The Battle Creek Central High School volleyball program has fallen on hard times in recent years.
The Bearcats haven’t won a district title since 2006, and they compete in the perennially tough Southwest Michigan Athletic Conference against some of the top Class A programs in the state. The team has had four head coaches in the last four years alone.
Wins may continue to be hard to come by, but senior outside hitter Mya Trevino says this season has been unlike any in her four-year varsity career — thanks to new coach Winnie Lejukole.
“This is the closest the team has ever been,” Trevino said. “She’s doing a great job. I know it doesn’t seem like it because a lot of people don’t pay attention to us since we’re Central and they don’t think we’re good, but she’s putting a lot of heart out there and giving her all to us. I just want to say it’s great and I love to see a coach like that. She’s doing awesome.”
A WORLD AWAY
Lejukole, 27, was born in South Sudan, where she lived until the age of 3. As her country was going through the Second Sudanese Civil War, she moved to Kyoto, Japan, after her father received a scholarship to attend graduate school.
Although she was too young to remember her time there, Lejukole has heard stories from her mother about what life was like as a toddler in war-torn South Sudan.
“When I was 3 years old, I was able to listen to sirens and go ahead and take shelter by myself and I already knew what to do in certain situations,” Lejukole said. “I thought that was crazy. Telling me all these crazy stories about, one time a bomb dropped by our house and our favorite tree burned to ashes. Things like that. I never experienced that, but I know it’s really real. My extended family still lives back home, so I hear tons of stuff like that all the time.”
It was in Japan where Lejukole took up the game of volleyball, and said she originally hated the sport due to her school’s high-intensity and regimented practices.
She and her family moved to Iowa when she was 13. She didn’t speak any English at the time, so fitting in was difficult. Eventually, the skills she learned on the volleyball court in Japan presented a chance for her American peers to see a different, more confident side to her personality.
“That’s part of the reason I made a lot of friends. People started being like, ‘OK, she’s not always shy,'” Lejukole said. “I felt like my personality in the classroom and on the gym floor were so much different… It kind of opened up doors for me. I wasn’t really shy anymore, because people said, ‘She is really good at this.’ I’m like, yeah I am good at something. So that’s how I fit in and made friends.”
Lejukole played two years of college volleyball as a libero at Southwestern Community College in Iowa, where she was was named her school’s Female Athlete of the Year. She continued her volleyball career for the University of Iowa club team until graduating in 2013.
Lejukole accepted a job with the Meiji Corporation in Battle Creek and last year became the head coach for the Parma Western seventh grade volleyball team.
When the opportunity to coach the Battle Creek Central varsity opened up, Lejukole took it. She said people with the school were straight-forward with her about the challenge that lay ahead, but she was up for it.
“I told them from day one, winning is great, but a lot of my girls were missing that team bonding and team experience and what volleyball is supposed to do to help you grow as a person, as an adult, they were missing that — big time,” Lejukole said. “You should be going to team bonding, having a volleyball girls get-together night kind of thing. They don’t have any of that stuff. That kind of makes me really sad because those were the type of things I looked forward to in volleyball when I played — that’s what pushed me to really want to play sports; that friendship and relationship that comes out of volleyball. If they can find that, I would be really happy.”
The Bearcats have found a bit of success on the court this season, recording a pair of wins at their own invitational on Sept. 17, to improve their record to 2-11 overall.
Still, Lejukole said this season is about building a structure, and success won’t be measured in wins and losses.
“A successful season is to feel like a team. That’s what we’re missing,” she said. “We are great individually — I keep saying that to my girls. But I feel like my girls are so used to losing that they don’t know their potential. So my goal is to somehow build that potential from the inside so the girls are confident enough to say, ‘Oh my gosh, I am good.'”
According to Trevino, Lejukole has come a long way in accomplishing that goal.
“She wants us to work together and to get us to focus more and all that,” she said. “She is one of the best that’s come around Central. She just cares about the sport and cares about us.”
Nick Buckley can be reached at email@example.com or 269-966-0652. Follow him on Twitter:@NickJBuckley