LEFT: Samantha Brooks (14) and Becky Hudgins (13) high-five during a match for Mississippi University for Women. The two played together from 1996 to 1998. RIGHT: Hudgins (left) and Brooks pose with their trophies at New Hope High School's Back to School Smash junior varsity volleyball tournament in 2019. Hudgins is an assistant for New Hope and coaches the Trojans' JV team, while Brooks runs the Caledonia High School program. Photo by: Courtesy of Becky Hudgins
September 20, 2020 4:55:59 PM
Hoping for a chance to play volleyball in college, Samantha Brooks sent out letters to 76 different schools.
Not a single one of them was in Mississippi.
Brooks, who was raised in Kansas and moved to Indiana before her senior year of high school, had never been to the Magnolia State. In fact, she didn't really know anything about it.
But when one of her letters was passed on to coach Mary Wallmark at Mississippi University for Women, Wallmark was interested and flew Brooks out to Columbus for a visit. She tried out with the volleyball team and stayed in the dorms with a player host.
It was Brooks' first recruiting visit without her dad, Mark Kreller, who took her around to several different schools. She loved The W so much that the first night of her visit, she called him up at home.
"Dad," she told him, "I'm coming here."
Since then, Brooks has never really left.
At The W, she met teammate and Indiana native Becky Hudgins, and the two quickly became close friends. And almost 25 years later, they're still in Columbus. Brooks is in her 14th year as the head volleyball coach at Caledonia; Hudgins is a third-year assistant for New Hope's volleyball team.
But instead of being rivals like the schools at which they coach, the two remain the best of friends. They each have daughters who have played the sport with and against each other. And they represent two schools whose volleyball programs are closer than ever.
"It is a rivalry by name, but it's really two volleyball teams that are friends on and off the court and just really good competition," Hudgins said.
So no matter who's on which sideline, Hudgins and Brooks are still together, just as they've been for more than two decades and intend to remain.
"It has been a lot of fun to share this experience with Becky in so many different ways," Brooks said.
'Once we graduate, we're leaving'
Brooks wasn't the only one who fell in love on her recruiting visit to Columbus.
Hudgins, a freshman at the time, and her teammates at The W were impressed by Brooks' eagerness to jump right into workouts and other activities with the team. They could already tell she fit in perfectly.
"We have to have her," the Blues told Wallmark. "She's awesome."
They got their wish. Brooks signed with The W. Within a few weeks of the fall 1996 semester, she became part of the "instant family" within the volleyball team.
She and Hudgins drew especially close. As the only players on the team from the Midwest, they carpooled together on home visits for breaks. Hudgins drove the two of them to her house in Newburgh, near Evansville in south Indiana, and Brooks' parents picked her up there for the 4-hour drive north to Lafayette.
On the road, Brooks and Hudgins picked one song (which varied every trip) to listen to over and over. They got up to other hijinx, too, but those secrets will remain forever inside Hudgins' "ugly" 1990 Cutlass Calais.
"It almost always seemed like there was some kind of adventure on our trips home," she recalled.
The two played together in the front row of the volleyball court -- Brooks at outside hitter and Hudgins at middle blocker -- but their temperaments were as different as their positions.
Brooks had "the sweetest personality," Wallmark recalled, while Hudgins could be as fiery as her red hair. She got into "tete-a-tetes" with Wallmark often, the coach said.
But just as the relationship between the two was improving, though, Wallmark got an offer she couldn't refuse: the chance to coach volleyball at her alma mater, Chico State. She took it.
When Wallmark delivered the news on the phone -- it was July 1997, so no one was on campus -- Brooks started crying, which set off her coach, too.
Hudgins, meanwhile, said something Wallmark never forgot.
"'But Coach," she said, "we finally just get along."
"It was killing me," Wallmark said.
She left for Northern California but not without regret for how things ended with Brooks and Hudgins.
"They were two players that it was very difficult to leave there," Wallmark said.
As their college careers wound down, Brooks and Hudgins thought they'd be the next ones to go, whether it was back to Indiana or moving on elsewhere.
"Once we graduate," they agreed, "we're leaving."
But both met their future husbands during their time at The W. As their teammates left for Alabama, Louisiana, Florida and even Canada, the lifelong Midwesterners settled down in the area -- for good.
"It's just funny because Sam and I were two of the team members who came from the furthest away, and then we're the ones who ended up staying in Columbus," Hudgins said.
Wallmark, now the director of student life and leadership at Chico State, said she's glad to hear that Hudgins and Brooks stayed in Columbus.
She said recruiting is as much about wanting players to have a life experience in their college town as it is on-field or on-court success -- particularly for those from elsewhere in the country or the world.
"Coming to a different area than where they were raised, that's a big investment by that player," Wallmark said. "If they come and if they stay -- if they fit in -- that feels like that's a gift. They didn't just come to school there and then, 'Phew, that's over, graduation; see ya, Mississippi, here I go.' They made a place for themselves."
In the 20-plus years since they graduated, Brooks and Hudgins have definitely done that.
Right away, Brooks set out to break new ground in volleyball in Mississippi, still somewhat in its infancy at the time. She and soccer coach Terry Wiygul established the volleyball program at Caledonia, with Brooks providing the relevant skills and know-how and Wiygul offering the coaching experience.
"She was instrumental in laying a foundation for volleyball in Mississippi," Brooks said of Wiygul, who died in 2015. "She went above and beyond and really wanted to give players an additional girls sport and wanted the program to be competitive."
Brooks served as an assistant for one year, then stepped away from the team when she got pregnant with her twins, Tony and Tori. But five years later, in 2007, she got a call from Wiygul.
"Hey, I'm done coaching," Wiygul informed Brooks. "Are you interested?" (She was.)
Hudgins, meanwhile, took a different path. When she graduated with her business degree, she got a job as a cost accountant at EcoLab and hasn't worked anywhere else since.
But when she and her husband Greg had their daughter, Micaela, it offered an avenue for Hudgins and Brooks to continue their connection.
When Micaela and Tori got a little older and started to play the sport their mothers starred in, Hudgins and Brooks realized what it meant.
"'One day they're going to play volleyball together!'" they thought.
Through club competition at Level Elite, founded by former Mississippi State volleyball coach Tina Seals, they got that chance. Micaela and Tori shared a court during several different tournaments. Like Hudgins, Micaela plays middle blocker; like Brooks, Tori plays on the outside.
"You can imagine me and Sam playing together, and then we get to sit in the stands and watch our girls play together," Hudgins said. "That was a lot of fun."
Whereas Hudgins was one year ahead of Brooks at The W, Tori had a year on Micaela. Brooks' daughter played for her mom at Caledonia, while Hudgins' daughter went to New Hope.
And in Micaela's sophomore year, her mom came on as an assistant, coaching the junior varsity team and helping out New Hope head coach Allison Woolbright. It put Brooks and Hudgins on opposite sidelines for the first time.
But that distance only served to bring two ostensible rivals closer together -- literally.
Last summer, the Caledonia and New Hope volleyball teams chartered a bus together to Navarre, Florida, where they joined Jackie Cox -- a former teammate of Hudgins and Brooks at The W and the head volleyball coach at Hewitt-Trussville High School in Alabama -- and local Gulf Breeze High School.
Each of the four schools got to practice Cox's favorite CrossFit workouts on the beach in the early morning, play volleyball on the sand courts and get in plenty of good competition against three solid opponents.
The players stayed together in condos with New Hope players filling one room, Caledonia players taking another and a third room comprising players from both teams.
No one minded the blurring of the lines of a "rivalry" that is, essentially, anything but.
"They just had the best time," Hudgins said. "Our girls are all so close. It's really just they're playing against their friends. They want to win, but they're always so respectful of each other."
'The best of friends'
As close as their players are, Brooks, Hudgins and their former teammates at The W might be even closer.
They have a group text. They make FaceTime calls to each other. They try to get together once a year, though someone is usually missing because of kids and jobs and busy lives, meeting either at the beach or at each other's cities. Cox and Carrie Lusk in the Birmingham area have spare bedrooms, Brooks and Hudgins can each host multiple teammates when they come to town.
That's happened before. For Hudgins' 40th birthday -- Sept. 1, 2017 -- Greg orchestrated a surprise party for his wife, inviting former teammates. She was blown away by how many of them came.
"We are still just the best of friends," Hudgins said.
Many of those friends have become coaches, too. Cox coaches at Hewitt-Trussville, Lusk coaches sixth through eighth graders in Birmingham, Elish Smith coaches high schoolers in Canada, and Jenny Kilbourn used to coach at the high school level.
Wallmark said she was tickled by the fact that so many of her former players made forays into coaching, citing a common saying among her peers.
"The highest regard any former player can ever give you is if they become a coach," Wallmark said. "That means they want to give back to the game."
In their respective coaching roles, Brooks and Hudgins have deepened the connection between two programs that never had a ton of animosity to start with despite the schools' history as rivals. Brooks and Woolbright -- who established the New Hope program -- have a close relationship and text each other often with questions.
Whenever the two teams face each other, the competition is fierce, but afterward, players hug and high-five (or, in the COVID-19 era, wave affectionately at each other). And when they have other opponents, the effect's the same.
"If Caledonia's playing somebody else, we are rooting for Caledonia," Hudgins said, "and if New Hope is playing somebody else, Caledonia is rooting for us."
The two schools have come together to hold the annual Dig Pink Game, which raises funds for breast cancer research for The Side-Out Foundation, for the past three years. The fourth edition is scheduled for Oct. 1 at New Hope.
It will be the final time New Hope and Caledonia match up this year -- and another sign that time is moving fast.
While Tori Brooks played her last ever Dig Pink Game last fall before heading off to Itawamba Community College to continue her career, this year's contest will be the last time Micaela Hudgins ever squares off with Caledonia.
After Micaela graduates, her mom said, she wants to keep playing volleyball. Micaela hasn't committed anywhere, but she's heavily considering -- where else? -- The W, where she could set foot on the same court where Brooks and Hudgins forged a friendship almost 25 years ago.
"Legacy? Come on," Wallmark said. "Who wouldn't love that?"
Theo DeRosa reports on high school sports and Mississippi State softball for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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