Palm Springs volleyball coach Gary Wilhoite stood in the main Palm Springs gym nearly 10 years ago coaching his team, but what he remembers most from those days was the sound of a volleyball beating up against the wall in the other gym behind the bleachers.
The eldest Lake sister, Melissa, was on the court then playing for Wilhoite, but his most successful prodigy, her elementary school-aged kid sister, was getting her reps in, too.
“I remember when she was a little girl and her older sister Melissa was playing for me, and she was back in the back beating volleyballs against the wall,” Wilhoite said. “We were like ‘Who is that little kid?’ “
It was Mary Lake, the star who would finally take Wilhoite to the CIF Southern Section finals after seven trips to the semis. The standout player, who would help her Palm Springs teammates hoist a CIF SS trophy as a junior. The on-court hero who would be named the CIF SS volleyball MVP in her division with one year of high school yet to play.
And now, The Desert Sun’s Female Athlete of the Year for the 2014-15 school year.
“She’s been phenomenal in all stages of her career, even when she was little because she’s been around volleyball since she was born, but she put the time in,” Wilhoite said. “She was always in the gym. She always loved to play in the sand. I knew what I had, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed for so long.”
Mary, the youngest of six Lake siblings, first remembers grabbing a volleyball at age five. Soon, she was playing in the family’s garage for hours by herself, bugging Melissa and her older sister Sarah to teach her the ropes of the game they all loved.
“When I was little, I was hyperactive, like ADD always,” Mary said. “I didn’t like to play with dolls. I wanted to be outdoors … I was always bothering them. I was the annoying little sister that always wanted to play sports with them.”
Soon, that annoying little sister joined a club volleyball team at Desert Sports Volleyball Club before making the Palm Springs varsity squad as a freshman in the libero position who does most of the passing.
But in her first season in a match against Xavier Prep, one of Lake’s teammates hurt her ankle, and Wilhoite moved Lake to center to finish things out, a rare match the team lost before losing the Desert Valley League title to the Saints.
Libero has always been Lake’s natural position —and one she will play while on scholarship in college at Brigham Young University in Utah —but she’s never minded switching things up when it’s in the best interest of her teammates.
“I just think to be a good volleyball player, you should be able to do it all. Every position helps another position,” Lake said. “I had to do what was best for my team and not necessarily myself.”
After a so-so freshman season, Lake and the Indians again found their form when she was a sophomore, winning the DVL and making a run to the CIF-SS semis after coming back from two sets down to No. 2 seed Yorba Linda. But Lake said the team ran out of gas from the five-set match, and they eventually lost to Mayfield in three sets — making them just another Palm Springs team that couldn’t make it over the hump.
After losing a plethora of seniors, Wilhoite didn’t even think the presence of Lake this past year was enough to compete for a league title.
He may have underestimated Lake’s perseverance. She simply didn’t want to lose anymore.
“Mary wouldn’t let the ball hit the floor,” he said. “As a captain, she really did a good job doing the things well she could control and blowing off the things that were out of her control … For her to stay so positive through all the down times, thinking ‘We can do this, no matter what the score is’ showed maturity beyond her years.”
The Indians’ run to a CIF SS title included overcoming a 7-0 deficit in the final set against Arcadia in the semis, volleyball’s version of the Red Sox coming back from three games down to the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS.
It just doesn’t happen, but it did.
It took days, if not weeks, for the CIF SS title to sink in for Lake, who had always wanted to win one for Wilhoite but didn’t ever think her team had it in them.
The secret to the team’s success would be uncovered weeks down the road; Lake’s performance a standout in the outcome. Turns out, they had one of the best volleyball players in southern California touching the ball every possession. Lake blushes at the thought and brushes off praise.
“I’m not going to say it was horrible,” said Lake about her CIF SS MVP distinction.
“It was great, but it was more of a team effort.”
Whatever Lake tells you, her trophy case from this past season tells the truth. She claims she doesn’t seek the titles or the limelight, but when you have as much determination and have put in as many hours in the gym as Lake has — combined with some great volleyball genes — doing your best means simply means you’ll be better than everyone else.
“Anyone can be good at volleyball, but it’s your mindset, it’s your wanting to go after every ball,” Lake said. “I don’t care what my stats were last game. I care about winning the game as a team, so in doing that, I don’t get inside my head. I think about the game itself. It helps myself play to my fullest.”
With her junior year wrapped up, Lake has already started prep for her swan song as an Indian. Being named the top female athlete in the Coachella Valley is great, she says —”I didn’t even realize they had athlete of the year” – but along with her championship ring and CIF SS MVP, it’s just a reminder of what she has to live up to.
Being such a decorated athlete as a junior doesn’t mean much if you don’t go back and do it again as a senior.
“People always ask me ‘Are you going to do it again?’ and my response is that it’s not a decision,” she said.
“It’s not just that we decide we’re going to win CIF. It’s a team effort. It’s months and months of preparation. It’s focus. It’s hard work…I’m excited for this season, but I’m nervous.”
Volleyball coach Gary Wilhoite: “As a captain, she really did a good job doing the things well she could control and blowing off the things that were out of her control … For her to stay so positive through all the down times, thinking ‘We can do this, no matter what the score is’ showed maturity beyond her years.”
More on Lake
Pre-game ritual: Jumping up …spastically to get my body ready to play
Pet-peeve: When I don’t win
Favorite TV show: “How It’s Made” or “How I Met Your Mother”
Three words that describe you: Spastic, competitive and anxious
Favorite late-night snack: Anything with peanut butter
Athlete you most look up to: I don’t have a specific athlete, but I really look up to my mom, even though she doesn’t play sports
Future plans: BYU to play volleyball, majoring in calculus or chemistry