The route to the achievements as told by an older sister.
Mataya Ward reached her 1000th career kill the second game into her senior season and just recently surpassed her 1000th career dig. Though many have seen her play, few have actually seen what it took for her to get here.
When the Beacon asked me to feature my sister for an article, he said don’t hold anything back and share the whole family story. Well, I do have an inside scoop on the family, but it’s a bit hard for me to feel I can give an honest write up without appearing boastful. I am a very proud older sister, don’t get me wrong, but people assume a sister will always be biased. “Who better than a sister?” Doug said, which is true. I can give you the whole story. Front to back. I can tell you the whole process of what people didn’t see, not just the end product as most news stories cover.
For the past 15 years it seems our family name has become synonymous with Belle Fourche volleyball, but we wouldn’t have had any impact at all without some great teammates and coaching. I want to start by making these things clear. There were standout athletes before us, with us, and there will be standout athletes long after we are gone. We aren’t anything so unique and special in our family. We just love the sport and doing what is required to be good at it. Loree Schlichtemeier has also been an outstanding coach for each of us. Even within our family, she has pushed each of us in different ways to become our best, and we all have a fond spot for her in our heart. She challenged us to rise up and be great and we were able to answer the call. Now we have great memories of volleyball and got to have some pretty cool opportunities. Without her, there’s a good chance this story wouldn’t be here to be written.
To put some statistical perspective on the 1000 kills milestone, Mataya has a pretty high hitting percentage on average. An attack only counts as a kill if it directly scores the point. If the ball is kept in play, it doesn’t count as a kill. Nearly every kill needs to come from someone’s pass, a set, and then drop on the opponent’s side. Taking Mataya’s kills minus her errors then dividing it by every attempt to attack the ball, her average is usually +0.250. Baseball people, it is calculated similar to batting averages. But what that means, is that she only gets a kill 25% of the time after having taken off a kill per error made. 1000 career kills means at least 5000 in-game attack attempts at the varsity level. Getting that good requires at least five times that many swings in practice and open gyms, and thousands more in her prep to become a varsity level player. Then you need good teammates to even get those opportunities, a good coach, make the team as an underclassman, and pretty much never sit out more than a few weeks from an injury. What is behind 1000 career kills really is a lot of volleyball and a lot of chips falling the right way. A lot of great and deserving volleyball players don’t reach 1000 career kills.
For those of you who do not know, Mataya Ward is my youngest sister. The youngest of 4 sisters in itself gives her a bit of extra spunk. She doesn’t like to be outdone by any one of us. People used to worry about her trying to “live up to her three older sisters.” Truthfully, I knew there was nothing to worry about there. She’s been content to be her own person since she took her first breath. And to her, that person is someone better than all her sisters combined at everything she does. She used to cry when she lost at board games and stay up all night learning rope tricks to be able to do something that we couldn’t do. When our sister Sierra rolled past her 1000th career kill, it became just another stepping stone Mataya wanted to reach on the way to becoming the best she could be.
I can’t count the number of times we rented a court at the Rec center in the winter and spring time to get to play with a net. We invited our friends and had college girls come over to give us some pointers. Sometimes there were enough people to get a little scrimmage going and sometimes it was just us. Either way, we found get as many reps as possible. When we built our new house and got to vote on what we would do with the dirt patch where the old one used to be, we unanimously voted for a sand volleyball court. Then we could play over a net anytime we wanted.
I was blessed with a varsity jersey the end of my Freshman year and unexpectedly got some playoff experience. That atmosphere really enlightened me to the fun that volleyball could be. I hadn’t even seen a game before joining the 7th grade team, and basketball and horses were my main focuses up until that fateful night at St Thomas More. Suddenly, I had a new-found love. My Sophomore season ended three games in when I broke my foot, but I learned as much as I could from the bench and came back in the off-season to get to be a part of the 2012 and 2013 State Qualifying teams. KeAnna also got to tag along the first year in 2012 and then was a regular player in rotation for the 2013 season. Both years we came in seeded first and managed to hold onto fourth place. I was honored to be selected to the All-Tournament team during both state appearances and a First-Team All-Stater, sweetening my memories of the experiences.
The following year, KeAnna took over full-time setting duties and Sierra’s cannon of an arm earned her a spot on the bench as a Freshman. By the end of the first month, Sierra was a starting outside hitter. I continued my playing career at Black Hills State. Sierra and KeAnna were blessed with two full varsity seasons together, but were unable to secure a return trip to state during that time.
During her career as a setter, KeAnna reached 1000 assists. However, that isn’t as widely celebrated since it isn’t as statistically difficult to attain. A setter’s assist stat is earned nearly, if not every, time one of the other 5 players gets a kill. KeAnna actually was a strong hitter, as well, but her personality and natural leadership made her much more valuable as volleyball’s equivalent to the quarterback. She didn’t take the responsibility lightly. I said the 1000 assist milestone wasn’t as difficult to meet statistically, but earning the role and being a good varsity setter is. Next to KeAnna’s bed all through high school was a weighted setter ball. Even during the off-season, she did at least 100 sets before falling asleep. She committed herself to knowing the shape of that ball so that she could place it wherever her hitters needed it to score. Having a built in setter in the family really sped up the hitting improvement for the rest of us in the family. KeAnna doesn’t have the state-wide accolades in volleyball that the rest of us have gotten, but she’s truly the MVP of our family. None of us would have gotten where we were without her setting us over and over on our off days. Oftentimes, we hashed out new plays or techniques through someone’s tears of frustration.
Mataya got to unofficially join the Varsity team for Sierra’s Junior and Senior seasons. A 5th and 6th grader, Mataya earned her seat on the bench by filling up water bottles and fanning the girls during timeouts. When Sierra reached her 1000th career kill milestone, Mataya was given the honor of presenting her older sister the game ball. When the team made it to state, she got to sit on the bench then, too. Thinking the little girl would be starry eyed from her front-row seat in the Barnett Field House, we asked Mataya “how was it?” Her reply was, “I saw some missed opportunities.” I knew then that she wasn’t going to be satisfied easily and nothing would distract her from her goals.
Sierra finished First Team All State and on the All Tournament team with an impressive 34 kills in one three set match. Her season stats also set her up as a South Dakota Miss Volleyball nominee. My Black Hills State team made the RMAC playoffs tournament for the first time in Division II history. Mataya was right there through it all.
You can imagine how frustrating middle school volleyball would be for a girl who has watched three state tournaments, DI and DII collegiate playoffs in person, and been in the bleachers at a myriad of sporting events since she was a toddler. Mataya’s brain was fully understanding of the entire complexities of the game, while her body was not yet capable of doing it. Nevertheless, she persisted and practiced A LOT until she felt perfect. She also learned how to set realistic goals, be a good teammate, and have sportsmanship and class. She learned a few lessons on staying out of the drama behind team sports and just showing up to work hard and play the game. Those are all just as necessary as the sport-specific skills. earned her spot on the Broncs’ starting lineup her freshman year, she never forgot her lessons learned nor stopped expecting perfection.
Even now as a senior, Mataya continues to push herself. Just last week, she was upset with her performance passing a ball in practice. She conned our dad into serving at her on the sand court. She never did get satisfied, but the sun went down and there aren’t any lights on the court. I don’t think the lack of court lights was an oversight in the building plans. Well played, Mom. Point is, Mataya is never satisfied. Content, yes. Satisfied, no. There’s a difference and BOTH are just as important. Whenever we hear a parent say their kid keeps them out after practice to practice some more, our whole family smiles. “Yep. She’s got it.” Mom will say and we all agree. If she keeps it up and the family keeps supporting her, we will be watching her dominate on the Bronc court in the future.
This also wouldn’t be possible without our great parents. Science proves that athleticism is a genetic tendency. Our dad had several college offers for football and rodeo. Stashed at the bottom of our mom’s hope chest is a stack of letters offering her spots on various college teams. One was even USD’s volleyball roster. She also proudly set and will forever hold the Career Kill record at her high school. It helps that the program started her Sophomore year and then the school shut down just a few years following her graduation, but we let her have that one. Despite the good genes, we weren’t “gifted” greatness. Science also shows that athleticism is just a tendency by genetics. How many athletes have you seen throw away their talent or were unable to perform because of performance anxiety? There are hundreds, if not thousands, of athletes underperforming daily. When it comes to athletics, your DNA just sets the range of possibilities. Where you fall within that range depends on a whole factor of other things. I feel that your work ethic and mental toughness are two of the biggest contributors. That’s something we also have our parents and lifestyle to thank for.
More important than genetics, work ethic, and mental toughness, our parents gave us opportunities to be great and found us chances to get better at whatever our passion was. They fully supported us in a positive way no matter what. I can count on one hand the number of games my mom missed of any sport from 7th grade through my Senior year. She even pulled a horse trailer with a bottle filly to a rainy track meet hours away. That’s some serious dedication. Especially so when you realize that this is the first volleyball season since 2010 that there weren’t at least two of us playing on two different teams in our family. Our parents aren’t perfect by all means, but win or lose Mom says, “good game,” and Dad gives a hug. That’s it. No coaching, complaining, criticism, or inflating our ego. Enjoy it or learn from it, but you can’t go back to it. The sooner you move forward to getting ready for the next chance, the more prepared you’ll be for it.
Mataya made some sacrifices. She didn’t get to go camping, or to the lake, or hang out with friends as often as she would have liked. None of us did. Don’t get me wrong, we all know a balance of fun and work. We filled the car every time there was a good, country dance within 50 miles. But most of the time our fun was playing or practicing sports. I guess it would be for anyone who often has to be in the hayfield throwing square bales or fixing pallets in the heat. So while it’s not always fun to do extra workouts, read mental toughness books, get those extra reps by yourself against the wall, or throw up some shots against the barn basketball hoop, each is quite a bit more fun than the work that was waiting for us. Practice for sports was the only excuse we could use to put off our chores a little longer. Maybe that was a psychology trick our parents used to get us to practice more. I don’t know. However, after the years of extra reps started paying off, we found out it is REALLY fun to be good at something you are passionate about and have worked hard at. That made us work even harder. It’s this way of life and mindset that has not only made Mataya a standout on the court, but also allows her to feel proud of all the things she accomplishes.
To those girls and boys out there after dark just trying to perfect that skill, trying for 5 in a row free throws, just one more perfect spiral, another mile, a few more shots on goal; may you keep getting after it. You’ll never regret working hard for your dreams, but you may regret not working hard enough. Put in the work that people don’t see.
So I honor you, Mataya, and congratulate you on not only 1000 kills and digs, but more so on the ten thousand hours of hard work you have put in to becoming the person and player you are today. May you remember to soak it all in and enjoy the ride. I’m grateful to have been a part of your story.