Leah Gagliardi was born with a hole in her heart. Now she tears holes in opposing defenses.
By Brandon HENSLEY
It hasn’t started yet, but it’s coming. The server throws the ball up in the air, extends her shoulder and whacks it across the net to the other side, where it meets the middle back. Getting closer now. The ball is passed to the setter, who turns her hands up as if she’s giving God a two-handed high five, and that’s when the outside hitter starts to feel it. She runs up, surveying where she wants to smash the ball, to smash it so hard that once it hits the ground it will move the court a foot closer to sea level. The ball is lifted by the setter and the hitter plants her feet, right foot first, then left, bends her knees, and jumps.
She extends her elbows, her arm way over the net now. It’s time – time to kill. Two blockers from the other side jump simultaneously, but it’s no use. The hitter’s hand meets the ball, only for a second and then, blast off. Or blast down, because the ball comes zooming down to whack the court in between the holes in the defense at such velocity it’s a wonder some defenders don’t scream in terror for a second when they see it coming.
What the outside hitter has just done, beside give her team a point, is kill the ball. Leah Gagliradi had 200 kills last season for Crescenta Valley’s girls’ varsity volleyball team, so she’s used to the feeling. And that feeling is … what, exactly? It must be akin to dunking a basketball, smashing a wide receiver going over the middle, crushing a home run over center field. That power, that release.
“It feels like, ‘Hell, yeah. This is awesome,’” Gagliardi said. Now you know: killing a ball feels like hell yeah.
“You want to go up there and hit the ball as hard as you can,” said Steven Umemoto, Gagliardi’s coach at CV. One game against Burbank, Umemoto recalled when two blockers went up Gagliardi’s elbow was where their hands were. No chance.
Some kills don’t feel as good as others, Gagliardi said. They feel like “whatever.” But on a good day, there are some kills where “you just crush it. And everyone just goes crazy. That’s the best.”
“Everyone gets really excited for a kill or block. It’s one of the best parts of the game I think,” Gagliardi said. “If you see a set, like a perfect, juicy set, and your approach is good … you know you’re going to get that kill.”
Her teammate at Legacy Volleyball, a club team in Anaheim, Hanna Levanen, agrees with the feeling.
“You’re in control, and you have that dominance and you can show off. And showing off to your friends is always fun,” Levanen said. “You have to have that killer mentality.”
What Gagliardi can show off is a full scholarship to the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she will be joined by six other incoming freshmen. A chance to build up a young Seahawks team represents a challenge Gagliardi wants.
Her scholarship doesn’t represent a childhood spent slaving in the gym, practicing proper form and jumping exercises. She only started volleyball when she was a freshman at CV. But her freshman coach Mo English told her she had potential to make it to a Division 1 school even then.
“She knows her stuff,” said Gagliardi of English, “so I said, ‘OK, I’m going to work to get this.’”
She became a varsity player as a sophomore. She felt overwhelmed, but the team chemistry was tight, and she had fun. Over the next two seasons, where she earned First-team All-Area honors, she was counted on to be a leader.
“By her senior year, she could step up and put the team on her shoulders,” said Umemoto, who was a varsity assistant until becoming coach last year.
But schools like UNCW, located on the other side of the country, don’t recruit at high school games. They spotted Gagliardi this spring playing for Legacy, the place where coaches Walt Ker and his son Tony have been preparing players like Gagliardi and Levanen, who will attend the University of the Pacific this fall, to get the big schools to notice them.
In detail, they taught the girls the proper form on how to kill the ball. The hardest part was timing and learning to snap your wrist, Gagliardi said.
But it was more than that. Before you hit the ball, Walt would say, think of a hitting attack line, and then tell me. Condition yourself to do that. Tell me what’s in your head, and look through the net.
“Her development as a killer and an attacker has improved so much, and not only her technique,” said Levanen, “but also her mindset toward the position.”
“It’s a game of inches,” Gagliardi said. “You have to be perfect.”
Are babies perfect? Some say so. Little angels, they’re called. Gagliardi may have been one as well, but her heart was far from perfect when she was born. Just 10 days into her life, doctors told her parents John and Ashley their daughter had VSD, Ventricle Septal Defect. There was a hole between her left and right ventricle.
“It was very serious, and we were very concerned,” said John. Gagliardi was scheduled to have open heart surgery at five months old. In the meantime, she was given medication.
“So it didn’t appear that she was going to be an athlete at all,” said Ashley.
But then, all of a sudden, the baby grew bigger and stronger. The surgery was put off. Gagliardi grew into a typical healthy child. She played soccer for nine years, without a worry from her parents. At age 10, she was cleared of having to continue seeing a physician about the condition. Her heart had closed, and if you ask Gagliardi she’s never really thought about it too much.
“It didn’t affect me [growing up] and I didn’t feel it,” she said.
Gagliardi now stands at 6 feet l, and she’s always been tall, in every grade. One kid used to call her Godzilla. That was lame, she said.
“It bothered me but, I’m tall. I can’t do anything about that. I have to accept it,” she said. “I’m not going to cut my legs off.”
Still, she didn’t wear heels to her senior prom because she didn’t want to be taller than her date, but she did wear heels to a dance at Levanen’s high school in Granada Hills because all of her volleyball friends are tall, so it’s more comfortable there.
And now, it’s time to get outside her comfort zone. John said he wishes her daughter had chosen a school closer to home. Gagliardi said she will get homesick, but she has much to do even this month with the Seahawks, including a bonding campfire and a tournament, that her focus has to be on what’s ahead of her.
When Gagliardi goes up for a kill, she has to be aware of where she is on the court. She has to see her blockers coming, and pick the right line or angle of attack, then plant her feet and give it all she’s got, all in a matter seconds.
If she follows those rules in college and in life as well, she’ll most likely succeed, and that will be a good feeling. It’ll probably even feel something like, hell yeah.