By DAVID KIEFER | Contributor
There is a common dialogue between sisters Madeleine and Tori Dilfer that goes something like this:
Maddie: “You need to focus!”
Tori: “You need to chill out!”
Yes, Maddie admits she could loosen up a little, but it’s also part of a personality that has been sculpted by life experiences, and is exactly what the Valley Christian High volleyball team needs.
At the San Jose school, Dilfer has the Warriors challenging for the West Catholic Athletic League title. This is significant because the league is so strong that two of its schools — Archbishop Mitty-San Jose and St. Francis-Mountain View — share the California record for most state championships in the sport, with nine apiece.
Also consider that Valley Christian is only two years removed from its second consecutive winless league season and never has won a WCAL championship, much less a state crown. But the defending Central Coast Section Div. III champions are poised for more.
“I think we have a shot at state,” said Maddie Dilfer, a 5-foot-11 setter. “It’s far out there, but that’s our goal.”
A four-year starter, the Notre Dame commit is the leader of a team with breathtaking young talent. Senior setter Kirsten Mead will play at Santa Clara; 6-4 junior middle blocker Ella Lajos has committed to Washington State; and 6-3 sophomore middle Ronika Stone has the potential, said one college coach, to be among the nation’s top five recruits for her class.
Going into its Oct. 15 showdown at Mitty, the Warriors (18-3 overall, 3-0 WCAL) were ranked No. 2 in the state and No. 9 in the nation by MaxPreps.com.
At St. Francis on Oct. 1, Valley lost the first set and was down 16-15 in the second when Dilfer served three consecutive points to give the Warriors a lead they would not relinquish.
Dilfer, also counted on to hit, showed an array of swings, including a standing backrow roll shot for a point and a kill down the line. The team’s serving faltered in the fourth set, but the Warriors fashioned an impenetrable block and pulled away for a four-set victory.
It was clear: This team could be special.
“The expectations have been set high for us and I think that’s good,” Dilfer said. “We need that. We worked for that. I think that’s a good thing.”
To fully understand the heart of this team, one needs to understand a little more about Dilfer. She was born on March 31, 1996, to Cassandra and Trent Dilfer, who had just finished the third of his six seasons as the quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Trent would play 13 NFL seasons, with five teams, and now works as an NFL analyst for ESPN.
Maddie, the oldest of four children, didn’t like to move, at least at first, but grew to appreciate it.
“It strengthened my relationship with my family a lot, having to rely on them” she said. “You make new friends, but it takes a little while.”
The ups and downs in Trent’s career — he played in a Pro Bowl with Tampa Bay and quarterbacked the 2000 Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl victory, but also endured heavy criticism — sometimes affected Maddie, too.
“It’s weird at times,” Maddie said. “It stunk coming back to school after they lost a game. Kids tease you. But you get over that. You have to have some thick skin sometimes.”
Their lives certainly were exposed, but two things made it bearable for Maddie.
No. 1: “My dad’s really good about being there when he can be. My parents are really good about making sure they spend time with me and with us as a family. That’s one thing that I really appreciate about my parents, their commitment to us and their love and devotion to our family.”
And, No. 2: “I’ve also been able to separate myself from that and be my own person. I don’t mind that I’m Trent’s daughter. I like being an athlete and I like being part of an athletic family. But we’re all pretty different too.”
Cassandra was a swimmer at Fresno State and it seemed the logical sport for Maddie, who excelled at it. She also tried basketball, soccer, and track and field before first playing volleyball in sixth grade at Valley Christian’s middle school. She focused on the sport exclusively two years later.
“The core value in our household is about reaching your potential,” Trent said. “Sports fit right into that. It was an avenue to kind of push ourselves and, individually, to get the most out of it.”
Brother Trevin was born 16 months after Maddie, in 1997. Sisters Tori arrived in 1999 and Delaney in 2002.
Trevin was an athletic little boy who loved to act as a peacemaker. If some crisis arrived, real or imagined, Trevin, with a cape around his neck, would announce heroically, “Trevin to the rescue!”
“He was my best friend,” Maddie said.
But when Trevin was 5, he developed a virus in his heart. Forty days later, he was gone.
“I understood what happened, but I didn’t understand why,” Maddie said. “I was very confused for a while. I spent a lot of time being mad and angry and sad.
“My faith was not nearly as strong as it is now,” she said. “But I had a greater grasp than a lot of kids do at a young age. My parents raised me like that and the Lord really helped me through it. My parents would remind me to let God take control and trust him with everything.”
Trevin’s presence never will leave. Maddie imagines what he would be doing if he were with her at Valley Christian today. Who would his friends be? What sport would be play?
The loss of her brother, as much as anything, affected the person Maddie would become. The attributes developed in those years of coping — the focus, maturity, and wisdom — are strong in her.
She meets your eyes with a sense of understanding, like you’ve known her for years rather than minutes. There is a connection because she chooses to make it so.
“She’s a well-rounded student who excels in class and as a leader,” Valley Christian athletic director Jolene Fugate said. “Teachers say you don’t even have to put up a vote if Maddie is involved. Everyone picks her.”
Dilfer was elected as the chapel coordinator, organizing several chapel services over the school year, including the senior chapel in the spring before graduation. She works with the school’s chaplain to plan the worship and book musicians and speakers from around the country.
“That’s a position that has a pretty big influence on the spiritual community on our campus,” Fugate said.
Dilfer’s coaches at Vision Volleyball Club believe that Notre Dame got a steal. There was interest from other programs, but the belief is that Dilfer, who Vision director Joe Ripp switched from hitter to setter in seventh grade to improve her chances of advancement, hasn’t come close to reaching her potential.
“There’s a good chance that a lot of schools are going to say, ‘Whoops!’ because they didn’t go after her,” said one college coach.
She has increased her strength and has eased up on her perfectionist tendencies to be more patient — vital to a young team. “One thing that really separates her is her ability to make changes and be coachable,” said Jeff Kim, Valley Christian’s co-coach with Sheri Hess. “She always wants to get better. She can set a goal, reach it, and set another goal.”
Trent, the Super Bowl veteran, used to get extremely nervous watching Maddie play. But that doesn’t happen much anymore. “It used to be worse,” he said. “Now, she’s proven herself that in almost all of the big moments she’s ever played in, she’s kind of thrived.”
This season is special for the family because Maddie and Tori, a freshman, are playing on the same team.
“It’s the first time really that any of our kids have played a sport together,” Cassandra said.
For Maddie, the final step in the maturation process is learning to let go a bit — to take control without trying to control. She’s on her way and, of course, Tori is willing to help with the occasional reminder.
There have been losses, on the court and off. There has been success, the kind built from the ground up. And there has been love, from a family that has learned to rely on each other.
But, above all, there will be victories, in volleyball and beyond, for Madeleine Dilfer. That much seems certain. No reminder necessary.