do after the match,” said Sharon. “My daughter was one year younger than Michael Collins (click to read about how Michael’s death became a national inspiration
) in high school and since his accident last year, I have been trying to find more ways to pay it forward.”
“I went and found her after the match. I figured she just wanted to talk to me about my brothers,” said Raegan. “Instead, she asked me when our Homecoming dance was and if I was going. I told her it was next week (Sept. 20) and that I was going.”
Ward was chatting with friends on the LeRoy coaching staff after the match when she noticed Raegan, who was visibly overcome with emotion.
“I asked her what was wrong,” said Ward. “She told me the official gave her a $100 dollar bill and told her to use it for a Homecoming dress. I couldn’t believe it. We were both in tears. I had trouble addressing the team when we got to our huddle.”
“She has been through so much as a sister and a volleyball player,” said Sharon of Raegan. “She has done so much for her family and I can’t imagine how hard it is for her to be away from them. With the medical costs for her brothers, I am sure things like Homecoming are the furthest things from their minds. She has given up a lot. I don’t want her to not enjoy her high school experience.”
As Raegan went dress shopping on Saturday, she did so with a new outlook on officials.
“Before this officials were the bad guys. Even if it’s the right call, if it went against your team, you were mad about it,” said Raegan. “You don’t think of them as being the normal, generous, caring people that they really are away from the game.”
Sharon Walker showed why the human element is so important in officiating, no make-up call necessary.
***For more information or to donate to the Spencer family, visit HopeForSpencerBoys.com