Mari Katheryn Saunders was born to be a Joplin Eagle.
In fact, Mari Katheryn was technically attending Joplin High School volleyball practices before her date of birth had arrived.
“She was in my tummy when I was coaching,” longtime Eagles coach Staci Saunders recalled. “One of my favorite photos is of Mari posing with a volleyball at 6 months old. She grew up in the gym.”
For a young Mari Katheryn, attending her mother’s practices became a daily after-school activity for years.
“I remember I used to take naps and eat snacks in the bleachers while my mom’s team was practicing,” Mari Katheryn said. “I grew up in the gym, and I grew up with a volleyball in my hands.”
After years of countless practices, matches and bus rides, mother and daughter’s time as coach and player officially concluded on Monday night when Joplin suffered a season-ending loss to Republic in the quarterfinals of the Class 4 District 11 tournament at Neosho High School.
With that, mother and daughter both experienced a wide range of emotions after the match.
“It has been four years of great memories that we’ve made together,” Coach Saunders said. “It’s definitely over too soon. I will miss having her on the court, but it’s time for her to follow her dreams.”
After growing up around the sport and watching her mother’s teams take the court season-after-season, Mari Katheryn was a four-year varsity performer who skillfully ran her team’s 5-1 offensive system from the setter position. In addition to leading the Eagles in assists, Mari Katheryn also excelled at the service line and was among the team’s leaders in digs.
With her final contest in the books, Mari Katheryn noted playing for her mother was a memorable experience.
“It’s been a huge honor to play for my mom, and I’m very proud to represent Joplin,” Mari Katheryn said. “My mom’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around. I left my whole heart out there on the court tonight, and I’m glad I could play for my mom one last time. I’m sad it’s over.”
Regardless of wins and losses or individual accolades, Coach Saunders noted there were ups and downs during Mari’s prep career.
“I know there were times when it was very hard on her to have her mom as a coach,” said Staci, who also coaches daughter Addison, a junior outside hitter. “Some people think there are privileges to being the coach’s kid. But I’ll be honest, I am way harder on my girls than I am on any others. I don’t want anyone to ever think they get to play just because they belong to me. One thing I know for sure is Mari always has her mom’s back. Even though she gets frustrated with me and may say something, she doesn’t like it when anybody else does, and she’ll defend me to the end.
“I am beyond proud of the young lady that she’s become,” added Staci, who has coached for more than two decades. “Not only is she a pretty darn good volleyball player, but she’s also a great human. And that’s what I’m most proud of.”
An honor roll student who also plays soccer in the spring, Mari Katheryn hasn’t finalized her future plans just yet. The daughter of Tracy and Staci Saunders may attempt to play collegiate volleyball, but there’s also a possibility that her time on the court is now over.
“I haven’t decided what I’m going to do yet,” Mari Katheryn said. “I’ll see what God has in store for me.”
Regardless of what the future holds, it’s safe to say mother and daughter made lifelong memories together through their shared love of volleyball as coach and player.
With her final postgame speech of the season wrapped up, Staci shared a hug with Mari outside of the locker room near the NHS gymnasium before the Eagles headed for the exit.
That’s when a realization hit.
“You always think four years is like forever,” Coach Saunders said. “Now it feels like four years was just a blink of an eye.”