Arizona volleyball head coach Rita Stubbs has told her story of personal perseverance. This year, she is mentoring a young woman who has also overcome huge odds.
It’s not a story about pity. The story of family loss, a personal fight against death, and the return to volleyball is the real life of freshman Journey Tucker. Stubbs believes telling that story is not only good for Tucker personally. It will also help the young middle blocker be a better volleyball player.
“Put her in situations where she can be a leader and where she can talk and she can share who she is and share her story and not from, ‘Oh, poor Journey,’” Stubbs said. “That’s not the story she wants to tell. She wants to tell the story, ‘I overcame.’ And I completely understand that because...I did an interview where I literally said that I would rather someone have said, ‘Rita, what was your story like?’ versus trying to feel sorry for me for what my story was. So, the more I can help her understand that piece, the faster she’ll come along.”
While Stubbs’ story was one of poverty, parental loss, family violence, and neglect, Tucker’s was one of a family coming together after the death of one child and another child fighting for her life.
Tucker’s older sister Aleya died at the age of 14 from pilocytic astrocytoma, a form of brain cancer. As a junior in high school, Tucker was diagnosed with the same cancer that had claimed her sister’s life eight years before.
“When it happened to my sister, I was about nine,” Tucker said. “I still didn’t fully grasp it. I just knew that the tumor had grown too big, and unfortunately, she had a brain aneurysm. And then when I found out...that I had the same tumor as my sister—we both had pilocytic astrocytoma, which is majorly found in adolescence. So, when I found that out, it just kind of made me feel—it did kind of shock me, but it also scared me.”
It was a time of fear for the entire family. Tucker’s other sister and her mother Candi now had to fight for another child to survive. Fortunately for Tucker, her tumor was caught earlier than Aleya’s had been.
“When I was able to get the treatment that I was able to get, it kind of made me feel survivor’s guilt because I was able to get the treatment and the care that my sister wasn’t really able to get,” Tucker said. “But at the end of the day, I’m very blessed to still be here and to still be able to play the sport that I love.”
She came to that sport later than most of her teammates at Arizona. She didn’t start playing until her freshman year in high school, and it was just by chance.
“I was at an open gym,” Tucker said. “It was like [as] freshmen we signed up for the sports that we wanted to play and everything and I was really into basketball. That was the longest sport I’ve ever played. I signed up for basketball and I wanted to do something in the fall since it is a winter sport. And I was about to sign up for badminton because badminton’s a pretty cool sport. And then the coaches of the volleyball team, they were right next to the table, and then they asked me how tall I was. In freshman year I was about six-one, six-one-and-a-half. And then they were like, ‘You need to sign up right now!’ So ever since then, I just kind of progressed from playing high school and then I was introduced into club volleyball.”
Tucker was a very successful middle blocker at Verrado High School in Buckeye, Ariz. She was starting the recruiting process when she was diagnosed. She was considering several schools including Temple, New Mexico State, and UC Santa Barbara. She was really looking forward to going out of state and experiencing the world beyond the state of Arizona, but everything came to a screeching halt as she instead had to focus on her health and her survival.
“I was a little nervous because I had my tumor during my junior year and more specifically when girls are playing at that collegiate level,” Tucker said. “They already have their commitment by then. And when it was rolling up on my senior year and I still hadn’t committed, I was a little bit nervous....it was in my mind like am I even going to be able to play at a collegiate level? But to have [former Arizona head coach Dave] Rubio and Rita reach out to me in such a difficult time and offer me to be able to play here, it felt like a weight lifted off my shoulders. Definitely. And to not only play at a Division I but also a Pac-12, which is a very great conference for volleyball, it feels amazing.”
To get to that point, she and her family needed support. The volleyball community was there, helping her get through that scary period of her life. After her story was reported in the Phoenix media, opposing teams in both high school and club volleyball would bring her gifts and cards.
“It was just such a blessing to have teams and clubs and players just reach out to me for prayers or support,” Tucker said. “I think it definitely not only motivated me to keep going but to get back into volleyball.”
Family and friends invested a great deal of time in her care. Her mother works in the healthcare field and the pandemic was going on. Tucker had to be supervised and monitored, so she spent a great deal of time with extended family as she recovered.
“Since we had such a large support group, it also helped me and my mom kind of just move forward to it and to be able to survive through it,” Tucker said.
Honoring Aleya as she goes through the rites of passage has been part of that survival and moving forward.
“For my senior night, when we were honoring the seniors...it was me, my sister, and my mom,” Tucker said. “We brought up a portrait of my sister...so she could be there during my senior night. Off the court, we always have those discussions about my sister, and we also have memorials and things of that nature. I think even though we’re coming up about seven or eight years, it’s still very significant. She still has a presence in my family’s life. So I think it’s very important to still remember her in every little way that I can.”
Tucker has been through a kind of fight most people never face, especially as a teenager. Now, she’s facing a different kind of battle. This one may not be life or death, but it has its own obstacles.
“Journey brings just a wealth of athleticism,” Stubbs said. “She’s behind in the game, but that’s fine. I think that we have the right pieces that will help her be successful.”
Her lack of experience can make Tucker a bit hesitant and reserved according to her coach.
“[She] has a sense of innocence about her,” Stubbs said. "She’s super...quiet and she is respectful. And she’ll make eye contact, but she will walk past you like she didn’t see you because she’s zeroed in on the ground. So, for me, I know that the more we can get out of her off the court, the more she’ll be willing to go on a court because there’s a sense of inferiority going on with her right now because others have played whereas physically, she can play with any of them. But the key is to help her to understand that she physically can do that.”
Tucker is trying to take that to heart. Just like the academic side, where she’s pursuing a degree either in pharmacy or biotechnology, her athletic experience is about learning.
“I’m working through that by listening to my coaches and understanding that there’s a reason why I’m here and to understand that I have the ability to do it, even though there are girls that are more experienced than me and have started way younger than I have,” Tucker said. “To understand that this is a learning environment and a learning situation, so it’s only really up from where I am currently right now.”
She’s already shown signs that she can physically do it. She played alongside former Arizona middle blocker Zyonna Fellows at Arizona’s Red-Blue game the week before the season started. They were facing off against Arizona’s senior pins Sofia Maldonado Diaz and Jaelyn Hodge.
“She’s a huge block,” Stubbs said. “...[S]he got Jaelyn and Sofia. I said, ‘You can’t challenge her.’ You can go over her head or go high off the hands, but you can’t challenge that inside hand. And that’s a skill that’s hard to teach. And so, she came with it, which is really nice.”
Tucker only needed to look at Fellows to see the kind of path that could be hers. Fellows arrived as a rather shy player who lacked confidence both on and off the court. By her fifth year, she had remade herself in both environments. She was a vocal leader. She was able to represent her program in media settings. And she had a career year on the court.
Tucker has the physical assets. Now she needs the kind of confidence that led Fellows to a professional volleyball career.
Up Next: Wildcat Classic (Sept. 14-16)
Where: McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.
Stats: Arizona Live Stats
LBSU Beach (3-4, 0-0 Big West) @ Arizona Wildcats (3-5, 0-0 Pac-12)
When: Thursday, Sept. 14 at 6 p.m. MST
History: The two teams last played in 2001 with LBSU taking the 3-0 victory. Arizona leads the series 14-7.
Beach’s Season to Date: The Beach opened with a huge 3-1 victory over defending national champions Texas, but they immediately followed that up with a 3-0 loss to Loyola Marymount. They have played an extremely challenging schedule. In addition to Texas, they have faced UCLA, Washington, and Nebraska.
Stubbs Says: “They played Texas at home. I mean, that was to their advantage in a sold-out Pyramid Arena, and they beat them. I mean, that gives you a high no matter what, because Texas won the national championship last year. They competed hard. And that’s one of the things that we told the players. I said they are going to be all over us. They’re never going to not go for the ball, they’re never not going to compete. They’re gonna go up every single time and you have to expect the unexpected, which is one of the things that we’ve been working on and the drills that we’re doing because we will take plays off or we will go, ‘Oh, pretty bird!” versus stay in focus and calling what’s going on during those situations and calling people out for it.”
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