The ball smacks down right in the middle of the court off of Hannah Hoang’s hand. She quickly runs back into the line, as she gets ready to deliver another devastating spike. She leaps into the air as gracefully as if she were performing ballet, but comes down hard with a spike that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
As a defender on the women’s volleyball team at Oakland Senior High School, Hoang is light on her feet, ensuring that she is in position to receive the serve from the other team. Her left hand clenches her right fist, and her forearms stay flat and steady. She receives the ball, and it comes off her arms smoothly, as she passes it to her teammates on the court. Then she quickly lines herself into position for support, silent and deadly as she scouts out her next target on the court.
Hoang is a high school junior whose dream is to be able to play volleyball at the collegiate level. “Basically, volleyball is the love of my life,” said Hoang. “Every time, I play it I am thrilled about it. It is more than just being at a desk, or being at school. You get to interact with others, and use your physical body to accomplish something.”
Hoang is originally from Vietnam, but moved to Oakland when she was 6 years old. Her love for volleyball began when she was in middle school. “Back at my old middle school, sports were popular among students. Like, everyone went to the games,” said Hoang. She remembers older girls always walking in groups down the hallway towards the locker rooms, and constantly wondering, “What are they up to?”
She describes herself as being intimidated by how tall other girls were, and as result she didn’t try out for volleyball until she was in 8th grade at Edna Brewer Middle School. “In 8th grade I thought to myself, ‘Maybe this is the year.’ So I tried out for the team, and it was super fun. My coach, she was also my teacher. She gave me a good introduction to volleyball, and that’s when I really started to love it,” said Hoang.
She started her freshmen year on the Junior Varsity team, but she quickly advanced to Varsity as starter, and served as leader for her team. Hoang is an all-around player, and rotates through many different positions. For her senior year next year, she is looking to find a position on the court on which she can focus. She believes that this is the best way she can support her team and grow as a player. “I was aiming to be an all-around player, but now I really need to find one that fits me,” said Hoang.
Hoang is neither the biggest nor the smallest on the court, but she’s the scrappiest, as she fights to help her team. Before games she often ties her hair up in ponytail to keep it from disrupting her vision. She straps on her shoes with a cat-like focus as she prepares for battle. Her energy always remains high, and she high-fives her teammates on and off the court.
She has an unusual pregame ritual: Most athletes who compete on courts, fields and pools like to show up ahead of time, and envision themselves on the terrain, or at the very least get a feel for the environment. But Hoang does the opposite. “Before games, I don’t show up to the court immediately. I am usually one of the last ones there. I’ll just contain myself in my own mindset, and think about what I need to work on today, what I need to demonstrate on the court. I don’t want to be there early to see the court, I want to be in my own mindset first,” said Hoang.
She describes volleyball as being similar to the game Hot Potato—you only receive three hits before the ball has to go back over the net and land within the boundaries of the court. “To be able to do that with five to six other people is insane, and extremely challenging,” said Hoang.
The hardest part for Hoang when learning how to play volleyball was learning how to trust and understand her teammates. “Volleyball is the first sport that got me into a competitive zone, and trying to learn that part of myself, and how competitive I can be, was frustrating. It was just an emotional rollercoaster. Even today, I find it a little challenging to contain my anger through games against our rivals,” said Hoang.
Hoang recalls a time in 8th grade during a game when she was so caught up in winning that she realized she had forgotten all the basics fundamentals of the game. “It was meant to be fun, thrilling, exciting, and amazing with my teammates, but seeing yourself make the first mistake, and then just getting snowballed after that mishap, was a shame. It really reflected on my playstyle,” said Hoang.
Hoang remembers her coach pulling her out of the game, and having her sit on bench to calm down. “I was mentally punishing myself, and just angry that I choked at certain times when I shouldn’t have,” said Hoang.
Despite going through these frustrating times, Hoang is grateful that she did. “I mean, looking back at the first game, it is always hard. But through those moments, it brings a familiarity, and a nostalgic feeling when I’m ever angry and frustrated on the court today. Because remembering where you first started, and seeing where you are today, should mean more than just being angry at some silly mistakes,” said Hoang.
During the offseason from volleyball, Hoang uses swimming to maintain her conditioning. “Even when I am not swimming, I’ll just work out in general, for example I’ll just run. To further my skills, I’ll hang out with my friends, and we all go to open gym and play volleyball,” said Hoang.
But she describes volleyball as holding a special place in her heart. She thinks of swimming as being individually-focused, but with volleyball she has the chance to communicate with her team and work towards a common goal. “In volleyball, you have all the time in the world to redeem yourself, to win those 3 matches, and get those 25 points. The social support and teammate bonding experience is what really sets volleyball apart from other sports for me,” said Hoang.
Hoang’s inspiration as a volleyball player is one of her former teammates, Michelle Mendez, who graduated when Hoang was a freshman. Hoang described her freshmen year as being a huge transition from playing in middle school, and said the two of them bonded quickly. “Even though she was in Varsity at that time, and I was in Junior Varsity, she would always find the time to help me with my skill assets,” said Hoang. “I would still be flopping around the court if she hadn’t given me personal tips on my spiking approach, timing and serves. She taught me the fundamentals, and drilled me on the basics.”
Hoang calls Mendez her “guardian angel.” “She would always watch me, and spot out the mistakes for me to fix,” said Hoang.
Now that Mendez is a club player in college, Hoang said, they still visit with each other during school breaks. “Right now, she has been nailing me about getting my jump float serve down,” said Hoang.
Her friend Jenifer Yu is a defender on the team, and said that Hoang has grown tremendously throughout her four years of playing with Oakland High. “Whether it is through her passing, serving, or spiking Hannah has constantly found ways to improve her game,” said Yu.
Yu is grateful to have Hoang on the team, because she brings to it an uplifting attitude, and a determined focus to win. “She cheers us on when do something great, and always encourages us to perform our best during games. She manages to keep this positive attitude, even when we are down, to keep trying our best,” said Yu.
She retells a fond memory of playing next to each other on the court. “The other team served the ball right to me, and she screamed, ‘That’s you, boo!’ and I would know that was me. It was funny, because it was quiet and everyone else heard it,” said Yu.
Hoang sees her teammates as inspirations, and says they keep her mentally focused on the game, and on winning. “The thing about being on a team with five other girls is that when they see you are down, they will just hype you back up. They will give you that sister support by patting you on their back, and telling you that ‘It is ok, you can always redeem yourself.’ And that’s where I realize I have to get my game back on. I don’t want my attitude to bring down everyone else,” said Hoang.
She refers to her coach, Isabel Toscano, as the backbone of the team, and says she always there to provide emotional support. “Coach T, she carries an expectation for improvement. I guess that is what made me motivated,” said Hoang. “I want to beat the expectations she has, and see myself get better.”
“Hannah is an example of what hours of practice can do for you. She is an example and role model for others of what you can become if you if you really invest the time and energy,” said Toscano.
Hoang’s goal is to graduate from high school with 4.0 grade point average or higher, and attend a school within the University of California system, perhaps Berkeley, UCLA, Davis, or UC San Diego. She is planning on majoring in biomedical engineering or architecture, and she says going to college is one of her biggest dreams yet. “I would like to expand my knowledge, and be able to critically think about the world. That way I can apply the knowledge that I learn from school to the outside,” said Hoang. She hopes to land a spot on a college volleyball team, and if not, she will continue to play recreationally.
According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), women’s volleyball is the number two sport among high school female athletes, with 436,309 players, only surpassed by track and field. But once you get to the collegiate level, these numbers decrease dramatically. According to data provided by the NCAA, there are only 17,119 players competing at the collegiate level (including Division 1, 2, and 3). That is only 3.9 percent of the players competing at the high school level. This makes women’s volleyball one of the hardest college sports to break into, with the exceptions of men’s basketball (3.4 percent), men’s volleyball (3.4 percent), and men’s wrestling (2.8 percent).
Despite having a frustrating junior campaign, with the OHS team ending the season at 1-5 overall, and going 1-4 in league competition, Hoang is looking to have a positive season next year and hopes her team will win an Oakland Athletic League (OAL) championship. She believes that in order to better her skills, and enter her senior year stronger than ever, she needs to join a competitive club volleyball team outside of school. “Right now, I am trying out for a club, so hopefully I make it,” she said. “My goal at the moment is to be better than I am now, and to be surrounded by people who are better than me so that I can grow, myself.”
This story is part of a series. You can also read about two other Oakland student athletes:
Ronald Jenkins is a senior football player at Skyline High School, and is focused on earning a Division 1 athletic scholarship to play football and help him pay his way through school. Click here to read his story and see a video.
Benton Lu is a junior at Oakland Senior High School, and he is currently on the bowling team. Click here to read his story and see a video.