Ali Celentano looks remarkably composed for someone who has been embroiled, for the past half-hour, in a red-faced screaming match with the ponytailed co-ed standing a few feet away.
If this brouhaha were unfolding anywhere else, police would be dispatched. But we’re not anywhere else. We’re on a volleyball court. And so it goes. Separated by a net: thunk, roar, thunk, roar, the chorus intermittently accompanied by the hollow thud of a human body reverberating off the parquet floor.
Still, Celentano (TPR’15) finds time to smile. Not as a genuine expression of emotion, but as a tool of psychological warfare.
Because despite all of the aerial yoga and primal screams, volleyball is a cerebral battle at its core—like playing chess while treading water in the middle of a lake. Unfortunately, the Carnegie Mellon women’s volleyball team has been sinking for the past two sets. The anguish is amplified by the fact that their opponents are adorned in maroon and green. The No. 8-ranked women from Washington University in St. Louis are perpetual bullies of the Tartans.
Before long, the Tartans are a mere point away from total defeat. One bad touch and it’s all over. Many thoughts could go through Celentano’s head at this moment. Rage. Sadness. Resignation. Or simply, “Cripes, I have like three hours of economics homework after this.”
Instead, as the Wash U nemesis arches her back and calibrates the final blow, Celentano repeats a silent mantra: “I am a killer.”
Thunk. Roar. Thunk. Roar.
Celentano keeps treading. Whenever the big white moon finds its way into her orbit, she bends her quivering knees and floats up to meet it. This is the easy part. The hard work has already been done in the summer. The three-a-day practices. The box jumps. The squats. Day by day, each nausea-inducing workout adding another invisible millimeter to Celentano’s vertical. This is the silent moment she can savor. The slack-jawed opponents on the other side of the net can only crouch and wait. Celentano rises higher until she levitates with the moon, arm cocked. Their faces wrinkle.
The ball hits the parquet on the other side of the net before she even returns to earth. Serve after serve, the Tartans tread on. The bad touch never comes, and soon the roars coming from the other side of the net start to sound more and more desperate. The Tartans improbably fight back from the brink, forcing a fifth and deciding game.
As Celentano looks across the net, her ponytailed avatar in maroon and green is in a bad way. She goes through the empty platitudes of sports psychology—high-fives teammates, offers all sorts of we-got-this affirmation. But she doesn’t have this. She has something to lose. The hunted have become the hunters.
Moments later, after a brief victory lap, Celentano and her Tartan teammates will be a shoo-in selection for the NCAA Division III 2013 Championship tournament, just the third time in school history. Come fall, the cerebral battles—women’s volleyball season—will begin again.