Volleyball Stars to the End

Feb. 11, 2009, 3:54 p.m. (ET)

As the volleyball family grows, so do the numbers of inspirational stories, and of tragic losses.  This past week I have received three emails regarding the passing of talented Jr. Olympic volleyball players: One an accidental suicide, another who fought valiantly to the end with cancer, and a third, a Starlings USA player/coach, who was killed Sunday by a drunk driver.

In the randomness of life, these deaths are just a statistic...in the circle of life, our passing is a certainty. Other volleyball stars whose light was dimmed early, yet who fought their illness with power and grace both on and off the court, include Shayla and Andi (#54), whose journeys have been shared with thousands of supporters. For the loved ones of these children who discovered the joys of volleyball, the loss is immeasurable, as they did not have time to complete their circle. Whenever such painful stories come to light, I first read A.E Houseman's "To an Athlete Dying Young" The stories of two of these young talents, are shared below, to remind us how each day is special, and to be thankful for all we have in these days and times.

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields were glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady ****ht has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl's.

Margaret Hussman, El Paso, TX

The loss of Margaret Hussmann is hard, for such a talented, vivacious twin gave everything she had - and her motto "Twice as Strong" will be on the Olympic Team poster USA Volleyball will be giving to the "Margaret Room" in the hospice of El Paso Hospital. The Hussman family allowed the local newspaper, the El Paso Times, to capture the stories and images - in both video and print, putting together a powerful chronical of journey. Stephanie Sanchez and photographer Vanessa Monsisvais  joined to make this testament to attitude and the human spirit of one very special volleyball player who chose to live life to the end on her own terms.  



Noemi Perez, Bakersfield, CA

The loss of Nemo on Sunday has impacted the Starlings family, as she was just beginning to give back to the sport - I will let Byron Shewman and the wonderful Starlings coaches Johnitta and Jim Greer tell the rest of this story for today's blog...Thanks to Byron and all for letting the USA Volleyball family know more about Nemo.


 I decided to share the following sad message although at the risk of sending out too much sad news of late. However, tragedy is a part of this life and when it inevitably happens, we somehow must look for some good. You probably know my day-time job is running the Starlings program---some 3,000 girls across the nation, mostly from low-income families. With such deep regret, I am sending the news and messages of an exceptional 18-year-old Starling girl from Bakersfield. Nemo's life was taken on Sunday and as you will see below, her family is in need of support on many levels.



It is with the deep sadness that I must inform you of the tragic loss of our own COACH NOEMI PEREZ.

Coach Perez (Nemo) was killed by a drunk driver on Sunday, she was 18 years old. She graduated in 2008 from Arvin High School. She was returning to Arvin after spending the day studying at CSUB, where she was attending.

Nemo was an original Bakersfield Starling, starting the program at just 13 years old. She was active coaching our Jr. Starlings, Arvin Starlings and currently as the 14u Noemi coach.

We are devastated by the loss of this beautiful, positive, and productive young woman. Please pray for her family as they are somehow dealing with this horrific tragedy.

Please bear with us as this is a deeply personal loss for the coaches, staff and particularly for the 18u girls. Nemo has been a part of our family for many years. I will get info out to you as soon as I can.


I asked Jim Greer, who first coached Nemo in Bakersfield, for this story.  It is more than worth the few minutes to read. -- Byron

I will tell the story as best as I can recall.

Apparently Bakersfield Starlings 16's had a late match and were unable to make their surfing lessons on the island on Saturday afternoon. Since there was nothing much to do, Nemo was wandering around the beach and met up with a girl from Scripps Ranch Starlings.

Nemo asked her, "Are you a Starling?' to which the girl replied yes. They then proceeded to draw boundary lines in the sand and began playing an imaginary game of one on one volleyball. Soon other girls arrived and Nemo proceeded to ask them the same question, "Are you a Starling". As they replied, Nemo invited them to play, whether or not they were.

It soon grew to a two hour match with several girls, a few boys, with no net and reportedly no ball, all having fun playing the sport they so loved.

I guess it inspired a father form Scripps Ranch that witnessed the incident so much that he wrote about it after the tournament, and Ernie, after hearing of the story, adopted the slogan as his motto. I believe he even had a shirt printed with the slogan on it the following year.

For those that knew Nemo, which there are plenty, she truly lived her life as an inspiration. Coming from a tiny farming community  called Arvin. (Some may recall the book by John Steinbeck called "Grapes of Wrath"). This is one in the same and things have not changed much since the dust bowl days, except the color of the migrants skin. After graduating from high school, she began attending Cal State Bakersfield this past fall with the intent of becoming a teacher upon graduation. She really never left the Bakersfield Starlings but returned to begin coaching the 12 and under girls, only to have that ripped away by a selfless drunk. Her car was full of Starlings equipment when the CHP arrived on scene.

Nemo is a product of the field laborers, barely speaking English when she showed up at practices at the age of 13 or 14 years old. I remember her bringing baggies full of loose change that she collected from selling licorice sticks at school to help pay her fees. And when she went to the tournaments, she had no money for the restaurants, but  always brought home made tortillas with all the fixings to feed the team. There was never a girl on any team in our program that did not greet her with a hug and a smile, and received the same from her.

She will be missed from all those that knew her but will never be forgotten. She was one of a kind in her own way, but will always remain a Starling.

 If the answer to the question is "YES, I am a Starling!"  please say a prayer for her family in their time of need.

Coach Jim Greer
Central Valley Starlings

First, thank you so much. I just left Nemo's home after visiting with her family.  I don't think I really knew how important Starlings was to Nemo. But, everyone kept asking, "Are you the volleyball coach?  Noemi loved the volleyball team, she loved her little girls."  I went to the mortuary to see what they needed and they were closed.  As my husband and I were leaving, a woman ran out and asked, "Is that the volleyball team?"  I had forgotten I was wearing a club sweatshirt. She then said, "The Family wants the club in the obituary, because it was very important to her."  A woman that I did not recognize told me that Nemo used her FIRST coaching check that we gave her on Friday to buy herself an Ipod.  I know this is probably one of the only luxury items that Nemo has ever been able to buy for herself.

The Bakersfield Starlings donated $1000 to Nemo's family, not much when you are trying to bury a loved one.  I am moved by your desire and I know commitment to help her family, our family. Coach Bri, coached Nemo at her high school as well as in club, and has been up all ****ht trying to do whatever she can.  This morning at about 8 am, she and several other Arvin
High coaches gathered together Nemo's basketball, track, and volleyball teammates and tried to help them deal with this tragedy.  As a group they went to pay their respects to Nemo's Family.  There they pasted around a hat and each donated all that they could.

Nancy Rodriguez, our original Bakersfield Starling who is now playing at Feather River college called in complete devastation.  She said she had no money, but the girls had sent her a train ticket so she could come home. She said she was going to work in the field for the week that she was home so she, "could give Nemo's mom some money." Jim Greer has been on a mission since early this morning.  Every Bakersfield Starling, past and present has called. Our Starlings sister teams are jumping to action.  My own daughter, Jasmin started designing a "Are You a Starlings" shirt at about 7 am this morning.  We are Blessed.

My husband received a call right away, from a friend on the CHIP after he saw our Starlings gear in Nemo's car. The drunk driver is an illegal, undo****ented, unlicensed, uninsured driver. He will be arraigned tomorrow.  I'm sure his family is devastated as well, and given the dynamics of Arvin, probably knows the Perez family.

Noemi will have a viewing service on Wednesday from 2-7, and her funeral will be held on Thursday, at 1 PM.  The family definitely needs help and if you want to make a donation, you can send it to The Bakersfield Starlings, P.O. Box 84, Bakersfield Ca. 93302, we will be happy to deliver it to the family for you. The Funeral Home address is Arvin Funeral Home, 600 Tucker, Arvin Ca.  93203, for flowers, etc.

 If you want more intimate info on Nemo, her friends have started a Facebook, Noemi Perez. Jonitta