How do you tell the story of a team, a coach, and a player who suffered their greatest loss off of the court?
How do you tell the story of that same group that claimed their greatest victory off the court as well?
The story of the 2016 Salisbury University volleyball team is one of adversity and hope that, even in the darkest of moments, the light shines through. Light in the form of a coach who never wavered and a team that stood by and surrounded their teammate with love.
There are books on coaching, videos to watch, plays to learn and call, situations to evaluate, decisions to be made before a match and in game depending on how the match or contest is going or what your opponent throws at you. However, there are the few situations coaches and teams can't prepare for because there is no manual, no book, no video, no play.
This past season sophomore middle hitter Gabby Fox, a Francis Scott Key graduate, lost her father Bryan Fox very suddenly on the morning of Sept. 2. The team was traveling for a tournament at Gettysburg College when Sea Gulls coach Justin Turco was alerted of the news. With modern technology and the quickness that information can travel, Fox's mother, Dorothy, thought it was best to and asked Turco to take the phones away from his players as they neared the destination.
A "social experiment," he called it, as assistant coach Michelle Meehan walked the aisle of the bus taking each player's phone. They laughed and rolled their eyes at him as they handed over their devices.
Turco knew exactly what he was doing, making sure that it was in person that Gabby knew of the passing of her father as opposed to via text from a friend, family member, or teammate hearing it from someone else.
Suddenly, the questions about volleyball didn't matter anymore. The more important questions were: How do you tell Gabby? How is her family? When do you tell the team? Is there a game plan for this? How do you play a whole weekend with this lingering? How to go on?
A team's role
On Sept. 2, 2016, Salisbury boarded a bus headed for Gettysburg for a tournament, like they have many times before. Fox recalled the morning saying, "I was half awake on the bus while some of the girls did homework and Katie Stouffer was strumming her ukulele.
Meehan had taken the players' phones attempting their "social experiment" with the players to assure that Fox wasn't alerted to the news. When awoke she had multiple vague text messages on her Apple Watch and immediately went up to Turco and asked to call her mom.
He obliged, and while her mom didn't tell her exactly what had happened she did tell her, "I love you."
When they arrived to Gettysburg, Fox's brother and mother were there waiting to tell her the news.
"'Why?' was the biggest thought running through my head to be honest," Fox said. "Why did this have to happen? What will the family dynamic be now? How will my mom, brother, and I move forward? How did this happen? How is the rest of my family?"
After Fox told her teammates team what had happened after their first match, they came back with what she described as "puffy noses and red faces." Parents were wondering what had been said to them outside the gym at Gettysburg. With the news now spreading through the parents it became less about the tournament and more about the emotions of their teammate and how they could help her.
"It was text messages, it was little notes ... 'Hey! Let's go get ice cream' or 'Hey let's just talk about life and classes,'" Fox said.
They helped make Fox feel loved by just being there for her but not forcing conversations about what had happened. There were many different ways Fox's teammates rallied around her and helped her through this moment and it wasn't just after the death of her father but even more so as the year progressed they just reminded her they were there, who she was, and that she was loved.
Two text messages that stand out were sent to her by teammates — Katie Stouffer on Christmas Eve, and Sydney Davis on Christmas Day.
"They reminded me I wasn't alone," Fox recalled. "They again made me feel so loved and cared for and reminded me I wasn't going through this alone."
It was just an extremely "special" feeling knowing her teammates cared that much about her.
One of her toughest days, Fox recalled, she just didn't want to leave the locker room and needed time to "break" and get out emotion before heading out to practice.
"I remember just wanting to sit and be alone for a little bit and let my emotions out after a tough day before heading out to practice," Fox said. "Coach Turco sent Nicole [Venturelli] in to just sit with me."
She and Venturelli, a Liberty graduate, are roommates and best friends, as well as teammates.
"It was a relief to just have her there and she knew she didn't have to say anything, her just being there was comforting enough for me," Fox said.
Turco and Meehan
What could I have done better? Is there something I need to change in the scheme? What else can I do to help you girls?
These are the questions Turco normally asks his players in their individual meetings.
On Sept. 2, 2016, those questions didn't quite matter anymore, they became an afterthought at least for that day. Instead of "what can I do better" it became "what can I do?"
Arguably the toughest moment of Turco's young coaching career sat in front of him and his staff and he needed to find a way to rally his team, comfort a player, and keep his emotions in check while doing all of it, plus coach a tournament and season.
Gabby was recruited to Salisbury in 2014 but suffered a torn ACL during her senior season at Francis Scott Key, which would cause just about any school to pull an offer — but not Salisbury, and not Turco.
"I remember calling him to tell him and he told me not to worry and that I would have a spot here and be part of this team and he was excited to have me," Fox said.
In a way even before she was an official member of the Gulls, Turco stood by her in a tough situation and certainly wasn't going to let that change now.
As the days moved on, Fox understandably had to be with her family and no one was more supportive of that than Turco. As the funeral arrangements were made Fox was needed at home, meaning she would need to leave practices, miss practices and days at Salisbury. Through it all, Turco never changed his attitude of "family first."
Meehan made sure Fox knew how much the team supported her by always sending a text or a note to ask how she was, how her family was, if she would like to come to the match, or even when she asked if Fox would like the team to come to the funeral and that a lot of the girls wanted to surprise Fox by simply just showing up. Meehan reminded Fox how special being part of this team and family is — and it certainly showed.
Finding a 'family'
"On my recruiting visit I remember Coach Turco asking me what I wanted most in a program," Fox said. "I told him 'I want a family!' He sat back in his chair and just smiled."
Fox recalls the conversation as if it were yesterday sitting in Turco's office during her official visit to Salisbury.
She received support from other people and teams from Salisbury. The field hockey team all signed a card to simply show that the players were thinking about her and her family.
There is a family mentality that is both preached and executed upon by the coaches at Salisbury. They, like so many others at the Division III level, make sure that their players buy into the aspect of the program because that is part that is most important. It is the part that is most valuable to a program and can have a profound impact on winning or losing but even more importantly on the camaraderie of the team, which can translate to winning or losing.
As she looks back now just over seven months removed from that day, Fox recalls a coaching staff and team that helped her through the most difficult and darkest time of her life.
This story is one that will be told again and again, and Fox has one person in particular she will tell the story to when he is old enough — Brady Turco, the newborn son of Turco and his wife Tiffany.
"They were some of the coolest people I ever met," Fox said. "They are some of the smartest, most athletic, greatest looking people ever, and they love unconditionally. It's truly been an honor to play with them and for them develop into my family. They are part of this story forever; it doesn't end with the tragedy of my dad passing away.
"It's a story of hope that will be told throughout my life. It is about this group of girls and coaches that kept me where I needed to be."
Justin Farrell is an assistant Sports Information Director at Salisbury University.