Rising above the net

DALE CITY — It all begins with an accurate pass to the front row and a set from her best friend. The rest is God-given talent.

When it comes to playing volleyball, Katie Oakes considers herself truly blessed. The Evangel Christian School junior believes that’s the only way to explain her remarkable two-year ascent from novice player to Division I college prospect.

“It’s only by God’s grace that I have this talent,” she said. “I wasn’t really expecting anything. I knew it would be a lot of hard work.”

When she transferred to Evangel Christian from Bethlehem Baptist just before the start of her freshman year, Oakes wasn’t thinking about becoming a star middle hitter. Back then, she didn’t even know how to play the game.

Leaning back in a chair on the stage that doubles as a control center in Evangel’s gymnasium, Oakes finds it hard not to laugh at the memory of her first day on the court.

“All that was going through my mind was confusion. I was overwhelmed,” she said following a recent two-hour practice. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t even know where to stand.”

That wasn’t the case for very long. The personable Oakes became an instant hit with her new teammates after accepting an invitation to Evangel Volleyball Camp and she quickly struck a bond with setter Terri Slade.

“You should have seen us the first year. We kept banging into each other,” Slade recalled. “Now, it’s just perfect. Her middle hitting has improved tremendously. I know when she hits the ball she’ll hit it 90 percent of the time for a kill. No one is that reliable.”

Certainly no one in Evangel Christian’s storied 20-year history.

Oakes’ hitting percentage is actually closer to 45 percent, but that is still a team record. She has a chance this fall to break Robyn Nicholson’s single-season record of 249 kills and, before she heads off to college, Oakes could also surpass Nicholson’s career record of 759 kills.

“She’s the first legitimate Division I caliber boy or girl athlete we’ve ever had at Evangel,” Eagles coach Rick Moore said.

The only question seems to be whether Oakes will be a hitter or setter in college.

Oakes spent the summer learning to set for the NOVA Stars Junior Olympic 16-&-under club team. At Evangel, however, she is strictly a hitter — one who can spike from the front and back row. She was the co-MVP of last year’s 23-5 Old Dominion Association of Church Schools state championship squad and Oakes began her third varsity season last month with 383 career kills.

“She picked it up faster than any girl I’ve ever seen, especially hitting and blocking,” Moore said. “In two weeks she had the approach down to where she was a good hitter.”

A three-sport star for the Eagles, Oakes once thought that soccer would be her thing. But volleyball and basketball are more suited to her 6-foot frame.

“Soccer was my first love, but I grew too tall for it,” said Oakes, who began playing soccer in second grade.

“School and soccer were my life back then,” she said. “I knew pretty quick I wouldn’t be able to play long because I saw myself getting bigger than every girl around me.”

Oakes even stood out in church. That’s actually where Moore discovered her two years ago.

“Basically, he said Hi, I’m Rick Moore the volleyball coach. Welcome to church,” Oakes said. “He left it at that, but then I got a phone call.”

After the phone call, Moore wound up with two players instead of one. Oakes and her older half sister, Kellye Philpott, both joined the team and Evangel went on to win 19 matches and the Mideast Region American Association of Christian Schools championship.

“I worked a lot with my big sister that year. She always took time out to help me with my game,” Oakes said. “If I need help, I still go to my sister.”

These days, Oakes is more often the tutor. She is the junior class president, editor of the school newspaper and a fountain of encouragement for fellow middle hitter Amanda Leatch. She has also been known to spend an extra half hour after practice working out with another fledgling Eagles star, junior outside hitter Danni Howe.

It is Oakes’ relationship with Slade, however, that best defines her career. In basketball, Slade is the play-making guard and Oakes is the MVP center. There is a similar chemistry on the volleyball court.

“Terri means the world to me. She’s always there for me,” Oakes said.

When a game or match is on the line, Slade and Oakes are typically in the middle of the action.

“Normally, I try to get the ball to everyone, but when we’re in a tight situation or the score is close I know I can get the ball to Katie and she’ll come through,” said Slade, who traditionally celebrates an Oakes kill with a double high-five and a hip bump.

“I’ve been doing that with her since freshman year,” Oakes explained. “It’s a thing I have with Terri. It’s our little bond, a symbol of our appreciation and respect for each other.”

While Slade is on pace to set a new career assists record, Oakes is just beginning to reach her potential. She had 187 kills her rookie season and 196 as a sophomore.

She accomplished all that without the benefit of a quick hit or a back row spike. After playing for the NOVA Stars and attending her third George Mason University summer camp, Oakes added both of those weapons to Evangel’s offense.

That versatility is one reason the Eagles are off to a 9-0 start and why Oakes has quickly emerged as the area’s premier middle hitter.

“It’s been a fun experience,” said Oakes, who has 154 kills and 28 blocks in nine matches this fall — all Evangel wins. “I would love to play in college. It just depends on whether I get an offer or not.”

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