Sylvia Cromartie was at work when she got the call.
Her daughter’s volleyball coach was on the line, and Angie Strickland sounded lost.
“Ms. Cromartie,” Strickland told her, “I don’t know what to do.”
It was 2017, and the Leon High School team — including Cromartie’s daughter Shania, a sophomore outside hitter — was set to board a flight from Tallahassee to Arizona for a tournament. Trainers suspected a stress fracture in Shania’s left foot, but she was dead set on playing through the injury. Strickland wasn’t so sure.
She asked Sylvia, who said she recommended her daughter sit out. Ultimately, though, she left it up to Shania.
The next day, texts from parents of her daughter’s teammates began to roll in on Sylvia’s phone: picture after picture of Shania flying around the court as if she’d never been hurt. She managed the injury well enough to play the rest of the season, too.
“She never really let it stop her,” Sylvia said.
That’s exactly the player and person the Mississippi State sophomore has been throughout her life, from her high school days to her burgeoning Bulldogs career. Through tragedy, through adversity, through injury, Shania Cromartie has just kept playing.
“To me, it’s just awesome to see her fight as hard as she did to just come back and make an impact on the program,” Sylvia said.
* * *
Every year, Strickland gives her Leon freshmen the same assignment: Write down their goals on paper, put them somewhere in their house, take a picture and send it to her.
When Strickland received Shania Cromartie’s submission, she saw a piece of printer paper fully covered in hope. Cromartie’s goals were varied and multiple: A Division I scholarship. A state championship in volleyball. Another in the high jump.
With the Tallahassee Juniors club team — also coached by Strickland — Cromartie even wrote down the city nationals would be in every year.
Her goals weren’t just individual. A longtime track star, Cromartie strived to place first in the state 4×400-meter relay — difficult to do, Strickland pointed out, “when you don’t know who’s on your team.”
“She just knew what she wanted, and she was going to figure out how to get there,” Strickland said.
Cromartie was on her way, winning the team defensive player of the year award as a freshman in 2016. But things took a turn the following spring. On April 17, 2017, Cromartie’s father Ricky died at age 49.
Cromartie and her mother turned to a big group of relatives in the Tallahassee area for support as well as the “Leon family” they had found at her high school. Another player on the Lions’ volleyball team lost her own dad six months prior to Cromartie and was able to coach her teammate through the pain as best she could.
Still, it wasn’t easy for either mother or daughter. Sylvia said she’s done her best to be all Shania needs but knows she can’t replace Ricky in her life.
“I’ve always just tried to be there for her because I know she’s missing that piece of the puzzle,” Sylvia said. “When I can be there, I’m right there beside her, all the way.”
Despite her heavy heart, Cromartie continued to excel. She won the state high jump title as a junior and led the Leon volleyball team to the state final four every year, finally capturing the Class 6A championship as a senior. She was ready to defend her high jump crown in her final high school semester.
But during a qualifying club volleyball tournament in early March 2020 at the Orlando Convention Center, Cromartie sprinted toward the middle of the floor to return a serve. She leapt high for the shot but came down wrong on her right leg, crumpling to the court.
Cromartie tried to get up. She couldn’t. Right away, she knew something was seriously wrong.
“It was a pain that I’d never felt before,” she said.
* * *
Tests soon confirmed her suspicions. Cromartie had torn the ACL, MCL and meniscus in her right leg.
Her high jump hopes were dashed. Volleyball, for the time being, was out of the question.
“I didn’t know how I was going to get through it, honestly,” she said.
But when Strickland first saw Cromartie back in Tallahassee, the coach offered words of reassurance. With COVID-19 just beginning to crop up on the radar, Strickland told Cromartie her injury was — while unfortunate — well timed.
“Nia, with COVID coming out, I don’t know that there is even going to be that state track season,” Strickland said.
She was right. The pandemic shut down the track season — and everything else. On April 20, the Florida High School Activities Association officially canceled spring sports.
Of course, the virus made its impact felt on Cromartie’s recovery, too. With elective procedures canceled, she had to wait a month and a half to have surgery to repair the torn ligaments.
Cromartie underwent physical therapy in Tallahassee and at Mississippi State, where she had committed as a sophomore in March 2018.
The Bulldogs had come to watch Cromartie at a tournament and invited her for a visit, where Cromartie fell in love with the school and the small-town Starkville atmosphere. She thought about running track at Mississippi State, too, but the injury put an end to those plans.
MSU head volleyball coach Julie Darty Dennis, who recruited Cromartie at Jacksonville University before taking over in Starkville in January 2018, coached her for three years with Team Florida. During her first season, Darty Dennis said, Cromartie was on the bench a lot.
“She had a lot of learning still to do, a lot of growing up to do,” Darty Dennis said.
The same was true last fall as Cromartie sat out to let her leg fully heal. She got a chance to play in a limited role in the spring, competing in 10 sets across five matches to get comfortable in live action.
“It just made me feel a lot more comfortable playing with the girls, being with the change of pace of the game from high school to college,” Cromartie said. “I’m really glad that coach Darty and I were able to make that decision, and I think it helped tremendously.”
Darty Dennis said she saw the “writing on the wall” for Cromartie to play a much bigger role as a sophomore. So far, she has.
Cromartie participated in 10 of the Bulldogs’ 12 nonconference matches, putting up decent attack numbers: 13 kills against Houston, 12 against South Alabama and 10 apiece against Oklahoma and Jackson State.
On Sept. 23, though, Cromartie was pulled in the second set as Mississippi State played its first Southeastern Conference match at No. 17 Florida. The Bulldogs battled back to take the third and fourth sets but fell in the fifth as the Gators extended their record in the all-time series to a whopping 53-0.
It was disappointing, especially for a native Florida State supporter who grew up with a distaste for the Gators.
“They aren’t my favorite,” Cromartie said. “I did grow up a Seminole fan, so it’s in rival territory.”
But when she got back to the team hotel that night, a group of unexpected visitors helped ease the sting.
* * *
Earlier that day, Cromartie sent a picture of Mississippi State’s itinerary for its Florida trip to Aydan Molthen, a former Leon teammate now assisting Strickland in coaching the Lions.
Molthen realized the Bulldogs were staying that night in Ocala, 45 minutes south of Gainesville. That day, Leon had a road game against Forest High School — in Ocala.
Molthen mentioned it to Strickland, and a plan quickly took shape. Strickland called Darty Dennis to check: “Hey, can we make this happen?”
In the lobby of the Bulldogs’ hotel, the family that rallied around Cromartie when her father died did so once again. She burst into tears when she realized the Lions had come to surprise her, and while they could only stay for 20 or 30 minutes, it was enough.
“I think our team needed it just as much as her team did,” Strickland said.
The Lions promised Cromartie they would watch what they could of Mississippi State’s second match with Florida the next day. Before they left, Strickland pulled her former star aside.
“You’re the strongest kid I know, so if anybody can pull this off, it can be you,” she reminded Cromartie.
The following night, Leon players and coaches piled into a hotel room in Orlando and pulled up the Mississippi State-Florida match on a computer. They watched as Cromartie did her best to prove her old coach right.
When the Bulldogs lost the first set, they won the next two. When they lost the fourth, they rebounded for a 15-13 win in the winner-take-all fifth.
For the first time in 54 tries, the Bulldogs had beaten the Gators. Cromartie finished with game-high 25 kills and added 10 digs, recording her third double-double of the season.
And Sylvia was there, sitting in the stands of the O’Connell Center, watching their shared dream come true.
“I just wanted it so bad for the team, for the program, for the coaches, for the school,” Sylvia said. “It was just like Christmas in September.”
On Sept. 27, Cromartie was named both the SEC player of the week and offensive player of the week. Sylvia thought of the goals she’d seen two weeks before when she visited her daughter in her Starkville apartment, written on a whiteboard hanging up in the bedroom.
Among them? To make a statement or receive SEC-wide recognition.
“I said, ‘Baby, look at that,’” Sylvia said. “‘You can go back and mark one of your goals off.’”
For Cromartie and Mississippi State, it’s time to write new ones. Darty Dennis said the Bulldogs weren’t satisfied with merely one victory against the Gators, and it showed with back-to-back wins over LSU the following week.
“We’re not so fixated on making history and the one win against Florida being our end-all, be-all for this season,” Darty Dennis said. “We’re trying to write our own story, and I think this is just a small part of our story.”
And it wouldn’t have happened without the player who fought through so much to be part of it.
“I know how hard she’s worked, and I just know how bad she’s wanted to come back to make a difference to the program,” Sylvia said. “I’m happy for her, and I’m happy for the program.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.