A year after being cut, Gianna Lincoln stars

By Walter Villa

CHICAGO, Ill. - When you are cut from a team, the coach doesn’t use a knife.

It just feels that way.

What had been your identity – “I’m a volleyball player” – has been shaken.

Your friends on the team haven’t disappeared, but what bonded you has vanished, and you can’t help but feel like an outsider.

All the work you put into the sport suddenly feels like a waste, and your dream of earning a college volleyball scholarship seems like a cruel joke.

Gianna Lincoln of Joilet Catholic Academy (Joilet, Ill.) felt all those things.

The 5-foot-11 senior is now a starting middle blocker for a team ranked 26thin the POWERADE FAB 50. She helped Joliet (15-0) go 2-0 Friday on the first day of the Asics Challenge, which concludes on Saturday.

But as a junior, Lincoln was told, in essence, she wasn’t good enough to make her high school team. She had tried out as an outside hitter, but Joliet had Loyola-Chicago commits Kelly Feigh and Morgan Reardon ahead of her at the position.

“I was very surprised and really upset,” said Lincoln, who cried immediately after seeing the 2010 roster posted on the wall. “I didn’t know what to do with myself.”

After getting the news, Lincoln didn’t call anyone, at least not immediately. She drove home alone, accompanied only by what seemed like a million thoughts running through her head.

“How am I going to make it in college if I’m not on the team my junior year of high school?” Lincoln asked herself. “I didn’t know how I was going to explain that to a college. I didn’t know if they would understand.”

Over the next few days, Lincoln’s teammates called and texted, offering support and urging her not to quit.

Still, Lincoln said that when she hung out with her friends on the team, the encounters were “awkward.” The conversations naturally turned to things that happened at practice -- things Lincoln was no longer a part of.

After a couple of weeks, though, Lincoln came to the realization she was not ready to give up the sport she had played since fifth grade. Instead, she went to talk to Joliet coach Christine Scheibe, who suggested Lincoln try out next year as a middle hitter, where there would be less of a logjam.

She also told Lincoln to improve her defense, her serve receive and her on-court communication.

“I hate cut day,” Scheibe said. “It’s not easy to tell a girl who has been playing for years and years that you don’t have room for her on the roster.

“But Gianna handled it so well, wanting to know how she can improve, that it left me with an open mind that, ‘OK, maybe she has potential.’ ”

Lincoln used the year off from high school volleyball in a productive manner. Three days a week, she practiced with and against the boys at her club team, Sports Performance.

Lincoln found that her defense improved against the boys’ hard-hitting attacks. With the net a foot higher, she noticed her leaping ability got better, too.

Still, when it came time to try out for Joliet’s 2011 team, Lincoln was nervous. Her coach noticed and told her not to play it safe.

“She was worried about getting cut again,” Scheibe said. “Once she let go of that, her game came around.”

Lincoln no longer feels awkward around Feigh, Reardon and the rest of the girls. The other standouts are Lauren Robertson, a 5-9 senior setter who committed to Evansville; senior libero Jill Hickey, 6-0 senior middle hitter Hailey Pennington and 5-10 senior setter Emily Schoenstedt, an aspiring doctor.

That core group will be bidding this season for its third state title in the past four years.

Last year, Lincoln was in the stands when Joliet had match point in the state final, only to lose to Mater Dei (Breese, Ill.) 15-25, 25-18, 26-24.

It was yet another painful moment for Lincoln.

“I couldn’t believe we lost,” Lincoln said. “I had the same emotion as the girls on the court. I felt I could have been out there to help.”

She’s out there now, making a difference on her team.

“Gianna came back with fire and desire, and it’s really inspiring,” Scheibe said. “It shows that if there is something you really want, you should go after it and do everything in your power to make it happen.”

Lincoln, who plans to study psychology or criminal justice as well as play volleyball in college, said she would be pleased if her story inspires others.

“Just because you get cut doesn’t mean you are not a good volleyball player,” she said. “And it doesn’t mean you can’t come back the next year and make the team.”