NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. -- From where Rachel Hollivay sat last week -- in street clothes, on the Essence bench in New Orleans, sealing her team's ignominious fate of being bounced way too early from its own tournament -- salvation seemed light years away.
"I missed two games with my team," Hollivay said of disciplinary action taken during the Basketball on the Bayou, "when I know I should have been there for them."
Hollivay, a 6-foot-4 post ranked No. 6 in the 2012 class by ESPN HoopGurlz, is starting to see her future a little more clearly now. For one thing, after suffering an injury to her left eye in a car accident, her vision is starting to improve. For another, the lesson about being there for others also is coming into focus.
Wednesday night, when Essence needed her, Hollivay was there. Thursday morning, her teammates needed her again, and she came through once more. Two pre-tournament favorites up, two downed by a surprising Essence team that leads its Nike Nationals girls' basketball pool with a spotless, 4-0 record.
Upset No. 1, 44-43 over the NYC Gauchos, came when Hollivay improbably was bear-hugged by a defender at the buzzer and was able to complete a three-point play. No. 2, 51-50 over much-ballyhooed Boo Williams Summer League, was delivered courtesy of a Hollivay free throw, then her last-second, defensive swat.
The scorecard reads two games taken away and two games given back by Hollivay, but things remain unsquared on the Essence ledger. The lease in coach Kimberly Davis-Powell's doghouse is longer term. Hollivay came off the bench for all four Nike Nationals games and will continue to do so, for the time being, according to Davis-Powell, because team rules, set in far less-emotional times, mandate it.
"When we get out of pool play, my staff and I will sit down and reassess the situation," the Essence coach said.
Hollivay describes the impetus for her benching as "stuff, drama. I let other people get into my head. I'm gone from it now."
Though her course of action was clear, Davis-Powell said she stewed mightily over the punishment. She set up a conference call with three former Essence players who now are playing college ball. She asked them about disciplinary consequences on high school teams and "being fair but still getting the point across and not breaking anyone's spirit."
So while Hollivay might not start games, she certainly closes them. "I'm not crazy," Davis-Powell said.
During a week when hype, expectations and pressure run amok, Davis-Powell says she was trying to look beyond the basketball and take a stand, not only for her team, but mostly for a young woman still finding her way in the world. Rachel Hollivay, Davis-Powell reminds, is from small-town Columbus, Miss., whose population is just less than 25,000. "She is from a little place," the coach said of Hollivay, "and she's experiencing a lot of big things. "
"Rachel is a great kid with great energy," Davis-Powell added. "She is considered a leader in this program and, with the younger kids, she has to step up and be that leader. As much as we all love basketball and love to win, her welfare, away from basketball, is much more important."
So as each steamy, Southern day passes, a chastened teenager learns more and more about herself. On Thursday night, Myeisha Hall was Essence's hero with a couple late threes against the Fairfax Stars, but it was Hollivay who came through with a jump hook that gave her team the lead for good. Her protective goggles fogged up and on the bench, Hollivay found herself on the left low box, recently a literal blind spot for her. When she wheeled and spied the goal, it wasn't fuzzy like it has been, so she launched and made a shot she thought had been permanently stricken from her repertoire.
Hollivay says the vision in her left eye has improved to about 50 percent of what it used to be, even without a prescribed contact lens. She thinks maybe it's time to abandon that lens for good. She thinks the same thing about some old habits. Clarity may not be so far away, after all.
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A member of the Parade All-American Selection Committee, he formerly coached girl's club basketball, was the editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.