LAND O'LAKES — The sophomore bounced the volleyball. She smacked it into a wall, watched it fly back and smacked it again.
Her high school identity, she thought, revolved around this, her status as an athlete. She smacked the ball again. So far, it wasn't going well.
"I thought, 'Great, people will see me as a failure,' " said Tyra Long, now a 6-foot senior middle hitter and star of the Land O'Lakes volleyball team. "I was probably the worst player you've ever seen."
Long was a cheerleader as a child but knew she wasn't going to stick with it. The big bows, the uniforms, the makeup — none of that interested her, and she wasn't very coordinated.
When she hit a growth spurt in middle school, her parents told her she needed to choose a sport and stick with it. Her height made the choice between volleyball and basketball, she said.
"But I hated basketball shorts," she added with a smile.
Long's life has pivoted in the three years she has played volleyball. She has changed from a tall but uncoordinated hitter to an athlete destined for a college team.
Few were shy about telling her how terrible she was as a sophomore. Despite never having played and barely knowing the game, she started for the Gators. A Land O'Lakes coach and one of the team captains told her she didn't deserve her varsity spot.
Years later, sitting outside the Gators' gym on senior night, Long frowned and glanced away as she recalled that season.
"I know I'm better than what other people see," she said. "I like proving people wrong."
Now she leads Land O'Lakes in kills (5.1 a game) and her team greets her with cheers. Before a game against Anclote last week, an announcer called the names of each player. Long, clad in pink with a white 86 emblazoned across the back, ran down the line of teammates, sideways so she faced each player, her hands out for high and low fives.
Nicole Kraning, a junior setter, said the loss of Long and four other starting seniors will make next year an uphill battle.
"Especially Tyra," she added. "She puts the team on her back every time."
It's a long way from the Long who was told she should quit, and this year has proved hanging on was worth it. Mississippi State, her dream school and father's alma mater, made an offer, to go along with those from Point University in West Point, Ga., and West Florida. But she committed to the Bulldogs and will sign the paperwork when she visits next month.
"It's gotten to the point where I don't even care if I play. Just being around the team is enough," Long said.
She expects to be on the bench for a while in Starkville. But her time will come, and in the meantime she said she's honored to be part of the team.
Her advice to future players, she said, is typical, maybe even cliche: Don't give up.
"I know, I know, but really," she said, jumping up from a stone bench and grinning before turning to go inside for senior night. "Even when it gets bad, and it will, it's going to get better."
Mary Kenney can be reached at [email protected].com or on Twitter @maryknews.